History

100 years ago, the US entered WWI—and a senator from Massachusetts punched a protester in the face over it

Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, circa 1910. File

President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war against Germany — which he signed exactly 100 years ago Thursday — sent shockwaves across the planet, as the world’s largest neutral military force officially entered World War One.

But earlier that same week, the movement to enter WWI had quite a forceful impact on Boston resident Alexander Bannwart, who got punched in the face over the war by his home-state senator, Henry Cabot Lodge.

According to the U.S. Senate’s website, it is the only historical record of a senator attacking a constituent.

Bannwart had graduated from Princeton University in 1906 and went on to play minor league baseball. According to a Boston Globe report at the time, the 36-year-old was also a longtime promoter and member of the Massachusetts chapter of a group that supported Wilson’s 1916 re-election. Wilson had tried to keep the United States out of what was then simply known as the World War. But in early 1917, amid repeated German U-boat attacks on American ships — as well as the infamous Zimmermann Telegram — Wilson called for Congress to declare war. This prompted Bannwart to join the thousands of pacifists who descended on Washington, D.C., urging their legislators to reconsider.

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Upon arriving on Capitol Hill on April 2, leaders of the anti-war protest directed demonstrators to go to the offices of their local senator or representative.

“The Capitol and the House and Senate office buildings literally swarmed with them for several hours,” the Globe reported. Bannwart and at least three other protesters from the Boston area went to the office occupied by Lodge, a five-term Republican, future Senate Majority Leader, and firm proponent of entering the war.

As one of Bannwart’s fellow protesters told the Globe, Lodge himself answered the door when they arrived at his office. The group asked the senator that he take into account their beliefs and reconsider his position on the war.

“Well, I’ll risk what my constituents think about it,” the 67-year-old senator reportedly replied.

After a short back-and-forth, Lodge affirmed his support for entering the war and began to go back into his office — but not before launching a final insult at the anti-war group, according to the Globe‘s report.

“The pacifists are cowards in talking of anything else,” he said.

It was then that Bannwart, who had reportedly stayed quiet up to that point, broke in.

“It isn’t the pacifists who are cowards: It is the war people who are cowards,” he said.

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Lodge then turned back around and walked right up to Bannwart.

“If you call me a coward, you are a damned liar,” said the senator.

“I might return the compliment,” Bannwart shot back.

According to the group of pacifists, Lodge swung and delivered a punch to Bannwart’s jaw that sent the protester to the floor. Bannwart responded with a punch of his own, which reportedly knocked back the 67-year-old. Noticing the scuffle, a number of Lodge’s staff members in the office rushed toward Bannwart and the other protesters, proceeding to “vigorously” pummel the former until he was bleeding from the head.

Lodge, however, recalled the event somewhat differently. According to the senator — as well as fellow Massachusetts Republican Sen. John Weeks — it was Bannwart who struck first.

“I was very trying to get away from them; they were very violent,” Lodge reportedly said of the pacifists after the fight.

“I said, ‘Well we must agree to disagree,” the senator recalled. “Then this man whom I afterward learned was Bannwart said, ‘You’re a damned coward,’ addressing me personally. I went forward, close up to him, and said, ‘You’re a liar.’ He struck me and I struck him. Then the whole party rushed at me and pushed me against the wall.”

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Weeks characterized the melee as an “unprovoked and disgraceful assault” by Bannwart on Lodge.

For his part, Bannwart strongly denied the allegation that he struck first.

“He just hauled off and hit me as hard as he could,” he told the Globe. “Then a half a dozen fellows had a fine time trying to finish me up … I hope I don’t have to go to jail. Why, if I had hit Senator Lodge first, I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.”

Whatever the sequence of events, Bannwart was arrested by Capitol police at the scene on assault charges. He was subsequently released on $1,000 cash bail (reportedly paid by prominent Boston social reformer Elizabeth Glendower Evans).

Aside from a slight bruise on his cheek, Lodge showed no effects from the fight. Meanwhile, according to a later report, Bannwart was left with a black eye and a “bad bruise on his forehead.”

The charges were reportedly dropped two days later, at Lodge’s request. At his court hearing, Bannwart also announced that he had changed his mind on the war after reading Wilson’s address to Congress. He subsequently left the anti-war movement.

Lodge went on to receive a wave of telegrams thanking the senator for his act of “patriotism,” as one message reportedly put it. The supportive letters poured in from Somerville to Maine to Georgia to Texas.

The senator would go on to vote in favor of the war resolution, as the entire New England delegation unanimously did in both chambers.

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The Senate passed the resolution April 4 by a vote of 82 to six. They were followed by the House, which passed it April 6, 373 to 50. Later that day, Wilson signed the resolution, officially sending the country into war.