The President of the United States sent a clear message one October about whom he considered to be truly American. “I would feel simply mortified to have you or anybody like you vote for me,” read a communique directed at a leading member of an ethnic organization in New York City. Strong as the message seemed, his advisors urged him still to temper the language of the message which ended with the exhortation, “Since you have access to many disloyal Americans and I have not, I will ask you to convey this message to them.”
This message went public in October, 100 years ago, and was sent not by tweet but by telegraph. It was directed to one Jeremiah A. O’Leary, a member of Clan na Gael and the leader of the American Truth Society, an organization made up almost entirely of Irish and German-American immigrants and their descendents who sought to give “fair play” to the German war effort, especially in the press. The missive’s sender: President Woodrow Wilson, and the members of the Irish and German diaspora were the “disloyal Americans” to whom he referred.
Such brashness in politics and the targeting of specific immigrant groups is something we have become accustomed to in the current state of politics today, and as populist anxiety appears to be on the rise, the most recent expressions of which include Brexit, the surprise victory of president elect Donald J. Trump, and other populist candidates and parties on the rise all throughout Europe and the rest of the world, it serves to remind ourselves that the concerns and controversies surrounding these events are not entirely unique to our time.
A glimpse at the connections between Irish and German-Americans around the time of President Woodrow Wilson’s re-election bid in 1916 reveals just that.
Xenophobia has undeniably played a powerful role in the politics of late. Questions of refugees, immigration, and foreign meddling in United States elections have all taken prominence in the headlines across the globe, especially with further revelations concerning Russia’s alleged attempts to influence the US presidential election.
The headlines themselves are being taken to task too, as the media’s role in influencing the populace is increasingly scrutinized as a renewed concern over extreme bias in the press and “fake news” remains a major topic of debate. It should be remembered, however, that all of these issues emerged in 1916 too – though in somewhat different form – as Irish and German-Americans, the two largest immigrant groups from what the United States Census categorized as immigrants of “foreign white stock,” came together to protest an increasingly Anglo-Centric foreign policy that was, in the view of these immigrants, inherently anti-American.
Connections between the German and Irish-American diasporas can be traced back at least to the turn of the twentieth century, at the time of the Second Anglo-Boer war. Leading members in these diasporas worked together to protest what they viewed as British imperial rapine in southern Africa. To this end they rallied and raised funds, sent weapons, money, and men to the besieged Boers, and petitioned the United States government to declare their support of the Boer republics. Clan na Gael even threatened another Fenian invasion of Canada as a distraction for Britain, which was sending Canadian men and material to Africa for the war effort.
Though the efforts of the Irish and German-Americans opposed to the war ultimately proved in vain, their cooperation at this time forged a relationship that would have powerful implications in the decades to come, especially as the threat of global imperial war increased.
By 1907, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) and the Deutsch-Amerikanischer Nationalbund (National German American Alliance, in English) entered into a formal partnership which caught the attention of the American political establishment and the mainstream press. Their decision to cooperate on all matters that would be of mutual benefit to their organizations and the ethnic constituencies that they represented not only constituted a formal connection between the two largest ethnic organizations in the United States at the time, but also had implications for those who might court the sheer voting power of the diasporas from which these organizations came.
As the years wore on, leading members of these organizations continued to vie for influence over the United States government, especially when it came to fighting against what they saw as a pro-British trade and foreign policy. Amongst them was John Devoy, the leader of Clan na Gael and the editor of the most stentorian organ of Irish nationalism in the United States, The Gaelic American, whose role in planning and supporting the 1916 Easter Rising would prove integral.
The German government noted the continued cooperation of their expatriates in the United States with the Irish-Americans, and as a full scale conflict with the British seemed increasingly likely on the eve of WWI, they began to take stock of their potential allies. Keeping Irish nationalists in their good graces was particularly beneficial in the pre-war years since the Irish were already working with German-Americans to disrupt the agenda of the Anglophile elements of the American establishment.
Once the war began, Irish and German-Americans continued to cooperate as they fought to keep the United States out of the war. It seemed a foregone conclusion that if the United States entered the war, it would certainly be on the side of the Allies. In this respect, supporting the aspirations of Irish nationalists and their German-American allies was a way for the German government to keep a powerful potential ally of Britain from entering the war against them.
Consequently, in 1914, the German imperial ambassador to the United States, Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, re-organized the German propaganda machine based in New York City known as the German Information Service (GIS), with the hopes of supplying Americans with news favorable to the German war effort. They created and distributed films, pamphlets, and books friendly to the German cause. They bought the New York Daily Mail and made overtures to buy other papers that would support their official line. They arranged lecture circuits for pro-German intellectuals; financially supported and organized pacifist and pro-neutrality organizations; and underwrote pro-German publications like The Fatherland, Vital Issue, The International, Fair Play, and the New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung (NYSZ). Through these various channels the Germans supplied some 500-800 newspapers across the country with information.
While these channels supported Irish nationalists, they also principally sought to keep the United States out of the war by influencing the electorate, who should in theory be able to influence the government to support American neutrality as well. In all of this, they also specifically targeted Irish-Americans through a special branch of their propaganda mission, headed by James K. Maguire, a member of Clan na Gael, a one-time mayor of Syracuse, NY and a propagandist in his own right who had authored two books on securing German aid for Irish-Independence.
It was from this context of friendly relations between Irish and German-Americans and the German’s representatives at the embassy that John Devoy began to make overtures to von Bernstorff in hopes of securing support for an impending Irish revolution. Von Bernstorff and his military attaché, Franz von Papen, were keen to help.
Sir Roger Casement, the famed champion of human rights in Africa and South America was in the United States at the time as well. He had come to the United States to raise money and secure weapons for the Irish Volunteers. He too had long since championed the cause of German support for Irish revolution, and it was agreed that he would be sent to Germany as an emissary of Clan na Gael to garner diplomatic support, deliver weapons into the hands of Irish rebels, and to raise an Irish brigade made of Irish-born British prisoners of war being held in Germany. It is well known that his plans were not entirely successful, but, with the help of Joseph Plunkett, a key military strategist for the IRB, managed to secure a shipload of munitions which nearly landed on Irish shores and into the hands of Irish rebels.
But on April 25, 1916, the NYSZ printed an article on the front page of what was then the most circulated and important German language daily newspaper in the United States, explaining the fate of Sir Roger Casement and the Aud (the ship which was carrying the weapons meant for the rebels that was scuttled by its crew after being cornered by the British) to their German speaking readers. “Roger Casement in the Hands of the British,” read the headline, “the Irish Patriot Sought to Bring Weapons to Ireland,” and beneath this headline, one would have read the cryptic and ominous lines “Private Dispatch Announces the Outbreak of Revolution in Ireland.”
The NYSZ continued to cover the events of the Rising on their front pages for an entire month with only a few exceptions. Such continuous front-page coverage was not only more extensive than that of any mainstream English language paper, but also carried a sympathetic line with the Irish rebels while condemning the British as murderers, as they had done even before the Rising and the subsequent execution of its leaders began.
“No German and no Austrian and Hungarian should be absent when it is necessary to provide victims of British tyranny with urgently needed aid!” read the NYSZ on May 25, 1916, as they called specifically on German speaking America after the rebel leaders were executed, “One hardly needs to be reminded, that the Irish have always stood with the Germans shoulder to shoulder at all times and on all questions which have become pressing as a consequence of the war.”
Though the NYSZ would likely have covered these events in a way that was sympathetic to the Irish rebel cause in any event, as it was a blow to the British empire at a time when they were engaged in the business of killing millions of Germans in the greatest war the world had ever seen, it must be remembered that the NYSZ editorial staff was also at that time in cahoots with and receiving subsidies from von Bernstorff and the GIS. The GIS not only supported the cause of Irish independence and American neutrality, but was severely critical of president Wilson and his Anglo-centric policies as well.
Such criticisms emerged consistently in newspapers and outlets driven by the GIS. To say that the German government sought to manipulate the American electorate in hopes of influencing the election of 1916 in their favor, especially through newspapers, ethnic organizations, and the sizable immigrant populations in the United States that they tried to persuade, would be putting it lightly. Unsurprisingly, when America entered the war on the side of the allies in 1917, the members of the German embassy were expelled from the United States when President Wilson cut diplomatic ties with the Germans.
One hundred years later news of possible foreign meddling in the United States election (though now fears are centered on Russia, not Germany) continues to emerge. Acrimonious debates over immigrant rights and the fear of their presence and their place as loyal Americans continue to cause fissure, while those on either side question the legitimacy of the press organs that seem to support the agenda of their ideological foes. Such was the case in America, 1916, when Woodrow Wilson, an American president suspicious of the so-called “hyphenated americans” sought reelection based on a promise and election slogan he would fail to maintain: “He Kept us out of War.”
Meanwhile Ireland and their diaspora in the United States flirted with revolution, while Britain and Germany engaged in global, imperial war. From this context, elements familiar to our contemporary scene emerged, and though they were not identical to the issues of today, should not be considered a farce, nor forgotten. For better or for worse, in many ways we’ve been here before.
The article is adapted from the author’s chapter in Ireland’s Allies: America and the 1916 Easter Rising, edited by Miriam Nyhan Grey with introduction from J. Joseph Lee, which tells the largely untold story of America’s active involvement in Easter 1916. You can purchase the book here.
R. Bryan Willits is an American historian based out of New York City. He holds a Masters of Irish and Irish-American Studies from New York University. He is a native of West Michigan where he studied European, Irish, and German history at Grand Rapids Community College and Aquinas College. Willits has also lived and studied in Ireland and Germany, attended Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, and later worked as a teacher in the Baden-Württemberg region. Willits currently works for the education department at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.