Staff Columnist

Babel Proclamation kicked up a storm in 1918. The clouds keep gathering

State Historical Society of Iowa
State Historical Society of Iowa
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In a city with many businesses, fraternal orders, newspapers, associations, churches and citizens still speaking the languages of their immigrant founders and families, Iowa Gov. William Harding’s May 1918 proclamation banning the public use of all foreign languages hit like a ton of cihly.

Or bricks, if you demand English.

The reaction in Cedar Rapids was summed up well in a front-page headline printed in The Evening Gazette exactly 100 years ago today, a couple of days after the proclamation become public.

“Harding Edict Rouses Storm in this City,” the bold print blared. “Intensely loyal residents resent being placed with Huns by Iowa chief.”

“Huns” was a derogatory and headline-friendly shorthand label for Germans, and not only the ones we were fighting in Europe. Iowa was full of German immigrants who still spoke their mother tongue, including some of my own relatives. War hysteria and anti-German sentiment were at a fever pitch, wrapped tightly in patriotic bunting. Harding saw his chance to capitalize.

But around these parts, Harding’s objectionable edict drew plenty of objections. Unfortunately, those initial critics of what became known as the “Babel Proclamation” had no objection to applying its draconian speech restrictions to Iowans, Americans, who spoke German.

On that same day, May 27, The Gazette editorialized on the proclamation under the headline “Unfortunate and Unnecessary.”

The editorial described the order, which governed conversation “even over house telephones that are part of home equipment.”

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“With as much reason he might have forbidden the sale of Victrola and phonograph records,” we wrote.

The writers smelled a political motive.

“Unfortunately, (Harding) has the reputation, among leading men of his own party, of being a politician for personal ends and his sweeping order gives decided color to the indictment,” The Gazette opined, subtly.

“He has no authority for the proclamation and was unwise in signing the pseudo official document that cannot be (enforced). There are insurance companies, fraternal orders and various business and social organizations regularly incorporated under the laws of the state, having the privilege legally granted of using Bohemian, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Italian and no doubt other languages …

“There is no statute giving warrant for the proclamation and there has been no public demand in that direction. It has most unfortunately served to raise an issue which it created that it might be raised,” the editorial argued.

The paper pondered the fate of three Bohemian newspapers and a Swedish home journal. “Are these to be suppressed and are the editors and managers to be forbidden in their offices and work rooms, public places in the fullest sense, to employ in speech the same language they employ in writing and printing?”

Unfortunately, we also argued the worst aspect of the order was how it placed all foreign speakers on a level with “the nationals of the country with which we are at war.”

But hey, no “Huns.” And our other arguments were more solid.

“Iowa accepted the citizenship of all these people, and having raised no question as to their language, it is too late to raise such question now. The constitution in guaranteeing free speech and free press specifies no language and all languages admitted to the mails are by such executive order legalized.

“Governor Harding has simply exceeded his authority. Iowa is not under martial law and effective orders must be issued in accordance with civil authority,” The Gazette concluded.

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Harding, faced with opposition, sought to clarify and ease concerns. On May 30 The Gazette carried an editorial headlined “Makes Case No Better.”

“The entire performance seems to have been a flash-in-the-pan, intended for the grand stand,” The Gazette opined.

By June, Harding was spinning faster than a prairie twister. He claimed what a June 3 Gazette story described as “knowledge of German intrigue plotting and use of foreign language to further enemy propaganda” had forced him this hand.

“I am positive that every person in the state who has questioned the wisdom of my issuing the proclamation,” Harding said. “If they knew what I know as to the use of foreign languages for carrying on propaganda and plots against the government would have done what I did.”

You can almost hear the chants of “lock the Huns up.”

Objections faded, at least in the pages of The Gazette, which later held a front-page contest asking readers to rename the Kaiser, aka the “Hun Baby Slayer.” I didn’t find any other editorials on the Babel proclamation. But news coverage continued.

“It is estimated that there are more than two hundred men in Cedar Rapids who are anxious to work for the suppression of pro-Germanism and disloyalty, but who feel that they should have some authority, and be equipped with a star and a right to carry a gun in order to do so,” The Gazette reported on Aug. 19, 1918. Officials wisely denied the request, insisting “any citizen” has the right to call out disloyalty.

And many did. Some results were “amusing.”

“A few days ago a woman who said her home was in Des Moines telephoned the deputy marshal and made a long and vehement complaint regarding a Cedar Rapids family which was ‘flaunting the picture of the Kaiser,’” The Gazette reported. It turned out to be a picture of a mustachioed German grandfather in his train conductor’s uniform.

“This family, by the way, is absolutely loyal,” we noted.

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Reprisals against German-speaking Iowans continued, even as the armistice came and the proclamation was rescinded in December 1918.

It’s a dark chapter in our history. But at least we learned a valuable lesson about using a moment fraught with fear and outrage to scapegoat and victimize our fellow Americans. Right?

“It is hard to view this action as other than necessary,” The Gazette opined on March 21, 1942, as the military began evacuating thousands of Japanese-Americans from their West Coast homes to inland internment camps. “Definitive evidence has been uncovered of Japanese fifth-column work …

“Very probably, the great proportion of residents of Japanese ancestry are loyal. Many of them have been born in this country and are just as good Americans as anyone else. Because of their racial characteristics, however, they have not been assimilated,” The Gazette argued, insisting sympathy should not blind us ‘to what must be done.”

“There’s a fine distinction between tolerance and stupidity,” we opined.

Shameful, to be sure. But even now we still haven’t learned.

Our historic cycle of hate, regret, repeat, remains stubbornly unbroken. We’ve still got “real Americans” targeting a dark and dangerous “other,” which must be silenced, attacked or deported. Stop speaking German. Stop speaking Spanish. Stand for the anthem, or get out of the country.

All that really seems to change are the convenient scapegoats, the litany of fabricated fears and the names of the blow-hard Hardings, determined to stoke outrage and pass off paranoia as patriotism. But hey, who cares, as they don’t lump us in with the Huns.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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