Flag Day, 1917 like no other

A na­tion at war with­stood a gale to honor its col­ors

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Thomas V. DiBacco Thomas V. DiBacco is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

“Never had there been such a Flag Day fete be­fore, and it may be cen­turies be­fore it oc­curs again, but the deed was ac­com­plished, de­spite the set­ting. The Pres­i­dent had spo­ken.”

Such was the ver­dict of the Wash­ing­ton Her­ald in its lead front-page story on June 15, 1917, no mat­ter that the United States had been in­volved in World War I for more than two months, with bat­tle re­ports the more likely head­line news. To be sure, spo­radic Flag Day cel­e­bra­tions had oc­curred in the na­tion on June 14 from 1777, the year the Stars and Stripes were adopted by the Con­ti­nen­tal Congress dur­ing the Revo­lu­tion­ary War. But un­til 1916 when a for­mal Flag Day procla­ma­tion came from the White House, the day oc­ca­sioned lit­tle cel­e­bra­tion, even less press cov­er­age.

The year 1917 was spe­cial for the recog­ni­tion of the flag be­cause no mil­i­tary con­flict the na­tion faced seemed so omi­nous a task. For al­ready in Europe, sev­eral mil­lion lives had been lost by the Al­lies on their home turf, the real tragedy be­ing that Ger­many had not been — and would not be — in­vaded, even by the time of the Armistice.

“We are about to bid thou­sands,” said Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son on the

Flag Day cer­e­monies on the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment grounds, “hun­dreds of thou­sands, it may be mil­lions of our men go forth and die on fields of blood far away.”

Still, the im­me­di­ate en­emy the cap­i­tal city faced on the com­mem­o­ra­tive day was a rag­ing gale — trop­i­cal storm winds of 45 miles-per-hour and heavy rain — that dis­persed what was sup­posed to be record crowds and a 600voice choir to a small gath­er­ing of 3,000 gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and clerks given a half-day hol­i­day. In­deed, in strictest gov­ern­ment wartime econ­omy, civil ser­vants had even made con­tri­bu­tions to pay for the cel­e­bra­tion’s en­tire cost, think­ing that such ex­penses for an ope­nair fa­cil­ity could be read­ily pre­dicted.

In prize-win­ning lit­er­ary style, the Her­ald cap­tured the anom­aly of the un­to­ward weather con­di­tions: “Na­ture al­lied it­self with [Ger­man] au­toc­racy yes­ter­day in a fu­tile ef­fort to block the de­liv­ery of the most sen­sa­tional war state­ment that the Amer­i­can peo­ple have ever heard from the lips of a Pres­i­dent.”

But June 14 started out as any other Wash­ing­ton mid-June day: ris­ing heat and hu­mid­ity by 10 a.m., sul­try con­di­tions by noon, then a tor­ren­tial down­fall at 1 p.m. as prepa­ra­tions for the cel­e­bra­tion were about to be­gin. A pause in the wind ve­loc­ity by 2 p.m., but then an­other down­pour 15 min­utes later. Through­out the city dam­age was wide­spread, killing one man, flood­ing streets and sew­ers, even rip­ping Old Glory from homes with flag­poles in honor of the day. Still, the cer­e­monies went on, de­scribed by the Her­ald in choice words:

“Sol­diers and sailors, laugh­ing at the rain, hoisted the Stars and Stripes to the top of the band-stand while the Marine Band tuba player sprayed a shower from his horn at ev­ery blast.”

For the most part, Pres­i­dent Wil­son shunned an um­brella cov­er­ing, and it was ru­mored that he might not even show up un­der such in­clement con­di­tions. But show up he did, to the de­light of the cheer­ing crowd that seemed to mute the sound of the rain. And his words were as thun­der­ous as the day, or as the Her­ald put it: no “diplo­matic niceties,” no “sub­tle and dif­fi­cult phrases,” just blunt lan­guage.

“This is a peo­ples’ war,” said Wil­son, “a war for free­dom and jus­tice and self­gov­ern­ment amongst all the na­tions of the world, a war to make the world safe for the peo­ples who live upon it and have made it their own.”

Al­though the press had a tran­script be­fore the pres­i­dent’s speech, mean­ing that he could shorten his ad­dress due to the storm and still pro­vide a full next­day news story, Wil­son read the en­tire pre­pared script. And true to the Her­ald’s de­scrip­tion, he closed with a pow­er­ful lit­er­ary thun­der­bolt:

“For us there is but one choice. We have made it. Woe be to the man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way in this day of high res­o­lu­tion.”

And the great­est news of the day came at day’s end when it was an­nounced that the Lib­erty Loan drive to pay for the war not only reached its goal, but was over­sub­scribed, with Amer­i­cans buy­ing $2.5 bil­lion of bonds, a half-bil­lion over the tar­get.

The great­est news of the day came at day’s end when it was an­nounced that the Lib­erty Loan drive to pay for the war not only reached its goal.

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