Had you been around during World War I you would have lived through some things that would have made you say, “Uhhh, is this America?!” Yeah, things got that ugly. Freedoms were suspended, food was rationed, and your neighbor could get you arrested for saying gesundheit after a sneeze. There are a few of those not-so-fun facts about the World War I experience in America.
Hopefully most of you know the jist of what went down from 1914-1918. In case you slept during that portion of history class–shame on you– Oversimplified has two awesome videos to help those of you who are of the I-am-not-a-historian mentality; which is really hard for me, because I love the details!
America officially declared war on the Central Powers on April 6, 1917. From that point forward, everyone was expected to do their patriotic duty to support President Wilson and the American war effort. Whether it meant rationing everyday items, enlisting for the draft, or buying Liberty Bonds. If someone didn’t fit the patriotic mold their loyalty to America came into question.
One title of dishonor a person could be labeled during WWI was a slacker. Not only did it come with shame, but it could get a person in trouble with the law. In May 1917 Congress enacted the Selective Service Act of 1917 which initially required all men age 21-30 to register for the draft. Later registrations required those as young as 18 and as old as 45 to register.
Many men did what they saw as their duty and registered on the scheduled registration days. Historian Michael Kazin’s book, War against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914–1918, explores the movement the keep America out of the Great War–including the resistance to draft once war was declared. Those that did not register, knowingly or unknowingly, were labeled slackers. Some tried to avoid it by falling into one of several exceptions. Some got married right after the U.S. entered the war in hopes that it would exempt them from the draft should it arise–it didn’t. The slackers or suspected slackers would be rooted out by local authorities or citizen vigilante groups in what were known as slacker raids. Sometimes those falsely accused of slackery had to defend their name and honor.
From what I have been able to find through initial research, Oshkosh was relatively slacker free when it came to draft registration. There were a few cases of accused slackers, but they seemed to have either been a case of misunderstanding or false accusations. The term “slacker” extended to other people, too. That will be the subject of Part II of this series.
It’s actually kind of scary to see how nationalistic our country became during the war. Freedom of speech was curtailed–you dare not criticize the American war effort or speak out against the president. Neighbors were spying on neighbors, and I am sure spying was going on within families. It was an honor and a man’s duty to go fight this war, no questions asked.