Last week marked the 99th anniversary of the signing of the armistice leading to the end of World War I. Although commemorated as Veterans Day in the United States, the day was marked with ceremonies on the battlefields of 100 years ago in Europe. Those ceremonies caused me to reflect on comparisons between that time and today, not just on the battlefields but on the home front.
Perhaps the biggest similarity is the suspicion and ostracism of selected minorities. Back then, it was Americans of German birth. Many individuals and businesses changed their names to avoid suspicion. They were often pushed aggressively to subscribe to the Red Cross or Liberty Loan drives to prove their loyalty.
Even then, it wasn’t enough. Law enforcement was called upon in towns across northwest Iowa based on reports of suspicious activities at German-language churches. German-language ministers came under particular condemnation.
Today, people of Middle East and central Asia descent come under suspicion. Concerns get expressed about mosques, with imams coming under particular scrutiny. On the plus side, there haven’t been significant reports of Arabic books being burned, as happened with German-language books after Iowa education officials directed in 1918 that they no longer be used in schools. Sioux City’s only governor, William Harding, issued a proclamation banning the use of foreign languages in public.
The biggest contrasts, however, are societal. Back then, every person was expected to play a role. There was a draft for service members. People were expected to plant Victory Gardens, make first-aid kits and contribute to the Red Cross. While the federal government went into debt for the war, it issued specific bonds to pay for the cost. It conducted five separate campaigns designed to encourage citizens to buy. Sioux City was the first city of its size to surpass its quota in the third Liberty Loan drive. This success was assisted by what was described as a “special incognito military court” that would summon those who did not subscribe.
Today, we have an all-volunteer force, even when there are a few national leaders who contend that America is in an existential war. People stand for Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” which includes the line “I’ll gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today.” If one-third of the people singing those lines actually did that, the biggest problem facing military recruiters would be long enlistment lines. Instead of calling on citizens to sacrifice or do without, today’s political leaders are pushing for tax cuts.
Back then, the sacrifice of family members was honored. Blue star flags adorned houses. The Larsen family in Morningside had six family members serve in the conflict.
Today, family members can be criticized by leaders for speaking out on policies. Putting out a blue star flag might draw undue attention to those with malicious intent. Families wait anxiously, having to do without one of their members, getting asked questions about loved ones instead of being offered assistance and help for the burdens they are bearing. How many parents, spouses or children have been thanked for the sacrifice that they are making while the service member is away?
For those who have an interest in learning more about tensions in Sioux City during the war, you can attend a presentation I will provide today at 2 p.m. at the Sioux City Public Museum. For a presentation on events across northwest Iowa, I will be making a presentation in the Wells Fargo Room at Western Iowa Tech Community College on Friday, Dec. 1 at noon.
Next week: Charese Yanney
A Sioux City resident, Steve Warnstadt is government affairs coordinator for Western Iowa Tech Community College and a former Democratic state senator. He and his wife, Mary, are the parents of one son and one daughter.