- - Tuesday, June 13, 2017

“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 600-voice 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 open-air 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 bandstand 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 self-government among 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 next-day 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.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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