100 years ago a Minneapolis ‘peace army’ assembled under clouds of war

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The Minneapolis Auditorium where Minnesotans gathered to support U.S. neutrality in World War 1.

On the evening of Sept. 22, 1914, 100 years ago, an overflow crowd filled the Minneapolis Auditorium. The crowd had assembled there to demonstrate its support for U.S. neutrality as an escalating military conflict was under way in Europe.

In its account of the 1914 event, the Minneapolis Tribune reported that Minneapolis had joined a “World Peace Army” to agitate for a settlement of the bloody overseas conflict, then known as the Great War.

One of the rally’s organizers, Albert Allen, told his receptive audience: “God has put us in a country of peace. But, we, too, have a war party that tells us we must mount the same horse they are riding in Europe. We are met here in this meeting that you and I can be prepared to meet that argument when it is presented to us.”

Allen went on to note that the Upper Midwest, with its large influx of newly arrived immigrants, was filled with people who had strong ties to the countries that were at war with each other in Europe. “Here we are brothers, neighbors. Across the sea they are fighting,” he declared. “We should act so as not to disturb the feeling of brotherhood.”

In 1914, Minnesotans of various nationalities may have been brothers and neighbors, but the ties of good will and neighborliness would be sorely strained three years later when the U.S. entered the war on the side of its European allies in April 1917.

These strains would reach the breaking point in 1918, during a bitter election battle between two Minnesotans who had shared a common political outlook prior to the start of the war.

In November 1914, a month after the Minneapolis peace and neutrality rally, Charles August Lindbergh and Joseph A.A. Burnquist both faced the voters during that year’s midterm election. Lindbergh, a Little Falls lawyer, was running for his fourth and final term as Minnesota’s Sixth District congressman. Burnquist, a St. Paul legislator, was seeking statewide office for the first time as a candidate for lieutenant governor. That year, both men won their respective races.

Both had supported Roosevelt

Two years earlier, in 1912, Lindbergh and Burnquist had maintained their ties to the state’s Republican organization, even while backing the presidential bid of Theodore Roosevelt, running as a third-party candidate under the label of the short lived Bull Moose party.

Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist

Lindbergh and Burnquist, as active members of their party’s progressive wing, had both advocated for measures to rein in the power of the trusts and combat the excesses of the industrial age. In 1915, Burnquist would move up to the governorship when Minnesota’s sitting governor, Winfred Hammond, died in office.

Burnquist was elected to the state’s top political job in his own right in 1916. In his inaugural address, he called for women’s suffrage, expanded state public health efforts and an overhaul of the state’s child labor laws. A St. Paul reporter termed the address “the most progressive message any governor has handed out yet.”

Took a strident militaristic stance

Like many of the progressives of his time, Burnquist had no difficulty reconciling his enlightened outlook on certain domestic issues with a strident militaristic stance after the U.S. declared war on Germany. The Republican governor would be remembered not for his progressive views on child labor but rather for the infamous watchdog agency he created to suppress dissent during the war years of 1917 and 1918.

The agency, known as the Minnesota Commission on Public Safety, was established only weeks after the U.S. entered the war. It was given virtually unchecked power to suspend civil and political liberties during wartime. It was even able to remove local elected officials from public office if their loyalties were suspect, a power the commission used in New Ulm to remove that city’s mayor.

Burnquist served as chairman of the seven-member commission, but he ceded much of the agency’s authority to one of its most extreme members, a fiery lawyer named named John F. McGee, whose demagoguery would be emulated, following another world war, by Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy.

Lindbergh criticized war profiteers

Meanwhile, Lindbergh, the father of the famous aviator, was out of office when war was declared in 1917. The former congressman had become even more firm in his progressive beliefs as his congressional career wound down. Lindberg did not become a war opponent, as many of his fiercest critics maintained, but he did criticize the men he labeled as war profiteers — men, he said, who sought to gain economic advantages from U.S. involvement in the war. For this stance, he was bitterly attacked by the forces on the right who equated his criticisms with disloyalty.

Lindbergh continued to consider himself a Republican during the war years. But, once out of office, he aligned himself with a new populist political movement, known as the Non-Partisan League. The League had achieved success in its home state of North Dakota by spearheading the election of state officials who shared its progressive views.

Charles August Lindbergh
Library of Congress
Charles August Lindbergh

By 1916, the League had spread from its Dakota base into Minnesota. Its program to combat the domination of corporate interests in state politics resonated with many of the state’s farmers who viewed the railroads and the grain merchants as their economic enemies. Strictly speaking, the League was not a political party. In North Dakota, it had operated as a pressure group within the Republican Party. With its move into Minnesota, the League hoped to replicate its successful formula in a new political setting.

In 1918, the rapidly growing Minnesota branch persuaded Charles Lindbergh to challenge Gov. Burnquist in the June Republican primary. Burnquist himself maintained a moderate stance during the election campaign but left the dirty work of politics to McGee and his followers, who attacked Lindbergh for his ties to the Non-Partisan League. The activist organization was tarred as being disloyal and even seditious, because its program called for a new political and economic order once the war was over. During the height of the campaign, Lindbergh was briefly jailed on charges of fomenting opposition to the war.

Lindbergh was not successful in his effort to unseat Burnquist, but he was able to gain a respectable 43 percent of the vote in a two-way race with the incumbent governor.

In 1918, Lindbergh was able to establish a firm Minnesota base for the Non-Partisan League, which would later evolve into the state’s Farmer Labor Party. Farmer Laborites would come to dominate state politics a decade later when they elected the charismatic Floyd Olson governor in 1930. Today, the legacy of that early era lives on with Minnesota‘s Democratic Party, which acknowledges its political roots by adding the words “Farmer Labor” to its name.

Iric Nathanson is writing a book about the impact of World War 1 on life in Minnesota during the war years from 1914-18.

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