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DAKOTA DATEBOOK: False Peace Flash

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

August 12, 2019 — On this date in 1945, the nation learned that World War II was over. It was at 9:34 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, that a news flash came from the United Press in New York saying that V-J Day had arrived. Carrying a Washington dateline, the flash was first fed into the UP’s southern wire service and stated that the Japanese had accepted the Allies’ terms of surrender.

A Fargo Forum article stated that people who were out for Sunday evening strolls “stopped beside parked cars from whose open windows they could catch the radio bulletins.

Persons began streaming into the streets,” the article read, “calling to one another, ‘Hey, the war’s over.’

“A woman hurried along the street, her face wreathed in smiles, tears brimming in her eyes,” the article went on. “Automobile horns blared. Confetti dropped into the street in front of the Fargoan hotel, tossed there by a boy on the roof. A tiny paper parachute floated down from the same roof. Strangers smiled at one another, unable to keep outward expression of the joy in their hearts to themselves.”

Reporter Joyce Lang went on to describe her own experience of what happened next. “… I was on north Broadway, opposite the Holzer confectionery. I turned around and walked to The Fargo Forum office. By the time I had gone halfway, I knew the report was unofficial without hearing the radio bulletins from cars along the curb. People’s expressions had changed.”

It turned out that the story was false. Lang said the telephones at the Forum rang off the hook, and paperboys wanted to know when the “extra” would roll. But, then things quieted, and people once again took up their vigil of waiting for peace.

Two minutes after the news flash went out, the UP figured out it had NOT originated at their Washington bureau, and they immediately killed the story. Within a half hour, White House secretary Charles Ross issued a report, saying, “President Truman went to bed about an hour ago. If anything comes in, he’ll be notified. There is absolutely no word of truth in the report that the president has announced that Japan has accepted the Allied surrender terms.”

The United Press immediately reported the case to the FBI, and UP President Hugh Baillie offered a $5,000 reward for the identification and conviction of the person who fed the flash into the wire service.

The FCC also wanted to know what happened, and American Telephone and Telegraph – or AT&T – started its own investigation into how the story got released. There were 12 points along the telegraph poles where stories were regularly fed to the UP wires, and the flash could have been fed from any one of them.

The UP report also went on to describe the possibility of early-day hacking when it reported, “… it would be possible for a person with sufficient mechanical knowledge to hook another teletype on the UP wires and send a few words which would appear to come from a regular bureau point.”

The world would have to wait three more days for the official announcement of peace. The UP story on that day read, in part, “From New York to San Francisco, the people hailed the end of three years, eight months and seven days of struggle against a savage Asiatic foe. They celebrated as their feelings dictated, in simple prayer and in wild hilarity.”

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.

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DAKOTA DATEBOOK: William Lemke, Prairie Rebel

August 13, 2019 — Today is the birthday of William Lemke, who was born to German parents in Minnesota in 1878. As one of nine children, Lemke’s boyhood was spent in the Big Coulee area of Towner County. His aggressive father had already acquired 2,700 acres when he died of a stroke when he was outbid on a piece of land he wanted.

William lost an eye in a childhood accident and was described as shy but eager for knowledge. His big jaw, rough skin, and rumpled clothing gave him a tough exterior. This, coupled with fierce determination, led historian Edward Blackorby to label him a “prairie rebel.”

Lemke went to UND, where he was seen as an ambitious student and skilled debater. Although he was only 5′ 8″ and 149 pounds, he also gained respect on the football field. He was a member of the Varsity Bachelor Club, whose members were to save each other from feminine wiles. It was in this group that he met many future leaders, including his good friend, Lynn Frazier.

Lemke watched farmers fall deeper and deeper into debt as banks, railroads and grain terminals grew fat with profits. Historian Elwyn Robinson wrote that Lemke “became an intense, bitter, tenacious fighter for the plain people against the hated interests; he was a natural extremist… Versatile and emphatic in speech, the language of the threshing crews as well as that of the courtroom came naturally to him. He neither smoked nor drank,” Robinson continued. “When the occasion demanded, he could drive himself unsparingly with a terrible concentration. He was brilliant, a good organizer, ambitious and aggressive, eager for power, a natural promoter and dreamer, an ultra-nationalist… Until America became involved in the First World War, his friends called him ‘the Dutchman.’”

After graduating from UND in 1903, Lemke studied law at Georgetown and Yale, and then practiced in Fargo. He soon gained a reputation as a friend to farmers and was very drawn to the solidarity of the rebellious Nonpartisan League, which had roots in the Socialist Party. The League had 26,000 members in 1916, when Lemke became a salaried employee. He was very soon on the executive committee. Robinson wrote, “The League became a religion to Lemke.”

One factor that drove many North Dakotans to join the NPL was the state’s perceived “colonial” status – farmers saw themselves supplying the nation with food but getting nothing in return. As World War I entered the picture, many North Dakotans saw it as just another advancement of corporate interests at their expense and vigorously opposed joining the overseas conflict.

The NPL gained an important edge in state politics in 1916, including the election of Lemke’s old friend, Lynn Frazier, as governor. Frazier, a relative unknown, often turned to Lemke for counsel, and Lemke wielded tremendous political influence. The state made important strides toward protecting its own interests until the party ultimately failed in 1921.

Lemke went on to serve in U.S. Congress in 1932, where he continued to champion the causes of family farmers. During the Great Depression, he co-sponsored the Fraizer-Lemke Act, which would have helped North Dakota farmers refinance their mortgages to save their farms. Lemke had been instrumental in getting FDR elected, but Roosevelt now refused to support Lemke, and the bill sank. Disillusioned by Roosevelt’s “New Deal” – as many were – Lemke accepted the Union of Social Justice Party’s nomination for president – the only North Dakotan who’s ever run for the office. He lost but received almost 900,000 votes. In the same election, he was re-elected to Congress in which he served – except for one term – until his death in 1950.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.





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