Wake Up America!

Life at Home During the War, 1917-1918

A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site

April 2017 through December 2018

 State Historic Site

Trail End

Poster, 1917 (LOC)

Detail from Poster, "Wake Up America," 1917 (LOC)

Getting the News Firsthand


SINCE 1915, PRESIDENT Woodrow Wilson had kept America out of the war. Even though hundreds of Americans had died aboard British and Italian ships attacked by the German Navy, he saw the conflict as a European quarrel in which America had no direct concern.

In early 1917, however, tensions escalated: seven U.S. merchant ships were torpedoed in the North Atlantic and German submarines were discovered in the Gulf of Mexico. When Americans learned that Germany had tried to coax Mexico into invading the United States and reconquering her “lost territory” (Texas, New Mexico and Arizona) – that was the last straw.

In April 1917, before a special joint session of Congress, President Wilson signed a resolution declaring war against Germany (war with the Austro-Hungarian government came later). Among those signing the document was Wyoming’s newly-elected junior senator, John Benjamin Kendrick. Like most Americans, Kendrick was not keen on going to war, but he was determined that America would end it:

We did not have anything to do with going to war; the war was brought to us, and … we propose, in no spirit of bombast or boasting, but in a spirit of grim determination, to help the other fellow finish it.



KENDRICK'S FACT-FINDING MISSION

WITHOUT TELEVISION, RADIO or social media, Americans had to get their war news from newspapers. Bulletins from Washington and the war zones filled the papers, keeping citizens updated on a daily basis.

Senator Kendrick decided he needed more facts than those he could glean from the papers. On October 21, 1917, he and Iowa Senator William Kenyon boarded the steamship Philadelphia and sailed out of New York harbor, bound for England and France. On their own initiative and at their own expense, the pair undertook an “unofficial” mission to study conditions in Europe, both on the battlefield and in the factories. As part of the trip they visited shipyards in Glasgow, munitions plants in London and hospitals in France – as well as both the British and French front lines. Kendrick said their motivation for the trip was the desire to be better legislators:

I am … prompted by no spirit of curiosity but … for the simple purpose of learning if possible more about conditions upon which I shall perhaps be called to pass judgment in the way of legislation and that I may be in better position to advise and confer with my people at home.

The trip made by Kendrick and Kenyon was not without its dangers: near the end of the outward-bound voyage, their ship was approached by a German submarine (the Philadelphia’s gunners chased it off before it could launch a torpedo); while in London, they experienced two night air raids (they went to the roof of their hotel to watch bombs being dropped by German Gotha heavy bombers); at the British front, they survived close artillery and rifle fire (no one was wounded); on the trip back across the Atlantic, their ship was battered by high seas (the good news was that the rough waters kept enemy submarines at bay).