Tuesday, April 4, 2017

America at War

James Montgomery Flagg, 1918
America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.
                                    --Woodrow Wilson, 1917 War Message to Congress

On April 2, 1917, American president Woodrow Wilson, who had won a close election in November 1916 by campaigning on the slogan He kept us out of the war, called a special session of Congress and asked that the United States declare war on Germany. 

Wilson's War Speech to Congress, April 1917
Wilson argued that Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare – showing no mercy even for hospital ships – demonstrated “reckless lack of compassion or principle” and constituted “warfare against mankind.” He condemned the German government for having “filled our unsuspecting communities and even our offices of government with spies and set criminal intrigues everywhere afoot against our national unity of counsel, our peace within and without.”

Mindful of the large number of German-Americans, Wilson asserted, “We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship.  It was not upon their impulse that their Government acted in entering upon that war.”  

But he made it clear that American troops would be called upon to kill German soldiers, estimating that the “addition to the armed forces of the United States already provided for by law” would involve “at least 500,000 men.”
NY Times, April 1917
Wilson urged Congress to declare war, proclaiming that the fight would be “for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples….The world must be made safe for democracy.” And he reassured the country that their allies in the war (Great Britain, France, Italy, and Russia) shared these goals.  Referring to the recent Russian Revolution and the overthrow of the tsar, Wilson asked, “Does not every American feel that assurance has been added to our hope for the future peace of the world by the wonderful and heartening things that have been happening within the last few weeks in Russia?” The American president seems not to have been gifted with prophetic abilities.

In the wake of Wilson’s address to Congress and the declaration of war that was made four days later on April 6, 1917, many Americans wrote poems that commented on the momentous event. Gertrude Smith was a student at Adelphi College; her poem “America at War” was included in the 1917 volume Poets of the Future: A College Anthology. I can find no further record of the poet nor of any future poems she may have written.

America at War
J.C. Leyendecker
If thy sons can go to war
Thinking —
If men democracy-trained can fight
And not glory in it
Or be afraid of it
But earnestly regret that war must be
If they can follow thy banner
And know
That its red does not represent blood
But sunrise,
That its white
Is not death but deliverance,
That its stars
Are not pilots for warships
But makers of poetry
O America,
Then shall democracy conquer
And war shall never more be.
            Gertrude Smith

Unlike many of the early British poems of the Great War written by men who had been educated in the classics and taught to reverence the action and honor of battle,* Smith urges a cerebral approach to the war, one centered in the mind and not the heart.  The “democracy-trained” soldiers of America must regret the war even as they train for combat, and the poem urges American soldiers to repudiate aspirations of glory in battle.

Howard Chandler Christy
The colors of the American flag that will go before the men embody values of hope and deliverance, not bloodshed nor death, and the stars of the flag serve as guides not to warships, but to poets. The closing lines of the poem echo the catchphrase of the conflict that had already dragged on for 979 days: with America's help, this would be “the war to end all wars.”

Smith’s poem was reprinted in Poems of the War and of the Peace, published in 1921. Other poems in the anthology included Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier,” Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen,”and Siegfried Sassoon’s “The Attack.”

One-hundred years later, Smith’s poem “America at War” may seem naïve and idealistic to modern ears, but it echoes Wilson’s speech to Congress and reflects the mood of many Americans in 1917, before Belleau Wood, Château-Thierry, and the Meuse-Argonne, before anyone had any way of knowing that 116,516 American soldiers would never return home from the war.

*For example, see Julian Grenfell's "Into Battle."


  1. Gertrude Smith is included in the List of WW1 American, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and South African poets at the back of Catherine W. Reilly’s “English Poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography” (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1978).