A dark cloud of suspicion hung over recent immigrants. The president questioned their loyalty. U.S. troops deployed to a divisive foreign war.
The year is 1918 and the United States finds itself at war with the German-led Axis powers. Many Americans, born in Germany but emigrated to the U.S., felt the sting of suspicion. Co-patriots forced these new immigrants to fly and kiss the US flag or buy liberty bonds to support the war. Iowans publicly burned German books. Loyal citizens painted German-American businesses, churches, and homes yellow to target “slackers.”
Former President Teddy Roosevelt railed against “hyphenated Americans,” such as German-Americans. Such people, said Roosevelt, have no place here, and the sooner they leave, the better. For a time, anti-German fervor rebranded sauerkraut as “liberty cabbage,” hamburgers as “liberty sandwiches” and dachshunds as “liberty pups.”
To protect U.S. war interests and quell dissent, Congress passed the 1918 Sedition Act. Insults toward the U.S. government, flag, Constitution or military, or opposition to the government producing war materials carried a fine up to $10,000 and/or 20 years in prison. Anyone who advocated or defended such actions could receive the same punishment. Between 1917-1918, executive orders from President Woodrow Wilson required all non-citizen German-Americans to register as Enemy Aliens. Over 6,000 were arrested, and some only gained their release in the spring of 1920.
Against this backdrop, on May 23, 1918, Iowa Gov. William F. Harding signed a proclamation to “bring about peace, quiet, and harmony among our people.”
Harding’s proclamation codified four rules for the state. First, Iowa schools - public, parochial and private - could only teach in English. Second, public conversations, including on trains and over the telephone, must be in English. Third, speeches or public addresses could only be given in English. Fourth, churches cannot conduct public worship services in any language other than English. We know this proclamation today as the Babel Proclamation.
Harding denied the First Amendment protected the right of Americans to speak in any language other than English. The use of foreign languages during wartime, Harding argued, “creates discord among neighbors and citizens” and “disturbs the peace and quiet of the community.”
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Harding’s language ban targeted German, but also included all non-English languages. Harding said he defended this ban because dissidents spread German propaganda through other non-English languages. He claimed Iowa churches and preachers broadcast German propaganda, so banning non-English church services would protect the U.S. and promote peace.
“I also tell those who insist upon praying in some other language that they are wasting their time, for the good Lord up above is now listening for the sound of English,” Harding said to the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce days after publishing his language ban. These words broadcast Harding’s low opinion of these non-English speaking congregations.
Many Iowans agreed and fully supported Harding’s proclamation. Some ethnic communities objected. In 1918, one-third of Cedar Rapidians knew Bohemia, now western Czech Republic, as their place of birth. Telegrams arrived in force from Cedar Rapids. Harding, said one, “abridges the fundamental rights and liberties of many of our citizens.”
On May 30, 1918, Father Florian Svridlik, priest at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, organized a mass meeting to protest the Babel Proclamation. Some objected to the proclamation as an attack on civil liberties. But more, including the Cedar Rapids’ Czech population, protested to Harding that they were loyal citizens whose language should not be lumped together with the language of the enemy “Huns,” a pejorative title for Germans. Even here in Cedar Rapids, initial opposition to the language ban melted before Harding’s defense, and support for the ban swelled.
Harding’s Babel proclamation did not bring peace as he claimed. 18,000 Midwesterners were charged with breaking this and other English-only laws. The Babel proclamation deprived many elderly, non-English speaking Iowans access to worship services in a language they understood. The proclamation forced some non-English Iowa churches to dissolve. Four women in Scott County were collectively fined $250 for speaking German over the phone.
On December 4, 1918, after the war ended, Harding rescinded the Babel Proclamation. Even in the withdrawal, Harding continued to defend the provisions of his proclamation. He maintained that all schools should only teach in English and demanded students not learn a foreign language until high school. The Iowa Legislature agreed, and on April 10, 1919, passed a law banning public and private school instruction in any non-English language. This law also forbade teaching foreign languages to children before high school.
Iowa bears the historical weight of the Babel Proclamation. Virulent nativism manifests itself throughout our history, the Babel Proclamation being one egregious example.
Many Iowans, like myself, descend from German immigrants arriving in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Babel Proclamation targeted my family, those individuals whose DNA now courses through my veins. Perhaps if we recognize ourselves in the targets of yesterday’s anti-immigrant, nativist screeds, we will resist contemporary expressions of this same vitriol. Such recognition, while necessary, does not suffice.
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When Harding issued his proclamation, many first-generation Iowans from Bohemia and other European countries allied themselves against German-Americans. They resisted Harding’s language ban more from offense at being classed with the hated Germans than outrage at the violation of American civil liberties. All Americans deserve the same liberties whether newcomers or residents whose roots in this land go back centuries.
Let us reflect on the fears and prejudices that birthed the Babel Proclamation and other anti-German actions 100 years ago, and resolve to never again allow such actions to break out in this country.
• Caleb Gates is a refugee case manager at the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids.