Uncle Sam Wants You

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Cappozola, Chris. Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.



In “Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen,” Chris Cappozola describes the period surrounding World War I as an extended discussion on the issue of rights. Most Americans had very little interaction with the federal government prior to the war, and federal bureaucracy was so limited that much of the actual draft and wartime preparation was done by volunteers and private corporations. Cappozola’s book is entirely focused on the home front in the immediate pre-war, wartime, and post-war years, and is organized thematically. In this period, American citizens and non-citizens tried to determine the line between individual and societal rights, negotiating with a government which Cappozola convincingly argues was not sure where the line was either. Cappozola describes these “negotiations” by stating that “Uncertain of the duties of citizenship, embedded in long-standing traditions of private policing, wartime Americans engaged in lurching and ambivalent expansions and contractions of state capacities and bureaucratic authorities.” (12)

Though Cappozola writes that his book “traces the outlines of an alternative vision of citizenship that highlighted rights and individual liberties and rejected the culture of obligation,” this alternative vision is not clearly defined at the time, and was created only in opposition to wartime restrictions and impositions placed on individuals by local and federal authorities (some authorized, some not). The narrative begins with the imposition of the Selective Service Act of 1917 and of the draft, which was run by volunteers and was dependent on voluntary mass registration. Those who failed to register, called “slackers,” were thought to be inadequate men, and members of the American Protective League (a voluntary association) began “slacker raids” to round up men who had failed to register, though their authority to do so was questionable. Conscientious objectors, while not “slackers” necessarily, were also seen as lesser men, and on all levels of the draft process, objectors were pressured to renounce these beliefs. Unsure how to handle objectors, it took Wilson almost a year to decide what would constitute an alternative wartime service, and when some objectors persisted, some were court-martialed, imprisoned, and many lost their American citizenship. Cappozola calls them “the first modern citizens,” (81) as they forced the state to address their individual selves and rights.

Though they were not mandated to register for military service, women were also pressured to volunteer for war service, forming knitting clubs and pledging to restrict food consumption. There is little evidence that these activities were of serious benefit, but some suffragettes believed that this display of citizenship would aid the cause to gain the vote. The National Women’s Party, frustrated at their lack of rights, began protesting in front of the White House, incurring the wrath of crowds, which led to the debate about “who had the authority to regulate responsible citizenship: the crowd or the police.” (112) In a way, this debate about the authority to regulate speech and behavior drew from a long-standing tradition of vigilantism in American history. Voluntary groups throughout the country enforced laws as they interpreted them, from “deporting” striking workers from Arizona to New Mexico to forcing women thought to be prostitutes to undergo medical examinations. In 1917 and 1918, the Espionage and Sedition Acts limited dangerous speech and promoted “responsible speech”, but also resulted in a backlash leading to the creation of civil liberties organizations. Wilson allowed Postmaster General Alfred Burleson to regulate speech via the US mail, which led to a crackdown on socialist, anarchist, and foreign language publications. People were also targeted for speech said in anger or under the influence of alcohol, pacifist preachers were arrested, and librarians began willingly censoring books. Most enemy aliens had to watch their speech and actions to avoid drawing notice. Aliens had to register with the government and they were forbidden to live in certain areas or to speak German. The US government seriously considered interning all enemy aliens; in reality, thousands of aliens and immigrant radicals were kept in custody throughout the war.

Cappozola’s book, focusing entirely on the World War I home front, serves as a reminder to readers that mass mobilization for an international war was an unprecedented event in American history. There was no previous precedent in defining the responsibilities of the government and its’ citizenry. Cappozola writes that “In a divided and unequal society, civil society could be an arena for negotiating political obligation; it could be a weapon wielded against the weak.” (214) Though modern readers would see the laws and vigilance groups on the World War I home front as seriously impinging on individual civil liberties and the First Amendment, “Uncle Sam Wants You” is an important reminder that these rights were not always guaranteed or agreed upon.


John Lillard, Spring 2010

If Cappozola’s book is about the making of the modern American citizen, then the definition of the relationship between modern citizen (the governed) and modern government is one where the power relation is much more biased toward the government. This definition is not meant to be pejorative – when peoples and nations are mobilized for a common purpose (especially to meet a perceived threat), a centralized source of planning and direction is far more effective that a decentralized, every man for himself mode of control. This is the story told in Uncle Sam Wants You – an evolution from a national culture where many Americans were “skeptical of the state” (87) to one that became more and more “organized around obligation (81).” The images that Cappozola continually evokes are those of coercion and obligation. The war was a catalyst toward a maturing and expansion of the modern American central government in that it forced the state to come to grips with the definition of citizenship, what the obligations were, and just how far the government could go toward coercing those citizens to fulfill those obligations (71). Cappozola succeeds in illustrating this point without taking an obviously editorial position, concluding that “[t]he war…taught Americas new lessons in how to regulate and control themselves. Increasingly they did so, not so much in relation to each other but in relations to a newly powerful state (147).”

While it is undeniable that this evolving of the governed-governing relation trod on civil liberties, it can also be argued that it marked the beginning of the end of local vigilantism (14). Cappozola’s descriptions of the American Protective League (APL) and the reaction to it illustrate this point. While the league was established with government approval and assistance, the APL was the last of such government-endorsed paralegal organization since (53). After the war, the era of local vigilantism was coming to a close. This was due in a large measure to rising concerns about what Cappozola describes as the “distinction between vigilance and vigilantism” which encouraged Americans to regard this sort of action as more properly resident in the official government (119). The result was the eventual transfer of authority from the local population into the hands of the government. In the modern definition, the citizen’s role with respect to the law has evolved toward compliance and away from enforcement.

Becky Erbelding, Spring 2010

The subtitle to "Uncle Sam Wants You" states that the book is about the making of the modern American citizen, and that it "traces the outlines of an alternative vision of citizenship that highlighted rights and individual liberties and rejected the culture of obligation." (19) In truth, the majority of Cappozola's book is a description of the majority opposition to this new citizen and this new conception of individual rights. Those fighting for individual liberties were oppressed by the government, neighbors, members of voluntary associations, vigilantes, and military officers. Disagreeing with or questioning the power of the government was an act of disloyalty, and was grounds for derision and sometimes arrest and imprisonment. The fact that some did question, some did protest, some did risk (and suffer) imprisonment forced the government and its' citizenry to find ways to deal with these nonconformists. The result at the time was unclear; in retrospect, we see these individuals as "modern American citizens," asserting their individual rights and liberties.

Cappozola raises issues important to any study of the World War I homefront. With the first nationwide mobilization for an international war, the small centralized federal government was forced to rely on voluntary organizations and private citizens to act as government liaisons. The boundaries regarding what these groups could or could not do were fuzzy; in many instances, it seems that even the government was not sure what was appropriate to demand of its' citizenry. The period highlighted the fluidity of individual rights, and the decades since have seen an extended debate regarding the primacy of individual rights versus those of the collective. As evidenced by the Patriot Act, it is clear this debate is ongoing.

Gwen White, spring 2010

Christopher Capozzola’s Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen examines the changes wrought during the build up to World War I and the impact that the military involvement had on how citizens both reacted to the war and to each other. In the introduction he talks about the terms duty, sacrifice and obligation. I expected to see a greater discussion of how these terms were used in previous wars. These were themes touched on by the founders before and during the American Revolution and even more significantly during the not so distant Civil War. Certainly many of the people who were making the decision as to how they would respond to the United States’ entry into war had family that had fought in the Civil War. The author’s argument would have benefited from a larger connection to the past to differentiate it from the “modern American citizen.”

Megan Brett, Spring 2014

Capozzola's discussion of constructions of American citizenship in the period of World War I raises question which are relevant to that citizenship in any era. In particular, his attention to the question of who (or what) was the recipient of the obligations and/or rights of citizenship is useful, particularly when considering the varied levels of community which people experienced and the way communication technology and shared experience may have changed their understanding of who made up their community and their nation. Different and sometimes conflicting ideas about the obligations and rights of citizenship have been part of the national discussion since there was a nation; Capozzala references some of these early debates but does not fully engage them.

At times, his analysis seems disconnected from the events which came before it, such as these prior debates about citizenship, as well as America's other wars. For instance, his discussion of the draft debates omits any mention of the draft during the Civil War, the debates which surrounded that draft and the riots which accompanied it. The first and second chapters, discussing Selective Service and Conscientious Objection, would have benefitted from a more detailed discussion of how cultural constructions of masculinity played into these debates.

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