United States Home Front During World War I
American war mobilization
author Paul Boșcu, August 2018
United States started mobilizing its huge industrial and potential prowess toward war production. Soldiers were conscripted through a draft lottery and those who were not sent to the front lines were put to work in factories. The American government initiated a propaganda campaign in order to gather support for the war effort, and anti-war sentiments were suppressed. The US also went through important social and political changes during the war: because men were sent on the front lines women started working jobs that had been thus far associated with men. The suffragette movement managed to gather support in this period, and at the end of the Great War women were given the right to vote.

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Although the United States had gone to war to defend democracy, in 1917 democracy did not extend to the right to oppose that war. America was torn by this and even more serious conflicts over the following months as the administration sought to reorganize the economy for war, raise and equip troops, and establish and enforce a patriotic fervor that would support the effort.

Although World War I raged in Europe, Asia, Africa, and on the oceans of the world for more than four terrible years, the United States participated in the war for only 19 months, from April 6, 1917, to November 11, 1918. Most American troops saw action only between February and November 1918.

Despite the brief engagement in the war and the relatively light casualties, the war had a deep and lasting impact on American society. The war marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. The deepest changes to American politics, economy, and society came about because of what transpired on the home front in the United States itself. When America declared war, its military forces were underprepared so they had to be organized and their numbers increased. Furthermore the US had to finance part of the French and British war effort, whose treasuries by 1917 were severely depleted.

Until late 1916, President Wilson had resisted the cry for preparedness mounted by leaders who believed the United States should join the battle earlier, particularly men like Theodore Roosevelt and Walter Hines Page. Roosevelt, who had served as president from 1901 to 1909 and had run as a Progressive for the presidency in 1912 to lose to Wilson, had publicly complained about Wilson’s insistence on neutrality, openly charging that Wilson’s position constituted a form of cowardice.

Only reluctantly, facing reelection in 1916, had Wilson supported an expansion of the army and an increase in military budget. So when Wilson asked Congress for the declaration of war on the 2nd of April 1917, the nation had not really prepared for war, just as Roosevelt had warned. To build a fleet of ships and effective numbers of aircraft and to train and equip an army would, in most estimates, take at least two or three years.

The Entente had exhausted their credit, and so the US Treasury would be called upon to provide funding for British and French purchases of ammunition, food, fuel, weapons, and transport equipment. As a consequence, the US government’s problems were compounded in that it had to organize the nation’s industries to meet the demands of the Entente for a meaningful contribution to the war effort; it must organize and train an army, and also find a way to finance both the American and Entente efforts. Military and economic advisers viewed these tasks as daunting; even so, most believed that the American effort, once mounted, would eventually lead to a victory, probably in 1919 or 1920.

In general, Republicans, both the traditional conservatives and those who had joined Theodore Roosevelt in the Progressive movement, criticized the organization of supply, the management of industry, and the rate of training and shipment of troops to Europe. In Congress, Republicans sought to wrest control of the domestic organization of the war from Wilson by establishing a congressionally-appointed war cabinet. Although Democrats defeated that measure, partisan bickering over such issues as industrial organization, military preparations and battle strategy continued throughout the 19 months of the war.

Joseph Tumulty, Wilson’s personal secretary, believed that Republicans simply thought they alone knew how to run a government and fight a war and that Republicans thought all Democrats incompetent to handle those tasks: ‘The old myth sedulously cultivated by Republicans continued in 1917, that only Republicans are fit to govern, no matter how badly they govern. Direful prophecies and predictions of disaster to the country by reason of the Democratic auspices under which the war was to be conducted were freely made.’

The ideas about governance that Wilson and his type of progressive Democrats supported did not lend themselves well to the job of administering the government of a nation at war in the 20th century, and Wilson and his close advisers found it very difficult to construct a modern and efficient structure based on their views of proper government. Although Progressive Republicans including Roosevelt had argued for a centralizing and organizing government that would use boards of experts from industry and technical fields to regulate the economy even in peacetime, Democrats like Wilson tended to believe in a minimum of compulsory government regulation.

Although Congress had voted overwhelmingly for the declaration of war, the explicit opposition of six senators and 50 members of Congress like Progressive Robert La Follette and feminist Jeannette Rankin could readily denote a significant and widespread undercurrent of opposition. Even the leader of the Democratic majority, Claude Kitchin, opposed the resolution declaring a state of war. Political observers knew that the political left, German-Americans, and many others strongly opposed the war.

Democrats trusted in voluntary systems of compliance and cooperation and a federal government that remained small and out of the way of the economy and the states. Wilson’s approach had been dubbed the New Freedom during the presidential campaign of 1912, and, to a significant extent, his administration already embodied the small-government, voluntary approach. Reconciling Wilson’s New Freedom views about free enterprise with the modern needs of total warfare, in which national resources of manpower and finance had to be channeled efficiently into the effort, proved a daunting task.

In a paradox common to the New Freedom approach, a national system would be administered locally, and a compulsory system of obligation would be presented as a lottery that chose individuals for service to the country on a random basis.

In order to find enough troops for a massive army, Wilson and his colleagues did not like the concept of universal military training or conscription. Nevertheless, raising an army simply by calling for volunteers would not be sufficient. Yet advocates of small government abhorred the idea of a centralized system. The solution was a national selective service system administered locally, which would require all men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register, and then to be selected at random.

To ensure that the draft would not take the only means of support from young families by sending off to war the married fathers of children, exemptions would be granted. The release from military obligation on the grounds of financial hardship, medical disability, or work in a vital industry would be determined by local draft boards, established from among community leaders, county by county across the nation.

The selective service system enacted in May 1917 and inaugurated with a mass registration on 5 June 1917 generated many inequities, such as white draft boards selecting a far higher proportion of blacks to meet local quotas than whites.

While the military draft represented a means to reconcile the need to meet national objectives with a locally based administration, no such dispersed mechanism could be effectively employed to deal with such pressing needs as industrial production, transportation coordination, shipping needs, and state financing. As the Wilson administration struggled to address these and other problems, it devised reforms and legislation that conformed as much as possible to the ideals of voluntary consent rather than federal government control.

Instead of raising taxes, the government relied on voluntary purchase of bonds. Rather than restricting food consumption through rationing, the Food Administration adopted a policy of exhortation through publicity drives urging the public to conserve food and avoid waste. While those programs had some success, others simply broke down or had unintended consequences that led to conflicts, shortages, confusion, and disorganization.

The nation declared war, but was quite unprepared militarily and economically for the demands of war. Furthermore, the public remained unready, psychologically and politically, to switch from the role of high-minded neutrality to a bloody and thorough commitment to war. So, while the Wilson administration attempted to organize funding and manpower, it also sought ways to win and solidify national support for the war. Wilson relied on a combination of loyal journalists and established political figures, together with his eloquent and impressive speaking manner, to win popular support for his positions.

As a former college professor and president, Wilson had only limited experience or interest in mustering political support through the structure of the political party machinery. He had served only briefly as governor of New Jersey on a reform ticket before running for president, and he distrusted organized political machines. As had become clear by 1916, his eloquence had some success and some notable failures; however, his speeches alone would not be enough to effect an overnight conversion of the public persona from dispassionate neutral to passionate patriot.

Information turned into outright propaganda, with Germans described as ‘barbaric huns’ who performed unspeakable atrocities. One story claimed that German soldiers often cut off the hands of Belgian schoolboys. Despite an intensive search, no such victim was ever found. Nevertheless, anti-German sentiment swept the country.

In efforts to ensure unity, the Wilson administration took extraordinary steps. In response to a suggestion from the secretaries of war, treasury and state, Wilson established the Committee on Public Information (C.P.I.) and placed at its head George Creel, a colorful journalist who had been one of Wilson’s political supporters. Under Creel, the C.P.I. would go on to become a combination propaganda agency and censorship bureau that flooded the nation with speakers, posters, music, movies, books and pamphlets all urging support for the war, support for bond drives to raise funds, support for the military draft, and suppression of any pro-German or peace-advocacy sentiments.

The C.P.I. accepted and enlarged upon British propaganda issued in the form of the Bryce Report, which had collected and exaggerated unsubstantiated atrocity stories to whip up British public opinion against Germany. The agency provided copy and material free of charge to newspapers and magazines, using the method of press release and canned stories. Newspapers gladly received the material, which often contained elements of news and quotations from official government spokesmen. Since the law did not require a newspaper to print the stories, the system preserved in theory the principle of voluntarism.

The C.P.I. commissioned many of the famous posters that still survive in popular culture from the era, including the one by James M. Flagg depicting Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer and labeled ‘I want you’.

Eventually, C.P.I. released some propaganda movies to theaters for screening with a nominal charge that helped offset the cost to the government. A few of them, like The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, released in April 1918, became widely popular. In addition, the C.P.I. issued a daily periodical, the Official Bulletin, with a circulation of more than 100,000, containing news and propaganda from the government.

Creel took over an existing voluntary organization, the Four-Minute Men, made up of speakers who would deliver speeches limited to four minutes on a wide number of topics. He soon expanded the number of speakers, who worked furiously, delivering talks during intermissions at movie theaters, to church groups and club meetings, and even on street corners. In all, by Creel’s own estimates, the Four-Minute Men gave more than 755,000 speeches in 18 months, urging support for the war, for the draft, for purchasing war bonds, and describing in horrible detail the supposed atrocities of the enemy.

Creel enlisted the help of artists, cartoonists, and entertainers to help ‘sell the war’. Slogans appeared such as ‘making the world safe for democracy’ and ‘the war to end all wars’. Artists were urged to ‘draw ’til it hurts’. In response they created some 700 poster designs, 122 streetcar advertising cards, 310 advertising illustrations, and 287 cartoons.

To further ensure unity of opinion, under the Espionage Act passed in the first months of the war, Postmaster Albert Burleson instituted a campaign of intimidation and censorship. By far the most aggressive and hostile member of Wilson’s cabinet, Burleson specifically focused on foreign-language newspapers, as well as socialist and liberal publications that advocated continued neutrality or opposition to American participation in the war. Burleson would suspend a publication’s mailing privileges, and he would then claim that it had failed to maintain its status as a regularly published periodical, using that as an excuse to then permanently cancel mailing privileges.

Burleson censored or suspended, among other publications, a Socialist newspaper, the Milwaukee Leader; a Socialist magazine, Masses; an Irish-American publication, Bull; a black-owned weekly newspaper, the San Antonio; and The Messenger, a Socialist African-American magazine published by A. Philip Randolph. The Post Office censors closely monitored several other black publications, including the Boston Guardian, New York News, New York Age, and the Chicago Broad-Ax.

After numerous complaints and investigations, both the NAACP’s Crisis and the widely circulated African-American newspaper the Chicago Defender, adopted a more loyal tone. Burleson suspended the mailing privileges of the liberal weekly The Nation for its criticism of labor leader Samuel Gompers, and, in this one instance, Wilson intervened to overturn the suspension. The Justice Department also went after anarchist publications, such as Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth.

Domestic intelligence work by both the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (BI) and by the Army’s Military Intelligence (MI) actively pursued Socialists, anarchists, assorted other radicals, conscientious objectors, and I.W.W. members. A volunteer group of self-appointed radical hunters, the American Protective League (A.P.L.), received a small amount of funding from the Justice Department’s BI, and these vigilantes provided reports on tens of thousands of citizens, including unpopular school teachers, German-Americans suspected of sympathy with the enemy, and completely innocent individuals who had simply annoyed their neighbors or who seemed a bit strange.

The combined efforts of the C.P.I. to whip up public support for the war and of the intelligence agencies and their volunteer assistants to stamp out opposition almost completely silenced criticism of the war and its goals. Most elected politicians and other leaders sought only to outdo each other in demonstrations of loyalty. Republican members of Congress could criticize the president for not conducting the war vigorously enough. But pacifists and others opposing the war simply could not get a public forum to express their ideas.

Armed with the Espionage Act of 1917, and later with expanded powers under the Trading with the Enemy Act and the so-called Sedition Act, the federal government had the power to arrest and imprison anyone who spoke out against the war, the draft, or the efforts to raise funds for the war. Together, these laws made any such speech an illegal act.

When Robert La Follette delivered some extemporaneous remarks to a meeting of the Nonpartisan League on 20 September 1917, explaining his reasons for opposing the war resolution, he stated that he viewed the offenses of Germany against the United States as insufficient to justify war. The Minnesota Committee of Public Safety, a patriotic group, immediately petitioned the Senate to expel La Follette, and the Senate considered a resolution to that effect. The ensuing investigation dragged on until after the war, only then to be quietly dropped.

Socialist politicians who opposed the war could not only lose their positions but also face arrest. The government arrested, among others, Charles Schenck, general secretary of the Socialist Party (SP), Eugene Debs, former SP presidential candidate, and Victor Berger, former SP member of Congress and owner of the Milwaukee Leader. None faced charges of attempted overthrow of the government or any action more radical than voicing opposition to the war and the draft.

The Justice Department arrested many besides the well-known Socialists under the Espionage Act. Altogether, federal authorities charged some 1,600 war opponents under the espionage and sedition acts, getting convictions and sentences on about half of those charged. While the government did not incarcerate a vast number of people in this way, the use of federal law and courts to place limits on freedom of speech created an atmosphere of compulsory loyalty that had immediate political effects in the 1918 election, and deeper and more sinister effects that lasted on into the postwar period.

The sudden rise of anti-German and spy-hunt hysteria during the short year and a half of the war reflected the effectiveness of the campaigns initiated by the federal government. The barrage of propaganda from the C.P.I., the censorship of opposition press by the Post Office, and the organized campaign to track down draft dodgers, opponents of the war, Socialists and pacifists combined to create the symptoms of a profound mass psychosis. Within a few years, shocked observers of the American scene, ranging from liberals like Walter Lippmann to conservatives like Alice Roosevelt Longworth, looked aghast and with evident embarrassment at what had happened to the state of the American mind and public opinion.

President Wilson and his son-in-law and secretary of the treasury, William Gibbs McAdoo, chose to raise money for the war primarily by the voluntary method of selling and buying bonds rather than relying on compulsory taxation. The interest rate on the first issued bonds was set below the prevailing market rate for solid commercial loans, at 3.5 percent. To make that rate attractive, any income tax on the gain was waived. This feature made the bonds financially attractive to wealthier individuals most concerned with income tax, rather than those in the lowest income ranks.

The first issue of Liberty Bonds in April 1917 was set at $2 billion. Boy Scouts and Four-Minute Men urged the sale of bonds, and performers put on benefit entertainments. One session at Carnegie Hall, led by Enrico Caruso and Amelita Galli-Curci, raised $4.8 million in bonds.

Since banks could use Liberty Bonds as collateral for loans from the Federal Reserve System, the issuance of bonds eventually had the effect of placing more money in circulation. In effect, part of the war effort became funded, in this roundabout fashion, through the issuance of more currency, leading to rapid inflation. An unintended consequence of the voluntaristic bond sale, inflation represented an invisible compulsory tax on every consumer.

Altogether, McAdoo pushed four bond drives during the war. He first estimated that the cost of the war effort would be $3.5 billion; by May 1918, he had raised the estimate to $13.7 billion with another $24 billion needed for the following year. In addition, the sale of bonds of the Allies in the United States totaled $9.5 billion.

Enthusiastic slogans emerged in support of the Liberty Loan Campaigns, including ‘Buy Bonds Till It Hurts’, ‘Come Across or the Kaiser Will’, ‘The Soldier Gives—You Must Lend’, and ‘A Bond Slacker Is a Kaiser Backer’. Supporting these campaigns, bond rallies were held throughout the country, with appearances by movie stars such as Theda Bara, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford.

One successful rally was staged on the steps of the New York Public Library, with top entertainers performing. Among these was musical comedy star Elsie Janis, who had performed for troops in France, where she acquired the nickname ‘Sweetheart of the AEF’. Not long before, her English fiancé had been killed in action on the Western Front.

The doctrine of voluntary cooperation and compliance had its limits, soon revealed in attempts to organize industry. Different purchasing agencies of the government soon found themselves bidding against each other for the same products. With shipowners reluctant to send freighters through the submarine blockade, goods piled up. Coal prices climbed, and, despite increased production, fuel supplies dropped to dangerously low levels because of a severe winter in 1917-18 and vastly increased factory production. To meet these challenges, Wilson established several coordinating agencies. Although the agencies had few powers, they represented a step in the direction of a managed economy.

In the summer of 1917, Wilson established the War Industries Board (WIB) and selected Bernard Baruch to head it up. A successful Wall Street financier, Baruch took on the task, resigning his position on several corporate boards of directors to avoid a conflict of interest. Baruch had already served in 1916 on the Advisory Commission of the Council of National Defense and as chair of the Commission on Raw Materials, Minerals, and Metals. Wilson first put Baruch in charge of coordinating all Entente purchasing in the United States.

With enhanced powers, Baruch began to issue direct orders regulating aspects of the economy, all the while urging voluntary compliance. Nevertheless, in some industries, government orders became the only way to secure compliance. For example, the W.I.B. regulated the price of shoes, ordered that no platinum, gold, or silver be used in jewelry manufacture, and required that all automobile manufacture be devoted to government work by the 1st of January 1919.

Herbert Hoover, as food administrator, worked even more through exhortation to get enterprises and consumers to conform to certain voluntary rules, urging meatless days and reduction of wasted food by housewives and restaurant cooks and chefs. Hoover proposed substitution of plentiful products for scarcer ones, such as corn for wheat, fish and beans for meat, and syrup for sugar, and the practice of voluntary conservation came to be called Hooverizing.

Although Hoover held the power to close down businesses through the ability to withdraw federal licenses to operate, he very rarely used the penalty. Sometimes, when a corporation did not cooperate, Hoover would demand a contribution to the Red Cross and then let the business continue on promise of good behavior. He repeatedly called conferences of related industries, exhorted them to cooperation, and then relied on that cooperation.

The transportation problem was addressed separately at the end of December 1917, when Wilson appointed William Gibbs McAdoo director-general of the United States Railroads. Usually remembered as a federal takeover or nationalization of the railroads, in fact, the appointment act simply conferred on McAdoo the power to set and control rates and to override antitrust regulation that prohibited railroad collaboration on traffic management, pricing, and wage rates. McAdoo allowed for increased rates and worked with the existing companies to untangle the immense traffic jams that had developed.

Steel mills rearranged priorities, stepped up their production, and the resulting steel became the needed raw material for arms manufacture. Simultaneously, civilian uses of steel were drastically reduced, and scrap drives were held. New York City ripped out 5,000 of its 35,000 lampposts and shipped them to arsenals where they could be melted down.

Under the Lever Food and Fuel Act, Wilson appointed Harry Garfield as fuel administrator, hoping that reforms could be operated on a voluntary basis. However, as coal and oil stocks dropped in the severe winter of 1917-18 he issued an order shutting down all manufacturing plants east of the Mississippi for four days. The outcry against this decision, and the obvious failure of planning that it represented, led Republicans in Congress to attempt to pass legislation establishing a congressionally selected war cabinet to run the economy and the war effort. Democratic floor leaders successfully forestalled that attack on Wilson, pushing through the Overman Act, which gave the president the power to reorganize government departments without congressional approval.

Democrats thus converted the clamor for more efficiency and more direct control into more administrative control in the hands of the president, quite the reverse of what the disgruntled leaders of the Republican opposition had been hoping to achieve.

The fact that some 2 million men went out from the labor force to enter the A.E.F. created a shortage of workers. While black men migrated from the South to take the places formerly occupied by waves of European immigrants, many women of all races also took new positions. However, contrary to popular impressions, the vast majority of women who went to work were not drawn from the ranks of middle-class housewives. Most women in these industrial and service jobs had worked before, many as low-paid domestic servants, seamstresses, or in textile industries.

Many women did find themselves with better-paying jobs at least temporarily, even though the pay was not equal to that of male workers in the same positions. In general, organized labor leaders viewed the influx of women into new jobs very cautiously, believing the women would and should be short-time replacements for men who had gone into the military. As a consequence, women rarely organized, except in sporadic and spontaneous protests such as that of the cigar makers in Norfolk, Virginia. In New York, women in the garment trades did organize and continued to hold some of their advances in pay and conditions after the war.

A cultural change was taking place, as large numbers of women were entering the workforce. They were employed in a variety of occupations, with training programs set up to prepare them for jobs previously reserved for men. Women began delivering Western Union telegrams, serving as elevator operators, working in munitions factories, and making clothing. Some even learned to be welders. Many women were also working in the newly expanded aircraft factories, though as it turned out, practically no plane manufactured in America ever made it to France during World War I.

The women’s suffrage movement had been severely divided by the war, with many women hoping that by pledging loyalty and support for the war and holding off from protest, they would win the approval of Congress for the suffrage amendment. The National Woman’s Party, however, under the leadership of Alice Paul, a suffragist from New Jersey, decided on a more direct approach. Paul’s group began picketing the White House. These protests had an effect. After a vigorous state-by-state campaign, 36 states approved the suffragette amendment and it went into effect in August 1920, in time for the November 1920 elections.

Politicians, for the most part, tried to ignore the protests. However, a few weeks later, the District of Columbia police warned Ms. Paul that any further demonstrations would result in the arrest of the protesters. Alice Paul noted that, according to her lawyers, picketing remained perfectly legal, and no difference existed between picketing before and after the war began. In June 1917, police arrested a total of 29 women outside the White House. The court convicted six of them for obstructing traffic, and fined each $25. All six refused to pay the fine and were sent to jail. These arrests were followed in July with another 16 arrests.

The judge in their case considered charging the women with violation of the Espionage Act, but since they had restricted their picket signs to quotations from Wilson’s own speeches about democracy, the women had forestalled that legal tactic and at the same time had given an ironic poke at the system. The women were sentenced to 60 days in the Occoquan Workhouse, the prison for offenders in the District of Columbia, on the charge of obstructing traffic. A lawyer whom Wilson had appointed as Collector of the Port of New York, Dudley Malone, threatened to resign his position and to offer his legal services to the women. Wilson pardoned all of the suffragists.

In October 1917, the police arrested Alice Paul and 10 other women, but this time the women refused to even recognize the authority of the court, on the ground that they were completely unrepresented in the government that arrested them. After Paul and some of her fellow prisoners organized a hunger strike and requested to be treated as political prisoners, guards force-fed them and held them in solitary confinement. Malone resigned his position and filed a writ of habeas corpus, finally obtaining the release of the suffragist prisoners in November.

By March 1918, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled that the arrests had been illegal. The direct action of protesting and refusing to accept the justice system had set precedents for later civil disobedience and protest campaigns over other issues.

Although disturbed by the willingness of women to picket and go to jail, many male politicians, like Malone, recognized the legitimacy of their point about disenfranchisement. New York State extended suffrage to women on 11 November 1917. Energized both by Alice Paul’s campaign and by more traditional lobbying efforts, the women’s movement achieved congressional approval for the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted nationwide suffrage to women, on 4 June 1919.

The Wilson administration had worked assiduously to suppress opposition to the war and to foster a sense of national unity and patriotism. Yet many of the people attacked in that effort included some who had been among Wilson’s earlier advocates. Those opposed to the war had mostly supported Wilson in 1916; however his own administration made opposition to the war an illegal act and actively suppressed the voicing of that opinion. The instruments of government thus turned against the very core of Wilson’s earlier voting base. It was in this context that Republicans took over Congress.

Much of Wilson’s earlier support in the elections of 1912 and 1916 had come from progressive Democrats, who increasingly called themselves liberals during this period. In general, liberal opinion had been in favor of women’s rights, child labor protection, regulation of industry, and peaceful negotiation of international conflicts.

Wilson’s hold on the electorate had been slim in 1916. He had won reelection through the fact that many western states, traditionally Republican but also strongly Neutralist on the war, had swung by narrow majorities into his column. As the congressional elections of 1918 neared, Democrats urged Wilson to campaign or speak out in favor of the party, but he remained reluctant, withdrawing from partisan politics.

Statistically, the election turned out to be no more of a condemnation of the incumbent administration than usual in midterm elections, but after Wilson’s plea for a popular endorsement of his positions, the outcome of the vote could be read as a repudiation of him. The Republicans won majorities with gains of six seats in the Senate and 30 seats in the House of Representatives, so that Democrats lost control of both houses. The Democratic Party losses ran greatest in western states, which largely returned to their traditional Republican position. The election took place six days before the end of the war.