Column by George Cooper.
On April 6, 1917, the United States Congress responded to President Woodrow Wilson’s request and officially declared the country in a state of war. Many people had expected it. Two and a half years earlier, Europe erupted in battle, but the U.S. kept itself neutral. German maritime transgressions, a sense of U.S. responsibility to freedom and democracy, and finally a sense of the country’s vulnerability, led Wilson to make his request. Chautauqua Institution followed.
The 1917 Season would be Chautauqua’s 44th Assembly. As the June 29 edition of The Chautauquan Daily said, it would be a “War-time Chautauqua.”
Ida Tarbell, a former Chautauquan Daily writer and editor, and later muckracker and activist against corporate monopoly, spoke two times that summer, once about “Doing Our Bit” and a second about “Fear of Efficiency.” The Daily reported that the “Famous writer believes that people of the country are doing well in preparation for the coming struggle.”
Speaking a few days later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the Navy, said, “It is not a question of doing your bit, but of giving your all.”
“Patriotism” was a word of the summer. The first week of the program would be dedicated to “Our Country.” Titles of lectures included “Japan and the War” and “Woman’s Part in War.” There was a request for a “Sober Fourth” urging that “patriotic meetings take the place of baseball games and motor races.” A July 2 editorial, “Welcome to Patriots,” began, “Chautauqua has always been the home of patriotism.”
There would be a “Big War Pageant” conducted by students from Carnegie Institute of Technology. The June 30 issue of the Daily said, “The stage is set around three magnificent thrones, Truth, Justice and Liberty.” In the pageant, Truth was the dominating figure; Serbia entered and told why she had entered the war. Then, Belgium recounted her refugees, her destroyed culture, her suffering and exploitation. To the rescue came England and France “in striking costumes and with great ceremony,” and finally “Russia, Canada, ravished Poland, Roumania and Armenia.”
“Then, in the midst of faint cheering, becoming greater and louder all the time, there enters America, the incarnation of Liberty. She draws the sword and pledges her might and power not to sheathe it again until the common cause be worn.”
Arthur E. Bestor set a tone in his opening ceremony address that year, saying: “In this time of stress every public organization is compelled to answer the question as to whether it has any vital task to perform in the crisis that confronts the nations. Chautauqua has been a center of genuinely patriotic education, an experiment station for new ideas, a great national influence making for intelligence, religious tolerance, and democracy.”
He called Chautauqua a dynamo and declared such a power source would generate “great patriotic propaganda.” The whole program had been designed for it, “planned under a patriotic impulse and with a definitely patriotic design.”
But it was not simple flag waving. It was more than a pin on a lapel. It was more than calling a fellow citizen “a great American.”
In reviewing Chautauqua’s previous three seasons, Bestor talked about the Institution’s growth of understanding. Program organizers, in 1914, had hastily brought together a number of speakers who each presented the new war from various points of view: French, British and German.
“We began to realize that each of the nations at war had what seemed to them a legitimate reason for entrance into it; that each put forth what seemed a valid claim to ‘a place in the sun,’ ” Bestor said.
Such a balanced perspective changed in time, as the battle took on a more partisan favor and became defined as a fight for democracy.
“The revolution in Russia has finally brought about an alliance of the democracies of the world against the four central empires which represent the theory of the Divine Right of Kings, that Might makes Right, and that the State is above all considerations of ordinary morality.”
Patriotism was seen in direct relation to democracy and in direct opposition to autocracy.
“As the President stated in his Flag Day speech, the winning of this war by Germany means the establishment of Kaiserism and autocracy in the world,” Bestor said.
For Chautauqua, Patriotism was energized through language, through rhetoric, through what Aristotle called the faculty of recognizing in any situation the available means of persuasion.
The National Security League had established a Committee on Patriotism through Education. Bestor said “Tell the People” was the committee’s slogan.
“Tell the people” “has always been the slogan of every great leader from Moses to Lincoln. Every commander must have his couriers and heralds and his watchmen upon the walls to let the people know. To let the people know has been a peculiar function of Chautauqua from its beginning. This function was never more immediately and urgently needed than now. Whatever might have been thought before the war began, whatever may be thought after peace is declared, surely while the nation is at war, Chautauqua must not be silent.”
In pursuit of that end, Chautauqua would hold a Speakers’ Training Camp, a camp at which volunteers would be trained to travel the length and breadth of the nation articulating watchwords “Wake up, America” and “To Arms, America.”
Bestor said: “The whole force and energy of this plan consists in reaching thru spoken addresses those who are not much affected by printed matter, and to fortify those who do read and ponder on their reading. It may all be summed up in the war cry, ‘To inform and to arouse.’ ”
And, too, there was music, and arts and advertisement.
On July 6, the Chautauqua Choir presented “national songs of the Allies.” On July 11, Henry Turner Bailey lectured on “Mobilization of Arts and Crafts for Patriotic Service.” And through the summer, The Dial, a magazine published in Chicago, advertised itself in the Daily: “Are you doing your bit?” the ad began. “Not in fighting; Not in giving; But in thinking?” the ad continued. “Are you watching where the changing tendencies of the day are leading? You can best keep your finger on the pulse of the times by reading The Dial.”
The magazine was on sale in the Chautauqua Bookstore or through the mail, $1 for a five-month trial subscription.