For [the educated upper class], the war posed a difficult problem. American society had no tradition that could help it to accept a foreign war with calmness and maturity. Its political philosophy--optimistic, idealistic, impregnated with the belief that an invincible progress had set in with the founding of the American state--had no comfortable place for mass killing and destruction as an end of American policy. There was no explanation for America's involvement in the war which fitted with the basic assumptions of the American outlook and at the same time permitted the adoption of a realistic image of the enemy and recognition of the war as integral part of the process of history. It could not, in the American view, be anything generic to human nature that had produced this confusion. Only a purely external force--demonic, inexplicable, evil to the point of inhumanity--could have put America in this position, could have brought her to an undertaking so unnatural, so out of character, so little the product of her deliberate choice.One of my grandmothers, being from a comparatively well-off family, was in high school at time the US declared war on Germany. She had studied German for all or most of three years of high school, but did not get to study a fourth year, for some ardent patriot broke into the high school and burned the German texts. At least that was an individual act of vandalism, without state sanction: the state of Nebraska passed a law, the war having ended, to forbid instruction in foreign languages. That law, the Siman Act, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
... There was a sort of mass running for cover; and "cover" was an impressive show of noble indignation against the external enemy, coupled with the most unmeasured idealization of the American society whose philosophic foundation had been thus challenged. This was, somehow, the only wholly safe stance, the only one that gave protection against being drawn into dangerous depths of speculation where one would be quite alone, in moral isolation, and where there would be no stopping point, no terra firma.
The result was an hysteria, a bombast, an orgy of self-admiration and breast-beating indignation, that defies description. In one degree or another it took possession of press, pulpit, school, advertising, lecture platform, and political arena. The President's official statements were, whatever the merits of the political philosophy underlying them, restrained, moderate, and statesmanlike. But the same could not have been said of private discussion. Never, surely, has America been exposed to so much oratory--or to oratory more strained, more empty, more defensive, more remote from reality. The humorous magazines suddenly acquired the abysmal humorlessness that enters in when the effort is made to base humor on wrath. In the eminently respectable Outlook, editor-emeritus Lyman Abbott, himself a clergyman, denied the application of Christian charity to Germans.... America, it might be said, had little or nothing to be ashamed of in the substance of her war effort; but in the public discussion of it at home, in the interpretation it was given, and in the reflection it found in civic behavior, this was not America's finest hour.
But one cannot say that America was unusual in that regard. The press and public opinion in most of the combatants were not particularly rational. Karl Kraus gave a devastating picture of the public mood of Austria; one could multiply examples from England, Germany, and France.