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New Online: The AP Washington Bureau, 1915-1930

Wire service reporting from the capital provided much of the nation with coverage of federal government and politics.
Library of Congress

One dramatic example is the afternoon of May 7, 1915, about one year into World War I. That day, a German U-Boat torpedoed the RMS Lusitania, a British liner, as it was returning from New York to Liverpool with 1,959 people aboard. The boat sank in 20 minutes, killing 1,128 people, a toll that included more than 100 Americans. It was a shell-shock to a nation that had, to that point, stayed out of the conflict.

“News of the torpedoing of the Lusitania struck official Washington like a bomb,” the AP wrote in a bulletin at 2:09 p.m. that same day. “While disposed to await full details before expressing opinions, all administration officials realized that the incident was probably the most serious Washington has faced since the beginning of the war.”

They were correct. Two years later, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, with Germany’s U-Boat warfare as one of the key justifications.

It was about 8:40 p.m. on April 2, 1917, when Wilson reached the Capitol Building to make his request for an official war declaration to the combined House and Senate, the AP reported. The mood was “serious and quiet.” But when Wilson came to his point and said, “We will not choose the path of submission,” the audience burst into applause. That din had scarcely died down when Wilson said, “Congress should declare that a state of war existed,” as the AP story had it, and the chamber rose to its feet in a standing ovation.

By the end, at 10:11 p.m., the chamber was in full roar. “As the President finished every person on the floor and in the galleries arose and shouted. Most of the Senators unfolded flags they wore in their upper outside coat pockets and waved them vigorously.”

Congress declared war four days later. Troops began arriving in France in June.

The AP’s reporting of Wilson’s speech (and other major events) was transmitted across the nation and reprinted in newspapers from Maine to California. This centralized reporting came to provide a cohesiveness to daily news coverage across the nation. It was the early days of “mainstream media.”