What could a Four-Minute Man do in four minutes? He could stir your passions, make you feel patriotic. In the time it took to change a cinema reel at the 'flickers', he could remind you (if you needed reminding) of the sufferings of bleeding Belgium, the needs of our allies in Britain, and the evil nature of the Hun. He could make you proud to do your part to 'make the world safe for democracy'.
A Four-Minute Man could be a woman, or a schoolchild. He (or she) might speak English – or Yiddish, Italian, Russian, or even German. The Four-Minute Man was a neighbour, though not necessarily a friend – a volunteer with an organisation behind him, and the support of professionals in the advertising and entertainment industries.
In four minutes, a Four-Minute Man could sell you a Liberty Bond. He could help America win the Great War1.
'Where Do You Work-a, John? On the Delaware Lackawann'...'2
The United States of America in 1914 was a nation with a huge immigrant population. The 1910 census showed that of the more than 13 million foreign-born inhabitants, 2,759,032 had German as their mother tongue – the largest group after the 3,363,792 'English/Celtic' [sic] speakers (the Irish were still leading the pack). With the 1,051,767 native Yiddish speakers3, this ensured that you were as likely to overhear Teutonic haggling in the open-air markets as you were arguments in the more traditional language4.
This also meant that when war broke out in Europe, individual Americans were not necessarily sympathetic to the French and British. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge might sniff about 'hyphenated Americans', and believe that he belonged to the 'Anglo-Saxon race', but many of his countrymen did not share his loyalties. Whose side you were on depended quite a lot on what language you read your newspaper in.
Besides, the US was a neutral country that traded with all belligerents – at least, until the submarines showed up.
'I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier'
In 1916, Woodrow Wilson was re-elected on the claim that 'he kept us out of the war'. Native-born Americans were uninterested in Europe. Non-native Americans had come to the US to get away from Europe. All of the over 92 million people in the 46 states had better things to do than go and fight overseas. They liked their wars short and sweet, like the fracas in Cuba in 1898, when Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill to general success.
Pacifism was growing in popularity, as well. For eight weeks in 1915, the top hit song went like this:
Let nations arbitrate their future troubles
It's time to lay the sword and gun away
There'd be no wars today if mothers all would say
I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier
- 'I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier', Al Piantadosi / Alfred Bryan, 1915.
This was not a country with war on its mind.
In spite of Wilson's promises, the US got involved in the war. The main problem was shipping – if you try to trade with belligerents, eventually they will attempt to persuade you not to trade with their enemies. In the case of shipping, persuasion often involves water damage.
It really wasn't about the moral high ground, no matter what the British press releases said. To be sure, the British had the law of the sea on their side – their blockades were orderly, and they treated the crew of seized vessels handsomely. Lacking a strong surface fleet, and with their backs against the wall, starving Germany was reduced to submarine warfare. Ocean treaties hadn't caught up yet. According to maritime law, you needed to warn a ship before you attacked it. To issue such a warning, a 1914-vintage submarine would be forced to surface, a suicidal manoeuvre. So it went.
Submarine warfare (together with an unfortunate German telegram to Mexico5) finally forced the US into the war – on the side of Britain and France. Anglophiles rejoiced. Teddy Roosevelt tried to organize an infantry unit. (Wilson declined, with thanks.) The American military tried to figure out how to raise an army overnight. Now they were singing the words of ultra-patriot George M Cohan:
Johnnie, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun,
Take it on the run, on the run, on the run.
Make your daddy glad to have had such a lad.
Tell your sweetheart not to pine, to be proud her boy's in line
- 'Over There', George M Cohan, 1917.
They could sing all they wanted. This war was not going to be an easy sell. Not even with over 24 million men registered for the draft (including some the government probably didn't want). Among those unhappy about the draft: Eugene V Debs, perennial presidential candidate, and his colleague, Charles Schenck. These two leaders of the Socialist Party opposed the draft for all they were worth. Schenck became the subject of a landmark Supreme Court decision, Schenck v United States, after he mailed 15,000 letters to potential draftees. Schenck insisted that the draft violated the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution – the one which prohibits 'involuntary servitude'. (Schenck lost the case, and US history gained a dubious analogy. Was exercising free speech in wartime really like 'falsely shouting Fire! in a theatre'?) Debs' next presidential campaign was run from jail – courtesy of the Espionage Act of 1917.
It wasn't fun to be a German American in 1917. The teaching of the language was outlawed (not for the last time).
Eddie Rickenbacher, the champion racing car driver who became a flying ace, changed his name to 'Rickenbacker' – the headline was 'Eddie Takes the Hun Out of His Name'.
Sauerkraut became Victory Cabbage.
And cinemas were full of Four-Minute Men.
'The Meaning of America' in Seven Languages
Raising an army overnight costs money. According to government-released figures, it cost $156.71 to equip an infantryman for battle (and they needed about two million of them). Faced with a choice of raising taxes or borrowing the sum needed, the US government did both. Personal and corporate income taxes were raised. In addition, 30-year Liberty Bonds were issued. Although the bulk of the $20 billion's worth of bonds were bought by corporate interests with an eye to a sharp bargain (the bonds were at least partially tax-free), individual investors were encouraged – some would say, bullied – to support the 'war effort' in this way.
Cajoling the citizenry into buying Liberty Bonds had two positive outcomes, as far as the government were concerned. In addition to providing revenue, Liberty Bonds were a way to get the populace committed to the war. Advertising agencies were working full-time on propaganda that portrayed the Germans in the worst, and the French and British in the best possible light. English-born Charlie Chaplin himself had made a bond-drive film. The interestingly-named Committee on Public Information churned out propaganda at a steady rate.
People were reluctant to buy. Most Americans were frugal and unused to dealing in high finance, either in terms of borrowing or lending. The bonds did not seem a good investment to them. The CPI decided that an appeal to patriotism was needed. Enter the Four-Minute Men.
Four minutes was the time it took to change a film reel. While cinema-goers sat waiting, a Four-Minute Man would stand up – someone from the neighbourhood, one of them. In a carefully-rehearsed speech, the Four-Minute Man would explain why the Great War was necessary to save civilisation. Why all true-blooded Americans should support this effort by buying Liberty Bonds.
Then the audience could go back to watching Theda Bara.
Four-Minute Men came from all walks of life, and spoke different languages. CPI bulletins indicate that one Four-Minute Man was a 'full-blooded Sioux'. Rabbi A G Robinson, executive director of the Young Men's Hebrew Association, organized the Yiddish speakers in New York City. There were reports of women and schoolchildren who delivered Four-Minute Speeches. One popular speech, 'The Meaning of America', was translated into seven different languages.
The CPI advised speakers to hone their skills and practice their speeches in front of critical friends:
The speech must not be longer than four minutes, which means there is no time for a single wasted word.
Speakers should go over their speech time and time again until the ideas are firmly fixed in their mind and can not be forgotten...
Divide your speech carefully into certain divisions, say 15 seconds for final appeal; 45 seconds to describe the bond; 15 seconds for opening words, etc., etc. Any plan is better than none, and it can be amended every day in the light of experience.
– CPI, 'General Suggestions for Speakers'
Four-Minute Men were not supposed to incite to violence. A rabble-rouser who accused his German-American neighbours of being pro-Hun was soon unmasked as a faux Four-Minute Man. The appeal was to straightforward patriotism and opposition to 'autocracy':
For the German Government is worried about our great loan. Those Junkers fear its effect upon the German morale. They're raising a loan this month, too.
If the American people lend their billions now, one and all with a hip-hip-hurrah, it means that America is united and strong. While, if we lend our money half-heartedly, America seems weak and autocracy remains strong...
Do not let the German spy hear and report that you are a slacker.
– Typical speech, courtesy of Committee on Public Information, Four Minute Man Bulletin, No 17 (8 October, 1917).
How successful were they? In 1918, the Four Minute Man News reported the headline, 'Three Hundred Fifty Thousand Dollars Worth of Liberty Bonds Sold on Streets in Single Night', in Jersey City, New Jersey. Pittsburgh ball-playing great, Honus Wagner, signed up as a Four-Minute Man in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. The same issue carried a photo of a dogsled team – the Four-Minute Men did not spare Alaska, even though it was not yet a state.
Everywhere they went, the Four-Minute Men spread the word about Liberty Bonds. Unpaid propagandists for an idea of 'liberty' that involved bringing down the Kaiser, they cajoled their way into sales and bullied everyone who would listen into proving their patriotism with their pocketbooks.
'How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm, After They've Seen Paree?'6
What did World War I cost the US? 48,909 dead in battle, 63,523 from disease (most of them in the 1918 influenza epidemic), 230,074 wounded. $32 billion in cold cash. These costs were nothing in comparison to the toll in death, devastation, and economic ruin that the 'war to end war' exacted on European participants. Britain lost a generation of leadership. Germany's social order was totally destroyed.
In the long term, the US benefited from the war. Before the war, the US was a debtor country – afterwards, a net creditor. By 1919, US investments abroad amounted to $9.7 billion. The centre of world markets shifted from London to New York.
Propagandists had learned from the Four-Minute Men. In another generation, Europe and the US would be faced with another war. In World War II, Henry Morgenthau and the War Finance Committee showed that they had learned the lesson well: entertainers throughout the war ended their performances with 'Bye-bye, buy bonds!'
The legacy of the Four-Minute Men lived on.