When the United States entered World War Ⅰ, they decided to finance it by selling “Liberty Bonds.” Although this war tax was ostensibly voluntary, those citizens who were most envenomed with war spirit took it upon themselves to be vigilante tax collectors, and used a variety of pressure tactics — up to and including physically violent lynch mobs — to encourage others to contribute.
Some time around Henry Cooprider, a Mennonite pacifist who witnessed one of these mobs in action against his family near Inman, Kansas some fifty years before, was interviewed. I found a transcript of that interview on-line. It also includes some very interesting memories of his time in a detention camp for conscientious objector draftees. Here are some excerpts.
[D]uring the years of going to church and teaching that we got from the ministers and our parents at home and the teaching that we had against participating in war or trying to take revenge of anybody or killing — taking life — we felt like the teaching we had in those early days were entirely against any of this. I suppose that we just grew up with that kind of a teaching and of course when it came time for us to be drafted, when World War Ⅰ came long, a number of us were exempted from military service, well, because of farm furloughs, because we were farmers, we didn’t have to go to training camp, but as the war progressed, the sentiment in our own neighborhood was such that it was about necessary for all young men of draft age really had to serve some time for the government in this way and it was along about 1917 that the sentiment was so strong about the stand that Mennonites were taking and especially in our own neighborhood. Myself and my brother had been exempted because of this farm — that wouldn’t be a furlough, what would that be called?
Q: Exemption? Farm exemption?
We were exempted because of participating in farming. That was supposed to have been because of the fact that we could produce food, so our people, even that were in war-torn countries, even in our own country.
Well, the sentiment got so that in our neighborhood, that people couldn’t put up with some young men being exempted and others having to go and serve their time in military service. Many had even went and never came home because of war service. Well, it was during that time that a number of people came to my parents’ home when I was still at home and helping my father farming. One night they came to my parents’ home and wanted to demand that my father buy war bonds and when he refused to do that because he figured that buying war bonds would be helping out in the war and promoting war, so these people that night said that, “We’re going to tar and feather you,” and my father was not well at that time, and my brother George stepped out — they were in our front yard — and my brother stepped out and said that they, that he would take my father’s place. So that’s what happened that night. My brother was tarred and feathered in my father’s stead.
Q: Give your father’s name.
My father’s name was Walter.
Q: How old were you and how old was George at this time?
I was twenty-one years old at that time and my brother George was twenty-five, and that seemed to satisfy this gang of people that night, and as quick as this was done, the whole bunch [word(s) omitted] as fast as they could go.
From here, he goes on to describe what happened when he was drafted, and sent to a detention camp where they tried to break down the conscientious objectors and convince them to take up arms — haranguing them, hosing them down with cold water, threatening them with execution, submitting them to various ordeals, assigning them work that was incrementally more-militaristic in nature to see how far each man would go. (Still, he says he’s thankful he was drafted late in the war, as Mennonite objectors had been treated worse earlier on at the same camp — some beaten to a pulp.)
While he was in camp, the war ended. He tells this story about what happened next:
[B]efore the armistice was signed, we were classed as some sort of a creature, you might say, instead of a human being, and after the armistice was signed, things changed altogether. I think they thought more of us as a human being than what they had before. I might just say here that a day or two before we were discharged, one of the top sergeants who had been the roughest and meanest and the… trying to get us to change our minds the hardest of any officer in the camp, we had gotten together and bought a Bible and presented him a Bible that morning at roll call and this man broke down and wept. I thought he had such a hard heart and the way he had acted during the months before, I thought he couldn’t shed a tear, but this man broke down and wept, so it shows to me that, after all, he was simply carrying out his duties as a military officer and he really didn’t believe in the things he was doing himself.
The conversation came back around to Liberty Bonds and the pressure put on Mennonites and other pacifists to put their scruples aside and fund the war effort:
Q: You said the mob came to your house because they wanted your father to buy war bonds? Did some of the Mennonites around here buy war bonds?
Yes, they did, And that’s the thing that made it a little harder, because some did and some didn’t, and there was a kind of a divided opinion as to what those war bonds were used for.
Q: Were there other incidents of this type around here where this kind of pressure was put on?
Not in our immediate community, but there was in the Canton, Kansas, community. Same thing happened over there, to a minister there. … Dan Diener, I believe was his name. It seems like that that was after them [word(s) omitted] thing that they did, and they [word(s) omitted] that that satisfied them.
Q: Do you think that they were ashamed of what they had done?
It seemed to be that many of the people that were there that night eventually would tell part of their experience and they even named the people that were in the gang that night — mob, as it was called, and many of them were ashamed of what they did.
Q: Did the general community around here, do you think, support them, or were they more opposed to this kind of action?
I think the general community of our neighbors around here were strongly opposed to that kind of action.
He remembered this interesting detail from the conscientious objector detention camp:
I might say there was a question too that was asked so many times by the officers in the camp. That was, “Did you vote?” That was a very common sentence that was brought before these conscientious objectors. “Did you vote?” And the ones that did vote, said, “Well, it’s up to you to support your government.” Of course, that was a little bit harder to answer. Then how come you don’t support your government if you voted and helped to put in these officials? I might say that I have voted once in my life, and I’m seventy-two years old.
Q: Is that the reason, you feel you have to support their…?
I think that’s the strongest reason I can put forth.
When the conscientious objectors were released from detention, they were issued paychecks for the time they had been officially in uniform.
[I]t had been decided amongst the whole number of men that were there that the money that we had would go into relief… to a relief fund, and none of it was kept individually. We had one man, a representative of this decision, that collected checks from everyone that agreed to do this and this was taken in one… what should I say… one bunch, so we had no money whatsoever to spend from the government check.