The USA and World War I
6th April 2017
One hundred years ago today, on April 6th 1917, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve Woodrow Wilson’s call for a declaration of war against Germany to “make the world safe for democracy”. Although the United States was only directly involved in the First World War for a period of nineteen months, from 6 April 1917 to 11 November 1918, and American troops were only fully committed for a fraction of that time, the war had a considerable impact on American society and politics. The country quickly mobilised and the federal government assumed powers that some commentators described as “war socialism”. Selective service, the draft, was introduced for the first time, and four million men were conscripted, two million of whom served in Europe. The almost 60,000 Americans who died in action seem a tiny figure when compared to the huge losses suffered by the major belligerents in the war, but the American intervention played a decisive role on the Western Front, and left a lasting memory among the “lost generation”.
At home, new war agencies were established to mobilise industry and labour; railroads, food and fuel, were regulated; public opinion was shaped by propaganda agencies and dissent was stifled. Opponents to the war, such as the Socialists, and those who seemed to threaten disruption of the war effort, like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), suffered as a consequence as “100 percent Americanism” and xenophobia became the dominant mood and spilled over into the “Red Scare” after the war. When Americans later looked back on the war years, they often did so with a negative view – one writer said the war “did no good to anybody. Those of its generation it did not kill, it crippled, wasted or used up.” However, the war also resulted in dramatic social changes as job opportunities led to the “Great Migration” of 400,000 African Americans from the South to the North; women too found new opportunities in government and in war work, strengthening their claims for equal suffrage, something Woodrow Wilson called for as a war measure, and which was finally passed in 1920. Many progressive reformers found opportunities in war agencies regulating wages, standards of living, and even introducing the first federal housing programme.
It is probably true that the war unleashed a series of economic developments that were to lead to the depression of the 1930s, but it is also the case that war agencies provided the model for much of the early New Deal – Franklin Roosevelt served as assistant secretary of the navy during the war. Despite all this, the lasting sense that most Americans had, and still have, is that entry into the war was a mistake that had little but negative consequences. Wilson’s hopes of a just peace failed, Congress rejected participation in the League of Nations, and the American people seemed to turn back to isolationism (even if this could never be realised in reality). However, to conclude that the war had little effect on America would be wrong, and it is worth remembering how much happened at home in such a short space of time, and how lasting some of the consequences were to be.