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