Click on Image to Enlarge
|Life, 10 February 1916, Front Cover
[Note: Please enlarge this map. Some of the cleverest humor is in the selection of new names for U.S. cities.]
Germany might pose a future threat, and that a failure to prepare for war might lead to dire consequences. As the map illustrates, Germany and its allies were not the only potential adversaries: there were also concerns regarding Japan’s strength amid increasing tensions in the Pacific. None of these scenarios came to fruition. The United States ended up fighting on the same side as Japan, and while Germany did become an enemy, the chance of it successfully subjugating the United States had always been slim. But the fantastical nature of the map was surely part of its appeal, for this cover image was undoubtedly intended to be humorous, as a glance at some of the place names—including "Kuturplatz," "Hyphenburg," and "Goosestep"—reveals.
What was Life satirizing here, and what were its readers supposed to be laughing at? By using humor, the magazine may have been mocking overblown fears of invasion, and perhaps even undermining the arguments of those who advocated preparedness.
However, when this image is read alongside the magazine’s editorials—which consistently pressed for preparedness—it becomes clear that Life was also making a serious point. Life’s editors, alongside a growing number of other Americans, believed that the United States needed to be able to defend itself against foreign threats. An invasion may have been unlikely, but it was not entirely implausible. If Germany defeated Britain on the Western Front, there was a risk that Canada, a British Dominion, might fall into German hands, which in turn would severely threaten American security.
Life’s arresting cover image reflects how widely the Great War pervaded American culture, even before U.S. intervention in April 1917. From the moment it broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914, the war provoked discussion and debate in American publications, and the nation’s citizens became acutely aware of developments on the other side of the Atlantic.
Despite this, there have been relatively few works which deal in depth with how the war affected the United States between 1914 and 1917. As the historian Jennifer Keene has recently argued, "too often, discussions of America’s road to war become focused nearly exclusively on Woodrow Wilson’s decision making."
The social and cultural dimensions of the neutrality period—and especially the responses of the American public during these years—remain under-explored, and there is no historical consensus regarding the extent to which the American people supported intervention before April 1917.
Source: "Humour, neutrality, and preparedness: American satirical magazines and the First World War, 1914–1917," by Vincent Trott, War in History, Vol. 29, 2016