The US Participation in WWI: Part Three

In many ways, the greatest effect of WWI on the US was not in terms of our military involvement, but on the home-front and on the government and constitutional law. Yes, military aircraft, the first tanks, those all arrived with WWI. But the efforts made by Woodrow Wilson’s government to swing the US to being actively anti-German and to support the war effort introduced changes that would have some long-term effects on the US, in large part because of the precedent they set.

George Creel was one of the most important figures in the wartime government. An advertising executive before he joined the government, his job was to sell the war to the American people. keep in mind 1) Wilson’s reelection slogan had been “He kept us out of the war!” and 2) about a third of the population of the US were of German ancestry to some degree. There were probably more people who actively hated the British (Irish-ancestry) than loathed the Germans. The British had been doing a great deal of work with their own propaganda, and the US borrowed heavily from British patterns and ideas, but it would still take some work to get the US to hate Germany and to support the war.

One of the most important legal actions taken was the Espionage Act of 1915, strengthening the penalties for being caught spying. Added onto that was the Sedition Act. The Draft had come first, and when people complained about the draft, and about the war, Congress passed the Sedition Act May 1918, in part to make legal what had been already done. It reads:

SECTION 3. Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States, or to promote the success of its enemies, or shall willfully make or convey false reports, or false statements, . . . or incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct . . . the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, or . . . shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States . . . or shall willfully display the flag of any foreign enemy, or shall willfully . . . urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production . . . or advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated and whoever shall by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States therein, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both….

Congress had not been quick to move on the 1917 Espionage Act, despite Wilson’s urgings, because of concerns about restrictions on speech, because of concerns about the large immigrant population’s reaction, and because it was Congress. The Espionage Act and its later amendments have been up before the Supreme Court several times because of how loosely the US government interpreted some of the clauses. Men and women were arrested for criticizing the government prior to the passage of the law (and after, in order to get around the ex post facto clause), for questioning the US’s involvement in the war, and for not being patriotic enough for the tastes of certain government agents.

One of the groups organized to encourage zeal for the war effort were the Four Minute Men. One of George Creel’s ideas, these were local community leaders – businessmen, clergy, politicians – who were given short speeches to read to audiences at theaters, concerts, public gatherings, movies, and any place where a group of people might gather. The speeches lasted about four minutes or less, thus the name, and they were what today we’d call soundbites of government propaganda about current topics. Other people watched the crowds, and if anyone seemed less than properly enthusiastic after the speech, they were noted.

Along with the Four Minute Men came the American Protective League. Vigilantes had already started attacking people suspected of being “disloyal” in 1917, but this gave their actions a veneer of legality and official approval. 250,000 people volunteered to spy on their neighbors and to act as agents against disloyalty. People who failed to buy enough war bonds, people who were not “doing their part” with Victory Gardens or meatles and wheatles days, people who failed to act enthusiastic enough about scrap metal drives, people who might speak German or Italian at home, people who might have been violating rationing rules, suspected draft dodgers, members of the IWW union… all were subject to citizens arrest. While relatively few people were actually arrested (possibly as many as 40,000), the knowledge that your neighbor might be watching to turn you in to the government for not being excited enough about a bond rally was chilling. The group was disbanded in 1919, but the precedent had been set.

Pacifists suffered special persecution, in part because so many were of German descent – Mennonites, Amish, German Brethren. The abuse of these groups was one of the low points of the war for the idea of the US living up to its ideals.

Also new on the scene were “dollar-a-year” men, businessmen and consultants who served as government advisors. Because it was illegal for bureaucrats to serve without pay (except in true emergencies), they were paid a token dollar. One of the goals of the Progressives of the 1880s-1910s was efficiency and government management of industry and agriculture and everything else by experts. We’d call them technocrats today. The first attempts at this came during WWI, with mixed results. Complaints arose because so many of the policies proposed by the business experts favored their own businesses. Home economics experts advised women how to make plainer clothes that used less fabric, “for the war effort.” Canning and growing produce was more efficient, so that commercial canned goods could go to the war effort. Cartels were approved on a temporary basis in order to improve efficiency in delivering steel, timber, and finished goods to the US military.

How all these things combined can be seen in the federal response to the 1918-1919 Influenza epidemic. It appeared in March of 1918, faded a way a little later, and returned even worse in August. One of the first things that was done was to prohibit discussion of the epidemic in the news, in order to keep from lowering attendance at bond drives and to prevent the disease from being used for German propaganda. Not until relatively late in the spread (October in most cases) did the government encourage states and municipalities to ban large gatherings of people and to close schools. The topic was not to be discussed on the radio or in papers, and when it was, it was a minor outbreak and everything would soon be under control. Alas, without antibiotics to fight the secondary infection, the “Spanish Flu” was not a minor event. Government response also varied in some cases based on race – minorities received poorer care, or were isolated longer and more strictly.

Rationing of foods and goods needed for the military continued apace, with people urged to skip wheat on some days and meat on others, to drive less, to wear clothes that used less material, to donate pots and pans for scrap drives, to buy bonds, to make bandages and other things for the troops, and to plant vegetable gardens – victory gardens.

The war would be over before the US Supreme Court ruled on the Sedition Act. In Schenck vs. the US, they found it to be legal at the time. As Justice Holmes wrote for the court: “Words which, ordinarily and in many places, would be within the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment may become subject to prohibition when of such a nature and used in such circumstances a to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils which Congress has a right to prevent. The character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done.” The “Clear and Present Danger” doctrine has been invoked numerous times since the 1919 decision.

The precedent for re-organizing the government and censorship would reappear during the Great Depressions’ New Deal policies, and again in WWII. Although the US people would reject continuation of the limits and “efficiencies” imposed by the war after 1919, the government as an institution never really forgot.

A few good sources:

The recent American Experience documentary about WWI includes a great deal of information about the home front and the abuses of civil liberties.

Barry, John M. (2004). The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Greatest Plague in History. Viking Penguin. ISBN 978-0-670-89473-4. (A very well written book about the disease and about the government response to it.)


7 thoughts on “The US Participation in WWI: Part Three

  1. It may have been a low point in Americas history, but a lot of politicians have attempted to emulate Wilson’s success. Because from a purely political standpoint it was a great success story. Not only did he succesfully restrict more Americans rights and gather more power to the federal government than any President since the civil war, but he managed to convince the public to support the British against the Germans. You brought up a point that I always think about when the US involvement in WWI is brought up, but few people acknowledge; at the time Wilson was reelected the citizens sympathies clearly leaned German and Italian, not British. He managed to turn that around, with basically nothing but propaganda and brute political force.

    • That’s one of the scariest things about WWI in the US, and something I wish my grad classes had spent more time going into. Granted, the Brits had been pushing the stories about the destruction of Louven and the like, and the Germans didn’t do themselves any favors in terms of PR, but to go from neutral/mildly anti-British to rabidly anti-German so fast… scary.

      • WWI was just flat not covered in my schooling, they went from the Civil War to WWII to Vietnam. As far as the school curriculum was concerned, WWI and Korea didn’t happen.

        Granted the Germans didn’t do themselves many PR favors, but unlike them and the Japanese in WWII they didn’t provide for a clear moral distinction between the two sides. Okay, there wasn’t a real clear moral distinction between Germany and Russia, but between Germany and the Allied forces there was.

  2. Italy was part of the Allies (Britain, France, USA, Russia) in World War One — that is why Ernest Hemingway was there driving an ambulance. So speaking Italian at home should not have suggested treasonous activity, although some Americans mistrusted Italians for other reasons.

    • It depends on when during the war you are thinking about. When the war started, Italy was allied with Austria-Hungary, although they failed to meet their treaty agreements once fighting started. In mid-May 1915 Italy declared itself on the Entente side (what the US called the Allies). In some areas there was still some suspicion about Italians, although not nearly as much as there was about Germans, or anyone who “sounded German.”

      • That is probably the main reason that Italians are still considered untrustworthy today, switching sides midway through a war is not exactly conducive of trust, even by the side you switch to.

        • That and they tried to flip sides in 1944-45. And then there was the little Mafia thing that got exported to the US, and for the longest time, anyone who was Catholic was suspect because a few Roman Catholic thinkers held that if you swore an oath aloud but denied it silently as you spoke, you were not bound by that oath.

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