Striking steel mill workers holding bulletins, Chicago, Illinois, September 22, 1919. ExplorePAhistory.com
By Dr. Paula Fortier / 08.01.2016
World War I (“The Great War”) toppled empires, created new nations, and sparked tensions that would explode across future years. On the battlefield, its gruesome modern weaponry wrecked an entire generation of young men. The United States entered the conflict in 1917 and was never the same. The war heralded to the world the United States’ potential as a global military power, and, domestically, it advanced but then beat back American progressivism by unleashing vicious waves of repression. The war simultaneously stoked national pride and fueled disenchantments that burst Progressive Era hopes for the modern world. And it laid the groundwork for a global depression, a second world war, and an entire history of national, religious, and cultural conflict around the globe.
Prelude to War
As the German empire rose in power and influence at the end of the nineteenth century, skilled diplomats maneuvered this disruption of traditional powers and influences into several decades of European peace. In Germany, however, a new ambitious monarch would overshadow years of tactful diplomacy. Wilhelm II rose to the German throne in 1888. He admired the British Empire of his grandmother, Queen Victoria, and envied the Royal Navy of Great Britain so much so that he attempted to build a rival German navy and plant colonies around the globe. The British viewed the prospect of a German navy as a strategic threat, but, jealous of what he perceived to as a lack of prestige in the world, Wilhelm II pressed Germany’s case for access to colonies and symbols of status suitable for a world power. Wilhelm’s maneuvers and Germany’s rise spawned a new system of alliances as rival nations warily watched Germany’s expansion.1
In 1892, German posturing worried the leaders of Russia and France and prompted a defensive alliance to counter the existing triple threat between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. Britain’s Queen Victoria remained unassociated with the alliances until a series of diplomatic crises and an emerging German naval threat led to British agreements with Czar Nicholas II and French President Emile Loubet in the early twentieth century. (The alliance between Great Britain, France, and Russia became known as the Triple Entente.)2
The other great threat to European peace was the Ottoman Empire, in Turkey. While the leaders of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire showed little interest in colonies elsewhere, Turkish lands on its southern border appealed to their strategic goals. However, Austrian-Hungarian expansion in Europe worried Czar Nicholas II who saw Russia as both the historic guarantor of the Slavic nations in the Balkans and as the competitor for territories governed by the Ottoman Empire.3
By 1914, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire had control of Bosnia and Herzegovina and viewed Slavic Serbia, a nation protected by Russia, as its next challenge. On June 28, 1914, after Serbian Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian-Hungarian heirs to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Grand Duchess Sophie, vengeful nationalist leaders believed the time had arrived to eliminate the rebellious ethnic Serbian threat.4
On the other side of the Atlantic, the United States played an insignificant role in global diplomacy—it rarely forayed into internal European politics. The federal government did not participate in international diplomatic alliances but nevertheless championed and assisted with the expansion of the transatlantic economy. American businesses and consumers benefited from the trade generated as the result of the extended period of European peace.
Stated American attitudes toward international affairs followed the advice given by President George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address, one-hundred and twenty years before America’s entry in World War I. He had recommended that his fellow countrymen avoid “foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues” and “those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”
A national foreign policy of neutrality reflected America’s inward-looking focus on the construction and management of its new powerful industrial economy (built in large part with foreign capital). The federal government possessed limited diplomatic tools with which to engage an international struggles for world power. America’s small and increasingly antiquated military precluded forceful coercion and left American diplomats to persuade by reason, appeals to justice, or economic coercion. But in the 1880s, as Americans embarked upon empire, Congress authorized the construction of a modern Navy. The Army nevertheless remained small and underfunded compared to the armies of many industrializing nations.
After the turn of the century, the Army and Navy faced a great deal of organizational uncertainty. New technologies—airplanes, motor vehicles, submarines, modern artillery—stressed the capability of Army and Navy personnel to effectively procure and use them. The nation’s Army could police Native Americans in the West and garrison recent overseas acquisitions, but it could not sustain a full-blown conflict of any size. The Davis Act of 1908 and the National Defense Act of 1916 represented the rise of the modern versions of the National Guard and military reserves. A system of state-administered units available for local emergencies that received conditional federal funding for training could be activated for use in international wars. The National Guard program encompassed individual units separated by state borders. The program supplied summer training for college students as a reserve officer corps. This largely resolved the myriad of conflicts between the demands of short term state problems such as natural disasters, the fear in the federal government of too few or substandard soldiers, and state leaders who thought their men would fill gaps in the national armed forces during international wars. Military leaders resisted similar efforts from allied nations to use American forces as fillers for depleted armies. The federal and state governments needed a long term strategic reserve full of trained soldiers and sailors. Meanwhile, for weapons and logistics, safe and reliable prototypes of new technologies capable of rapid deployment often ran into developmental and production delays.5
Border troubles in Mexico served as an important field test for modern American military forces. Revolution and chaos threatened American business interests in Mexico. Mexican reformer Francisco Madero challenged Porfirio Diaz’s corrupt and unpopular conservative regime, was jailed, and fled to San Antonio, where he penned the Plan of San Luis Potosí, paving the way for the Mexican Revolution and the rise of armed revolutionaries across the country.
In April 1914, President Woodrow Wilson ordered Marines to accompany a naval escort to Veracruz on the lower eastern coast of Mexico. After a brief battle, the Marines supervised the city government and prevented shipments of German arms to Mexican leader Victor Huerta until they departed in November 1914. The raid emphasized the continued reliance on naval forces and the difficulty in modernizing the military during a period of European imperial influence in the Caribbean and elsewhere. The threat of war in Europe enabled passage of the Naval Act of 1916. President Wilson declared that the national goal was to build the Navy as “incomparably, the greatest…in the world.” And yet Mexico still beckoned. The Wilson administration had withdrawn its support of Diaz, but watched warily as the Revolution devolved into assassinations and deceit. In 1916, Pancho Villa, a popular revolutionary in Northern Mexico, spurned by American support for rival contenders, raided Columbus, New Mexico. His raiders killed seventeen Americans and burned down the town center before they sustained severe casualties from American soldiers and retreated. In response, President Wilson commissioned Army General John “Black Jack” Pershing to capture Villa and disperse his rebels. Motorized vehicles, reconnaissance aircraft, and the wireless telegraph aided in the pursuit of Villa. Motorized vehicles in particular allowed General Pershing supplies without relying on railroads controlled by the Mexican government. The aircraft assigned to the campaign crashed or were grounded due to mechanical malfunctions, but they provided invaluable lessons in their worth and use in war. Wilson used the powers of the new National Defense Act to mobilize over 100,000 National Guard units across the country as a show of force in northern Mexico.6
The conflict between the United States and Mexico might have escalated into full-scale war if the international crisis in Europe had not overwhelmed the public’s attention. After the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, President Wilson declared American neutrality. He insisted from the start that the United States be neutral “in fact as well as in name;” a policy the majority of American people enthusiastically endorsed. What exactly “neutrality” meant in a world of close economic connections, however, prompted immediate questions the United States was not yet adequately prepared to answer. Ties to the British and French proved strong, and those nations obtained far more loans and supplies than the Germans. In October 1914, President Wilson approved commercial credit loans to the combatants which made it increasingly difficult for the nation to claim impartiality as war spread through Europe. Trade and trade-related financial relations with combatant nations conflicted with previous agreements with the Allies that ultimately drew the nation further into the conflict. In spite of mutually declared blockades between Germany, Great Britain, and France, munitions and other war suppliers in the United States witnessed a brisk and booming increase in business. The British naval blockades that often stopped or seized ships proved annoying and costly, but the unrestricted and surprise torpedo attacks from German submarines were far more deadly. In May 1915, the sinking of the RMS Lusitania at the cost of over a hundred American lives and other German attacks on American and British shipping raised the ire of the public and stoked the desire for war.7
If American diplomatic tradition avoided alliances and the Army seemed inadequate for sustained overseas fighting, the United States outdistanced the nations of Europe in one important measure of world power: by 1914, the nation held the top position in the global industrial economy. The United States producing slightly more than one-third of the world’s manufactured goods, roughly equal to the outputs of France, Great Britain, and Germany combined.
War Spreads through Europe
After the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and Grand Duchess Sophie, Austria secured the promise of aid from its German ally and issued a list of ten ultimatums to Serbia. On July 28, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia for failure to meet all of the demands. Russia, determined to protect Serbia, began to mobilize its armed forces. On August 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia to protect Austria after warnings directed at Czar Nicholas II failed to stop Russian preparations for war.
In spite of the central European focus of the initial crises, the first blow was struck against neutral Belgium in northwestern Europe. Germany made plans to deal with the French and Russian threats by taking advantage of the sluggish Russian mobilization to focus the mission of the Germany army on France. Similar to the military operations of 1871, to enter France quickly German military leaders activated the Schlieffen Plan that directed the placement shift of German armies by rapid rail transport. The clever strategy detered and confused Russian forces and ultimately led to a victory march over Belgium and into France.
Belgium fell victim early to invading German forces. Germany wanted to avoid the obvious avenue of advance across the French-German border and encounter the French army units stationed there. German army commanders ordered a wide sweep around the French border forces that led straight to Belgium. However, this violation of Belgian neutrality also ensured that Great Britain entered the war against Germany. On August 4, 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany for failure to respect Belgium as a neutral nation.
“A French assault on German positions. Champagne, France.” 1917. National Archives.
In 1915, the European war had developed into a series of bloody trench stalemates that continued through the following year. Offensives, largely carried out by British and French armies, achieved nothing but huge numbers of casualties. Peripheral campaigns against the Ottoman Empire in Turkey at Gallipoli, throughout the Middle East, and in various parts of Africa were either unsuccessful or had no real bearing on the European contest for victory. The third year of the war proposed promises of great German successes in eastern Europe after the regime of Czar Nicholas II collapsed in Russia in March 1917. At about the same time, the German general staff demanded the reimposition of unrestricted submarine warfare to deprive the Allies of replenishment supplies from the United States.8
The Germans realized that submarine warfare would likely bring intervention on behalf of the United States. However, the Germans also believed the European war would be over before American soldiers could arrive in sufficient numbers to alter the balance of power. A German diplomat, Arthur Zimmermann, planned to complicate the potential American intervention. He offered support to the Mexican government via a desperate bid to regain Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Mexican national leaders declined the offer, but the revelation of the Zimmermann Telegram helped to usher the United States into the war.
America Enters the War
By the fall of 1916 and spring of 1917, President Wilson believed an imminent German victory would drastically and dangerously alter the balance of power in Europe. With a good deal of public support inflamed by submarine warfare and items like the Zimmermann telegram (which revealed a German menace in Mexico), Congress declared war on Germany on April 4th, 1917. Despite the National Defense Act of 1916 and Naval Act of 1916, America faced a war three thousand miles away with a small and unprepared military. The United States was unprepared in nearly every respect for modern war. Considerable time elapsed before an effective Army and Navy could be assembled, trained, equipped, and deployed to the Western Front in Europe. The process of building the Army and Navy for the war proved to be different from previous American conflicts and counter to the European military experience. Unlike the largest European military powers of Germany, France, and Austria-Hungary, no tradition existed in the United States to maintain large standing armed forces or trained military reserves during peacetime. Moreover, there was no American counterpart to the European practice of rapidly equipping, training, and mobilizing reservists and conscripts.
America relied solely on traditional volunteerism to fill the ranks of the armed forces. Notions of patriotic duty and adventure appealed to many young men who not only volunteered for wartime service, but sought and paid for their own training at Army camps before the war. American labor organizations favored voluntary service over conscription. Labor leader Samuel Gompers argued for volunteerism in letters to the Congressional committees considering the question. “The organized labor movement,” he wrote, “has always been fundamentally opposed to compulsion.” Referring to American values as a role model for others, he continued, “It is the hope of organized labor to demonstrate that under voluntary conditions and institutions the Republic of the United States can mobilize its greatest strength, resources and efficiency.”9
The Boy Scouts of America charge up Fifth Avenue in New York City in a “Wake Up, America” parade to support recruitment efforts. Nearly 60,000 people attended this single parade.Photograph from National Geographics Magazine, 1917. Wikimedia.
Though some observers believed that opposition to conscription might lead to civil disturbances, Congress quickly instituted a reasonably equitable and locally administered system to draft men for the military. On May 18, 1917, Congress approved the Selective Service Act, and President Wilson signed it into action a week later. The new legislation avoided the unpopular system of bonuses and substitutes used during the Civil War and was generally received without serious objection by the American people.10
The conscription act initially required men from ages 21 to 30 to register for compulsory military service. The basic requirement for the military was to demonstrate a competitive level of physical fitness. These tests offered the emerging fields of social science a range of data collection tools and new screening methods. The Army Medical Department examined the general condition of young American men selected for service from the population. The Surgeon General compiled his findings from draft records in the 1919 report, “Defects Found in Drafted Men,” a snapshot of the 2.5 million men examined for military service. Of that group, 1,533,937 physical defects were recorded (often more than one per individual). More than thirty-four percent of those examined were rejected for service or later discharged for neurological, psychiatric, or mental deficiencies.11
To provide a basis for the neurological, psychiatric, or mental evaluations, the Army assessed eligibility for service and aptitude for advanced training through the use of cognitive skills tests to determine intelligence. About 1.9 million men were tested on intelligence. Soldiers who were literate took the Army Alpha test. Illiterates and non-English speaking immigrants took the non-verbal equivalent, the Army Beta test, which relied on visual testing procedures. Robert M. Yerkes, president of the American Psychological Association and chairman of the Committee on the Psychological Examination of Recruits, developed and analyzed the tests. His data suggested that the mental age of recruits, in particular immigrant recruits from southern and eastern Europe, averaged about thirteen years. As a eugenicist, he interpreted the results as roughly equivalent to a mild level of retardation and as an indication of racial deterioration. Many years later, experts agreed the results misrepresented the levels of education for the recruits and revealed defects in the design of the tests.
The experience of service in the Army expanded many individual social horizons as natives and immigrants joined the ranks. Immigrants had been welcomed into Union ranks during the Civil War with large numbers of Irish and Germans who had joined and fought alongside native born men. Some Germans in the Civil War fought in units where German was the main language. Between 1917 and 1918, the Army accepted immigrants with some hesitancy because of the widespread public agitation against “hyphenated Americans” that demanded they conform without delay or reservation. However, if the Army appeared concerned about the level of assimilation and loyalty of recent immigrants, some social mixtures simply could not be tolerated within the ranks.
Propagandistic images increased patriotism in a public relatively detached from events taking place overseas. This photograph, showing two United States soldiers sprinting past the bodies of two German soldiers toward a bunker, showed Americans the heroism evinced by their men in uniform. Likely a staged image taken after fighting ending, it nonetheless played on the public’s patriotism, telling them to step up and support the troops. “At close grips with the Hun, we bomb the corkshaffer’s, etc.,” c. 1922?. Library of Congress.
Prevailing racial attitudes mandated the assignment of white and black soldiers to different units. Despite racial discrimination and Jim Crow, many black American leaders, such as W. E. B. DuBois, supported the war effort and sought a place at the front for black soldiers. Black leaders viewed military service as an opportunity to demonstrate to white society the willingness and ability of black men to assume all duties and responsibilities of citizens, including the wartime sacrifice. If black soldiers were drafted and fought and died on equal footing with white soldiers, then white Americans would see that they deserved to full citizenship. The War Department, however, barred black troops from combat specifically to avoid racial tensions. The military relegated black soldiers to segregated service units where they worked in logistics and supply and as general laborers.
In France, the experiences of black soldiers during training and periods of leave broadened their understanding of the Allies and life in Europe. The Army often restricted the privileges of black soldiers to ensure the conditions they encountered in Europe did not lead them to question their place in American society. However, black soldiers were not the only ones feared to be at risk by the temptations of European vice. To ensure that American “doughboys” did not compromise their special identity as men of the new world who arrived to save the old, several religious and progressive organizations created an extensive program designed to keep the men pure of heart, mind, and body. With assistance from the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and other temperance organizations, the War Department put together a program of schools, sightseeing tours, and recreational facilities to provide wholesome and educational outlets. The soldiers welcomed most of the activities from these groups, but many still managed to find and enjoy the traditional recreational venues of soldiers at war.12
While the War and Navy Departments initiated recruitment and mobilization plans for millions of men, women reacted to the war preparations by joining several military and civilian organizations. Their enrollment and actions in these organizations proved to be a pioneering effort for American women in war. Military leaders authorized the permanent gender transition of several occupations that gave women opportunities to don uniforms where none had existed before in history. Civilian wartime organizations, although chaired by male members of the business elite, boasted all-female volunteer workforces. Women performed the bulk of volunteer charitable work during the war.13
The military faced great upheaval with the admittance of women in the war. The War and Navy Departments authorized the enlistment of women to fill positions in several established administrative occupations. The gendered transition of these jobs freed more men to join combat units. Army women served as telephone operators (Hello Girls) for the Signal Corps, Navy women enlisted as Yeomen (clerical workers), and the first groups of women joined the Marine Corps in July 1918. For the military medical professions, approximately 25,000 nurses served in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps for duty stateside and overseas, and about a hundred female physicians were contracted by the Army. Neither the female nurses nor the doctors served as commissioned officers in the military. The Army and Navy chose to appoint them instead which left the status of professional medical women hovering somewhere between the enlisted and officer ranks. As a result, many female nurses and doctors suffered various physical and mental abuses at the hands of their male coworkers with no system of redress in place.14
The experiences of women in civilian organizations proved to be less stressful than in the military. Millions of women volunteered with the American Red Cross, the Young Men’s and Women’s Christian Associations (YMCA/YWCA), and the Salvation Army. Most women performed their volunteer duties in communal spaces owned by the leaders of the municipal chapters of these organizations. Women met at designated times to roll bandages, prepare and serve meals and snacks, package and ship supplies, and organize community fundraisers. The variety of volunteer opportunities that existed gave women the ability to appear in public spaces and promote charitable activities for the war effort. Women volunteers encouraged entire communities, including children, to get involved in war work. While most of these efforts focused on support for the home front, a small percentage of women volunteers served with the American Expeditionary Force in France.15
Jim Crow segregation in both the military and the civilian sector stood as a barrier for black women who wanted to give their time to the war effort. The military prohibited black women from serving as enlisted or appointed medical personnel. The only avenue for black women to wear a military uniform existed with the armies of the allied nations. A few black female doctors and nurses joined the French Foreign Legion to escape the racism in the American Army. Black women volunteers faced the same discrimination in civilian wartime organizations. White leaders of American Red Cross, YMCA/YWCA, and Salvation Army municipal chapters refused to admit them as equal participants. Black women were forced to charter auxiliary units as subsidiary divisions to the chapters and given little guidance in which to organize fellow volunteers. They turned instead to the community for support and recruited millions of women for auxiliaries that supported the nearly 200,000 black soldiers and sailors serving in the military. While the majority of women volunteers labored to care for black families on the homefront, three YMCA secretaries received the opportunity of a lifetime to work with the black troops in France.16
On the Homefront
In the early years of the war, Americans were generally detached from the events in Europe. The population paired their horror of war accounts with gratitude for the economic opportunities provided by the war and pride in a national tradition of non-involvement with the kind of entangling alliances that had caused the current war. Progressive Era reform politics dominated the political landscape, and Americans remained most concerned with domestic issues and the shifting role of government at home. However, the facts of the war could not be ignored by the public. The destruction taking place on European battlefields and the ensuing casualty rates indicated the unprecedented brutality of modern warfare. Increasingly, a sense that the fate of the Western world lay in the victory or defeat of the Allies.
President Wilson, a committed progressive, had articulated a global vision of democracy even as he embraced neutrality. And as war continued to engulf Europe, it seemed apparent that the United States’ economic power would shape the outcome of the conflict regardless of any American military intervention. By 1916, American trade with the Allies tripled while trade with the Central Powers shrunk astronomically, to less than one percent of previous levels.
German immigrants in the United States aroused popular suspicions. The American Protective League, a group of private citizens, worked directly with the U.S. government during WWI to identify suspected German sympathizers and to eradicate all radical, anarchical, left-wing, and anti-war activities through surveillance and raids. J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Bureau of Investigation (later the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI), used the APL to gather intelligence. A membership card in the American Protective League, issued 28 May 1918. Wikimedia.
The progression of the war in Europe generated fierce national debates about military preparedness. The Allies and the Central Powers had taken little time to raise and mobilize vast armies and navies. By comparison, the United States still fielded a minuscule army and had limited federal power to summon an adequate defense force before the enactment of conscription. When America entered the war, mobilization of military resources and the cultivation of popular support for the war consumed the country. Because the federal government had lacked the coercive force to mobilize before the war, the American war effort was marked by enormous publicity and propaganda campaigns. President Wilson went to extreme measures to push public opinion towards the war. Most notably, he created the Committee on Public Information, known as the “Creel Committee,” headed by Progressive George Creel, to enflame the patriotic mood of the country and generate support for military adventures abroad. Creel enlisted the help of Hollywood studios and other budding media outlets to cultivate a view of the war that pit democracy against imperialism, that framed America as crusading nation endeavoring to rescue Western civilization from medievalism and militarism. As war passions flared, challenges to the onrushing patriotic sentiment that America was making the world “safe for democracy” were labeled disloyal. Wilson signed the Espionage Act in 1917 and the Sedition Act in 1918, stripping dissenters and protesters of their rights to publicly resist the war. Critics and protesters were imprisoned. Immigrants, labor unions, and political radicals became targets of government investigations and an ever more hostile public culture. Meanwhile, the government insisted that individual financial contributions made a discernible difference for the men on the Western Front. Americans lent their financial support to the war effort by purchasing war bonds or supporting Liberty Loan Drive. Many Americans, however, sacrificed much more than money.17
Before the Armistice
The brutality of war persevered as European powers struggled to adapt to modern war. Until the spring of 1917, the Allies possessed few effective defensive measures against submarine attacks. German submarines sank more than a thousand ships by the time America entered the war. The rapid addition of American naval escorts to the British surface fleet and the establishment of a convoy system countered much of the effect of German submarines. Shipping and military losses declined rapidly, just as the American Army arrived in Europe in large numbers. Although much of the equipment still needed to make the transatlantic passage, the physical presence of the Army proved to a fatal blow to German war plans.18
In July 1917, after one last disastrous offensive against the Germans, the Russian army disintegrated. The tsarist regime collapsed and in November 1917 Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik party came to power. Russia soon surrendered to German demands and exited the war, freeing Germany to finally fight the one-front war it had desired since 1914. The German general staff quickly shifted hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the eastern theater in preparation for a new series of offensives planned for the following year in France.19
In March 1918, Germany launched the Kaiserschlacht (Spring Offensive), a series of five major attacks. By the middle of July 1918, each and every one had failed to break through on the Western Front. A string of Allied offensives commenced on the Western Front On August 8, 1918. The two million men of the American Expeditionary Force joined British and French armies in a series of successful counter offensives that pushed the disintegrating German front lines back across France. German General Erich Ludendorff referred to launch of the counteroffensive as the “black day of the German army.” The German offensive gamble exhausted Germany’s faltering military effort. Defeat was inevitable. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated at the request of the German general staff and the new German democratic government agreed to an armistice (cease fire) on November 11, 1918. German military forces withdrew from France and Belgium and returned to a Germany teetering on the brink of chaos.20
By the end of the war, more than 4.7 had million American men served in all branches of the military: four million in the Army, six hundred thousand in the Navy, and about eighty thousand in the Marine Corps. The United States lost over 100,000 men (Fifty-three thousand died in battle, and even more from disease). Their terrible sacrifice, however, paled before the Europeans’. After four years of brutal stalemate, France had suffered almost a million and a half military dead and Germany even more. Both nations lost about 4% of its population to the war. And death was not done.21
The War and the Influenza Pandemic
Even as war raged on the Western Front, a new deadly threat loomed: influenza. In the spring of 1918, a strain of the “flu” virus appeared in the farm country of Haskell County, Kansas, and hit nearby Camp Funston, one of the largest Army training camps in the nation. The virus spread like wildfire. The camp had brought disparate populations together, shuffled them between bases, sent them back to their homes across the nation, and, in consecutive waves, deployed them around the world. Between March and May 1918, fourteen of the largest American military training camps reported outbreaks of influenza. Some of the infected soldiers carried the virus on troop transports to France. By September 1918, influenza spread to all training camps in the United States. And then it mutated into a deadlier version.22
The second wave of the virus, a mutated strain, was even deadlier than the first. It struck down those in the prime of their lives: a disproportionate amount of influenza victims were between the ages of 18 and 35 years old. In Europe, influenza hit both sides of the Western Front. The “Spanish Influenza,” or the “Spanish Lady,” misnamed due to accounts of the disease that first appeared in the uncensored newspapers of neutral Spain, resulted in the deaths of an estimated fifty million people worldwide. Reports from the Surgeon General of the Army revealed that while 227,000 soldiers were hospitalized from wounds received in battle, almost half a million suffered from influenza. The worst part of the epidemic struck during the height of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the fall of 1918 and compromised the combat capabilities of the American and German armies. During the war, more soldiers died from influenza than combat. The pandemic continued to spread after the Armistice before finally fading in the early 1920s. No cure was ever found.23
The Fourteen Points and the League of Nations
As the flu virus wracked the world, Europe and America rejoiced at the end of hostilities. On December 4, 1918, President Wilson became the first American president to leave the country during his term. He intended to shape the peace. The war brought an abrupt end to four great European imperial powers. The German, Russian, Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman empires evaporated and the map of Europe was redrawn to accommodate new independent nations. As part of the terms of the Armistice, Allied forces followed the retreating Germans and occupied territories in the Rhineland to prevent Germany from reigniting war. As Germany disarmed, Wilson and the other Allied leaders gathered in France at Versailles for the Paris Peace Conference to dictate the terms of a settlement to the war.
Earlier that year, on January 8, 1918, before a joint session of Congress, President Wilson offered an enlightened statement of war aims and peace terms known as the Fourteen Points. The plan not only dealt with territorial issues but offered principles upon which a long-term peace could be built, including the establishment of a League of Nations to guard against future wars. But in January 1918 Germany still anticipated a favorable verdict on the battlefield and did not seriously consider accepting the terms of the Fourteen Points. The initial reaction from Germany seemed even more receptive than the Allies. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau remarked, “The good Lord only had ten (points).”24
President Wilson toiled for his vision of the post-war world. The United States had entered the fray, Wilson proclaimed, “to make the world safe for democracy.” At the center of the plan was a novel international organization–the League of Nations–charged with keeping a worldwide peace by preventing the kind of destruction that tore across Europe and “affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” This promise of collective security, that an attack on one sovereign member would be viewed as an attack on all, was a key component of the Fourteen Points.25
But the fight for peace was daunting. While President Wilson was celebrated in Europe and welcomed as the “God of Peace,” his fellow statesmen were less enthusiastic about his plans for post-war Europe. America’s closest allies had little interest in the League of Nations. Allied leaders sought to guarantee the future safety of their own nations. Unlike the United States, the Allies endured firsthand the horrors of the war. They refused to sacrifice further. The negotiations made clear that British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George was more interested in preserving Britain’s imperial domain, while French Prime Minister Clemenceau sought a peace that recognized the Allies’ victory and the Central Powers’ culpability: he wanted reparations—severe financial penalties—and limits on Germany’s future ability to wage war. The fight for the League of Nations was therefore largely on the shoulders of President Wilson. By June 1919, the final version of the treaty was signed and President Wilson was able to return home. The treaty was a compromise that included demands for German reparations, provisions for the League of Nations, and the promise of collective security. For President Wilson, it was an imperfect peace, but better than no peace at all.
The real fight for the League of Nations was on the American homefront. Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts stood as the most prominent opponent of the League of Nations. As chair of the Senator Foreign Relations Committee and an influential Republican Party leader, he could block ratification of the treaty. Lodge attacked the treaty for potentially robbing the United States of its sovereignty. Never an isolationist, Lodge demanded instead that the country deal with its own problems in its own way, free from the collective security—and oversight—offered by the League of Nations. Unable to match Lodge’s influence the Senate, President Wilson took his case to the American people in the hopes that ordinary voters might be convinced that the only guarantee of future world peace was the League of Nations. During his grueling cross-country trip, however, President Wilson suffered an incapacitating stroke. His opponents had the upper hand.26
President Wilson’s dream for the League of Nations died on the floor of the Senate. Lodge’s opponents successfully blocked America’s entry into the League of Nations, an organization conceived and championed by the American president. The League of Nations operated with fifty-eight sovereign members, but the United States refused to join, refused to lend it American power, and refused to provide it with the power needed to fulfill its purpose.27
Aftermath of World War I
The war transformed the world. It drastically changed the face of the Middle East, for instance. For centuries the Ottoman Empire had shaped life in the region. Before the war, the Middle East had three main centers of power: Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, and Iran. President Wilson’s call for self-determination appealed to many under the Ottoman Empire’s rule. In the aftermath of the war, Wilson sent a commission to investigate the region to determine the conditions and aspirations of the populace. The King-Crane Commission found that most of the inhabitants favored an independent state free of European control. However, these wishes were largely ignored, and the lands of the former Ottoman Empire divided into mandates through the Treaty of Sevres at the San Remo Conference in 1920. The Ottoman Empire disintegrated into several nations, many created in part without regard to ethnic realities by European powers. These Arab provinces were ruled by Britain and France, and the new nation of Turkey emerged from the former heartland of Anatolia. According to the League of Nations, mandates “were inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.” Though allegedly for the benefit of the people of the Middle East, the mandate system was essentially a reimagined form of nineteenth-century imperialism. France received Syria; Britain took control of Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan (Jordan). The United States was asked to become a mandate power, but declined. The geographical realignment of the Middle East also included the formation of two new nations: the Kingdom of Hejaz and Yemen. (The Kingdom of Hejaz was ruled by Sharif Hussein and only lasted until the 1920s when it became part of Saudi Arabia.)28
The fates of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian-born anarchists who were convicted of robbery and murder in 1920, reflected the Red Scare in American society that followed the Russian Revolution in 1917. Their arrest, trial, and execution inspired many leftists and dissenting artists to express their sympathy with the accused, such as in Maxwell Anderson’s Gods of the Lightning or Upton Sinclair’s Boston. The Sacco-Vanzetti demonstrated a newly exacerbated American nervousness about immigrants’ and the potential spread of radical ideas, especially those related to international communism after the Russian Revolution.29
When in March 1918 the Bolsheviks signed a separate peace treaty with Germany, the Allies planned to send troops to northern Russia and Siberia prevent German influence and fight the Bolshevik revolution. Wilson agreed, and, in a little-known foreign intervention, American troops remained in Russia as late as 1920. Although the Bolshevik rhetoric of self-determination followed many of the ideals of Wilson’s Fourteen Points—Vladimir Lenin supported revolutions against imperial rule across the world—imperialism and anti-communism could not be so easily undone by vague ideas of self-rule.
While still fighting in WWI, President Wilson sent American troops to Siberia during the Russian Civil War for reasons both diplomatic and military. This photograph shows American soldiers in Vladivostok parading before the building occupied by the staff of the Czecho-Slovaks (those opposing the Bolsheviks). To the left, Japanese marines stand to attention as the American troops march. Photograph, August 1, 1918. Wikimedia
At home, the United States grappled with harsh postwar realities. Racial tensions culminated in the Red Summer of 1919 when violence broke out in at least twenty-five cities, including Chicago and Washington, D.C. The riots originated from wartime racial tensions. Industrial war production and massive wartime service created vast labor shortages and thousands of southern blacks traveled to the North and Midwest to escape the traps of southern poverty. But the so-called Great Migration sparked significant racial conflict as local whites and returning veterans fought to reclaim their jobs and their neighborhoods from new black migrants.30
But many black Americans, who had fled the Jim Crow South and traveled halfway around the world to fight for the United States, would not so easily accede to postwar racism. The overseas experience of black Americans and their return triggered a dramatic change in black communities. W.E.B. DuBois wrote boldly of returning soldiers: “We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy!”31 But white Americans desired a return to the status quo, a world that did not include social, political, or economic equality for black people.
In 1919, America suffered through the “Red Summer.” Riots erupted across the country from April until October. The massive bloodshed during included thousands of injuries, hundreds of deaths, and a vast destruction of private and public property across the nation. The Chicago Riot, from July 27 to August 3, 1919, considered the summer’s worst, sparked a week of mob violence, murder, and arson. Race riots had rocked the nation, but the Red Summer was something new. Recently empowered blacks actively defended their families and homes, often with militant force. This behavior galvanized many in black communities, but it also shocked white Americans who alternatively interpreted black resistance as a desire for total revolution or as a new positive step in the path toward black civil rights. In the riots’ aftermath, James Weldon Johnson wrote, “Can’t they understand that the more Negroes they outrage, the more determined the whole race becomes to secure the full rights and privileges of freemen?” Those six hot months in 1919 forever altered American society and roused and terrified those that experienced the sudden and devastating outbreaks of violence.32
World War I decimated millions and profoundly altered the course of world history. Postwar instabilities led directly toward a global depression and a second world war. The war sparked the Bolshevik revolution that the United States later engaged in Cold War. It created Middle Eastern nations and aggravated ethnic tensions that the United States could never tackle. By fighting with and against European powers on the Western Front, America’s place in the world was never the same. By whipping up nationalist passions, American attitudes toward radicalism, dissent, and immigration were poisoned. Postwar disillusionment shattered Americans’ hopes for the progress of the modern world. The war came and went, and left in its place the bloody wreckage of an old world through which the world travelled to a new and uncertain future.
- David Stevenson, The First World War and International Politics (London: Oxford: University Press, 1988); David Stevenson, Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy (New York: Basic Books, 2004).
- Paul Koistinen, Mobilizing for Modern War: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1865–1919 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997).
- John S. D. Eisenhower, Intervention!: The United States and the Mexican Revolution, 1913–1917 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995); Friedrich Katz, The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
- Arthur S. Link, Wilson: The Struggle for Neutrality, 1914–1915 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960).
- Michael S. Neiberg, Fighting the Great War: A Global History, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).
- American Federation of Labor, Report of the Proceedings of the Annual Convention (1917), 112.
- Christopher Capozzola, Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
- Albert Gallitin Love, Defects Found in Drafted Men (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1920), 73.
- Dawley, Changing the World.
- Susan Zeiger, In Uncle Sam’s Service: Women Workers with the American Expeditionary Force, 1917-1919 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 2-4.
- Lettie Gavin, American Women in World War I: They Also Served (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1997); Kimberly Jensen, Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 170-172.
- Gavin, American Women, 129-240.
- Nikki Brown, Private Politics and Public Voices: Black Women’s Activism from World War I to the New Deal (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 66-107.
- David Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).
- Neiberg, Fighting the Great War.
- Nancy K. Bristow, American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Alfred W. Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
- Alan Dawley, Changing the World: American Progressives in War and Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
- Thomas J. Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
- John Milton Cooper, Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
- David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (New York: Henry Holt, 1989).
- Moshik Temkin, The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
- Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Vintage, 2011).
- The Crisis, (May, 1919), 14.
- William Tuttle, Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1970); Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America (New York: Henry Holt, 2011).