The Great War: A Background Report

When Congress declared war on Germany and the Austro- Hungarian Empire in April 1917, the conflict in Europe was in its third year and the Nonpartisan League was on the verge of taking control of North Dakota.  The war added one more dimension to an already politically divided state.

Clearly, most North Dakotans, regardless of political persuasions, did not want the United States to become involved in a European war. Yet, the NPL came under fire for some of its war aims.  The League wanted to pay for the war with taxes on wealth and the conscription of wealth. A.C. Townley traveled around the state demanding that the government tax “the rotten rich” for the war. APatriotism demands service from all according to their capacity,” he maintained. ATo conscript men and exempt the bloodstained wealth coined from the sufferings of humanity is repugnant to the spirit of America and contrary to the ideals of democracy.”

Posters encouraging the U.S. war effort on the home front.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

In spite of the fact that the NPL supported the war once the country became involved, loyalty became a political issue. Opponents tried to portray the NPL as an unpatriotic organization. Red Cross officials refused to accept League donations and openly stated, AHere in North Dakota we consider the League thoroughly disloyal.”

The loyalty issue went beyond the Nonpartisan League.  The Espionage and Sedition acts, passed by Congress in 1917 and 1918, made many anti-war acts illegal. Suspicions turned on the state’s large German population. In some towns yellow paint was splattered on the homes of Germans who were thought to be unpatriotic German sympathizers.  The colleges stopped teaching German; cafes changed the name of sauerkraut to Aliberty cabbage.”

Posters encouraging the U.S. war effort on the home front.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Most serious, however, were the cases of anti-war activity that came to trial. In McIntosh County, John Wishek, who promoted settlement in the area during the 1880s, was indicted under the Espionage Act. Proud of his German ancestry, he had published a book about German achievements in America. Because he had given away a half-dozen copies, he was considered disloyal.  After a three-week trial, the jury acquitted Wishek.

Others were not as fortunate. Henry von Bank, a naturalized citizen from Luxembourg and president of a school board near Fargo, was convicted for his statement that he would just as soon fly a pair of old trousers, rather than the American flag, over the schoolhouse. Reverend John Fontana of New Salem received a sentence of three years in prison for refusing to buy Liberty bonds, to put up a flag at his church, and to give to the Red Cross.  The von Bank and Fontana verdicts were, however, later reversed.

Posters encouraging the U.S. war effort on the home front.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Both on the battlefield and on the home front, North Dakotans did their share and more to win the war. In all, 31,269 served in various branches of the armed services. Of that, 4,195 were National Guardsmen who were called into service by President Wilson on July 3, 1917. Both the Guard and regulars saw action on the frontlines in France. When the war ended on November 11, 1918, among the dead were 1,305 North Dakotans: 514 in action; 149 from wounds; 642 of disease. In all, North Dakotans won 133 decorations, including two Medals of Honor.

At home the people mobilized material and resources to help win the war. Almost 600 Four-Minute Men gave patriotic pep talks throughout the state. In the five bond drives, Liberty Loans, the state went far over the top of its quota, purchasing $65 million worth of bonds.  The Lakota at Standing Rock exceeded all expectations when they bought over $10 million in bonds. In addition, residents generously gave to the Red Cross and the YMCA since both agencies worked to support the troops. The Indian people especially helped the Red Cross, an agency which, they believed, reflected the ideals of the Sun Dance.

The war years did not make North Dakota as prosperous as it did the nation. In response to government demands, farmers increased production to help in the war effort; Afood will win the war” was the government’s slogan. But farmers did not enjoy the profit that they should have. Poor to average crops and a government-imposed wheat-price freeze at $2.20 a bushel hurt farm income.  The cash price per bushel at the time was $3.06, meaning that farmers lost 80 cents per bushel.

Posters encouraging the U.S. war effort on the home front.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Inflation also damaged the farmers’ economic position. Prices that the farmer had to pay for goods went up; wheat prices, of course, did not. Farmers also went heavily into debt to purchase more land and modern machinery.  The war cost North Dakotans millions of dollars.

When the war ended on November 11, 1918, the Lakota conducted victory dances - the first since Little Big Horn in 1876. According to the Lakota, the most appropriate punishment for German Kaiser Wilhelm, the instigator of the war, would be to make him farm an allotment on the reservation.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Grade Level


Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

Related Media

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    Audio: The Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 made things difficult for North Dakota's German population.