A question was recently posed to me by a family member that left me with even further questions to ponder, as I review my ancestral documents piled in unorganized kitchen drawers. The question was this: 'What was the most surprising information discovered in my years of family research?'

My quick answer to such an unexpected question made me reflect on what I presented. I remembered the moment of surprise, excitement and shock when I finally found evidence of my maternal grandfather, Glenn Beatty. Obviously I had known of Glenn all of my life but he had been only a mystery to me, as he had died early in life when my mother was only six years old. Over the years, little was left of Glenn's life other than two or three pictures and a few memories passed on from the perspective of a young child, my mother. So seeing his handwriting on his World War 1 draft card threw me into a fit of excitement. But that was not the answer to the question posed and it certainly is not the end of the story.

When I first discovered my grandfather's World War 1 draft card, I quickly printed it off during my fit of elation and pulled out the magnifying glass to view his handwriting closer. And as I moved the glass across the document, I found a written answer squeezed onto the small line after the question: 'Do you feel you have an exemption to the draft (explain grounds)?' My grandfather's scribbled response was : 'Yes. Not in particular sympathy with the allied armies.' I stopped and stared long at his statement. I sat the paper down and then looked again and with puzzled amazement, I began reviewing other World War 1 draft cards found on the Internet. Many men made claims of exemption due to the responsibility of their wife and children; however, none were so bold to make such an inflammatory political statement.

The discovery of my grandfather's remark has lead me to research America's attitude toward World War 1. When the European war broke out in 1914, Americans responded with ambivalence and isolationism. The predominant thinking was that our country was not a part of the European conflict and should remain neutral to the war. This was even more evident in Oklahoma, my families' home and the state my grandfather and his parents migrated to during the Oklahoma Oil Boom. I find the subject even more enthralling when I discover that the primary adversaries of the war, members of the Socialist Party, was an extremely active political party in Oklahoma in the early part of the 20th century.

Oklahoma was an agrarian state and in economic despair as a result of the European war. The Oklahoma farmers and organized labor, fiercely opposed to the war, helped elevate the Socialist Party in Oklahoma to the third largest political party. But in 1917, when America joined the war effort, a shift in thinking evolved and Americans including Oklahomans began to support the war. Organizations were formed to promote patriotism and there was a formalized effort to identify citizens against the war, some facing ostracism and mob violence. Interest in the Socialist Party faded and  the organization was dissolved.

So left with this revelation about my grandfather, what can I surmise? Was he a member of the then popular Socialist Party? Or was he just one individual faced with answering a simple question that could have grave consequences, however it was interpreted. And do we judge his answer with today's value system, a culture that has great respect for men with military eagerness and patriotism. We can and should only look at our ancestors through the magnifying glass of the times they lived. They were products of their own culture, not ours, and seeing them in any other way is unfair to them and also to our heritage.

Keep searching for answers,

(Source: Oklahoma Historical Society's Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.)


01/18/2011 6:11am

There were also a lot of Americans who felt that this was not "their" war, but simply a European one.

What a neat find! :)

01/18/2011 4:39pm

Wow, this is surprising. I have encountered a few answers on these cards that were not quite run of the mill, but this one was definitely frank beyond what we usually see.

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