America and Montana knew what they were getting into when war was declared on Germany on April 6, 1917.
It wasn’t pretty.
The next day’s Daily Missoulian provided a glimpse of some of the explosive issues brewing on the home front.
Sharing the banner Page 1 headline “Wilson Signs War Declaration“ was the addendum “Sixty Plotters Arrested.”
Then came the subheads:
Proclamation Issued Calling For Loyalty
Every Man Arrested by Attorney General Known to Be an Intriguer
Bail To Be Refused; Men to Be Locked Up
For First Time in Century Arrests Are Made Without Reference to Courts
From Helena came word that a miner named John Lundstadt “made a call at the capitol and demanded to see Governor (Sam) Stewart.”
Lundstadt claimed he had an invention that would render ships immune from torpedo attacks. He was deemed insane and arrested.
Europe had been at war since 1914, and the horrors of mustard gas attacks and trench warfare were well-known. Now the domestic face of war was revealed.
Martha Kohl, historical specialist at the Montana Historical Society, quotes Seattle historian David Kennedy to make the point.
“Americans went to war in 1917 not only against Germans in the fields of France but against each other at home,” Kennedy said.
That was especially true in Montana, said Kohl.
Two of every three Montanans were either immigrants or children of immigrants. Not only Germans but populations of anti-British Irish and anti-Russian Finnish populations still had political ties to their homelands.
“You don’t leave those at the door,” Kohl said.
Percolating labor agitation ignited in June when 168 miners died in the Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine disaster in Butte. Weeks later Frank Little, an organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World, was lynched.
From the copper mines in Butte to the lumber camps of western Montana to the coal mines in Red Lodge, the IWW was espousing the belief that "this was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” Kohl said.
"Copper, coal and lumber were going to make a lot of people really rich and the people who were going to get slaughtered were the workers,” many of whom were fighting against their brothers, Kohl said.
“So you have those tensions going, and then nationally there’s the push to mobilize for this all-out global war. There was a propaganda campaign, and that was naturally picked up here in Montana.”
Each state had a Council of Defense, originally created to encourage agricultural production but that seemed to expand its mission and powers when we went to war. The Montana council was given governing power by the Legislature in 1918 when it passed the infamous Sedition Act.
Seventy-six men and three women would be convicted of sedition in 1918 and 1919, victims of perhaps the harshest anti-speech law in U.S. history. More than half were sent to the state prison in Deer Lodge with sentences of up to 20 years.
Kohl said Montana’s World War I experience “is really a hard story to condense.” It ranges from acts of supreme sacrifice and patriotism to riots, book burnings and atrocious human rights violations, such as when Finnish IWW leaders were taken to the basement of the Elks Lodge in Red Lodge and shown a noose.
“One guy was strung up three times before he finally told the names of other sympathizers,” Kohl said.
Kohl was project manager for a major effort by the Montana Historical Society to chronicle the complicated war years in a web-based project titled “Montana and the Great War.”
It was launched this week and features teaching materials and a story map presenting images and events from across Montana, “exploring the different ways the war and its aftermath affected Montanans,” according to a press release.
The website is available at mhs.mt.gov/education/WWI or by searching for “Montana Historical Society WWI.”