The Aftermath of Wisconsin’s Experience as the “Traitor State”
By Leslie Bellais
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
As I began a new job as a curator, mainly in charge of clothing and textiles, at the Wisconsin Historical Society in the early 1990s, I had no idea that it would lead me to an abiding interest, almost a passion, regarding the history of Wisconsin’s home front during World War I. The first spark was an exhibit I did on the topic for the 75th anniversary of America’s entrance into the war, but a decade later, when the exhibit staff asked me to do a smaller version for the museum’s permanent exhibit, my interest was rekindled and I decided to return to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin and make it the focus of my Ph.D. dissertation.
The drama surrounding Wisconsin during World War I probably drew me to the topic. Wisconsin became known as the “Traitor State” in the summer of 1917, an epithet it acquired in part due to its U.S. Senator Robert La Follette’s vociferous fight against American participation in the European war, its outspoken Socialist Party adherents, and its significant German population (about 30 percent of Wisconsinites at the time were German immigrants or their children).
My interest became focused on those who described themselves at the time as “militant patriots,” specifically their reaction to the perception of Wisconsinites as traitorous and their campaign to expunge that perception, at first with educational campaigns, but as their frustration against the disloyal intensified with violence and vigilantism. My dissertation, “’Traitor State’: A Crisis of Loyalty in World War I Wisconsin,” follows their story from the beginning of the war in August 1914 to the early 1920s, by which time their interest in German-American disloyalty had dissipated and La Follette had been vindicated to the point he could run for president in 1924.
My original intent had been to look beyond the 1920s to see the affect the war’s turmoil had had on the state and its residents. As a graduate student, I had taken a course on historical memory and did much of my research on the post-war years for the required paper. What I learned was that there was only a tenuous connection between the way the war was experienced and the way it was remembered. The state’s militant patriots attempted to control its memory by writing books, building monuments and memorials, and organizing Armistice Day celebrations in an effort to expunge any hint of traitorous behavior from the official record. I argue that in the end it was all for naught. Despite the constant repetition at the time of the phrase “Lest We Forget,” the reality of the false promises made during the war, such as making the world safe for democracy, led most Wisconsinites to put the war behind them, essentially to forget it. Although some of this post-war material made it into the dissertation’s epilogue, the paper did not become a separate chapter and I set aside most of this research.
When the history department at Michigan Technological University decided to hold a conference in 2018 about the war’s effect on the American Midwest as part of a centennial commemoration for World War I, this seemed a perfect place to share my unused research with others interested in the topic. A few months later the conference organizers asked me, along with other presenters, to turn their presentations into chapters for their book Home Front in the American Heartland: Local Experiences and Legacies of WWI. I jumped at the chance to improve the text of my original paper and share it with a larger audience.
Most of my dissertation, along with the book chapter, came into being during the last presidential administration. The parallels between the militant patriotism or super-patriotism, as it is more commonly called today, of World War I and the late 2010s are striking. In both cases, superpatriots, usually politically conservative, were eager to bend other Americans to their definition of patriotism, sometimes using extreme measures to do so. While the repercussions of the current wave of super-patriotism on American life are still being played out, historians can learn from the World War I experience in Wisconsin that the earlier super-patriots, while temporarily successful during the months the United States participated in the war, in the post-war years were unable to completely control the narrative of the war effort and to make their understanding of what it meant to be American the dominant one.
Instead those who have written about Wisconsin’s militant patriots, who saw themselves as the most patriotic of Americans, have usually portrayed them as attackers of American values, especially those surrounding the Constitution’s First Amendment, and eager to sacrifice civil liberties (of others) to maintain a dubious sense of national security.
The World War I precedent illustrates that super-patriotism has been an ongoing preoccupation of American conservatives for at least one hundred years and current events can be considered a continuation of what occurred during World War I and not an anomaly in American history.