Although World War I began in Europe in 1914, the United States pursued a policy of neutrality until 1917.
Explain the rationale for America’s initial neutrality in World War I
- Led by President Woodrow Wilson, American public opinion initially favored neutrality and nonintervention in the European conflict. Despite Republican demands for preparedness, from 1914–1917, Wilson kept the military small and maintained a peacetime economy while still making loans to the Allied powers.
- In May 1915, a German U-boat sank a British ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania, resulting in the deaths of 128 Americans. The event, part of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare campaign, prompted Wilson to threaten U.S. action if the attacks continued.
- In 1917, the German foreign minister sent the Zimmermann Telegram, inviting the Mexican government to join the war as Germany’s ally and recover the territories of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona from the United States. Wilson released the telegram to the American public, sparking demands for war with Germany.
- Reversing his previous position of neutrality, Wilson claimed the United States needed to play a deciding role in the “war to end all wars” in order to eliminate global militarism.
- Non-interventionism: A foreign policy in which nations engage in “strategic independence” by avoiding international military alliances but still take part in diplomacy to help prevent conflicts. Based upon the principles of state sovereignty and self-determination, it holds that nations should not interfere in the internal politics of another state.
- RMS Lusitania: A British ocean liner torpedoed by a German U-boat in May 1915, killing 1,198 of the 1,959 people aboard, including 128 Americans. The sinking became an iconic symbol that turned public opinion in many countries against Germany, helping military recruiting campaigns and directly contributing to America’s entry into World War I.
On July 28, 1914, World War I began with the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia, followed by the German invasion of Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, and a subsequent Russian attack against Germany. The United States, however, did not join the conflict until April 1917.
Maintaining U.S. Neutrality
Under President Woodrow Wilson, the United States maintained a policy of non-interventionism, avoiding participation in the conflict while trying to broker a European peace, which was characterized as neutrality, “in thought and deed.” Apart from an Anglophile element supporting the British, public opinion initially favored neutrality. The sentiment was especially strong among Irish Americans, Swedish Americans, and German Americans, as well as among many women, church leaders, and farmers, particularly those in the South.
Wilson kept the economy on a peacetime scale, allowing large-scale loans to Britain and France but making no preparations for war and keeping the army at normal levels, despite increasing demands from Republicans for the Democratic president to increase military preparedness. The American public increasingly came to see Germany as the villain after receiving news of atrocities following the invasion of Belgium in 1914 and of the 1915 sinking of the British passenger liner RMS Lusitania by a German U-Boat, in defiance of international law.
The most important indirect strategy used by the belligerents in the war was the naval blockade. The British Royal Navy successfully stopped the shipment of most war supplies and food to Germany, including by neutral American ships that were seized or turned back. The British frequently violated America’s neutral rights by seizing ships, causing presidential advisor Colonel Edward M. House to comment, “The British have gone as far as they possibly could in violating neutral rights, though they have done it in the most courteous way.” When Wilson protested British violations of American neutrality, the British backed down, but still armed most merchant ships with medium-caliber guns that could sink submarines venturing above the surface.
Germany also used a blockade. “England wants to starve us,” said Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the man who built the German fleet and remained a key adviser to Kaiser Wilhelm II. “We can play the same game. We can bottle her up and destroy every ship that endeavors to break the blockade.” Tirpitz reasoned that the British Isles depended on imports of food, raw materials, and manufactured goods, therefore blocking a substantial number of ships from making these deliveries would effectively undercut Britain’s long-term ability to maintain an army on the Western Front.
Unable to challenge the more powerful Royal Navy on the surface, Germany relied on submarines. Possessing only nine long-range U-boats as the war began, Germany nevertheless had ample shipyard capacity to build hundreds more. German U-Boats torpedoed ships without warning, but claimed its submarines dared not surface near armed merchant ships and were too small to rescue passengers and crew, leaving many to drown in the frigid waters surrounding the United Kingdom.
U-Boats and the United States
The United States, however, demanded respect for international law, which protected neutral American ships on the high seas from seizure or sinking by any belligerent in the conflict. In February 1915, the United States warned Germany about misuse of submarines, but on May 7, Germany torpedoed the Lusitania, resulting in the loss of 1,198 civilians, including 128 Americans. The sinking of a large, unarmed passenger ship, combined with stories of atrocities by German troops occupying Belgium, shocked Americans and turned public opinion hostile to Germany, although not yet to the point of war. Wilson issued another warning to Germany that it would face, “strict accountability” if it sank neutral U.S. passenger ships. Berlin acquiesced, ordering its submarines to avoid passenger ships.
In January 1917, however, German Field Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff decided that an unrestricted submarine blockade was the only way to break the stalemate with the Allies on the Western Front. At their urging, Kaiser William II ordered that unrestricted submarine warfare should be resumed. German war planners knew this meant that the United States would most likely enter the conflict, but gambled that it would take America more than a year to mobilize its forces enough to be a threat on the Western Front, allowing sufficient time for Germany to be victorious. The civilian government in Berlin objected, but the Kaiser sided with his military. As expected, this fateful move played a large part in American’s pivotal decision to end its neutrality and join the Allied war effort.
Last Efforts for Peace
By 1916, American neutrality was giving way to self-interest and nationalism, with peace efforts failing as fear of Germany grew.
Identify the factors that frustrated Woodrow Wilson’s hope for neutrality and precipitated the eventual abandonment of peace
- Americans wanted a strong military that could anchor their demands for neutrality as well as put an end to German submarine attacks in the Atlantic.
- In 1915, a strong “preparedness” movement emerged. It argued that the United States needed to immediately build up strong naval and land forces for defensive purposes; an unspoken assumption was that the US would fight sooner or later
- Berlin’s plan to resume submarine attacks and the Zimmermann Telegram scandal agitated the American public, which subsequently supported Wilson when he asked for a congressional declaration of war in 1917. Wilson told Congress that war with Germany would bring, “peace without victory,” meaning a peace shaped and dictated by the United States.
- The intent of the war declaration was to protect North and South America from German encroachment and spread the dream of liberalism and democracy across the world, all while ensuring that the Allies carved up the postwar world in a manner befitting U.S. commercial interests.
- Preparedness movement: An effort that emerged in 1915 to lobby for an immediate enhancement of U.S. naval and land forces for defensive purposes, although the unspoken assumption was that America would fight sooner or later.
- Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels: (May 18, 1862–January 15, 1948) A newspaper editor and publisher from North Carolina appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to serve as secretary of the navy during World War I. He was also a close friend and supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt and served as his ambassador to Mexico.
- Zimmermann Telegram: A 1917 diplomatic message from Germany to Mexico proposing joint war against the United States. Intercepted by British intelligence, the telegram outraged Americans and helped generate support for a declaration of war on Germany in April.
By 1916, Americans felt an increasing need for a military that could command respect. “The best thing about a large army and a strong navy,” one editor noted, “is that they make it so much easier to say just what we want to say in our diplomatic correspondence.” Berlin thus far had backed down and apologized when Washington became angry, boosting American self-confidence and placing a focus on national rights and honor; the slogan “Peace” gave way to “Peace with Honor.” The environment was ripe for increased preparations for war, and eventually, a call to battle.
Emergence of the Preparedness Movement
A strong movement had emerged in 1915 behind the argument that the United States needed to immediately build up strong naval and land forces for defensive purposes. Emphasizing the weak state of national defenses, the leaders of the Preparedness Movement showed that America’s army, even augmented by National Guardsmen, was outnumbered 20 to one by the German army, which was drawn from a smaller population. Preparedness backers declared that the War Department had no plans, no equipment, little training, no reserves, a laughable National Guard, and a wholly inadequate organization for war, all of which needed to be addressed. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, General Leonard Wood, and former Secretaries of War Elihu Root and Henry Stimson were among the driving forces behind the Preparedness Movement, along with many of the nation’s most prominent bankers, industrialists, lawyers, and scions of prominent families. There was also an “Atlanticist” foreign policy establishment—influential Americans drawn primarily from upper-class Northeast lawyers, bankers, academics, and politicians—committed to a strand of Anglophile internationalism.
Several organizations formed around the Preparedness Movement and held parades and organized opposition to President Wilson’s military policies. The movement had little use for the National Guard, which it saw as politicized, overly local, poorly armed, ill trained, inclined to idealistic crusading, and lacking in an understanding of world affairs. To the movement, reform meant requiring military service from all young men, called ” conscription.” This proposal ultimately failed, but fostered the Plattsburg Movement, a series of summer training schools for reserve military officers located in Plattsburg, N.Y.
Opposition to the Preparedness Movement
The Plattsburg Movement, which hosted approximately 40,000 men in 1915 and 1916, was aimed at social elites and ignored talented working-class youths. As a result, it failed to generate support among the middle-class leadership in small-town America.
Anti-militarists and pacifists, including Protestant Church members and women’s groups, protested the conscription plan, believing that it would resemble Germany’s system of compulsory, two-year military service. Advocates retorted that serving in the military was an essential duty of citizenship, but hostility toward military service was so strong at the time that such a program was unlikely to win legislative approval.
The Democratic Party, especially Wilson, was also opposed to the Preparedness Movement, believing it to be a political threat because the architects of the movement—Roosevelt, Root, and Wood—were prospective Republican presidential candidates. More subtly, the Democrats were rooted in localism that appreciated the National Guard, and the voters were hostile to the rich and powerful in the first place.
Military Lack of Preparedness
Neither the army nor the navy, however, was ready for the war that was engulfing large parts of the globe, especially America’s close European allies. The U.S. Army appeared to pay scant attention to the flood of new tactics and weapons systems being unveiled in Europe such as trench warfare, poison gas, and tanks, and remained unfamiliar with the rapid evolution of air tactics.
The press at the time reported that the only thing the military was ready for was an enemy fleet attempting to seize New York harbor at a time when the German battle fleet was penned up by the Royal Navy. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, ignoring the nation’s strategic needs and dismissing the advice of experts, suspended meetings of the Joint Army and Navy Board for two years in response to unwelcome advice. He also chopped in half the amount of new ship construction recommended by the board, reduced the authority of officers in navy yards, and ignored administrative chaos in his department.
Proposals to send observers to Europe were blocked, leaving the navy less informed about the success of the German submarine campaign and the measures taken to defend against it. Among these measures were light anti-submarine ships, which were few in number and reflected Daniels’s apparent unwillingness to maintain focus on the German sub menace that had been a key point in U.S. foreign policy for the previous two years.
The navy’s only official war strategy, the “Black Plan,” assumed that the British Royal Navy did not exist and that German battleships were moving freely about the Atlantic and the Caribbean, threatening the Panama Canal. Daniels’s tenure would have been even less successful without the energetic efforts of Assistant Navy Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt, who effectively ran the department.
Wilson Administration and Preparedness
Congressional Democrats tried to cut the military budget in 1915. The Preparedness Movement, however, effectively exploited the outrage over the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by German U-boats on May 7, 1915, forcing Democrats to promise some improvements to ground and naval forces.
Wilson, less fearful of the navy than other branches of the service, embraced a long-term building program designed to make the U.S. battleship fleet the equal of the Royal Navy by the mid-1920s. Secretary of War Lindley Garrison created his own plan, adopting many of the proposals of the Preparedness Movement leaders, which not only outraged the locally minded politicians of both parties, but also offended a strongly held belief shared by the liberal wing of the Progressive Movement that warfare always had a hidden economic motivation. Wilson took his cause to the people in a major speaking tour in early 1916, winning over the middle classes for his preparedness policies, but failing to impact the largely ethnic working classes and the deeply isolationist farmers.
Forming a Compromise
After the Lusitania’s sinking and Pancho Villa’s raid against Columbus, New Mexico, Wilson’s opposition to the Preparedness Movement changed. Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1916 in June, authorizing an enormous increase in the size of the military. This long-term plan would double the army and increase the National Guard. Summer camps established on the Plattsburg model were authorized for new officers, while the House of Representatives gutted the naval plans as well, defeating a “big navy” plan.
Preparedness supporters were downcast and the antiwar supporters were jubilant, as America would now be too weak to join the fighting. This lack of military power encouraged Germany to discount any immediate risk from America because the U.S. Army was negligible and new warships would not be at sea until 1919, by which time Germany believed it would have already won the war.
In early 1917, Berlin forced the issue with its decision to conduct open submarine warfare and attack any ship it chose to target on the high seas. Five American merchant vessels went down in March. Wilson initially tried to maintain neutrality while fighting off submarines with armed American merchant ships, but their guns were ineffective against the underwater attacks of German U-boats. Final efforts for peace were abandoned when German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann approached Mexico seeking a military alliance, promising the return of lost territories in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. After the so called “Zimmermann Telegram” was intercepted and decoded by British cryptographers, outraged American public opinion overwhelmingly supported Wilson when he asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917.
Wilson anticipated unfortunate consequences for America in the event of a victory by Germany, which would dominate Europe and perhaps gain control of the seas. Latin America also might fall under Berlin’s control, shattering the dream of spreading democracy, liberalism, and independence. Additionally, if the Allies won the war without American help, the Allies might carve up the world’s territories without regard to U.S. commercial interests. European nations were already planning to use government subsidies, tariff walls, and controlled markets to counter American business competition. Wilson found a potential solution in another route he called, “peace without victory,” meaning a global political and economic landscape shaped, if not totally dictated, by the United States.
The president told Congress that the United States had a moral responsibility to enter the war in order to make the world safe for democracy. The future was being determined on the battlefield, and American national interest demanded a voice. Wilson’s definition of the situation won wide acclaim, and indeed, has formed the basis of America’s role in world and military affairs ever since.
Mobilizing a Nation
The United States mobilized its home front in WWI, resulting in bureaucratic confusion but also expansion of the wartime economy and women in the workforce.
Describe how the United States mobilized soldiers, temporary agencies, food supplies, munitions, and money during World War I
- As part of the massive war mobilization effort, U.S. bureaucracy was expanded and temporary agencies were established, producing more than half a million new jobs in 5,000 new federal agencies.
- The Selective Service Act of 1917 raised the military manpower for the war through conscription, and prohibited all forms of purchasing exemptions.
- Under Herbert Hoover, the director of the U.S. Food Administration, the government managed the nation’s food distribution and prices and launched a widespread campaign to teach Americans to create food budgets and plant victory gardens.
- The American Federation of Labor, under Samuel Gompers, supported the war and minimized strikes and labor agitations to prevent disruptions in the war effort. Wilson established the National War Labor Board in 1918 to force management to negotiate with existing unions to keep factories running efficiently.
- Selective Service Act: Legislation that authorized the federal government to raise a national army for the American entry into World War I through conscription. It was envisioned in December 1916 and brought to President Woodrow Wilson’s attention shortly after the break in relations with Germany in February 1917. The act was drafted after the United States entered World War I by declaring war on Germany and canceled with the end of the war in November 1918.
- Progressive Era: A period of American politics, from the 1890s to the Great Depression, in which reformers attempted to apply the principles of rational, scientific management to government, the economy, and society. The era included attempts to reduce governmental corruption and inefficiency (particularly at the local level), the regulation of large corporations, protections for laborers, and a foreign policy characterized by imperialism.
- Herbert Hoover: (1874–1964) The 31st president of the United States (1929–1933), and the director of the U.S. Food Administration during WWI. Hoover was formerly a professional mining engineer and author.
The home front of the United States in World War I saw a systematic mobilization of its entire population and economy to produce the soldiers, food, munitions, and money needed to win the war. Although the United States entered the war in 1917, there had been very little planning, or even recognition of the problems that Great Britain and other Allies had to solve on their own home fronts. As a result, the level of confusion was high in the first 12 months until efficiency took control.
Instituting a Military Draft
The government under President Woodrow Wilson decided to rely primarily on conscription rather than voluntary enlistment to raise military manpower. The Selective Service Act of 1917 established a, “liability for military service of all male citizens,” and authorized a selective draft of men between 21 and 31 years of age. The law—which included exemptions from military service for those who fell into special categories, such as those having dependents, working in essential occupations, and ascribing to specific religious beliefs—was carefully drawn to place each man in his proper niche in the national war effort. The act prohibited all forms of bounties, substitutions, or purchase of exemptions, all of which had been prevalent during the Civil War.
Oversight and administration of the draft was entrusted to local boards of civilians that issued draft calls, which were ordered by numbers drawn in a national lottery, and determined exemptions. In 1917 and 1918, approximately 24 million men were registered and nearly 3 million inducted into the armed forces.
Establishing Temporary Agencies
The war came in the midst of the Progressive Era, when efficiency and expertise were highly valued. The federal government established a multitude of temporary agencies to bring together the expertise necessary to redirect the economy into the production of munitions and food for the war, as well as to generate new ideas to motivate the working populace.
Congress authorized President Wilson to create between 500,000 and 1 million new jobs in 5,000 new federal agencies. The War Labor Administration (WLA), headed by Wilson’s Secretary of Labor, Scottish-born former Congressman William B. Wilson, oversaw most of the wartime labor programs and included a War Labor Board to adjudicate disputes. The WLA also established the Women in Industry Service that eventually grew into a permanent Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor, a Training and Dilution Service to help simplify skilled jobs, a Division of Negro Economics, the Farm Service Division, the Working Conditions Service, and the Housing and Transportation Bureau that helped accommodate the living conditions of war workers.
The Department of Labor’s new Employment Service attracted workers from the South and Midwest to war industries in the East and was used by federal production offices to hire fresh employees. The service also brought 110,000 workers into the country from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, enrolled 1 million people in a reserve labor force, and in early 1918 began mobilizing 3 million workers for agriculture, ship building, and defense plant positions.
While Wilson’s policies created numerous jobs in these new agencies, he also had the less distinguished achievement of segregating the federal workforce. Upon taking office in 1913, Wilson placed many pro segregation Southerners in positions throughout the government and ordered the reversal of post-Civil War Reconstruction policies that had integrated federal agencies and enabled African Americans to work alongside white employees. This change reached throughout the civil service, including the expansive Postal Service, where African-American employees were downgraded and transferred out of jobs that interacted with the public. Segregationist policies continued into World War I. The War Department drafted hundreds of thousands of African-American men into the army with equal pay, but placed them in segregated units with black soldiers led by white officers. Largely kept out of combat, a group of black service members protested directly to Wilson but were met by his response, “Segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
The first 15 months of the war effort on the home front involved an amazing parade of mistakes, misguided enthusiasm, and confusion. Most Americans were willing to pitch in but were not clear on their proper roles, while Washington was often unable to make clear decisions about actions, timing, or even who was in charge. The coal shortage that struck the nation in December 1917 exemplified the confusion.
Coal was the major source of energy and heat. Plenty of coal was mined, but a crisis developed when 44,000 loaded freight and coal cars were tied up in horrendous traffic jams in the rail yards of the East Coast, leaving 200 ships waiting in New York harbor for the delayed cargo. It was not until March 1918 that Washington took control, using measures such as nationalizing coal mines and railroads for the duration of the war, shutting factories one day each week to save fuel, and enforcing a strict priority system.
Labor Unions in World War I
Nearly all labor unions strongly supported the war effort, and during the conflict, the number of strikes were minimal, wages soared, and full employment was reached. President Wilson appointed Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor ( AFL ), to the powerful Council of National Defense. AFL membership soared to 2.4 million in 1917, and its unions strongly encouraged their young men to enlist in the military. They fiercely opposed efforts to reduce recruiting and slow war production by groups such as the International Workers of the World (IWW), which was controlled by antiwar socialists and subsequently shut down by the federal government.
To keep factories running smoothly, the president established the National War Labor Board in 1918, which forced management to negotiate with existing unions. In 1919, the AFL tried to make its gains permanent and called a series of major strikes in meat, steel, and other industries. The strikes ultimately failed, however, forcing unions back to positions similar to those around 1910.
Mobilizing Farming and Food
During World War I, food production fell dramatically, especially in Europe where agricultural labor had been recruited into military service and many farms were devastated by the conflict. Numerous efforts were made in the United States to bolster domestic morale in conjunction with keeping the agriculture sector afloat. The U.S. Food Administration under Herbert Hoover managed the nation’s food distribution and prices, and launched a massive campaign to teach Americans to economize their food budgets. In addition to “Wheatless Wednesdays” and “Meatless Tuesdays” due to poor harvests in 1916 and 1917, there were “Fuelless Mondays” and “Gasless Sundays” to preserve coal and gasoline.
In March 1917, Charles Lathrop Pack organized the National War Garden Commission and launched the war garden campaign. Pack believed the supply of food could be greatly increased without the use of land and manpower already engaged in agriculture, and without the significant use of transportation facilities needed for the war. The campaign promoted the cultivation of available private and public lands, resulting in the production of foodstuffs exceeding $1.2 billion by the end of the war. From 1914 to 1919, gross farm income increased more than 230 percent.
A poster campaign encouraged the planting of “victory gardens,” emphasizing to home-front urbanites and suburbanites that the produce from their gardens would help lower the price of vegetables needed by the U.S. War Department to feed the troops, thus saving money that could be spent elsewhere on the military. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt directed the planting of a victory garden on the White House grounds to support the initiative.
Although government officials initially feared this movement would hurt the food industry, basic information about gardening appeared in public-services booklets distributed by the Department of Agriculture and agribusiness corporations such as International Harvester and Beech-Nut. The Agriculture Department estimated that more than 20 million victory gardens were planted, with between 9 and 10 million tons of fruit and vegetables harvested in these home and community plots, equaling all commercial production of fresh vegetables.
The Women’s Land Army of America (WLAA) was created to replace male agricultural workers who were called up to the military. Modeled on the British Women’s Land Army, WLAA members were sometimes known as “farmerettes.” The WLAA operated from 1917 to 1921, employing between 15,000 and 20,000 urban women. Many were college educated, and units were associated with colleges. The WLAA was supported by Progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt and was strongest in the West and Northeast, where it was associated with the suffrage movement. Opposition came from Nativists, President Wilson’s agitators, and others who questioned the women’s strength and the effect of the work on their health. Yet the latter arguments were largely disproved, not only by the successful efforts of the WLAA, but by the widespread increase in women who joined the workforce to support the economy and the war effort.
Women Workers in World War I
As one of the first total wars, World War I mobilized women in unprecedented numbers on all sides. Some joined the military to take the jobs of men who had transferred to fighting units, serving as pilots to transport supplies, test planes, and tow targets for artillery practice. The vast majority were drafted into the civilian workforce to replace conscripted men, taking traditionally male jobs working on factory assembly lines producing tanks, trucks, and munitions. For the first time, department stores employed African-American women as elevator operators and cafeteria waitresses. This proved women were capable of a variety of work, which added to the voting-rights controversy that came later.
As well as paid jobs, women were also expected to take on voluntary work such as packing coal into sacks for distribution wherever it was needed, or rolling bandages, knitting clothes, and preparing hampers for soldiers on the front. Millions joined the Red Cross as volunteers to help soldiers and their families. Most important, the morale of women remained high, and with rare exceptions, women did not protest the draft.
War propaganda campaigns by the Creel Committee and Hollywood influenced American views on World War I.
Describe how the Committee on Public Information used propaganda to influence American public opinion toward supporting U.S. participation in the war
- The Creel Committee organized the Four Minute Men, volunteers who made patriotic speeches in favor of the war and the draft at public functions and schools.
- The committee mounted a successful campaign of anti- German hysteria.
- The U.S. film industry in Hollywood produced a number of war propaganda films during World War I, such as Charlie Chaplin’s film, Shoulder Arms.
- World War I propaganda influenced U.S., British, and German propaganda campaigns during the 1930s and into World War II.
- Four Minute Men: Volunteers authorized by President Woodrow Wilson to give public speeches on topics assigned to them by the Committee on Public Information. Topics focused on the American war effort and were presented during the four minutes of reel changing in movie theaters across the country.
- George Creel: (December 1, 1876–October 2, 1953) An investigative journalist, politician, and most famously, the chairman of the U.S. Committee on Public Information, a propaganda organization created during World War I.
- Committee on Public Information: An independent U.S. government agency, also known as the “CPI” or the “Creel Committee,” created to influence public opinion regarding participation in World War I. Over just 28 months, from April 13, 1917, to August 21, 1919, the CPI used every medium available to create enthusiasm for the war effort and enlist public support against foreign attempts to undercut America’s war aims.
The Creel Committee
Hoping to influence public opinion favorably toward American participation in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information (CPI) through Executive Order 2594 on April 13, 1917. Tasked with creating a prolonged propaganda campaign, the group that became known as the “Creel Committee” consisted of politician and journalist George Creel, the committee chairman; Secretary of State Robert Lansing; Secretary of War Newton D. Baker; and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.
The CPI at first used factual information, but manipulated—or “spun”—the material to present an upbeat picture of the American war effort. The avenues of distribution for the message included newspapers, posters, radio, telegraphs, and movies.
The committee also used direct human media in the form of about 75,000 “Four Minute Men,” volunteers who delivered positive public messages about the war. Using their own words and avoiding “hymns of hate” that seemed negative, the Four Minute Men covered topics such as the draft, rationing, war bond drives, victory gardens, and America’s reasons for joining the fight. These talks were kept to four minutes—which was considered the ideal length of time the average human attention span could be effectively maintained—and often occurred when film reels were being changed in movie theaters. By the end of the war, the Four Minute Men had made more than 7.5 million speeches to 314 million people in 5,200 American communities.
The CPI staged other personal events designed for specific ethnic and class groups. In one example, Irish-American tenor John McCormack sang at Mount Vernon before an audience representing Irish-American organizations. Endorsed by labor-union leader Samuel Gompers, the committee also targeted American workers, filling factories and offices with posters designed to promote the critical role of American labor in a successful war effort.
The CPI was so thorough that some historians used a typical Midwestern farm family to explain the reach and impact of the committee’s activities:
“Every item of war news they saw—in the country weekly, in magazines, or in the city daily picked up occasionally in the general store—was not merely officially approved information but precisely the same kind that millions of their fellow citizens were getting at the same moment. Every war story had been censored somewhere along the line— at the source, in transit, or in the newspaper offices in accordance with ‘voluntary’ rules established by the CPI. ”
Hollywood and Propaganda
The nascent American film industry produced a variety of propaganda films. The most successful was 1918’s The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, a “sensational creation” designed to rouse the audience against the German ruler. There were also comedies, including the animated Mutt and Jeff series and hits such as At The Front. The greatest success, also in produced in 1918 and considered a landmark in film, was Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms, which followed the star from his induction into the military, through his accidental penetration of German lines, to his eventual return after capturing the kaiser and German crown prince and winning over a pretty French girl.
Impact of WWI Propaganda
Over just 28 months, from April 1917 to August 1919, the CPI’s campaign produced intense anti-German hysteria among Americans and left big business deeply impressed with large-scale propaganda’s obvious potential for controlling public opinions and tastes.
Following the war, however, propaganda and its obvious misleading nature gained a growing negative connotation. The Creel Committee became so unpopular that Congress ceased its activities without even providing funding to organize and archive its papers. The effectiveness of the committee’s techniques was not forgotten, though, as World War II saw revived use of propaganda and information “spin” as a weapon of war, notoriously by Hitler’s top polemicist, German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, and also by the British Ministry of Information and the U.S. Office of War Information.
Civil Liberties in Wartime
Congress used the Espionage and Sedition Acts to stamp out war opposition by curbing civil liberties.
Recognize the impact of the Alien, Sedition, and Espionage Acts on civil liberties
- The Espionage Act of 1917 punished individuals who interfered with the war effort, dodged the draft, or attempted to aid any nation at war with the United States.
- The Sedition Act of 1918, often considered an amendment to the Espionage Act, punished those using profane or abusive speech against the government or expressing doubts about the war.
- Organizations such as the American Protective League and the U.S. Post Office, as well as private individuals, identified people they deemed as anti-American or opposed to the war effort. Prosecuted individuals included labor leader Eugene Debs and Robert Goldstein, the producer of the film The Spirit of ’76. Republicans, particularly Henry Cabot Lodge, Hiram Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt, voiced opposition to the acts.
- In the 1919 case, Abrams v. The United States, the Supreme Court upheld the Sedition Act, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. writing a dissent commenting on the, “marketplace of ideas.” In December 1920, Congress repealed the Sedition Act, although those already convicted continued to serve their sentences.
- Thomas Gregory: (November 6, 1861–February 26, 1933) An American attorney and cabinet secretary under President Woodrow Wilson. Gregory collaborated with Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson and others in a campaign to crush domestic dissent during World War I.
- Eugene Debs: (1855–1926) An American union leader, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the “Wobblies”), and several times the Socialist Party of America candidate for president of the United States.
- American Protective League (APL): An organization of private citizens that worked with federal law enforcement agencies during World War I to identify suspected German sympathizers and counteract radicals, anarchists, antiwar activists, and left-wing labor and political organizations.
One of the first victims of nearly every American war is the First Amendment, which guarantees civil liberties encompassing some of our most essential democratic freedoms. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 temporarily trumped Americans’ rights to religious freedom and to freely speak, publish, or petition the government.
Acts to Control Liberties
The Espionage Act made it a crime to pass information with the intent of harming the success of American armed forces. To shore up the Espionage Act, Congress followed with the Sedition Act, which expressly prohibited speaking, writing, or publishing anything against the federal government and the war effort of the United States or its allies. This wide characterization of crimes included activities such as inciting insubordination, exhibiting disloyalty or mutiny, refusing to serve in the armed forces, or interfering with military recruitment operations. Those convicted generally received prison sentences of 5 to 20 years. The acts applied only to times, “when the United States is in war,” and following the cessation of hostilities in November 1919, the legislation was repealed on December 13, 1920.
Passing the Acts
Wartime violence on the part of vigilantes, whether individual citizens or mobs, persuaded some lawmakers that laws protecting public order were inadequate. In their view, the public was making its own attempts to punish unpopular speech due to the government’s unwillingness or inability to do so. Enhancing federal authority under the Espionage Act, followed by the Sedition Act, was therefore necessary to prevent mobs from doing what the government could not.
President Wilson and Attorney General Thomas Watts Gregory viewed the legislation as a political compromise. They hoped to avoid hearings that would embarrass the administration for its failure to prosecute offensive speech, but also feared proposals that would move prosecutorial authority from the Justice Department to the War Department, creating a form of civilian court-martial saddled with questionable constitutionality.
The acts met considerable opposition in the Senate, almost entirely from Republicans such as Henry Cabot Lodge and Hiram Johnson—the former of the two defending free speech and the latter assailing the administration for failing to use laws already in place. Republican former President Theodore Roosevelt voiced opposition as well.
Enforcing the Acts
Attorney General Thomas Gregory instructed Postmaster General Albert Burleson to censure and, if necessary, discontinue delivery of anti-American or pro-German mailings including letters, magazines, and newspapers. The Postal Service followed this directive through a nationwide network of censuring officials, such as the New York City postmaster, who refused to mail The Masses, a socialist monthly, citing the publication’s “general tenor.” For the most part, however, enforcement was left to the discretion of local U.S. attorneys and action varied widely.
Vigilantism and Repression
Police and judicial action, private vigilante groups, and public hysteria compromised the civil liberties of many Americans who disagreed with Wilson’s war policies. Attorney General Gregory supported the work of the American Protective League (APL), which was one of the many patriotic associations that sprang up to support the war, and in coordination with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, identify antiwar organizations and those it deemed slackers, spies, or draft dodgers. The APL curbed dissent at home by compelling German-Americans to sign a pledge of allegiance, as well as by conducting extra governmental surveillance on pro-German activities and organizations such as unions. In a July 1917 speech, Max Eastman complained that the government’s ongoing aggressive prosecutions of dissent meant, “You can’t even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage.”
Prosecutions Under the Acts
Famed labor movement leader Eugene V. Debs—the Socialist Party presidential candidate in 1904, 1908, and 1912—was arrested in June 1918 for making a speech in Canton, Ohio, denouncing military conscription and urging listeners not to take part in the draft. Charged with 10 counts of sedition, Debs defended himself eloquently but was found guilty and sentenced on November 18, 1918—exactly one week after an armistice ended the fighting in Europe—to 10 years in prison and loss of his right to vote for life. Despite his own electoral disenfranchisement, he ran for president again in 1920 from prison before his sentence was commuted in 1921.
In United States v. Motion Picture Film (1917), a federal court upheld the government’s seizure of a 1917 movie The Spirit of ’76 on the grounds that its depiction of cruelty by British soldiers during the American Revolution would undermine support for America’s wartime ally. The film’s writer and producer, Robert Goldstein, was prosecuted under the Espionage Act and received a 10-year prison sentence and $5,000 fine, which was commuted to three years upon appeal.
The End of the Acts
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Espionage and Sedition Acts in the 1919 case, Abrams v. United States, although Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes used his dissenting opinion to comment on what came to be known as, “the marketplace of ideas,” a theory that suggests only minimal government regulation of speech and expression is necessary because ideas will succeed or fail on their own merit in the same way a discerning consumer marketplace will eventually eliminate bad products. Congress repealed the Sedition Act on December 13, 1920, although those convicted under the law continued to serve their prison terms. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions, such as Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969, make it unlikely that similar legislation restricting civil liberties will be considered constitutional moving forward.