The decision of the United States to declare war against Germany in 1917 required a monumental effort by the government to ensure victory. The burgeoning industial and agricultural economy of the nation had already mobilized in support of Great Britain, France and the allied forces. Without support of the populace the war effort would fail. President Wilson’s administration spent millions of dollars to make sure citizens would support the cause. In the course of doing so the voices of those opposed were silenced at the direction of the government.
Thomas Kerl was one of those whose opinion was muzzled by government action. His biography reveals the life story of a young man growing up in Nebraska. His father immigrated to this country at an early age from Bavaria and became a successful author of textbooks. Kerl grew up on the farmland inherited from his father, became educated and traveled around the country and the world.
He moved to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and was elected as a state legislator. Intellligent and well read, he was a farmer, educator, lawyer, philanthropist, land developer, and lover of the fine arts who shared his knowledge and opinions with neighbors and friends.
His scandalous divorce was reported throughout the state.
After the war in Europe commenced, he made no anti-war speeches, wrote no editorials. But privately he expressed doubts to acquaintances. Government efforts to sway public opinion had incited anti-German behavior to the extent that anyone who expressed anti-war sentiments was considered to be disloyal. His words were alleged by authorities to be violations of the Espionage Act of 1917, and resulted in his trial in Federal Court in Nebraska.
This recounting of one man’s life demonstrates how easily an individual’s rights can be suppressed by the government. It gives insight into the reasons the United States became involved in the war and how federal propaganda efforts permeated all levels of society in the early twentieth century.