Yielding our freedoms: World War I edition

When assailed or even criticized by others, we Americans proudly trumpet the rights granted us by the Constitution. One of the most explicit examples in recent history was George W. Bush’s speech to Congress following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Speaking of terrorist groups, Bush said, “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” It became a plentiful used theme over the balance of that decade.

Yet in what are perceived as times of crisis, history demonstrates we will quickly jettison those very same freedoms. We could go from the irony of Bush’s statement given what his and Obama’s administration have done in the last 14 years back to the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it illegal to write, utter or publish “any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.” But the ongoing commemoration of the centenary of World War I has led me to a variety of books about the war and that period. One of the things I’ve noticed was some of the steps various states, including South Dakota, took with barely a second thought.

This is essentially an introductory post to several on that subject but, as is often the case, some framework is necessary. For the upcoming posts, the main backdrop is, of course, World War I but the narrower focus begins with something called the Council of National Defense.

Following the European outbreak of WWI, some expressed concern about America’s military “preparedness.” As a result, the National Defense Act of 1916 provided for an expanded Army, National Guard, and officer’s training programs. It also created a Council of National Defense consisting of the secretaries of War, the Navy, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce and Labor with an Advisory Committee of seven industry leaders appointed by President Wilson. The Council was tasked with the “coordination of industries and resources for the national security and welfare.” Although the Defense Act was passed on August 29, 1916, the Council wasn’t fully organized until March 3, 1917, just a month before the U.S. entered the war.

The creation of this Council started South Dakota on a path to Bill of Rights concerns. How we got there from national coordination of industries and resources starts with the next post.

The Council on National Defense has been created because the Congress has realized that the country is best prepared for war when thoroughly prepared for peace.

Woodrow Wilson, October 11, 1916

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