Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Unraveling Freedom: The Battle for Democracy on the Home Front During World War I


Unraveling Freedom : the Battle for Democracy on the Home Front During World War I
by Ann Bausum
National Geographic, 2010. 88 pages. Nonfiction.

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress, making a dramatic appeal for the United States to enter the war between the Allies and the Central Powers in Europe. He stated, "...the world must be made safe for democracy." Ironically, the President, so intent on securing freedom and democracy abroad, failed to prevent the unraveling of freedom in his own country. This book does an excellent job chronicling the little known, but horrific, events that took place in the United States during World War I.

The Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1918 greatly expanded federal powers; authorities could apprehend suspected enemies, stifle criticism of the war effort and censor information sent through the mail. As a result, over half of the German language periodicals went out of business. Even editors of publications written in English were threatened with treason charges if they published articles that questioned the war. Lengthy prison sentences were handed out to leaders who spoke out against the war, and regular people who didn't buy war bonds were often wrapped in American flags, marched to the bank, and forced to withdraw money to buy bonds. The government also sponsored a propaganda effort designed to encourage support for the war by demonizing Germans and fanning anti-immigrant feelings. As a result, Groups formed with names like the Boy Spies of America and Terrible Threateners to help authorities root out spies and sympathizers, and more than 70 Americans were killed by vigilantes during the war. Local school districts banned German language classes, and communities got together for "stein breaking" celebrations and German book burnings.

Unraveling Freedom is not necessarily a comfortable read, but it is important. When Dick Morgan, a congressman from Oklahoma was quoted as saying, "In time of great national peril, it is necessary sometimes that individual citizens shall be willing to surrender some of the privileges which they have for the sake of the greater good", it sounded eerily familiar. If we don't learn from the past we are destined to repeat it, and this book is a great one to learn from.


The book is full of period photos, cartoons, and posters that add to the text. The first chapter gives background on the events that spurred the U.S. to enter the war, and the final chapter tells how the U.S. was permanently changed by what happened. Bausum also includes a resource guide, bibliography, and time line, among other research tools.

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