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Going to Summer Camp in 1913 Meant Practicing for World War I

How the Plattsburg camps tried (and failed) to raise a volunteer army ahead of World War I.

In the years leading up to World War I, audiences flocked to silent movie theaters and danced to ragtime. But an affluent young man was just as likely to spend his summer vacation preparing for war as learning the Turkey Trot or the tango. Beginning in 1913, thousands of American men went to summer boot camps—volunteers in a growing movement to prepare the United States for what seemed like an inevitable war.

They had an influential ally: former president Theodore Roosevelt. He had plenty of experience with volunteer troops; after all, he’d organized and led the Rough Riders, a volunteer cavalry, during the Spanish-American War two decades earlier. Roosevelt thought that current President Woodrow Wilson was too soft on Europe and pushed him to prepare for war.

Wilson, who had defeated Roosevelt in 1912, was suspicious of combat. He preferred neutrality, pushing an image of the United States as an impartial peacemaker that could broker a ceasefire against Europe’s feuding factions. However, a growing faction of Americans disagreed—and started to push Wilson to do more. Their movement was called “preparedness,” and the focus was on getting America’s young men in fighting form, just in case.

The concept was simple: Men would give their summer vacations to their country and emerge prepared for eventual war. Eventually, 40,000 young men attended Plattsburg Camps—named after the first training camp in Plattsburgh, New York—nationwide with the aim of becoming officers if war was declared,

Starting in 1913, affluent young men ditched their leisurely summer plans and headed to boot camp instead. Over the 90 days of camp, attendees rose to an early-morning bugle, then spent the day doing drills, calisthenics and other activities. Their training culminated in “the hike,” a grueling multi-day ordeal that pitted recruits against one another in simulated battle. But the demanding, physically taxing schedule didn’t seem to dampen recruits’ enthusiasm. According to historian John Garry Clifford, they were so eager to learn that officers had to remind them to stop drills and take time off.

That enthusiasm wasn’t limited to actual recruits. Preparedness offered a heady combination of patriotism and pageantry—a sense that even though war seemed inevitable, it could be mastered. By 1916, the idea was so popular that 145,000 people gathered in its favor in a New York parade that took hours. Songs like “On to Plattsburg, March!” and “Prepare the Eagle to Protect the Dove” declared their willingness to fight.