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America and World War I, Over Here

National War Labor Board, liberty cabbage, Fuel Administration, Palmer Raids, War Industries Board

World War I wrought significant changes on the American home front. First, the war created labor shortages. Thousands of African Americans left the South for jobs in Northern steel mills, munitions plants, and stockyards. The great migration of the World War I era established large black communities in Northern cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The influx, however, provoked racial tensions and race riots in some cities, including East Saint Louis, Illinois, in July 1917 and Chicago in July 1919.

Labor shortages provided a variety of jobs for women, who became streetcar conductors, railroad workers, and shipbuilders. Women also volunteered for the war effort and sold war bonds. Women mustered support for woman suffrage, a cause that finally achieved its long-sought goal. The 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, triumphed in Congress in 1919 and was ratified by the states in 1920.

The war greatly increased the responsibilities of the federal government. New government agencies relied mainly on persuasion and voluntary compliance. The War Industries Board urged manufacturers to use mass production techniques and increase efficiency. The Railroad Administration regulated rail traffic; the Fuel Administration monitored coal supplies and regulated gasoline. The National War Labor Board sought to resolve thousands of disputes between management and labor that resulted from stagnant wages coupled with inflation. The Food Administration urged families to observe “meatless Mondays,” “wheatless Wednesdays,” and other measures to help the war effort. The Committee on Public Information organized thousands of public speakers (“four-minute men”) to deliver patriotic addresses; the organization also produced 75 million pamphlets promoting the war effort.

Finally, to finance the war, the United States developed new ways to generate revenue. The federal government increased income and excise taxes, instituted a war-profit tax, and sold war bonds.

War pressures evoked hostility and suspicion in the United States. Antagonism toward immigrants, especially those of German descent, grew. Schools stopped teaching German. Hamburgers and sauerkraut became “Salisbury steak” and “liberty cabbage.” Fear of sabotage spurred Congress to pass the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. The laws imposed fines, jail sentences, or both for interfering with the draft, obstructing the sale of war bonds, or saying anything disloyal, profane, or abusive about the government or the war effort. These repressive laws, upheld by the Supreme Court, resulted in 6,000 arrests and 1,500 convictions for antiwar activities. The laws targeted people on the left, such as Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, who was imprisoned, and Emma Goldman, who was jailed and deported. The arrests of 1917 reflected wartime concerns about dissent as well as hostility toward the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Ironically, after leading America to victory in the war, President Wilson endured two significant disappointments. First he compromised at Versailles; for instance, he agreed to the Allied diplomats’ desire for high reparations against Germany. Second, Wilson refused to compromise with the Senate, and thus he was unable to accomplish his idealistic goals. His vision of spreading democracy around the world and of ensuring world peace became a casualty of the peace process.

World War I left many legacies. The American experience of the Great War, albeit brief and distant from the nation’s shores, showed the United States how effectively it could mobilize its industrial might and hold its own in world affairs. However, the war left Germany shackled by the armistice and angered by the peace treaty. Postwar Germany faced depression, unemployment, and desperate economic conditions, which gave rise to fascist leadership in the 1930s. In addition, each of the areas carved out by the Treaty of Versailles proved, in one way or another, to be trouble spots in the decades ahead. In the United States, fears of radicalism, horror at Soviet bolshevism, and the impact of wartime hysteria led to a second blast of attacks on radicals. In the Palmer Raids in January 1920, agents of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer arrested thousands of people in 33 cities. The postwar Red Scare abated, but suspicion of foreigners, dissenters, and nonconformists continued in the 1920s.

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