Fake News and Fervent Nationalism Got a Senator Tarred as a Traitor During WWI

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tags: nationalism, WWI, Robert La Follette, Fake News

Robert "Fightin' Bob" La Follette was one of the most hated men in America when he took the U.S. Senate floor on October 6, 1917. Vicious caricatures depicted the Wisconsin senator receiving the German Iron Cross medal and holding a German spiked helmet. Theodore Roosevelt, La Follette’s old rival in the Progressive movement, called La Follette “the most sinister foe of democracy in this country” and told an audience that he wished “we could make him a gift to the Kaiser for use in his Reichstag.”

His transgression? Opposing the United States’ entry into World War I.

For years, the stout, stubborn 62-year-old Republican, with a huge shock of brushed-back white hair, had railed against American involvement in the Great War happening overseas. But it was the events of the fall of 1917 that sealed his fate, for better and for worse.

Two weeks earlier, speaking without notes in St. Paul, Minnesota, before 10,000 members of the National Non-Partisan League, a congress of left-of-center farmers and workers, La Follette declared that the nation’s biggest issue had become how to pay for the war he had opposed. Applauded by the crowd, La Follette then ad-libbed a sarcastic attack on the main U.S. justification for war, the German submarine attacks on ships that had killed Americans.

“I don’t mean to say we hadn’t suffered grievances,” La Follette said. “We had, at the hands of Germany. Serious grievances.” He continued, “They had interfered with the right of American citizens to travel on the high seas – on ships loaded with munitions for Great Britain.” This was a partial exaggeration: not all ships the Germans sank had carried military cargoes. But La Follette pointed out – correctly – that the British ocean liner Lusitania had been carrying munitions to England in 1915 when a U-boat sank it, killing 1,193 people, including 123 Americans.

The crowd cheered La Follette, but the next day he found himself facing a nationwide backlash and a classic bit of “fake news.”

An Associated Press report on La Follette’s St. Paul speech, printed in hundreds of newspapers nationwide, misquoted him as saying that “We had no grievance” against Germany, while a New York Times headline declared, “La Follette Defends Lusitania Sinking.” 

Read entire article at Smithsonian

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