In our last episode on America entering the war, we have a bit of a grab bag of topics.
Hello everyone and welcome to episode 135 of History of the Great War. This is our fourth and final episode on how America entered the war in 1917 and what happened for the rest of that year. During this episode we are going to touch on what the Germans, French, and Austro-Hungarians thought of America’s entry into the war and then we will spend the bulk of this episode discussing that would be coming for Americans on the home front. While we discussed in some detail the effects of the war on the home fronts of Europe we have not discussed changes that were going to happen in America. While they were different than those in Europe, nobody in America would be starving to death in the streets, they would still have some long lasting ramifications for Americans, even 100 years later. This will be our final episode on the Americans for now at least, and next week we will turn our focus to the air war in Europe.
In Germany the American entry into the war did not have any immediately negative consequences. I occurred in early April, and if you remember that month was the best month of the entire war for the U-Boats, which many Germans believed could end the war. However, and spring turned to summer things began to change. Both the political leadership of Germany, and the public at large, became disillusioned with the U-Boats during the last half of 1917. It became clear that they would not win the war and this hurt morale on the home front and caused a political shakeup. The most immediate consequence of this took place in the Reichstag where in early July 1917 the SPD party was joined by the Catholic Centre Party and Progressive Liberals in calls for a peace note to be sent to all participants in the war. These calls came only after Bethmann-Hollweg, who many in the Reichstag blamed for the U-Boat campaign, was dismissed on July 19th. This would be the first in a year-long series of moves as the German civilian leadership sought to assert itself in Germany, a task they would not accomplish until just a few weeks before the war was over.
The reaction to American entry was obviously very ethusiastic from their new allies, although for the French it required a slight massaging of their official war aims. For the French their objectives had been pretty clear for most of the war. After the German attacks of 1914 the French needed to push them out of the country, then they would demand the return of Alsace-Lorraine, and then they would disarm Germany to prevent this from ever happening against. They also had some stretch goals around trying to get all of the German territory on the West Bank of the Rhine, and then to try and break Germany up into many smaller sovereign states, like they had been before 1870. Early in the war the French were therefore glad that the Americans stayed out of the conflict, as they were concerned that greater American investment in the war would force a reduction in their war goals, with American entry this concern went from theoretical to very real. Wilson had spent the last several months preaching his Peace Without Victory plan, and the French were absolutely not on board with this method of making peace. Sure the French wanted peace, but they wanted that peace to include all of the spoils of a traditional European conflict, and that meant territory and reparations. This desire would set the stage for how the Americans and French got along in their coalition, especially after the November 11th armistice. There was a constant concern among the French leadership that every month that the war continued in 1918, and possible into 1919, meant more American troops and more American influence. This growth would be concerning, and it is not out of the realm of possibility that if the war had continued American influence would have continued to the point of primacy, and this was France’s greatest fear. At that point, while the French were happy to have the American troops, Wilson would have control over peace terms, and everybody knew he would be lenient on the losers.
One country we have not discussed at all in relation to American entry is Austria-Hungary. Interestingly enough these countries were still on pretty good diplomatic terms, even after the American declaration of war in April. Austrian officials had issued official complaints about the United States, as a neutral country, manufacturing military good that were then sent to Europe in 1915 but they never went beyond just registering the complaint, not that they really had the power to do anything. When war was declared on Germany, the United States did not include Austria-Hungary in the declaration and the reason given for this was because the Empire was not in open warfare against American citizens like Germany was with their U-Boats. This actually brings up something I have completely skipped until now, accidentally, which is unfortunate because it is an important detail. When America entered the war they declared war on Germany but they did not join in the alliance of Britain, France, and Germany. This set up them not as an ally of those three countries, but more of an associated power. This may seem like hair splitting, but it did make a difference because the United States could do whatever it wanted to diplomatically, it was not tied by treaty to the other countries. The most obvious way that this manifested was in the fact that the United States did not declare war on Austria-Hungary, and still hoped for a separate peace, all through 1917. It would only be during December 1917 that war was declared between the two countries, and only after all hope faded for a separate settlement.
We now turn out attention to domestic policy within the United States during the war. We touched briefly on this when discussing President Wilson’s speeches before war was declared, but I want to continue to focus on his views on dissent from American citizens. Wilson would not only expect, but pretty much demand, united from American citizens during the war. This was a challenge because it was a war in Europe, which was thousands of miles away, at a time when many Americans barely travelled at all. Unlike the European countries, where the threat from Germany was manifest, any claim that the Germans were a real threat to the United States as a whole was dubious at best. This lack of clear and present danger meant that there was a lot of disagreement about how wise it was for America to enter the war at all and even though Wilson wanted complete unity it was difficult for him to demand it. The issue was that the United States was and still is a democracy, where if you are just going by the letter of the constitution it is difficult to force people to believe anything. And of course I say that because we are going to spend the next several minutes discussing some of the ways that the government began to tear down some of those freedoms, some of which would not be restored when the war was over. These efforts began in April 1917, right after war was declared, with the creation of the Committee of Public Information. Officially this committee was mostly just a propaganda institution, something that every country had. Their goal was to convince Americans that intervention in the war was not only the correct path but the only path. Unofficially though the committee would be the coordinator of a nationwide censorship effort that would continue for the entire length of American participation in the war. Its goal was to reduce the amount of criticism of official government policy, especially that criticism that could appear in public forums.
To assist in these efforts was possibly the most important piece of legislation, the Espionage Act of 1917. This law was immensely powerful, and problematic in the context of American history. As an American I can say with a good amount of confidence that we believe our country to be a free democracy, and it has been that way from the moment it was founded, but when you read the contents of the Espionage act it is easy to start doubting this version of history. Here is a lengthy quote from the act, not the whole text, but a big chunk of the relevant sections. While I am reading this try and think of all of the pieces of it that are up for complete interpretation and that could be used in a very wide range of circumstances. “the right it conferred upon the government to define dissent as treason and punish it accordingly, and to single out for destruction any publications of which it did not approve. Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States, or to promote the success of its enemies, or shall willfully make or convey false reports, or false statements…or incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct…the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, or…shall willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States…or shall willfully display the flag of any foreign enemy, or shall willfully…urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production…or advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated and whoever shall by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States therein, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both.” These types of clauses would be ruled unconstitutional in most circumstances, and in fact the law would be repealed after the war, but in 1917 Wilson and the Executive Branch had an immense amount of power and pushed it through congress under the claim that it was necessary for the Americans to win the war. The one piece that Congress removed from the proposed bill would have given the President the power to censor the press. Even though this clause was removed from the final bill there would still be ways found to accomplish this goal. The key part of that would be mail censorship, which would become very real. It is difficult to understate the importance of mail and newspaper delivery in the United States at this point in history. It was one of the very few ways that people over wide distances could communicate with each other, since there was no internet and telephones were far from their ubiquitous status of today.
One group that was greatly affected by this mail censorship was the American Socialist Party. With entry into the war, attacks on socialist groups would be seen as more necessary than ever before, especially after what happened in Russia. The American Socialist Party had been founded in 1901 and had only 70,000 members in 1914. However, during the 1916 election cycle the socialist candidate for president had received 600,000 votes. In 1917 the entire group did not even try to conceal their total opposition to entering the war. The party relied heavily on mailed publications to communicate with its members, and it would be these publications that would be targeted by the government. The first move was to remove the ability for 60 publications, including the one by the Socialist Party, and this was just the start. Almost anything could get a publication’s mailing privileges revoked. Here are some examples from A World Remade by G.J. Meyer “It happened to The Public for saying what President Wilson had said in asking for a declaration of war: that the costs should be paid more through taxes and less through borrowing. It happened to The Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Register for printing a statement of Thomas Jefferson’s that Ireland should be independent. The Jeffersonian, published in Georgia by Tom Watson, once nationally famous as a leader of the populist movement, had to go out of business after writing such things as “men conscripted to go to Europe are virtually condemned to death and everybody knows it.”” The Postmaster General was smart enough not to go after any publication with real political influence, so you see a lot of mailings added to the list that were quite niche. The largest publication would be the Appeal to Reason with a circulation of half a million. I want to be clear on this, very very few of these publications were advocating anything other than peace, and the questions being asked were about why the country was even in the war to begin with. They were not plotting to help the enemy or do anything nefarious and by denying access to the mail these publications and the groups they represented almost ceased to exist. The mail was the only way to reach a widespread base of like minded individuals in 1917, and the government was deciding to deny them access.
There were also other instances of free speech being infringed upon. In Seattle two men were arrested for distributing a publication saying “No conscription, no servitude, no slavery.” This was even before the Selective Service Act and before the Espionage Act, so really there was nothing that the government could charge them with, what they were doing was simply not yet illegal. So instead they were charged with conspiring to block the carrying out of the declaration of war, and they got 2 years in prison for it. On the 4th of July a New Yorker was thrown in jail for 90 days for passing out copies of the Declaration of Independence with a page on the front reading “Does your government live up to these principles?” In July, Wilson would give a speech saying “Woe be to the man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way in this day of high resolution when every principle we hold dearest is to be vindicated and made secure for the salvation of the nation.” To add to all of the official punishments and official censorship there was also a good amount of overzealous citizen reporters telling authorities how unpatriotic other citizens were being. Many of these came from the American Protective League, which was a private organization with thousands of members. Many of these were overeager make-believe counter-intelligence officers who main job was to spy on their fellow citizens and report on their activities. The type of reports that would be filed would be things like some citizens not being patriotic enough, or maybe they liked German music, or maybe they talked about how horrible the war might be, or for one man in Toledo who apparently went through all of the library book histories, read too many German books. There was also more dangerous, and very real, actions taken by the APL as they would play a key role in rounding up real dissidents and in breaking strikes around the country. The worst part about all of this was that for all of the reports, all of the breaches of personal privacy, there was never a single actual espionage charge that was found to be even slightly valid. Instead, it was just a way to cause problems for people who might not seem patriotic enough. Many of these actions were de facto sanctioned by the government since they did nothing to curtail it. Citizens spying on other citizens, reporting them with no proof of wrongdoing, truly a dark chapter in American history.
I think that is enough negativity for the moment, so let’s turn our eyes just a bit to some of the economic impacts of the war on the home front. Right from April 6th onwards there was a lot of pressure from the British and French for the Americans to produce literally everything that all 3 countries needed to stay in the war. This put tremendous strain on a slightly disorganized American industrial base. To try and make some sense out of this chaos the War Industries Board was created, with the goal of coordinating all of the manufacturing output of the country. While this would be a great help, the board would also play a role in two other areas. First they would have the power to set prices, and second they would help settle labor disputes. This seems like reasonable powers for a committee designed to help manufacturing to have. What it actually meant though was that the board would tell the companies to give into the union demands whenever there was a strike, at least as long as the demands were not completely crazy. The board was able to get the companies to go along with this because the board took care of the prices paid by the government to the companies. So if the unions wanted more money, the War Industries Board made sure that the companies were properly compensated for any increases in wages. Quite simple really, and worked great for the companies and the workers. Believe it or not this was actually the more legitimate side of the war profiteering coin. On the other side were cost-plus contracts that were handed out like candy from the government. These basically said that the companies would be given profits at some set percentage over what it cost them to do the work. Obviously this system was criminally easy to abuse, with many businesses finding ways to increase the cost of what they were doing, maybe using more expensive pieces here, more expensive wood over here to burn some trash, and other such strategies to help increase the numbers. These types of contracts and the various efforts to game the system meant that the steel industry would be getting a 20% return on investment in 1918, and many other industries were around the same. All of this money being funneled into war industries meant that the federal government’s budget ballooned to previously unheard of levels. Before the war the federal budget had been about a billion dollars per year, give or take a bit.
However, in 1918 it would be a billion dollars a month, and in 1919 it was forecasted to be 2 billion every month. This massive increase was quite the boon for American industry. Between 1914 and 1917 the revenue of the iron and steel industries quintupled. This spending also meant that most normal Americans got a lot of experience with inflation. Fortunately for most of these citizens the war would be over before some of the more serious negative consequences of that inflation was felt.
We are now going to close out today’s episode with something a bit different, but very much related to the American home front, we are going to be discussing the Women’s Land Army. We have talked a lot about men in the last three episodes, politicians, sailors, soldiers, all men, but of course the women of the United States were just as much in a war as any other citizen. The American version of the Women’s Land Army would draw inspiration from the British. In Britain when the war started even the most militant suffragettes would make a truce with the government. They essentially agreed to put their calls for voting rights for women on hold for the duration of the war. In return for this concession they wanted the release of dozens of women prisoners who had found their way into jail over the previous years. The government agreed and the suffragette groups went on tours, fully backed by the government, preaching loyalty and service for women. The end goal was to once and for all be given the right to vote, but they hoped that through these patriotic efforts the path to that right would be easier. This resulted in thousands of women volunteering for work in factories and agriculture. It is the agricultural volunteers that we are most interested in today because it was from them that the American women would draw inspiration. There was initially a lot of resistance from British farmers, many of whom thought that putting women to work in the fields was undignified, but over time these concerns would fade away and the British women would make valuable contributions to the war effort.
The United States has a farm laborer shortage very similar, if less severe, than that which was happening in British. Unlike it Europe it was not all due to the men going to the front, but instead because many men were pulled into factory work due to increased demand and wages in those factories. This resulted in the creation of the Women’s committee of the Council of National Defense in April 1917. This was just the largest of the various organizations, committees, and groups setup all over the nation as women started to organize themselves and to put plans into place. The Women’s Committee had no real power, and was mostly just an advisory board and coordinator of these other smaller groups. In the United States as in Britain there was also the ongoing push for women’s suffrage. The women’s groups had to strike a balance between their calls to “win the war” and “win the vote” because there were several states scheduled to vote on women’s suffrage in 1917 so nobody wanted to push too hard for anything related to the war out of fear that it would alienate the important male electorate that they needed to get the right to vote. Many within the suffrage movement believed that by applying themselves to patriotic work they would gain favor with the voters, as long as they were not too pushy.
To spread the word and gain acceptance each state and regional organization tried a variety of tactics. For example in new York advertisements were taken out with headlines like “Results Show that Women Have Made Good as Farmers.” Some groups went to Expositions like the Eastern States Dairy Expo of 1917 to try and convince farmers to use women in their workforce for the next year. This would then lead to the official formation of the Women’s Land Army of America in December 1917. This organization was created by women in New York who in November had won the right to vote. They used their skills and experience that they had learned during the push for that right and now applied them to their new objectives. When you think about it, these women were some of the best grass roots organizers in the country at this point. They had just spent years gaining acceptance for the suffrage movement, and now they were moving onto the Women’s Land Army movement. There first public statement would say “Prejudices against women as farm laborers will not hold against the desperate sense of need of the farmer and the proved fact of women’s efficiency. It is idle to say that women can not do farm work when it is known that they actually have done it.” To continue to grow and keep in the public eye a concerted effort was made to send letters to newspapers all over the country. This resulted in many letters to the editor being published, and also many news particles written both by and about the Land Army. One area that was very fertile recruiting grounds were colleges all over the country. Much like their male peers owmen at these institutions found themselves under intense pressure to do something for the war effort, with many going overseas to nursing, or working as secretaries in the expanding army. Others would join the Land Army. In the 1918 farming season the Women’s Land Army would organize and supervise more than 15,000 volunteers who just wanted to help contribute to the war effort. This was just a fraction of the total number how women who joined in the effort because it does not count those that participated through local and state chapters of various organizations, which were still only loosely affiliated with the Land Army.
After the war was over the Land Army suddenly lacked purpose and drive. Many of its leaders went off to lead suffrage movements all over the country, and many more would be a driving force behind prohibition. On September 26th, 1919 it was officially disbanded only to be revived 22 years later when another war would require the work of women all over the country. The war could not have been pursued without the support and hard work of the women on the home front, work they did even without the right to vote in many cases. The first world war was indeed fought almost entirely by men at the front, but this was a total war, and required the hard work and dedication of everyone in a society, regardless of gender, if it was to be brought to a successful conclusion.