On April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed a Congressionally-approved declaration of war against Germany. Thus the United States formally entered World War I. Now on this 100th anniversary, I’m posting an especially interesting excerpt from Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s Chronicle of America’s Wars: World War I. This is the story of the Four-Minute Men.

Poster advertising the Four-Minute Men

In March, 1917 . . . more Americans seemed ready to enter the Great War. Donald Ryerson, a Chicago businessman, thought war was inevitable. Ryerson enlisted in the Navy. While waiting for his orders, he organized a group of speakers called the Four-Minute Men.

America in 1917 was filled with immigrants. Many of them, as well as many native English speakers, could not read English. Ryerson’s men found a clever way to inform and persuade these people. Each day, about 10 to 13 million people went to the movies. The movies were on film wound around two or more reels. It took four minutes to change from one movie reel to another. The Four-Minute Men planned to use this time to speak to their captive audience.

. . .

Ryerson gave the first four-minute speech at Chicago’s Strand Theater on April 1 or 2. Shortly after that, President Wilson gave the speech that Ryerson was waiting for.

President Wilson called Congress into a special session on April 2. It took Congress nearly all day to gather in the House chamber, along with members of the Supreme Court, foreign ambassadors, and other dignitaries. That evening, Wilson told them that America would fight to “make the world safe for democracy.” He asked Congress to “declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the government and people of the United States.”

The wild applause that followed shocked Wilson deeply. After returning to the White House, he said to Joseph Tumulty, his secretary, “My message today was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems to applaud that.” Then the President of the United States broke down and cried.

On April 4, the Senate voted yes on the war resolution. Two days later the House did the same.

. . .

During America’s involvement in World War I, over seventy-five thousand people gave about 7.5 million four-minute propaganda speeches in movie theatres and elsewhere to about 314.5 million people!

In 1917, there was no Internet, no e-mail or social media, no television. In fact, even listening to the radio became popular only after 1920. People went to the movies. The four-minute speeches between reels spread so rapidly across the country that they can be seen as an early form of “viral” public service announcements.


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