by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent
On the front page, the Capital Journal trenchantly reported that at St. Mihiel Woods a “ghastly harvest” and heaps of dead hampered military operations. German losses exceeded 300,000 and the German trenches were so filled with the mangled bodies of the living and the dead that they were unable to be used by the French.
“Along the slopes in the valley, soggy from recent rains, piles of bodies are actually hampering operations,” the paper reported. Wounded and dead piled together filled the ditches. Two years later, St. Mihiel would be the site where over 4,000 American troops died.
Suffering and suffrage – the headline addressed the heroic parts women play in the war. “. . . [T]heir spirit of sacrifice and patriotism,” the paper reported may, “once the Great Struggle is ended,” gain them the right to vote. The substance of the franchise was less the fact of being a citizen than it was what one contributed in the form of a sacrificial poll tax.
The private sector rhetoric that “everything you (e.g., the government) can do, I can do better” is not a phenomenon of the present day. The Journal reprinted an editorial from the San Francisco Examiner, harshly critical of the Bell telephone monopoly.
A group, the Postal Progress League, used Bell Telephone’s successful linking of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to argue that the postal service, especially its parcel post functions, should be privatized and turned over to the 1915 equivalents of FedEx and UPS.
The Examiner’s response, and by extension that of the Capital Journal, was blunt:
Now, every well-informed man knows that had the United States government, instead of the Bell telephone monopoly, been operating the telephones, the Atlantic coast would have been talking to the Pacific coast long ago.
Compare the government enterprise with private corporation enterprise in this very parcel post matter. The express companies, established for half a century and earning enormous dividends, would not deliver express packages anywhere except in the larger cities and towns. The national government, within three years after its entry upon the parcel post business, is carrying express packages to the remotest villages and hamlets, where no express companies, however large and prosperous, would think of delivering a package.
Not content with comparing telephones and parcel post, the editorial continues:
Who built the Panama canal? The national government.
Who failed to build it? Private enterprise.
Who built the first great railway that opened up the western plains and reached the Pacific? The national government.
Who built all our great canals? The national and state governments.
What money built nearly all of our railroads? the money appropriated by cities, states and towns.
In a forceful defense of the public finance of infrastructure, the paper reminds readers that “everybody who knows the history of our railroads knows that a they have rarely benefited the men who built them. The inventor rarely received any advantage from his invention. The public money which enabled the construction of these railroads was stolen by fraudulent reorganizations, out of which have been built up the great fortunes which threaten this republic.”
A single, telling, paragraph offers readers today an object lesson of the principle that those who fail to heed the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them:
Our American public life has been corrupted until we have almost ceased to have confidence in the honesty of anybody. Many of our business men have been made cowards and our courts have been caused to forfeit public confidence, and thoughtful men made to fear for the existence of the republic itself by reason of the unequal distribution of wealth and power through the private operation of our railroads and other public service corporations.
On the editorial page, the editor commented that there is no connection between what is rational and what actually happens. Looking back to the final summer of peace, the paper noted that on Dr. Thomas Green, addressing the Salem Chautauqua, “proved conclusively, in his own estimation . . ., that a great war in Europe was an utter impossibility.”
“A cog slipped somewhere,” the editor caustically comments, because “within six weeks the greatest carnival of death the world ever witnessed was on with all the horrors of middle-age barbarity.”
April 9, 1915, also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War:
Fifty years ago today Lee surrendered to Grant and the Civil War was over. Now a common country does honor to the heroes of both armies, and a native of the Southland sits in the nation’s highest place of honor and authority. Half a century peace has witnessed the passing of a majority of those who took an active part in the great conflict and they are sleeping
“Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment day;
Under the one the blue,
Under the other the gray.”
(Francis Miles Finch)