Two national, earth-shattering events happened on this date 100 years ago. The United States took a giant step toward entering The Great War and the first American woman was sworn in to the U.S. House of Representatives.
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, which happened four days later with a Senate vote of 82 to 6, and a House vote of 373 to 50.
While Congress debated entering World War I, the people of the Mississippi Coast let no grass grow under their feet as they put more guards at the ports and railroad bridges, and laid plans for new shipbuilding industries and to increase vegetable farming and seafood production to feed a nation at war.
Hundreds of men building the Mississippi Centennial Exposition Grounds in Gulfport — 1917 was also the monumental year that the state would celebrate 100 — pooled their money and bought 50 U.S. flags to patriotically raise at the beachfront site that day. The Coast soon held mass rallies in support of the war and began steps of military recruitment for local young men. The Coast, with about 100,000 people or one-fourth of its current population, declared its inhabitants all-in for the war effort. Most fraternal and community organizations and every town publicly declared support, sending rushed telegrams to Washington and local press releases.
“President Wilson Ready to Address Joint Session,” declared a front-page headline in this newspaper, then an afternoon edition called The Daily Herald.
Early Wilson peace sign
Wilson, who symbolically released a live “dove of peace” while on a 1913-14 winter visit to Pass Christian, had argued in favor of the country’s declared neutrality. The Coast dove incident took place a year before the Austrian-Hungarian archduke was assassinated, often considered World War I’s first salvo, although European war seeds sprouted long before its official 1914 start.
Until Wilson’s April 2, 1917, address, he had argued for U.S. war neutrality. Given the number of Americans with European roots, not all agreed, but Wilson had won the November 1916 election on a neutrality platform. Also, many never forgot the Americans among the 1,100 killed in the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania.
Wilson even attempted to broker peace among the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan, Romania and several others) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire).
Early in 1917, Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare and sank the American cargo ship Housatonic and several others. Then came the Zimmerman Telegram revelation, in which Germany had proposed an alliance with Mexico, including giving it back U.S. land. The final straw came April 1 when Germany torpedoed the armed U.S. steamer Aztec and 28 Americans drowned.
“It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in balance,” Wilson said that evening to Congress.
“But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts — for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”
The other event
The second noteworthy event of April 2, 1917, is mostly forgotten in American minds — the swearing-in of the first American woman to take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Perhaps you are surprised to learn this because the 19th Amendment that granted American woman the right to vote didn’t happen for three more years. In explanation, Montana men were ahead of their times and had in 1914 granted women suffrage.
That’s how Rep. Jeannette Rankin took her congressional seat on the day Wilson asked for the war declaration. Back in those days, presidents weren’t inaugurated until early March, and it took time to get all of Congress and its chosen leaders seated. On April 2, Rankin took her seat.
“Congressmen uproariously cheered her entrance in the House,” this newspaper reported on the front page. Rankin was an avowed pacifist and was in the group that opposed Wilson’s war declaration. Her “nay” vote would be repeated 24 years later when President Franklin Roosevelt sought a war declaration after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. She was the only no vote.
Back at the Expo grounds
If there was a pacifist movement on the Coast, it didn’t get play in the local newspapers. The men building the Mississippi Expo grounds in Gulfport, in fact, received front-page coverage in the Herald:
“Patriotism reached fever heat among the several hundred employees ... including brick layers, steel workers, timers, roofers and carpenters [who] raised half a hundred United States flags over the uncompleted Exposition Buildings and sent a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson telling him that they were with him in everything that he did in the present crisis.”
The D.C.-bound telegram read in part: “Our prayers are with you and we hereby pledge you as patriotic Americans, our services for the national honor should they be required.”
On that April 2 in Washington 100 years ago today, similar Coast telegrams joined a flood of others from across Mississippi and the the nation to bolster Wilson as he stood before a joint session of Congress to ask for the nearly unthinkable.
“It is a distressing and oppressive duty, gentlemen of the Congress, which I have performed in thus addressing you. There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us,” he said. Congress took four days to agree.
Eighty-one days later, the first 14,000 U.S. infantry troops, some Mississippians, landed in France. Wilson’s well-supplied forces into the European conflict sped the Allies toward victory after they had faced four years of deadly stalemate along the western front.
The war officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles on Nov. 11, 1918. By then, the centennial property on which the men had been building was the site of a U.S. Navy Training Center.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.