Modern history

Fighting the War at Home

Modern global warfare required full mobilization at home. With U.S. ground forces entering the fray late in the war, most Americans felt the effects of mobilization far more dramatically on the home front than on the battlefront. In preparing to support the war effort, the country drew on recent experience. The progressives’ passion for organization, expertise, efficiency, and moralistic control was harnessed to the effort of placing the economy on a wartime footing and rallying the American people behind the war. In the process, the government gained unprecedented control over American life. At the same time, the war effort also produced unforeseen economic and political opportunities.

Government by Commission

Progressives had relied on government commissions to regulate business practices as well as health and safety standards, and in July 1917 the Wilson administration followed suit by establishing the War industries Board (WiB) to supervise the purchase of military supplies and to gear up private enterprise to meet demand. However, the WIB was largely ineffective until March 1918, when the president found the right man to lead it. He chose Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch, who recruited staff from business enterprises that the board regulated. Baruch prodded businesses into compliance mainly by offering lucrative contracts rather than by coercion. Working for a token $1 a year (but still on their company payrolls), the members of this agency helped reduce the chaos of mobilization. Ultimately, these businessmen created a government partnership with the corporate sector that would last beyond the war.

Labor also experienced significant gains through government regulation. Shortages of workers and an outbreak of strikes—more than four thousand in 1917—hampered the war effort. In April 1918, Wilson created the National War Labor Board (NWLB) to settle labor disputes. The agency consisted of representatives from unions, corporations, and the public. In exchange for obtaining a “no strike pledge” from organized labor, the NWLB supported an eight-hour workday with time-and-a-half pay for overtime, labor’s right to collective bargaining, and equal pay for equal work by women.

The NWLB fell short of reaching this last goal, but the war employed more than a million women who had not held jobs before. As military and government services expanded, women found greater opportunities as telephone operators, nurses, and clerical workers. At the same time, the number of women employed as domestic servants declined. Women took over formerly male jobs driving streetcars, delivering ice, assembling airplane motors, operating drill presses, oiling railroad engines, and welding parts. Yet women’s incomes continued to lag significantly behind those of men performing the same tasks.

Americans probably experienced the expanding scope of government intervention most directly through the efforts of three new agencies that regulated consumption and travel. Wilson appointed Herbert Hoover, a progressive mining engineer, to head the Food Administration. Hoover sought to increase the military and civilian food supply mainly through voluntary conservation measures. He generated a massive publicity campaign urging Americans to adopt “wheatless Mondays,” “meatless Tuesdays,” and “porkless Thursdays and Saturdays.” Chicago housewives demonstrated their ingenuity in cooking leftovers, as evidenced by a sharp decline in the volume of raw garbage in the city. The government also mobilized schoolchildren to plant vegetable gardens to increase food production for the home front. Wilson considered children’s work in the School Garden Army “just as real and patriotic an effort as the building of ships or the firing of cannon.”

Consumers saved gas and oil under the prodding of the Fuel Administration. The agency encouraged fuel “holidays” along the line of Hoover’s voluntary restrictions and created daylight saving time to conserve fuel by adding an extra hour of sunlight to the end of the workday. The Fuel Administration also offered higher prices to coal companies in order to increase productivity. Patterns of consumer travel changed under government regulation. The Railroad Administration acted more forcefully than most other agencies. Troop and supply shipments depended on the efficient operation of the railways. The administration controlled the railroads during the war, coordinating train schedules, overseeing terminals and regulating ticket prices, upgrading tracks, and raising workers’ wages.

Winning Hearts and Minds

America’s entry into the Great War did not immediately end the significant antiwar sentiment. Consequently, Wilson waged a campaign to rally support for his aims and to stimulate patriotic fervor. To generate enthusiasm and ensure loyalty, the president named Denver journalist George Creel to head the Committee on Public information (CPI), which focused on generating propaganda.

Creel recruited a vast network of lecturers to speak throughout the country and spread patriotic messages. The committee coordinated rallies to sell bonds and raise money to fund the war. The CPI persuaded reporters to censor their war coverage, and most agreed in order to avoid government intervention. The agency helped produce films depicting the Allies as heroic saviors of humanity and the Central Powers as savage beasts. The CPI also distributed colorful and sometimes lurid posters emphasizing the depravity of the enemy and the nation’s moral responsibility to defeat the Central Powers. All the talk of fighting for democracy encouraged groups with long-standing grievances because of their treatment at home to rally around the flag. W E. B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, backed Wilson’s democratic aims in the hope that the war would lead to racial equality in the United States.

Propaganda did not, however, prove sufficient, and many Americans remained deeply divided about the war. To suppress dissent, Congress passed the Espionage Act in 1917 and the Sedition Act a year later. Both limited freedom of speech by criminalizing certain forms of expression. The Espionage Act prohibited antiwar activities, including interfering with the draft. It also banned the mailing of publications advocating forcible interference with any laws. The Sedition Act punished individuals who expressed beliefs disloyal or abusive to the American government, flag, or military uniform. Of the slightly more than two thousand prosecutions under these laws, only a handful concerned charges of actual sabotage or espionage. Most defendants brought to trial were critics who merely spoke out against the war. In 1918, for telling a crowd that the military draft was a form of slavery that turned inductees into “cannon fodder,” the Socialist Party’s Eugene V. Debs was tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years under the Espionage Act. (President Warren G. Harding pardoned Debs in 1921.) The Justice Department also went after the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which continued to initiate labor strikes during the war. The government broke into the offices of the IWW, ransacked the Wobblies’ files for evidence of disloyalty, and arrested more than 130 members, including their dynamic leader Big Bill Haywood, who subsequently fled to the Soviet Union to avoid jail.

Government efforts to promote national unity and punish those who did not conform prompted local communities to enforce “one hundred percent Americanism.” Civic groups banned the playing of German music and operas from concert halls, and schools prohibited teaching the German language. Arbiters of culinary taste, prompted by patriotic enthusiasm, renamed foods with German origins—sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage,” and hamburgers became “liberty sandwiches.” Such sentiments were expressed in a more sinister fashion when mobs assaulted German Americans.

Prejudice toward German Americans was further inflamed by the formation of the American Protective League (APL), a quasi-official association endorsed by the Justice Department. Consisting of200,000 chapters throughout the country, the APL employed individuals to spy on German residents suspected of disloyal behavior. In cooperation with the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI), APL members tried to uncover German spies, but most often they found little more than German immigrants who merely retained attachments to family and friends in their homeland. Gossip and rumor fueled many of the league’s loyalty probes. In May 1918, the APL sent one of its agents to investigate the cook of a family living in Manhattan, because she allegedly had “a picture of the Kaiser in her room” and was “very pro-German and talks in favor of the Germans.” The investigator found no photograph of the kaiser or any other evidence of suspicious behavior.

The repressive side of progressivism came to the fore in other ways as well. Antiimmigrant bias, shared by many reformers, flourished. The effort to conserve manpower and grain supplies bolstered the impulse to control standards of moral behavior, particularly those associated with immigrants, such as drinking. This anti-immigrant prejudice in part explains the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, prohibiting the sale of all alcoholic beverages. Yet not all the moral indignation unleashed by the war resulted in restriction of freedom. After considerable wartime protest and lobbying, women suffragists succeeded in securing the right to vote (see chapter 19).

Waging Peace

In January 1918, ten months before the war ended, President Wilson presented Congress with his plan for peace without rancor. Wilson centered his ideas around Fourteen Points, principles that he hoped would prevent future wars. Based on his assessment of the causes of the Great War, Wilson envisioned a generous peace treaty that included freedom of the seas, open diplomacy and the abolition of secret treaties, free trade, selfdetermination for colonial subjects, and a reduction in military spending. More important than any specific measure, Wilson’s proposal hinged on the creation of the League of Nations, a body of large and small nations that would guarantee peaceful resolution of disputes and back up decisions through collective action, including the use of military force as a last resort.

Following the armistice that ended the war on November 11, 1918, Wilson personally took his message to the Paris Peace Conference, the postwar meeting of the victorious Allied nations that would set the terms of the peace. The first sitting president to travel overseas, Wilson was greeted in Paris by joyous crowds when he arrived leading the American delegation.

For nearly six months, Wilson tried to convince reluctant Allied leaders to accept the central components of his plan. Having exhausted themselves financially and having suffered the loss of a generation of young men, the Allies intended to scoop up the spoils of victory and make the Central Powers pay dearly. The European Allies intended to hold on to their respective colonies regardless of Wilson’s call for self-determination, and as a nation that depended on a strong navy, Britain refused to limit its options by discussing freedom of the seas. Perhaps Georges Clemenceau, France’s president, best expressed his colleagues’ skepticism about Wilson’s idealistic vision: “President Wilson and his Fourteen Points bore me. Even God Almighty has only ten!”

During the conference, Wilson was forced to compromise on a number of his principles in order to retain the cornerstone of his diplomacy—the establishment of the League of Nations. He abandoned his hope for peace without bitterness by agreeing to a “war guilt” clause that levied huge economic reparations on Germany for starting the war. He was willing to sacrifice some of his ideals because the league took on even greater importance in the wake of the Communist revolution in Russia. The president believed that capitalism, as regulated and reformed during the Progressive Era, would raise living conditions throughout the world as it had done in the United States, would prevent the spread of communism, and would benefit U.S. commerce by paving the way to free trade. Wilson needed the league to keep the peace so that war-ravaged and recovering nations had the opportunity to practice economic freedom and political democracy. In the end, the president won agreement for the establishment of his cherished League of Nations. The final treaty signed at the palace of Versailles, just outside Paris, authorized the league to combat aggression against any member nation through collective military action.

The Failure of Ratification

In July 1919, after enduring bruising battles in Paris, Wilson returned to Washington, D.C., only to face another wrenching struggle in the Senate over ratification of the Versailles treaty. The odds were stacked against Wilson from the start. The Republicans held a majority in the Senate, and Wilson needed the support of two-thirds of the Senate to secure ratification. Moreover, Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opposed Article X of the League of Nations covenant, which sanctioned collective security arrangements against military aggression. Lodge argued that such an alliance compromised the United States’ independence in conducting its own foreign relations. The Massachusetts senator wanted the United States to preserve the possibility of unilateral action without being restrained by the league’s policies. Lodge had at least thirty-nine senators behind him, more than enough to block ratification. Conceding the need to protect the country’s national self-interest, the president agreed to modifications to the treaty so that the Monroe Doctrine and America’s obligations in the Caribbean and Central America were kept intact. Lodge, who loathed Wilson, was not satisfied and insisted on adding fourteen “reservations” limiting compliance with the treaty, including strong language affirming Congress’s right to declare war before agreeing to a League of Nations military action.

Wilson’s stubbornness more than equaled Lodge’s, and the president refused to compromise further over the league. Insisting that he was morally bound to honor the treaty he had negotiated in good faith, Wilson rejected additional changes demanded by Lodge and his supporters. Making matters worse, Wilson faced resistance from sixteen lawmakers dubbed “irreconcilables,” who opposed the league under any circumstances. Mainly Republicans from the Midwest and West, they voiced the traditional American rejection of entangling alliances.

To break the logjam, the president attempted to rally public opinion behind him. In September 1919, he embarked on a nationwide speaking tour to carry his message directly to the American people. Over a three-week period, he traveled eight thousand miles by train, keeping a grueling schedule that exhausted him. After a stop in Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25, Wilson collapsed and canceled the rest of his trip. On October 2, Wilson suffered a massive stroke that nearly killed him. The effects of the stroke, which left him partially paralyzed, emotionally unstable, and mentally impaired, dimmed any remaining hopes of compromise. The full extent of his illness was kept from the public, and his wife, Edith, ran the White House for the next eighteen months.

On November 19, 1919, the Senate rejected the amended treaty. The following year, Wilson had one final chance to obtain ratification, but still he refused to accept reservations. He ignored leaders of his own party who were willing to vote for the Republican-sponsored amendments. “Let Lodge compromise,” the president responded defiantly. In March 1920, treaty ratification failed one last time, falling just seven votes short of the required two-thirds majority. Had Wilson shown the same willingness to compromise that he had in Paris, the outcome might have been different. In the end, however, the United States never signed the Treaty of Versailles or joined the League of Nations, weakening the league and diminishing the prospects for long-term peace.


• What steps did the U.S. government take to control the economy and public opinion during World War I?

• How did President Wilson's wartime policies and his efforts to shape the peace that followed reflect his progressive roots?

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