Divided by a Common Language: The Babel Proclamation and its Influence in Iowa History

MRS. FRANZ STRACKBEIN received a letter from her sister describing the events of November 11, 1918, in Lowden, Iowa. It was Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War I, but the scene in Lowden was anything but peaceful.

Monday we had an awful time. People acted like savages. They came in mobs from towns all around and one mob got the minister and made him march through town carrying a flag. Then they made him stand on a coffin…and kiss the flag while a band from another town played [the] Star Spangled Banner. On the coffin was written, “Kaiser now ruler of Hell.”…. Then he was ordered out of town.[1]

The minister, Rev. John Reichardt, served the Zion Evangelical German Reformed Church in Lowden, a German-language congregation in a town where the majority of people were of German heritage. His crime: maintaining pride in his German cultural roots and failure to abandon the language of the enemy.[2] The anti-German sentiment during World War I reached a point where “people speaking German on the street were attacked and rebuked.”[3] Iowa Governor William L. Harding legitimized such expressions of prejudice and war-time fanaticism when he issued “The Babel Proclamation” on May 23, 1918.[4] Antagonism toward Germans and their language escalated nationwide, but Harding became the only governor in the United States to outlaw the public use of all foreign languages. Harding understood the connection between communication and assimilation. He was convinced that destroying the vital bond of language within ethnic communities would force assimilation of minorities into the dominant culture and heighten a sense of patriotism in a time of war. Harding’s understanding of immigrant assimilation offers insight into subsequent efforts to superficially create unity through language legislation.

A Land of Immigrants

Throughout the nineteenth century, Iowa, along with other Midwestern states, hoped to attract immigrants to increase the state’s population. In 1870, the Board of Immigration published Iowa: The Home for Immigrants, in English, German, Dutch, Swedish, and Danish languages offering “useful information with regard to the state for the benefit of immigrants and others.”[5] By 1900, German immigrants had settled in all ninety-nine Iowa counties and represented the largest immigrant group in the state.[6]

Historically, anti-German sentiment surfaced throughout the United States coinciding with waves of German immigration.[7] It reached a boiling point during World War I when German submarines attacked U.S. passenger and merchant ships in European waters. Americans were outraged. President Woodrow Wilson was reluctant to commit U.S. troops to a distant war that had already claimed millions of lives since its beginning in 1914. In addition, the public, including more than twelve million immigrants who had arrived in America since 1900, disagreed about the conflict and America’s role in it. “It was necessary for me by very slow stages…and with the most genuine purpose to avoid war to lead the country on to a single way of thinking,” Wilson wrote.[8] On April 2, 1917, Wilson delivered his war message to Congress. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” he stated.[9] Four days later, the United States declared war on Germany.

Wilson acknowledged that “millions of men and women of German birth and native sympathy live amongst us….Should there be any disloyalty it will be dealt with a firm hand of repression.”[10] War closed America’s doors to immigration and intensified nationalistic efforts to create a homogenous society. Once recruited as hardworking assets to the nation’s economy, German-Americans were viewed with suspicion. Could they be loyal Americans while still speaking the enemy’s language?

Governor Harding did not think so. The loss of one’s native language, Harding believed, was a “small sacrifice compared to the good it could do saving the lives of American boys overseas by curbing sedition at home.”[11] As he defended his language ban, Harding articulated his own fear that immigrant communities possessed enough political power to subvert the war effort. Ironically it had been the political strength of the German-Americans that propelled him into office in 1917.[12]

In the Name of Patriotism

The systematic eradication of German language and culture proceeded in stages under the guise of patriotism. On November 23, 1917, the Iowa State Council of Defense resolved “that the public schools of Iowa, supported by public taxation, should discontinue the teaching of the German language…in the interest of harmonizing and bringing our people together with a common language, believing thus they would act more patriotically and more essentially with a common purpose.”[13] German language instructors were fired and German textbooks burned.

Parochial schools where German was the language of instruction became the next target. Immigrant communities relied on parochial schools to communicate their culture and traditions to the next generation. When that foundation was attacked, ethnic cultural identities deteriorated. Engaged in a battle to prove their loyalty to their adopted nation, German-Americans did not aggressively resist efforts to restrict their language and traditions. “I am an American citizen of German birth,” wrote F. W. Lehman, in 1917. “Ancestry is one thing, and allegiance is another and very different thing, not in any way to be qualified by ancestry….”[14]

To escape the stigma of disloyalty, many German-Americans altered the spelling of their family names. Berlin Township disappeared from Clinton County; the more acceptable name of Hughes took its place. In Muscatine, Bismarck Street became Bond Street, and Hanover Avenue became Liberty Avenue. In Kossuth County, the town called Germania was renamed Lakota.[15]

Eliminating all things German from the nation’s vocabulary meant that children no longer contracted German measles—they got liberty measles instead. German fries became American fries and sauerkraut became liberty cabbage. “Sauer Kraut is a drug on the Iowa market…. Folks won’t buy the food. They think it is of German origin…. The food used to be a big seller. It still would be if it wasn’t for the suspicious name.”[16]

German newspapers disappeared from circulation and businesses with German names were branded un-American; they were traitors in a time of war. In a letter dated 15 April 1918, Sam T. White, chairman of the Scott County Council of National Defense, brought the unpatriotic activities of the German Savings Bank of Tripoli, Iowa, to the attention of H.J. Metcalf, secretary of the State Council of National Defense.[17]
Enclosed [is] a draft on the German Savings Bank of Tripoli…. You will notice…the German Coat of Arms on the face of it. It seems an awfully strange thing that a bank in this country can put out a check with the German Coat of Arms on it and go unmolested.[18]

Metcalf promised immediate action. “This is certainly a rotten proposition…. I am quite confident that it will be suppressed.”[19]

Communities often took punishment of “slackers” into their own hands.[20] Angry mobs doused the homes and businesses of suspected slackers with yellow paint while local authorities tolerated and sometimes even encouraged it. Harding was convinced that language diversity was the source of such discord. “After weeks of careful consideration on the part of the members of the state council of defense and Governor Harding,”[21] the prejudice many Iowans displayed toward their German-speaking neighbors was given the force of law when, on May 23, 1918, Harding used his power of proclamation to ban the public use of all foreign languages. Ironically, Harding thought the ban would eliminate controversy and unite people during a time of crisis, “preventing bloodshed and probable riot in Iowa.”[22]

Speak Only American

While the spotlight of hatred was focused on German immigrants, other ethnic groups in Iowa were eager to climb aboard the anti-German bandwagon. However, it was a small leap from anti-German sentiment to disdain for all foreign traits. The Babel Proclamation aligned all non-English-speaking groups with the German-speaking scapegoats. According to Harding, all foreign languages provided “opportunity [for] the enemy to scatter propaganda.”[23] Non-German ethnic groups protested that their loyalty had been unfairly questioned. Bohemians, Scandinavians, French, Italians, and others of foreign birth sent messages to Governor Harding condemning the ban. “In practically every case the Governor [was] advised that the language of our allies and friends should not be classed with the language of enemies.”[24] Their complaints were to no avail. Harding asserted that all provisions of his proclamation would be strictly enforced. Without the vital bond of language, ethnic cultural institutions started to crumble. “Harding was riding the crest of a wave of intolerance, and all objectors were silenced.”[25]

“The provisions of this proclamation,” Harding stated, “have the force and effect of law as authorized by acts of the Thirty-seventh general assembly.”[26] He also believed that the proclamation was legal under the first amendment.
The official language of the United States and the state of Iowa is the English language. Freedom of speech is guaranteed by federal and state constitutions, but this is not a guarantee of the right to use a language other than the language of this country—the English language.[27] Harding’s proclamation required that English—or “American”[28]—be the only language of instruction in public and private schools; all conversation in public places, on trains and over the telephone should be in English; all public addresses must be in English; and those who could not speak or understand English were required to conduct their religious worship in their homes.[29]

Most violations resulting in arrest involved party line telephone conversations. Switchboard operators and eavesdroppers reported infractions of the law to authorities, fearing that people speaking German were collaborating with the enemy. It is not surprising that people were willing to report foreign conversations in light of the United States’ nationwide propaganda campaigns. Giant posters prominently displayed in schools, post offices, and other public places portrayed Germans as “green-eyed monsters” and beasts who would destroy America.[30] Many states passed legislation establishing English as the official language, but Iowa’s overzealous language restrictions made Governor Harding the laughing stock of the nation when five Scott County farm wives were arrested for speaking German during a party line telephone conversation.[31]

The end of the war did not stop xenophobic attitudes, although Harding repealed the Babel Proclamation on December 4, 1918. “In order to avoid any misunderstanding,” Harding wrote, “notice is hereby given that said rules set out in the proclamation of May 23rd, 1918, are no longer in force as an executive order.”[32] However, Harding did not abandon his support for language restriction in Iowa. “National unity can be best maintained by the employment of a common vehicle of communication, and this vehicle in the United States…is the English language.”[33] He continued:

While we welcome enlightened and thrifty people…this is not with the view…of enabling them to establish themselves in communities by themselves and thereby maintaining the language and customs of their former country. [T]hey are welcome to come, but for the purpose of becoming a part of our own people, to learn and use our language, adopt our customs, and become citizens of our common country.[34]

In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed citizens the freedom to communicate in any language. Teaching German language courses in many Iowa schools resumed in the 1930s. Societal pressure for complete assimilation into the dominant culture no longer prevailed, but the once strong German-American community in Iowa had been irreparably harmed. Many of their customs and traditions were lost to wartime intolerance.

The resounding victory of the anti-pluralist opinion so weakened foreign-speaking communities in World War I that when, two generations later, opinion began to reverse, the communities to benefit were of different national origins than German.[35]

The Lens of History

Iowans might rather forget this chapter from the state’s history, but the Babel Proclamation provides a lens through which subsequent language legislation may be understood. In 2000, Iowa’s governor was in a position reminiscent of Iowa’s early years as a state: recruiting immigrants to help bolster the state’s population and supplement a declining workforce. “[W]e need more people,” stated Governor Thomas J. Vilsack when he declared three Iowa cities—Fort Dodge, Marshalltown, and Mason City—model communities for new Iowans, making them a proving ground for 21st century immigration.[36]

Recent efforts to recruit immigrants are not without controversy. “I’m not naïve enough to think that this is going to be sort of a Pollyanna type of deal,” Vilsack said. “It’s going to be a struggle.”[37] As in the past, some Iowans find it uncomfortable to hear conversations they cannot understand, criticizing immigrants who do not abandon their own culture. Language is still central to the immigration debate, giving rise to the same fears, questions, and misunderstandings expressed toward German-Americans who remained set apart in close-knit ethnic communities:

Why [are] these people so self-contained? Why [don’t] they blend into the larger community? Why [do] they insist upon trading exclusively with each other and staying so close to home? And especially: Why [do] they keep talking in an alien tongue, generation after generation?[38]

On March 4, 2002, the Iowa English Language Reaffirmation Act formally reestablished English as the official language of government in Iowa. The law encourages “every citizen of the state to become more proficient in the English language,” but does not “disparage any language other than English or discourage any person from learning or using a language other than English.”[39] Proponents claim that a common language is a unifying factor within a state. Others remain convinced that language legislation will not build cohesive communities.

“I had serious reservations about signing the English Language Reaffirmation Act bill,” Vilsack stated. “The bill actually did not change what was happening in the state. Most official documents were written in English…. [T]he impact of this bill was insignificant, but the symbolic nature was hurtful.”[40] Iowa is not alone in declaring English the official language. Twenty-six other states have approved similar measures.[41]

The key to understanding conflicts arising from immigration issues is rooted in history. For example, it is a common misunderstanding that nineteenth- and twentieth-century immigrants assimilated immediately. “All groups brought along cultural and religious practices; and all sought to perpetuate those practices not only for themselves but also for their progeny.”[42] Today, assimilation follows the same pattern that it has for generations. The children of immigrants adopt American habits. They learn English quickly, often translating for their parents. Public schools accelerate assimilation, as does America’s consumer society. Today, however, immigrants are learning English faster than earlier generations of newcomers.[43]

“The language issue is complex,” Vilsack admits. “For new Iowans it is about maintaining identity and preserving culture. For Iowans who were born, raised, or have lived here for a while, it is about security and concerns about a changing economy that makes it harder to accept new citizens….”[44] Language communicates elements of culture and heritage while forming strong bonds within communities. Historically, Governor Harding’s Babel Proclamation demonstrates the extreme measures citizens and governments are willing to employ to achieve “peace and tranquility”[45] at the expense of liberty during a time of national crisis. It is important to understand that forcefully shattering the bond of language to artificially unite all Iowans makes Iowa—and the nation—less safe for the ideals of democracy.


1. Mrs. Franz Strackbein letter from her sister. 14 November 1918. Manuscript Collections, BL 318, folder 26, State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City.

2. In July, 1917, Reichardt was arrested and charged with sedition under a law passed by the United States Congress on June 15, 1917. During a sermon delivered in German, Reichardt denounced a Fourth of July speech in Lowden that categorized Germans as monsters. Following the speech, a German flag had been tied to a goat that was sent running down Main Street in Lowden, and another German flag was dragged through dusty streets tied to the bumper of a car. Reichardt expressed his belief that German cultural traditions could be respected despite the “wrong-headed and mistaken” actions of the Kaiser. A year later, Reichardt was still considered a traitor in the eyes of a mob celebrating Germany’s defeat.

3. Nancy Derr, “The Babel Proclamation.” The Palimpsest 60, No. 4 (July/August 1979): 100.

4. William L. Harding, Governor’s Proclamation, 23 May 1918. Iowa Governors: Harding file, State Historical Library, Des Moines, Iowa. “Babel” refers to the biblical Tower of Babel (see Genesis, chapter 11) and the confusion associated with many languages spoken in one locale.

5. Iowa: The Home for Immigrants. Des Moines: Mills & Co. Printers and Publishers, 1870.

6. Dorothy Schwieder, Iowa: The Middle Land (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1996): 186. The 1900 U.S. Census showed that there were about 2.25 million total Iowans in 1900. The German immigrant population, numbering 123,126, made up about five percent of the overall population and nearly half of the foreign born population.

7. Dennis Baron, “Official American English Only.” <http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/officialamerican/englishonly> (7 February 2005). Eighteenth-century critics accused Germans of “laziness, illiteracy, clannishness, a reluctance to assimilate, excessive fertility, and Catholicism.” Most notably among critics was Benjamin Franklin who in 1751 complained that Pennsylvania Germans were “swarthy” and feared that Pennsylvania, despite its founding by the English, would “become a Colony of Aliens…so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs….”

8. Woodrow Wilson in a letter to Cleveland H. Dodge, 4 April 1917. Woodrow Wilson Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

9. Woodrow Wilson, War Declaration to Congress, 2 April 1917.

10. Ibid.

11. Nancy Derr, “Iowans During World War I: A Study of Change Under Stress.” Ph.D. diss., George Washington University, 1979: 406.

12. See Nancy Derr, “Lowden: A Study of Intolerance in an Iowa Community During the Era of the First World War.” The Annals of Iowa 50, no. 1 (Summer 1989). German-Americans supported Harding in the November 1916 gubernatorial election because Harding opposed prohibition. Members of German-American communities believed that prohibition with its denunciation of beer consumption was an attack on their culture and their civil rights. German-language newspapers sided with anti-prohibitionists in a successful campaign turn back a constitutional amendment supporting prohibition and elect Harding governor of Iowa

13. H.J. Metcalf Papers, MS 74, box 9, Iowa Council of National Defense Collection, State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. See David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society, for a discussion of the condemnation of German language education in other states.

14. F. W. Lehman, “National Service Knows No Hyphen,” American Loyalty by Citizens of German Descent (Washington, D.C.: Committee on Public Information, August 1917): 7.

15. Occasionally new names did not stick. When the town council of Guttenberg, Iowa, made the patriotic effort to change the city’s name back to Prairie-la-Porte—the French name used before German settlers arrived—no one would use that name. Guttenberg survived anti-German hysteria.

16. Undated release “for publicity.” Metcalf Papers, box 10, folder 6: page 2 of 3. State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City.

17. Defense councils were formed in every state during World War I. States then formed county councils, and some counties formed community councils of defense. State councils were sometimes reduced to propaganda organs that fostered vigilantism against local dissenters and “slackers.” See David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980): 116, 117.

18. Sam T. White, letter to H.J. Metcalf dated 15 April 1918. Metcalf Papers, Box 7, folder 8. State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City.

19. H.J. Metcalf, letter to Sam T. White dated 17 April 1918. Metcalf Papers, Box 7, Folder 8, State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City.

20. Anyone who did not show a sufficient level of patriotism was labeled a slacker; this name was directed at immigrant groups who did not speak English which was interpreted as disloyalty to the American cause.

21. “Teaching of German Must Be Stopped.” The Council Bluffs Nonpareil, 26 May 1918.

22. Ibid. In numerous published speeches following the US entry into World War I, Harding predicted the war would take at least three to five more years to win. This understanding helped legitimize his efforts to eliminate German language on the homefront, preventing German speaking citizens from collaborating with the enemy. See Archie Ward, Dubuque Times-Journal, 7 April 1918.

23. William L. Harding. Letter dated 2 August 1918 “in response to an inquiry from a county attorney.” H.J. Metcalf Papers, Box 9, State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa.

24. “Mass Meeting to Protest Against Harding’s Action.” The Cedar Rapids Gazette, 28 May 1918.

25. Nancy Derr, “Iowans During World War I: A Study of Change Under Stress,” Ph.D. diss., (George Washington University, 1979): 370.

26. “Harding Will Enforce Orders: Declares There Can Be No Half Way Measures in Using English.” The Council Bluffs Nonpareil, 27 May 1918.

27. Language Proclamation issued by Gov. William L. Harding, 23 May 1918. Iowa Governors: Harding file, State Historical Library, Des Moines, Iowa.

28. In defending the language proclamation, Governor Harding called the legal language “American” to avoid connections to British English which, he feared, his opponents might argue could legitimize speaking other European tongues in the United States.

29. Language Proclamation issued by Gov. William L. Harding, 23 May 1918. Iowa Governors: Harding file, State Historical Library, Des Moines, Iowa.

30. World War I Posters from the Ray Murray Collection, State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa.

31. Leland L. Sage, A History of Iowa (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1974): 252. The women were subsequently fined $225, which was given to the local Red Cross Chapter. According to Dennis Baron, “Official American English Only,” as many as 18,000 people in the Midwest were charged with violating language statutes during the course of the war.

32. William L Harding, Executive Proclamation, 4 December 1918. Harding File, State Historical Library, Des Moines, Iowa.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.

35. Nancy Derr. “Iowans During World War I: A Study of Change Under Stress.” Ph.D. diss., George Washington University, 1979: 401.

36. Published report of the Marshalltown Model Community Task Force, 2002. Under the Pilot Communities Project, announced by Gov. Vilsack on Dec. 4, 2000, each of the three cities received $50,000 to assess its labor force and develop plans to recruit and retain immigrants. The three model communities for immigration, selected because of their willingness to serve as pilot communities, are charged with the task of developing plans that could be duplicated in other communities.

37. Pam Belluck, “Short of People, Iowa Seeks To Be Ellis Island of Midwest,” New York Times, 28 August 2000.

38. Nancy Derr, “The Babel Proclamation,” The Palimpsest 60, no. 4 (JulyAugust 1979): 106.

39. Senate File 165, The Iowa English Language Reaffirmation Act of 2001. On-line: <http://www.legis.state.ia.us>. On June 24, 2004, a bill for repealing the Iowa English Language Reaffirmation Act was introduced as house File 2122. Ford’s bill has not come to a vote, but Iowa Governor Thomas J. Vilsack has indicated his support for repeal of this law.

40. Thomas J. Vilsack. Letter to the author, 22 February 2005. Vilsack signed the bill after legislative leaders promised more than $1 million annually would be made available to schools for English language learners.

41. Constitutional Topic: Official Language, on-line <http://www.usconstitution.net/consstop_lang.html> (7 February 2005). Today, most state measures to declare English as the official language are symbolic; they have little legal impact so far but they tend to ignite major ideological arguments.

42. Dorothy Schwieder, Iowa: The Middle Land (Ames: Iowa State University Press): 201

43. James Crawford, “A Nation Divided by One Language.” Guardian Unlimited, 8 March 2001. On-line <http:www.guardian.co.uk/Archive?Article0,4273,4147870,00.html> (24 February 2005).

44. Vilsack letter to the author, 22 February 2005.

45. Language Proclamation issued by Gov. William L. Harding, 23 May 1918. Iowa Governors: Harding file, State Historical Library, Des Moines, Iowa.

By: Stephen J. Frese