World War I -- Life Histories/Section 001/Pierce and Telfair Wetter
Pierce Wetter, a conscientious objector of the war and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), was imprisoned in Leavenworth, Kansas from 1918-1921 for his affiliations. During this same period, his brother, Telfair Wetter, worked in the Baltimore office of the IWW, and was never drafted into the war effort. Information on these individuals is chiefly derived from a collection of their archived correspondence. While many conversations are typical exchanges of pleasantries, personal updates and money exchanges, the brothers frequently discuss their views on a variety of political topics, including strategies for maneuvering within the local and federal government, court cases, and broader philosophical discussions on communism and the Russian Revolution. While Telfair was strongly against the Russian Communist Party, Pierce was more open to seeing it as a force that somewhat aligned with their own agenda, though he was certainly not a proponent of their (then alleged) brutality. As Pierce was in prison for being a conscientious objector and both he and his brother members of a radical labor union in the middle of the American Red Scare, their own ideologies, and their divisive relationships to the rest of the nation, had strong impacts on their own experiences. In a more global sense, the Wetter brothers illustrate the strong ideological differences that were found even within the same organization, and provide examples of the new waves of political thought that emerged from the turmoil of the war.
Early Life and Family
Telfair, Pierce, and their sister, Alberta, (though other siblings may exist) are presumed to have been raised in a broken home. Their mother was involved in their upbringing, but the extent of her role is unknown, as any information regarding their father. Telfair and Pierce eventually left home and lost contact with their sister until 1919. By this time, Pierce was in prison, and Telfair working at the IWW office. After a brief period of correspondence, both brothers were so put off by Alberta’s traditional beliefs and her suggestions of less a less radical ideologies that they both broke off contact once more. Alberta maintained her offers of hospitality and familial warmth despite her brothers’ criticisms of her lifestyle. It is unknown if they ever reconnected. The siblings were also inheritors of an estate in Georgia, which was the subject of much correspondence in the archive.
The Industrial Workers of the World
Founded in Chicago in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World was radical leftist labor union that endeavored to unite the working class around the world into one singular union. As described by historian Patrick Renshaw, the IWW combined an “industrial base, a syndicalist philosophy, and a revolutionary aim”. While the organization won many important victories, it suffered an enormous loss in 1913 during the Paterson Strike. According to historian Steve Golin, the IWW was crippled by both its defeat, and the internal fallout that resulted, leaving it in a state from which it never fully recovered. In the same year, Algernon Lee, a prominent socialist figure, stated that the IWW had reached as far as it was going to, and that all that remained was its dissolution.  The organization, however, maintained its relevancy for years afterward.
As represented by the personal philosophies of the Wetter brothers, the IWW was eventually split down the middle by opposing parties — the syndicalists, and the anarchists. Whereas the syndicalists, like Pierce Wetter, thought it best to work within power structures and absorb other structured organizations, the anarchists, like Telfair, distrusted all authority - even their own. IWW members were also divided with respect to Russian communism and the Russian Revolution. Reports out of the area, as the Wetter brothers discuss in one set of correspondences, were propaganda either for or against the Communist Party, and thus accurate assessment of the Russian state was almost impossible. IWW leader Bill Haywood allegedly discussed Russian conditions in “attractive” terms in a 1920 speech according to a contemporary Baltimore newspaper.
The Red Scare
The First American Red Scare had a profound effect on the IWW. In a 1968 article, historian Patrick Renshaw discusses how the nationalistic fervor that surrounded the United States’ entry into the first World War cast distrust onto any radical points of view. To disagree with one’s government was seen as declaring oneself an enemy of that government. However, a politcally critical 1919 article from a Baltimore newspaper quoted an IWW plan as stating a willingness to ally the organization with its “‘Russian Comrades [...] toward proletarianism’” so this assessment, while certainly reactionary, was not entirely inaccurate. In September 1917, 48 IWW offices were raided by federal agents and the IWW was subsequently brought to trial, resulting in one of the lengthiest legal disputes in American history. All 101 IWW leaders on trial were found guilty, and the organization was dealt a nearly fatal blow. During his time at the IWW office, Telfair likely would have been dealing with the fallout from this event, while Pierce may well have encountered some of the IWW prisoners while in Leavenworth.
Objection to the War
According to historian Joyce Kornbluh, the IWW had already officially declared itself opposed to the first World War by 1914. This, combined with the organization’s political stance, raised suspicion from the public and the government. While the IWW’s opposition to warfare extended beyond World War I, government officials took the opportunity to weaken the organization. Knowing that the federal government would take it as an act of outright rebellion, the IWW never officially supported draft dodging, but members recognized the Catch 22 they found themselves in. Many ‘Wobblies’ served in jobs that directly aided the war effort, but did not enlist to fight, though others refused to register for Selective Service, and protested against it. A total of 184 IWW members were arrested for these protests, on the basis of “interfering with the war effort, encouraging resistance to the Selective Service Act, conspiring to cause insubordination and disloyalty in the armed forces, and injuring citizens selling munitions to the government”. Few escaped sentences of less than five years.
While it is unknown if Pierce Wetter was imprisoned as a result of the aforementioned trials, he was certainly imprisoned for his objection to the war. From the correspondence with his brother, it is known that many other leftist objectors were also imprisoned in Leavenworth. Telfair was in contact with a number of other prisoners, all of whom described similar impressions of their situations. One describes sitting alone in a six by four room for hours with access to only reading material, though situations could be worse. For a time Pierce was unable to write or read letters except for one day per month, and wrote his brother to send him letters addressed to other inmates from whom he would collect them. Pierce at one point describes developing an ache in his hand from the manual labor required by the prison, but he was soon given another job. Notably, the prisoners were not denied access to radical or leftist reading material, and were (under what would seem to be most circumstances) allowed to read and discuss it as they pleased.
- The Main Page of the English 105i 100 Years Project
- UNC University Library Page on the Wetter Family Archive
- The Documenting the American South project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill