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July 20: World War I — Not An Easy Decision

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On this date in 1915, the big news in North Dakota was the opening of the state fair. The event garnered page one headlines in newspapers across the state. Thousands of visitors were expected to arrive in Grand Forks in caravans of automobiles and on special state fair trains. The first day of the fair was a smashing success, blessed with perfect weather. Organizers predicted it would be the best and most successful state fair ever presented.

There was, however, more disturbing news throughout the papers. While the United States stubbornly resisted getting involved in what was regarded as a European war, there were uneasy signs that the conflict might force itself on the country. In 1914, President Wilson declared that the United States would remain neutral. He said America could be “impartial in thought as well as in action.” That proved easier said than done. In May, 1915, American passengers were killed when a German submarine sank the Lusitania. American sentiment began to turn towards support for Great Britain.

North Dakota had a large population of citizens of German descent, which likely contributed to anti-war sentiment. Buried in the back pages behind articles lauding the state fair, the Grand Forks Daily Herald printed a letter expressing skepticism about the wisdom of becoming involved. The author referenced German assurances that American vessels would not be targeted and that Americans on neutral vessels were not in jeopardy. The letter stated, “The German government is showing that it is anxious to retain our friendship and not harm the interests of the American people or the American government.”

The letter asserted that concern about German submarine warfare was less about the safety of American ships and passengers and more about coming to the rescue of Great Britain. The author stated that American passengers should not be transported on ships that also carried ammunition. American citizens, he said, should not be used as a shield for war materials. The Lusitania had carried ammunition as well as passengers.

On April 6, 1917, the United States finally declared war on Germany. Americans rushed to recruiting stations to sign up for military service, but as the letter in a North Dakota newspaper demonstrates, not everyone supported that difficult decision.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher

Grand Forks Daily Herald. “Thinks German Offer in Last Note Should Cover the Field.” Grand Forks ND. 20 July 1915. Page 6.
History. “US Declares Neutrality in World War I.”,majority%20of%20Americans%20favored%2C%20on%20August%204%2C%201914. Accessed 6/20/2022.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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