Selling the Great War to the American Public by Larry Zuckerman

When I researched the historical background for my novel, Only Are the Brave, about an American veteran of the Great War, I was struck by how recruiters blatantly appealed to masculinity rather than illustrate the issues driving the conflict. After Congress declared war in April 1917, image after image challenged men to prove their manhood, which usually meant protecting women, as if the German hordes were preparing to leap the Atlantic and assault them.

            But that theme had been brewing for years. On May 7, 1915, off the southern coast of Ireland, a German submarine torpedoed the British passenger liner Lusitania (shown below entering New York harbor on her maiden voyage in 1907). The attack killed almost 1,200 passengers and crew, 128 of whom were Americans, including women and children. The American press erupted, but less than one in a hundred newspapers demanded war, a split that reflected popular sentiment. Anglophiles of English heritage in the Northeast favored joining the Allies, but the nation at large firmly endorsed neutrality. The press expected President Woodrow Wilson to send Berlin a protest, which he did, focusing on the rights of neutral citizens during wartime.

Nevertheless, a Boston group calling itself the Committee of Public Safety—shades of the Reign of Terror!—called for a more aggressive response. Fred Spear’s celebrated poster shows a woman and her baby drowning, like a submerged Madonna and child, and a single word: Enlist. But the simple, potent message had little practicality for neutral Americans, who could avenge the sinking only if they joined the Canadian, British, or French forces. Few did.

            Still, anger on behalf of defenseless women found ready expression. A cartoon published days after the sinking in the pro-Allied New York Tribune portrays a woman in widow’s weeds, labeled “Belgium,” comforting a weeping Miss Columbia (a female counterpart to Uncle Sam). The caption reads: “At Least They Only Drown Your Women.”

            Those words make little sense today, but in 1915, they needed no explanation. The widow represents the German invasion of Belgium in 1914 and myriad reports accusing the invaders of attacking women and girls—thus the innuendo about the so-called fate worse than death. In seven words, therefore, the cartoon invites Americans grieving the Lusitania to imagine a common bond with Belgium and to share that nation’s outrage at Germany.

Nor was that all. The Lusitania sinking marked the third shocking revelation about German combat methods in little more than two weeks. In late April 1915, German troops had deployed poison gas for the first time on the Western Front; in early May, a Zeppelin had dropped a bomb on London. Yet another shock came about a week after the sinking, when a coincidence handed the Allies a major propaganda coup: the British government published an inquiry accusing German troops of systematic brutality during the invasion of Belgium.

            The report had two major parts, the shorter of which described mass executions of civilians, the use of civilians as shields during military operations, and the apparently routine character of the terror. Historical evidence has since confirmed these findings.

            But at far greater length, the committee alleged crimes like those that had made sensational headlines in 1914, chiefly rape and mutilation of women and girls, often recounted in grotesque detail. The report published these charges without names of witnesses, many of whom had only heard rumors of the crimes they described, and few of whom had testified under oath. Of 155 crimes alleged, a postwar Belgian investigation corroborated a mere fraction of the rapes and one mutilation—of a man.

Yet in 1915, as in the previous year, the rape and mutilation charges caused a stir in the United States. Many newspapers linked those to the Lusitania and supposed that the mindset that had allowed the sinking of a passenger ship might have permitted soldiers to abuse Belgian women. A few declared that the sinking confirmed the report’s allegations.

Even so, the outcry moved the United States no closer to war. Wilson’s Lusitania diplomacy persuaded the German government to promise not to sink neutral ships without warning, and the heat died down. In November 1916, the president won reelection on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.”

             However, when the nation joined the conflict the following April, the narrative about manliness and defenseless women quickly resurfaced. Though Congress approved conscription, true patriots did not wait to be drafted, and recruiters repeatedly used sexual provocation and innuendo to urge enlistment. Howard Chandler Christy’s illustrations of attractive women promoting the war effort drew criticism as undignified yet remained popular; here, the wispy, slight subject wishes she were a man and could join the navy.

More daring yet, an artist known as Schneck portrayed a provocatively clad Miss Columbia wearing a shroud that partially shields her face; she leans over in shame while a distraught Uncle Sam looks on. The depiction more or less implies that she has been violated. The exhortation: “Protect the Nation’s Honor. Enlist Now.”

But even that was tame by comparison. H.R. Hopps rendered an open-mouthed, bloody-handed gorilla wielding a club as he advances on the viewer, leaving American shores in ashes behind him. He has abducted a fair-haired, bare-breasted (but faceless) woman, who puts a hand where her eyes should be—like Miss Columbia, she seeks to hide her shame. The club, labeled “Kultur,” mocks a word often translated as “civilization,” which Germans used about themselves with pride. The text: “Destroy This Mad Brute. Enlist.”

In 1939, Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, repurposed this poster to claim that since Germany’s enemies had lied during the previous war, their recent accusations should be dismissed out of hand. But the 1917 version, despite its silliness, offered a hint of substance: the mad brute’s spiked helmet, marked “Militarism.” The extreme methods of combat—sinking the Lusitania, introduction of poison gas, and so forth—arguably offered a more plausible danger to the world order than the chance that German troops would cross the Atlantic. After all, they had yet to cross the North Sea to Britain. Why pretend they threatened American shores?

But war hysteria has forever spawned wild fears, so the appeal to rescue women from the mad brute should come as no surprise. The government could oblige its citizens to take up arms, but compulsion begged for justification, and citing Germany’s wrongs against third parties would tacitly emphasize that America had not been invaded. That may explain why recruiters depicted the enemy primed to invade, placing women, home, and hearth at risk.

            So it was that in April 1919, when the 361st Infantry Regiment came home to Seattle, the city threw a lavish parade to welcome the victors. The celebrants included young women in white dresses, who strewed white flower petals along the route—white, symbol of the female purity for which the nation had supposedly entered a world war. The Seattle Times made the point explicit, lauding “this band of men who had so gloriously passed through hell’s hottest fire to preserve home and honor for womanhood.” And so the myth continued.


Belgium. Ministry of Justice. Rapports et documents d’enquête. Brussels, 1922.

Great Britain. Committee on Alleged German Outrages. Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages. New York, 1915.

Horne, John, and Alan Kramer. German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial. New Haven, 2001.

Paret, Peter, Beth Irwin Lewis, and Paul Paret. Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution. Princeton, 1992.

Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York, 2004.

Zuckerman, Larry. The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I. New York, 2004.

Chicago Tribune

New York Herald

New York Tribune

Seattle Times

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Hoover Institution Archives

Lusitania photo: Courtesy MaritimeQuest:

Larry Zuckerman’s debut novel, Lonely Are the Brave, appeared last month from Cynren Press. An award-winning historian whose specialty is the First World War, he’s an editor at Historical Novels Review and reviews historical fiction on his blog, Novelhistorian.