German Subjects Within Our Gates

In German Subjects Within Our Gates by the National Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor, this piece attempts to explain the potential precautions taken by the U.S. Government to protect the war machine from German Americans. However, the most interesting part of this pamphlet is the passive, vague and almost subtle direction of necessary internment of enemy aliens.

For example, the government constantly reminds the reader that it “believes that there will be little need for an internment program.” (6) It appears that this pamphlet served as an overtly simple but necessary reminder to German Americans during wartime. The National Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor writes with such apathy that the pamphlet seems only to be a formality of the nation during wartime. Fear, anger, and angst about the “savage German Hun” that characterized so many WWI enlistment and propaganda posters is nowhere to be seen. Furthermore, this pamphlet does not really attempt to scare potential saboteurs from damaging the American  war effort. While it does warn that there are laws in place for repercussions, the government admits that it “will probably follow the Canadian system.” (6) Although it claims that systems and regulations are being developed, a sense of doubt and uncertainty over the future of the internment program questions the American ability to enforce these policies. Likewise, a large portion of the pamphlet is dedicated to describing the conditions and terms of different internment programs world-wide. The section ends in illustrating the potential freedoms granted to intern prisoners in Canada. Enemies held in these camps could earn wages, visit their families and even be released on parole under supervision. Thus, one can argue that this pamphlet doesn’t even try to intimidate German Americans and create anxiety over enemies in the homeland.

So if the government didn’t intend German Subjects Within Our Gates to manifest fear around enemy spies, what is its goal? This can be confusing because the societal conception and general truth about the United States during World War 1 is one of racial uneasiness and patriotic embodiment. 100% Americanism, vigilantism, and democratic spirit captivated the country and motivated it towards war. To many, any potential threat or citizen who wasn’t doing their part needed to be correctly punished and dealt with, often through illegal and immoral methods. Why wouldn’t they want a pamphlet that struck fear into German Americans and kept them at bay? For one, the government probably understood the wide audience of this piece. Friendly nations such as Canada could read this piece. Thus, the United States wanted to maintain their image of the world’s “Champions of Democracy.” By treating their enemy with respect, this would augment this image and enable Wilson to earn and actually oversee the treaty upon the conclusion of the war. As the most moral and ethical nation, the United States would be viewed as the obvious choice to mediate any discussion between the European powers. Moreover, the government may have been trying to convince German Americans to resist sabotage against the country. In the first paragraph, the pamphlet constantly refers to them as “friends” and doesn’t want “to harm them, to interfere with their normal activities, or cause them any unpleasantness.” (2) They simply want them to act as Americans, not Germans. Therefore, this pamphlet seems to take a stronger stance on persuasion opposed to intimidation.

In total, the pamphlet German Subjects Within Our Gates provides an interesting examination into the attempts of the American government to strongly influence people both within and outside of the county. They were willing to use a variety of methods to fulfill their mission and win the war. For this reason, pamphlets and pieces of propaganda alike need to be viewed with open and careful consideration of the political, social, and economic environment of the time. 

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to German Subjects Within Our Gates

  1. Eric Yellin says:

    I’m fairly certain the National Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor was not a government organization but rather one of those national, quasi-governmental organizations so common in the Progressive Era. It was headquartered in New York City, so that suggests it was not a federal institution. So that raises the question of voice here: is the pamphlet representing the government’s position, or that of political advocates? If not government, that could explain why it’s a bit less strident in trying to frighten German Americans. It’s cool how you embed the pamphlet within the broader social trends concerning loyalty and sabotage. I just wonder how to understand the authorship and, therefore, the audience.

Comments are closed.