H.L. Mencken, Star-Spangled Men

H. L. Mencken was one of the foremost political and cultural commentators of the 1920s. This excerpt from his article "Star Spangled Men" ran in the New Republic magazine in 1920, and it mirrors the disillusion with World War I felt by many Americans during the 1920s.

What I propose is a variety of the Distinguished Service Medal for civilians, closed to the military and with badges of different colors and areas, to mark off varying services to democracy. Let it run, like the Japanese Paulownia, from high to low — the lowest class for the patriot who sacrificed only time, money and a few nights’ sleep; the highest for the great martyr who hung his country’s altar with his dignity, his decency and his sacred honor. For Elmer and his nervous insomnia, a simple rosette, with an iron badge bearing the national motto, “Safety First”; for the university president who prohibited the teaching of the enemy language in his learned grove, heaved the works of Goethe out of the university library, cashiered every professor unwilling to support Woodrow for the first vacancy in the Trinity, took to the stump for the National Security League, (6), and made two hundred speeches in moving picture theaters — for this giant of loyal endeavor let no 100 per cent. American speak of anything less than the grand cross of the order, with a gold badge in stained glass, a baldric of the national colors, a violet plug hat with a sunburst on the side, the privelege of the floor of Congress, and a pension of $10,000 a year. After all, the cost would not be excessive; there are not many of them. Such prodigies of patriotism are possible only to rare and gifted men. For the grand cordons of the order, e.g., college professors who spied upon and reported the seditions of their associates, state presidents of the American Protective League, (7), alien property custodians, judges whose sentences of conscientious objectors mounted to more than 50,000 years, members of George Creel’s herd of 2,000 American historians, the authors of the Sisson documents, (8), etc. — pensions of $10 a day would be enough, with silver badges and no plug hats. For the lower ranks, bronze badges and the legal right to the title of “The Hon.,” already every true American’s by courtesy.”

(6) A band of patriots which made a deafening uproar in the 1914–1918 era. Its fronts were Elihu Root and Alton B. Parker.

(7) An organization of amateur detectives working under the agis of the Department of Justice. In 1917 its operatives reported that I was an intimate associate and agent of “the German nonster, Nietsky,” and I was solemnly investigated. But I was a cunning fellow in those days and full of a malicious humor, so I not only managed to throw of the charge but even to write the report upon myself. I need not say that it gave me a clean bill of health — and I still have a carbon to prove it. As a general rule the American Protective League confined itself to easier victims. Its specialty was harassing German waiters.

(8) Creel served as chairman of what was called the Committee on Public Information from 1917 to 1919. Its chief business was to propagate the official doctrine as to the causes and issues of the war. To that end Creel recruited his horde of college historians and they solemnly certified to the truth of everything that emanated from Washington and London. The Sisson documents were supposed to show a sinister conspiracy of the Russian Communists, but what the specifications were I forget. Creel’s committed was also in charge of newspaper censorship during the war.

Now, who’s got the documentation showing Sadler’s association with the American Protective League, and/or with George Creel? The description “amateur detective working under the agis of the Department of Justice” sounds suspiciously familiar to a biographical admission I have heard or read, possibly from Sprunger or Kulieke. Such “prodigies of patriotism” should not go unnoted!

From: Mencken, H. L. "Star-Spangled Men", New Republic, September 29, 1920.