America First and America Only: German-American Newspapers, Self-Censorship, and Press Freedom in World War I

Elisabeth Fondren Headshot 2019 copy
Elisabeth Fondren

“Let us remember that we are Americans first and Americans only,” wrote George Sylvester Viereck, the pro-German publisher and provocateur, on April 11, 1917.[i] Only a few days earlier President Woodrow Wilson had declared war on Imperial Germany. Viereck appealed to his German-American readers and colleagues to adapt a rigid “America First” policy. The editor pleaded with his fellow German-Americans: “Now the time has come for publishers, as well as citizens, to prove the depth of their sincerity as patriots.”[ii]

Since the outbreak of the war in July 1914, German-American newspapers and editors had often been apologetic for the brutal warfare of the Central Powers, attacked the Allies, and criticized the Wilson administration. After the U.S. joined the war in Europe and was no longer neutral, the general assumption was that German language papers, published in German and read by German-Americans, bred disloyalty among German immigrant communities and posed a threat to the United States’ war efforts.

Limiting Civil Liberties in WWI

The period between 1917-1919 marks a pivotal time in U.S. legal, political, and cultural history. World War I changed how modern governments produced nationalistic propaganda on a mass scale, at home and abroad. Censorship laws restricted the free flow of information and punished dissident thought. World War I and the postwar period are also central to our understanding of the First Amendment; during that time the U.S. Supreme Court decided landmark cases and upheld the constitutionality of restricting free speech.[iii]

In the image shown above, American cartoonist Winsor McCay illustrated the fear that federal laws would restrict the public’s freedom to reason and the press’ right to publish without interference. In 1917, as the artist showed, Lady Liberty’s torch of democracy (Enlightenment) was grabbed by an anonymous arm (Espionage Bill) and held tight in a clenched fist. This political cartoon echoes the sentiment that President Wilson was hardly a torchbearer of democracy. In fact, his administration failed to protect basic civil liberties during the war.[iv]

German-American Cultural Identity 

In the early twentieth century, German-Americans were the country’s largest ethnic group with more than eight million in 1910.[v] German-language papers were immigrants’ primary sources for news and opinions. German traditions, customs, and successful entrepreneurship were often regarded as exemplary. After the outbreak of the war, however, German-Americans faced discrimination, cultural pressures to assimilate, and political demands to conform to the U.S. government’s point of view, in public and private settings.[vi]

For many of the German-language papers, the spring and summer of 1917 marked an important transition. In trying to avoid the censor’s pen, the loss of mailing privileges, or other legal consequences, German-American dailies and magazines fell in line. They signaled patriotism, loyalty to the U.S. flag, and support of the government’s position and propaganda amid growing levels of distrust.

The Espionage Act and Trading with the Enemy Act (1917)

The U.S. Congress passed the Espionage Act on June 15, 1917. This law aimed to protect military intelligence and made it illegal to share classified information or share secrets.[vii] It targeted German spies who supposedly worked to collect intelligence and plan acts of terror or sabotage within the U.S. The German-language press was seen as complicit. Originally the law was intended to prevent “classic” espionage activities such as sabotage and the disclosure of secrets to the enemy, but later it also limited freedom of speech during times of crises.[viii] Postmaster General Albert Burleson was given the authority to revoke mailing privileges – on which most immigrant papers relied – for suspected publications.[ix]

Only four months later, the Trading with the Enemy Act of October 6, 1917 forced all foreign-language publications to file daily English translations with local post offices on all political news and commentary about the war.[x] German-American editors and publishers faced imprisonment, up to $500 in fines, and other economic sanctions if they did not oblige. Historians have argued that this law had two goals: to control and minimize the volume of German-language and disloyal news published through the U.S. mail service, and secondly, to eradicate this content and replace it with pro-U.S. propaganda.[xi]

For German-language editors, publishers, and journalists, these repressive conditions significantly changed their daily routines and businesses. Public opinion, influenced by propaganda and the growing distrust of “hyphens”, as immigrants were called, had solidified. Readers did not renew their subscriptions and, more detrimentally, advertisers withdrew their dollars.

“Disloyal Publications Continue To Disappear”

 Politically, none of the mainstream dailies – not even Viereck’s magazine – endorsed Imperial Germany’s position in the war after the spring of 1917. Much rather, these publications positioned themselves as distinctly American or “America-First” papers. There were subtle ways in which editors like Viereck addressed the demands of absolute loyalty. For instance, he published the pros and cons of drafting German-Americans into the military services, emphasizing German immigrants’ right to oppose the war.[xii]

The American press, too, commented on the collapsing German immigrant press. “Disloyal publications continue to disappear,” reported The Editor & Publisher magazine in the fall of 1917. “Post office department quietly, but most effectively, causes suppression of newspapers and magazines whose politics are held to be detrimental to best interest of our nation.”[xiii] The numbers paint a bleak picture. After the end of the war, the total number of German publications had decreased from 522 in 1917 to 278 in 1920.[xiv] In Texas, for example, 24 German-language newspapers had a combined circulation of over 70,000 readers in 1914.[xv] By 1919, the number of German-language publications had declined by approximately half.[xvi]

Immigrant Public Opinion and Paradox of Free Speech

Even after the Great War was over, the demands on German-Americans to assimilate – politically and culturally – were not.[xvii] Woodrow Wilson, in fact, argued in his September 1919 address: “Any man who carries a hyphen around with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”[xviii]

This is the paradox of democracies during wartime. Governments restrict civil liberties and limit transparency – on which the public depends – for the sake of national security and order.[xix] World War I laid the groundwork for this troubling pattern.

The history of the German-American immigrant press illustrates how governments take steps to suppress ethnic media, curtailing their exercise of free speech in a political climate that is anti-immigrant.[xx] The strenuous interactions between legal measures, government propaganda, distrust of all things German, and economic hardships caused by loss of advertising and subscribers diminished the German-American press’s role.

About the author: Dr. Elisabeth Fondren received her doctorate in Media & Public Affairs from Louisiana State University (2018). In September 2019, she will start her new position as Assistant Professor of Journalism at St. John’s University in New York. Her research focuses on the history of journalism and media institutions, propaganda, and international communication.

Featured Image: Winsor McCay, “Must Liberty’s Light Go Out?” New York American, May 3, 1917 (Photograph), Library of Congress


[i] “America First and America Only,” George S. Viereck, Viereck’s The American Weekly, April 11, 1917, 6-10. Viereck would use “America First-America Only” as his magazine’s cover slogan.

[ii] Viereck’s The American Weekly, April 18, 1917.

[iii] In Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919) the U.S. Supreme Court decided that: “[W]hen a nation is at war, many things that might be said in times of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight, and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.” This case re-affirmed the constitutionality of the 1917 Espionage Act and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. proposed the “clear and present danger test” for deciding free speech matters. Also see: Abrams v. United States, 205 U.S. 616, 630 (1919).

[iv] Harry N. Scheiber, The Wilson Administration and Civil Liberties, 1917-1921 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1960).

[v] U.S. Bureau of the Census (1910), Chapter VIII, Country of Origin of the Foreign White Stock. The 1910 U.S. census reported that 2.5 million of the 92 million U.S. residents were born in Germany. U.S. residents of German descent were more than eight million.

[vi] Katja Wüstenbecker, “German-Americans during World War I,” at Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 3, (ed. Giles R. Hoyt), German Historical Institute.

[vii] “Willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies…[or] willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, to the injury of the service or of the United States.”

[viii] See Zechariah Chafee, “Freedom of Speech in War Time,” Harvard Law Review 32 (1918): 932-973.

[ix] The Espionage Act has been controversial since its inception. See Geoffrey R. Stone, “Judge Learned Hand and the Espionage Act of 1917: A Mystery Unraveled,” The University of Chicago Law Review 70, no. 1 (2003): 335-58.

[x] Thomas Ewing, “Trading with the Enemy Act,” Georgetown Law Journal 6 (1917): 4.

[xi] The CPI commissioned propaganda also included imperative advertisement for Liberty Bonds, “superpatriotic” and anti-German cartoons, and other enforced displays of loyalty in German-language newspapers. See Carl. F. Wittke, “The Hour of Trial,” 1936.

[xii] Viereck’s The American Weekly, August 15, 1917, 3.

[xiii] The Editor & Publisher, October 14, 1917. The article continued: “The public is hearing only a very small part of the crusade against publications whose politics are considered disloyal. It is known that newspapers and small magazines quietly have been suspending at the rate sometimes of two or three a day as a result of the activities of the Post Office Department officials.”

[xiv] Wittke, “The Hour of Trial,” 140.

[xv] N.W. Ayer and Son’s American Newspaper Annual and Directory (Philadelphia, 1914), 912-959.

[xvi] N. W. Ayer and Son’s American Newspaper Annual and Directory (Philadelphia, 1920), 1292.

[xvii] Scheiber, The Wilson Administration and Civil Liberties.

[xviii] Woodrow Wilson, Speech, September 25, 1919, Pueblo, CO.

[xix] Chafee, “Freedom of Speech in War Time.”

[xx] James Robert Mock, Censorship 1917 (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1972).

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