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Four Questions for Dr. Matt Field, U.S. Capitol Visitor Center

"The continued relevance of Congress’s actions during World War I to today"

By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission

There are a group of new world-class exhibits opening this Spring in Washington DC, to help tell the story of America and World War I. 1917-1918 was a tumultuous time for decision-makers in Washington, and this show shows us what those leaders did, and what the results were. To commemorate the centennial of U.S. entry into World War I in 2017, the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center presents the yearlong exhibition, Congress and the World Wars. Through constituent correspondence, petitions, political cartoons, and posters, visitors will be able to see how Congress responded to the issues facing the nation and how that response impacted the lives of Americans and redefined the nation within the world. Key legislation, such as the Selective Service Act, G.I. Bill of Rights, Marshall Plan, and declarations of war will be highlighted. The first half of the exhibit, on display March 8, 2017, through September 11, 2017, will feature Congress’s actions during World War I and World War II. The second half, on display September 13, 2017, through March 5, 2018, will feature Congress’s actions after the wars. We recently spoke with Dr. Matt Field, from the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. He is their Exhibits and Education Program Specialist, and is curator of the exhibit. He gave us his insights on the exhibit.

You have a remarkable new exhibit coming up, CONGRESS AND THE WORLD WARS. Tell us about the exhibit overall. What will we see?

Dr Matt Field US Capitol Visitor CenterDr. Matt FieldWe are very excited about our yearlong exhibit, Congress and the World Wars, which will commemorate the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I.

Visitors will see constituent correspondence, petitions, political cartoons, and posters—all examples of how Congress responded to the issues facing the nation and how that response impacted the lives of the American people and redefined the nation within the world. Key legislation, such as the Selective Service Act, G.I. Bill of Rights, Marshall Plan, and declarations of war will be highlighted.

The first half of the exhibit, on display March 8, 2017, through September 11, 2017, will feature Congress’s actions during World War I and World War II. The second half, on display September 13, 2017, through March 5, 2018, will feature Congress’s actions after the wars.

Was there much connection between Congress's actions on 6 April 1917 and on 8 December 1941? How did the national tones compare? Were there new & different players involved? How did the arguments compare? Was there unity between the parties?

There were important connections between Congress’s actions in April 1917 and December 1941. First of all, both declarations of war occurred after long, extended periods of debate, which reflected the country’s clear preference for non-intervention in the conflicts. In our “Debating the Wars” section, you will learn about the Gore-McLemore Resolution in early 1916 and the Neutrality Acts prior to Pearl Harbor. Both topics are examples of Congress’s preference for non-intervention, a policy adhered to for years prior to entry in the conflicts.

Furthermore, in between the wars, there was an important congressional investigation into the World War I armaments industry, popularly called the Nye Committee (Senate Special Committee Investigating the Munitions Industry). Though the investigation occurred years after the Treaty of Versailles, it both reflected a still-strong distrust of our participation in World War I and helped strengthen and solidify the isolationist sentiment prevalent in the 1930s.

The arguments were generally similar after the disclosure of the Zimmerman Telegram and the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, as they were after the attack on Pearl Harbor. As Senator Gilbert Hitchcock of Nebraska stated on April 4, 1917, “We are going to war . . . to vindicate our honor and to maintain our independence as a great nation. We are going to war . . . in defense of humanity.” The bodies were generally united in their declarations, with 56 combined dissenters (50 in the House; six in the Senate) for the Declaration of War on Germany on April 6, 1917, and one House dissenter for the Declaration of War on Japan on December 8, 1941. Overwhelming majorities of both parties supported the two declarations.

What was your research process like? What stories did you focus on? Did you find surprises from what you expected? What stories stuck with you?

Given World War I’s importance to the 20th and 21st centuries, we wanted to honor its centennial by showcasing Congress’s role within the war. We decided to expand the content of the exhibit to include World War II as well, so that we could compare and contrast how Congress reacted to both world wars and show how they were inherently interconnected. The exhibit’s World War I stories include the neutrality debate before the United States entered the war in April 1917, the Declaration of War on Germany, the Liberty Loan Act of 1917, the Nye Committee of the 1930s, the Second Jones Act of 1917 conferring citizenship on Puerto Ricans, the Selective Service Act of 1917, the Native American Citizenship Act of 1919, and the Espionage Act of 1917.

We were surprised at the continued relevance of Congress’s actions during World War I to today and by the similarities between their actions during World War I and World War II. Congress has immense power to declare war and to deliberate and legislate on funding the war, fighting the war, and defining national loyalty. These precedents and powers are still very much a part of our political discourse, as they always will be, given our constitutional structure.

The similarities between Congress’s actions in both wars is intriguing as well. For example, there are similarities between:

  • The mutually shared distrust of entering the hostilities
  • The country’s reactions to the Zimmerman Telegram and the attack on Pearl Harbor
  • The vote tallies for the war declarations
  • The exercises of the controversial draft
  • The efforts to raise loans and bonds
  • Similar efforts to ration commodities and control prices
  • The service of Puerto Ricans, American Indians and women
  • The Bonus Act and the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act
  • Similar propaganda efforts to buttress the war efforts, and
  • Similar red “scares.”

Some of these topics are teasers from our second half of the exhibit, but these similarities come through in both exhibits.

US Capitol Visitor Center 3U.S. Capitol Visitor CenterNumerous stories stuck with us, but I will briefly mention four, all of which remind us of the immense power Congress has to declare and wage war and its effect on our lives. We are showing the scrapbook of Representative Dick Morgan of Oklahoma, in which he had saved the front page of the Washington Post, detailing the disclosure of the Zimmerman Telegram. In the telegram, Germany promised to help Mexico recover territory ceded to the United States in return for Mexico’s support if the United States entered the war. It’s interesting to imagine being a member of Congress during this time, likely knowing you would soon have to vote on whether to send young men to war.

We are also displaying S. J. Res. 1, the Declaration of War on Germany, introduced in the Senate on April 2, 1917. It’s an incredible experience to see a declaration of war, which is a power Congress has used only 11 times in its history.

Visitors will also see a photograph of a Liberty Loan bond rally on the steps of the Capitol with Speaker Champ Clark, Charlie Chaplin, and Mary Pickford, which conveys how extensive the efforts were and how immediate the need was to raise funds for the war and encourage national unity. It also reminds visitors of all the times in U.S. history the Capitol has been the backdrop and site of historic and important protests, rallies, and events.

Finally, the stories of Puerto Rican Americans and American Indians fighting heroically for this nation while holding an often less than equal status in the minds and statutes of the rest of the nation are very inspiring.

World War I happened 100 years ago, and in some ways is considered a 'forgotten war'. How did you take this into account in telling the World War I story in your exhibit?

We took this into account by striving to demonstrate the very real effect Congress had on individual American lives during World War I. We did this by utilizing numerous pieces of constituent mail sent to Congress expressing viewpoints on all sides of these issues. We also attempted to select stories with particular resonance today. More than 4.7 million Americans served in World War I and approximately 16.1 million served in World War II. Of those asked to serve, approximately 320,500 became casualties (i.e., battle deaths, other deaths, and wounds not mortal) during World War I and 1,076,200 became casualties during World War II.

War is a momentous and cataclysmic thing, which is why understanding Congress’s power to declare it, fund it, fight it, and articulate its meaning is so vital to us, especially as Congress continues to deliberate future foreign and domestic policy. Given the World Wars’ scope and scale and the centennial of our participation in the Great War and the recent 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, we thought it made perfect sense for the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center to highlight the work and role of Congress.

 

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