The drums of war sounded for Oklahoma in the 1910s in Mexico before they did in Europe. By 1914, the Mexicans had spent years bloodying themselves in a vicious, betrayal-laden civil war. Much of the fighting occurred in Mexican states contiguous to the U.S. When charismatic Mexican politician and military commander Pancho Villa’s forces rampaged through several Texas and New Mexico border towns in early 1916, American troops, including Oklahomans, entered the conflict.
Colonel Roy V. Hoffman led Oklahoma National Guardsmen south to the Rio Grande from Fort Sill that summer. Along with Guardsmen from other states, they patrolled the border and chased Villa for eight months. Even though they failed either to catch him or halt his periodic border raids, they helped stifle his potency as a military force.
The Oklahomans returned home and mustered out in March 1917. Less than one month later, the United States entered World War I by declaring war on one of the fighting nations, Germany. The U.S. did so due to German submarine attacks on American merchant and commercial ships.
Many of these supposed non-military vessels were carrying armaments for use against the desperate Germans, against whose civilian population the British had erected a deadly, and illegal, starvation blockade. The federal government called the Oklahoma Guard back to active duty.
Oklahomans repeated a pattern evidenced in America during other wars. They held to mass non-interventionism at the onset of European conflict in 1914. This evolved, in the words of historian Jim Bissett, to “a ferocity that bordered on hysteria” upon the United States’ 1917 entry into the war, “with the transformation from neutrality to ‘100 percent Americanism’ even more precipitous in the Sooner State than in the rest of the nation.”
Another familiar pattern fully exposed only later was the relentless nationwide propaganda effort to stir up such emotions, executed by such federal organizations as the Committee on Public Information and such extra-governmental groups as the American Protective League.
Only about half of the 215,000 eligible young Oklahoma men even registered for the draft when ordered to do so in 1917, much less enlisted in the armed forces. And only a quarter of those who registered did not claim exemption from the draft. Thus, only around one-seventh of the state’s male population indicated their availability for “The Great War.” By war’s end late the next year, though, 188,000 Oklahomans had registered, and the military had received around 85,000 into service.
As another indicator of the contrast between the state’s pre-war and wartime martial attitudes, Oklahoma founding father William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray lost his congressional seat in 1916 due to his zeal for American war involvement. By 1920, the state’s U.S. Senator Thomas Gore lost that high position he had held for 13 years for not supporting the decision to go to war.
Despite comprising only about 8 percent of the state’s population, African-Americans made up nearly 25 percent of the state’s military inductees. American Indians likewise filled Sooner troop ranks far out of proportion to their percentage of the population.
Statistics like this contributed to the impression many people held of World War I as a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Indeed, the first Americans engaged in the war, though not as personal combatants, were arms manufacturers who amassed or increased their colossal financial fortunes by supplying the British and French militaries with lethal ordnance.