The Impact of World War I on the United States


Wars change things, and big wars change things a lot.  World War I changed America, or at least hastened the pace of change.  Some of these changes might have been good, but there was a sinister side to some of what was going on as well.

[In class I spend quite a bit of time discussing the origins of  WW I in Europe.  You do not need to talk about this on the exam.  Concentrate instead on the way American involvement in WWI directly or indirectly changed things like American foreign policy, American politics, social relationships, etc.]

Over there after all....

Now, what did all this have to do with the United States?  Nothing at all, some would have heoped.  George Washington had warned the US against becoming entangled in European wars, and for 150 years the US had followed Washington’s advice.  Wilson and his Secretary of State Bryan were committed to this “non-entanglement” tradition, trying to keep us from getting involved.

But it wasn’t easy.  As the war raged in Europe, tremendous trade opportunities were available to American businesses, and American businessmen took advantage of this.

Germany had resorted to U-boat warfare to try to block supplies from getting to Britain.  They warned us that anyone sailing on a British ship was subject to attack, but Americans continued to travel on British ships anyway.

In 1915, the Germans sunk the Lusitania, killing 1,198 people including 128 Americans.  This didn’t play well with the American public.  On top of that, the British-controlled transatlantic cable was transmitting information designed to make us sympathize with their side and be outraged by German atrocities.

Still, Wilson held the line, and, when he ran for reelection in 1916, he made that a key point in his campaign.  His Republican opponent Charles Evans Hughes (called Charles Evasive Hughes by his detractors) didn’t make clear where he stood on US entry into the war.  The Wilson campaign, however, made much of Wilson’s success in avoiding American involvement.  “He kept us out of war” was a featured slogan.  One campaign ad: “You are working, not fighting; alive and happy, not cannon fodder; Wilson and peace with honor, or Hughes with Roosevelt and war?”

Well, Wilson won reelection, but in a close vote: 277 to 254 in the electoral college.  The American people had chosen Wilson, at least partly on the implied promise we were *not* going to enter the war.

But there were soon problems with this policy.  The papers played up the Zimmerman Note, an intercepted German message to Mexico that said that, in the event of American entry into the war, Mexico should attack the United States.  At the end of the war, the Germans would repay them by getting back for them Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

On top of that, the Germans were sinking American ships taking supplies to Britain.  Anti-German sentiment increased, and Wilson decided we had to go to war.  

The American war effort as "progressive" reform

But if he was going to break his implied campaign promise, Wilson better give the American people good reasons for doing so.  He did.

1.  This would be a “war to end all wars.”
2.  This would be a war to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Good goals—but more than goals.  Wilson was determined that the war would be a “progressive” war, one that did in fact lead to a more peaceful world and that did in fact lead to free and democratic societies.

Wilson suggested a way of settling the war that might have done just that, his “Fourteen Points,” Wilson’s plan for resolving European (and world-wide) problems after the fighting was done.

Wilson’s points included:

1.  Open covenants (no secret diplomacy)
2.  Freedom of the seas
3.  The removal of economic barriers
4.  The reduction of national armaments “to the lowest point consistent with safety”
5.  The impartial adjustment of colonial claims
6.  The evacuation of Russia by foreign armies
7.  Belgian independence
8.  The Alsace-Lorraine area restored to France
9.  Adjustment of the Italian frontier
10.  Autonomy for the peoples of Austria-Hungary
11.  The restoration of Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro
12.   Autonomy for Turkey
13.  An independent Poland
14.  The creation of a League of Nations

Now these ideas reflect a pretty solid understanding of the causes of WWI and a pretty sound recipe for an amicable peace.  American entry into the war *did* turn the tables in Europe leading to the defeat of Germany, and our contributions *should* have meant that we would have an important voice in how the war was actually settled, *especially* since the Germans surrendered under the belief they would be treated in accord with the generous terms promised by Wilson.

But what actually happened is that, after the war was over, the British, and even more the French, insisted on much harsher terms for Germany—and Wilson gave in.  Why?  He sacrificed most of his goals to achieve the one goal he thought most important, the creation of the League of Nations. The Versailles Treaty that actually ended the war (June 28, 1919) stripped Germany of the Saar Basin and the Danzig region, reduced the German army to 100,000 men, forbid German fortifications on their border with France—and imposed on German an indemnity of more than $30 billion to pay for the war.  But Wilson had got his League of Nations—sort of.  And World War I was a victory overall for the good guys—sort of.

Impact of WWI on America and on the progressive movement

Unfortunately, American involvement in WWI had some worrisome indirect effects on the country.  Wilson had warned that if Americans went to war they would “forget the very meaning of the word tolerance,” and intolerance did increase as a result of our involvement in WWI.

During the war, it seemed necessary to stir up anti-German sentiment to induce men to volunteer or to accept the draft, and to induce Americans in general to make the sacrifices necessary for the war effort.  The job of stirring up anti-German sentiment fell to George Creel and his Committee of Public Information.

Creel’s group printed all sorts of anti-German posters.  One featured an ape-like German carrying of a helpless young lady.  The caption?  Destroy this made brute.  Another showed a German dragging off a girl by the hair.  The caption? Remember Belgium.

Very, very effective.  Men hate rapists—and the thought of innocent young girls being raped by German soldiers made American men angry enough to want to fight.

Hollywood jumped on the anti-German bandwagon, producing movies like, “The Kaiser,” “To Hell with the Kaiser,” and “The Beast of Berlin.”

It worked!  Americans hated Germans—hated them enough to want to kill them.  And that (of course) is what war is all about.  But there was a problem.

What about the Germans among us?  If Germans are so awful, shouldn’t we hate them too?  Americans burned German books, forced and end to German-language church services, banned the playing of German music.  “German” was a dirty word.  German measles were renamed…and no one was allowed to study German in college.  And, if you were German yourself, you better prove your loyalty to the US by buying liberty bonds—bonds whose revenues could be used to destroy those nasty countrymen of yours.

Not just the Germans became the subject of hate campaigns. Anti-black sentiment had been increasing even before the war.  D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” fed into a resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan.  By 1925, there were 5 million Klan members!  KKK= “Kill the Kikes the Koons and the Katholics” said some.  Anti-Jewish, Anti-Catholic, Anti-black sentiment all increased with Klan growth.

Likewise, the country became intolerant of foreigners.  Anti-immigration laws slowed immigration to a trickle of what it had been.  

Feeding both anti-black and anti-immigrant sentiment was the growth of the eugenics movement. Darwinian ideas on “natural” selection led to an increased desire to improve the American genetic heritage through artificial means.  Forced sterilization and anti miscegenation laws (precursors of the policies the Nazis would adopt in Germany) were drawn up in many states—laws that, in some cases, stayed on the books until the 1960’s. 

[The Wikipedia article on eugenics is really a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the dark side of the progressive movement. Teddy Roosevelt, Luther Burbank, Alexander Graham Bell, Margaret Sanger, and many other prominent Americans bought into a movement that for a time pushed us well down the road that Nazi Germany would take to its logical and horrible conclusion.]

World War I also increased other types of intolerance.  Socialist leader Eugene Debs was thrown into prison for conspiracy: he had spoken against the constitutionality of the draft.  Duly elected New York lawmakers were excluded from holding office by their colleagues on the charge that they were socialists.

World War I led also to a changed status for women.  The 19th Amendment (adopted in 1920) guaranteed women the right to vote.  Wilson had championed it as “a necessary war measure.”  But it seems to me that the real reason men dropped their opposition to the 19th Amendment was the 18th Amendment.

Men had opposed women’s suffrage in part because they were afraid women would make prohibition their number one priority.  In 1920, men were no longer afraid giving the women the right to vote would lead to prohibition.  Why?  Because, by then, we already had prohibition!

The 18th Amendment authorized Congress to ban the sale and transport of intoxicating beverages.  Why adopted? Well, American servicemen had not been allowed to drink in WWI.  They had been more effective than any other soldiers.  It looked, then, that WWI was proof positive that getting rid of booze was a good idea.  The national experiment with Prohibition, then, was another consequence of WWI.

But despite the fact that World War I had led to some changes progressive wanted, WWI really ended up killing the progressive movement.  In 1920, Wilson decided that the Democrats should make the election a “solemn referendum” on the League of Nations.  Up to this point, Republicans in the Senate had blocked US entry.  Wilson said: ok, let’s show them at the polls.  Although Wilson himself was not on the ballot anywhere, he did succeed in making the American people think that the big issue in both the presidential and congressional contests was American commitment to the League of Nations.  Result?  The American people said no to the league—electing a conservative Republican, Warren G. Harding rather than the progressive Democratic nominee, Cox.  It wasn’t even close—Harding won by the largest margin of any candidate in American history.  Progressivism was dead—at least for the moment.