The Great War, America, and the Modern Age
The musings of a medievalist concerning the First World War and its impact on modern American society may seem misplaced, yet they possess one great strength: perspective. Indeed, having long studied the culture of pre-modern Europe—a cultural heritage which still, albeit increasingly obscurely, informs and sustains the Western world—allows one to identify the distinctive social elements which distinguish modern America. Moreover, I posit that the genesis of certain contemporary American “cultural trends” (to use a trendy term) can be traced back to the First World War. These include a rapid industrialization of warfare, a revolutionary shift in the public workforce away from patriarchal dominance, and the rise of America not only as a leading world power but as the great arbiter of international affairs. Thus while we patriotically commemorate the many sacrifices made for Western democracy on this centennial of America’s decisive entry into the Great War, it may also be useful to recall how “the war to end wars” helped create the American society we know today.
America’s Role in the War
America was uniquely positioned to impact the course of World War I. By the first year of the war, 1914, the annual production of the United States was 800% higher than in had been in 1865 and equaled the combined industrial productions of Britain, France, and Germany; moreover, during this same fifty year period, the U.S. population tripled. American steel and petroleum industries boomed, the former material often used to make armaments, the latter to fuel warships and merchant vessels. Yet initially America swore to remain neutral in the growing conflict that gradually engulfed all of Europe, the Middle East, Russia, Africa, and Asia.
American neutrality, however, was more illusory than real. At the start of the war, the British imposed a devastating naval blockade on the northern ports of Germany, essentially prohibiting the United States from trading with the Central powers, even to provide such basic commodities as food. Instead, the British and their allies received the vast majority of America’s ample resources, and in the 32 months preceding America’s entry into the war, the U.S. economy grew by 60% as it supplied the English and French with war matériel. At the same time Germany, which relied heavily on imports to feed its people during times of war, was starving—an estimated 500,000 German civilians died from the ensuing famine. The desperate Germans soon developed their own form of economic warfare, evading Britain’s vastly superior surface fleet through the use of submarines. German U-boats surrounded the English coast and might, without warning, sink any vessel engaged in trade with the British (who also relied very heavily on imports to sustain their war effort). Since the United States had been trading regularly and heavily with Great Britain throughout the course of the war, American casualties were inevitable. Additionally, early in 1917, the German Foreign Office sent a secret telegram to Mexico discussing the possibility of forming an alliance against America should she enter the war; British intelligence intercepted and decoded the telegram, ultimately passing it on to the American authorities. The imminent danger posed by German U-boats to U.S. trans-Atlantic shipping and the threat to national security posed by a potential German-Mexican alliance prompted President Woodrow Wilson to push for America’s entry into the war on the side of her long-standing trading partner, Britain.
When Congress ratified Wilson’s request in April of 1917, the whole might of the American economy was focused on supporting the war effort. New federal institutions such as the War Industry Board, the National War Labor Board, and the War Finance Corporation funneled resources into the great American war machine. Chemical plants sprung up across the country, and leading scientific minds such as Thomas Edison headed research committees which sought to develop new technologies capable of locating and destroying German submarines. Congress approved huge grants to support shipbuilding and research into aviation (a new field at the time). Financial resources were then matched by human resources. Thanks to the leadership of George Creel, the federal Committee on Public Information developed a powerful propaganda campaign (the famous Uncle Sam recruiting posters date from this time). In one short year, roughly 3 million young men were drafted into the armed services, and many of these were soon deployed to Europe.
The Role of Women in the War Effort
Women too were an essential part of America’s victory. Tens of thousands served in the U.S. Armed Forces as auxiliaries, many actually travelling overseas. Yet the most important contribution of the “fairer sex” was back at home, working office, factory, and railway jobs left vacant by male soldiers. Here is how one women’s rights activist described the situation in 1918:
“For every American man in khaki there is an American girl in industry. At the time the American Army numbered 1,500,000 there were 1,500,000 girls at work in war industries, working on shells, munitions of other kinds, all kinds of machine processes or airplane motor parts, painting camouflage, doing machine work on Government trucks and working in the chemicals that are used to make ammunition….In shop after shop, as you look down the long rows of flying belts and clanking, buzzing machines, you see fair heads bent over big drills, grinding their way through fat pieces of steel, or a pretty brown mass of hair showing under a machinist’s cap with its long black visor.”
This portrayal is accurate. Historians estimate that, between 1917 and 1918, roughly two million women held jobs associated directly with the war effort. In many cases, women began working jobs traditionally considered only appropriate for men, particularly those involving taxing manual labor, long hours, and heavy machinery. Yet women also came to dominate lower-level clerical posts inside growing office buildings. They began advocating (effectively) for wages comparable to those earned by men, for shorter hours, and even for union protection. In response to these new realities and pressing demands, the U.S. Employment Bureau created a women’s section in 1918. Women even began to wear men’s clothing while doing men’s work. Finally, once the war drew to a successful close, women’s suffrage activists convinced Congress that women were just as much citizens of the United States as were their male counterparts and had played a crucial role in winning the war; therefore, they should be given the vote. In 1920, an amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution granting all women this right, the culmination of decades of social advocacy undertaken by suffragettes.
America’s International Ascendency
In addition to the rapid growth and industrialization of the U.S. military and to the increasing prominence of women in the public sphere, the ascendancy of America as the great arbiter of international affairs can also be credited to World War One, and specifically to one man: Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924). As president from 1913 to 1921, Wilson guided the U.S. through the Great War and played a leading part in establishing peace with Germany following the Allied victory. A staunch Presbyterian, Wilson harbored a lofty, quasi-religious vision of the role America should play in international affairs. As early as 1912, he stated: “we [Americans] are chosen…to show the way to the nations of the world, how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.” Similarly on April 2, 1917, when Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, he insisted that the U.S. should fight “for the ultimate peace of the world and the liberation of its peoples … [in order to establish] the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life.” Democracy should thus be exported from America to the rest of the world; moreover, the peace talks at Versailles following the end of the war served as a prime venue for Wilson to promote his new vision for world peace and stability.
Wilson’s Fourteen Points
In preparation for the peace negotiations, Wilson developed his famous Fourteen Points. Here he advocated for elective government and rule by the people; for unimpeded, unrestricted trade across the high seas; and for political self-determination in lands such as Poland, Romania, and Hungary. Most importantly, Wilson insisted that “a general association of nations” be formed to promote political independence and mutual security throughout the world. This general association of nations would, by the end of the peace talks, become the League of Nations. In order to convince the leading nations of Europe to support his new League, Wilson was prepared to compromise on other issues; for example, he reluctantly agreed to support France in demanding huge indemnities from Germany, and he grudgingly acknowledged Great Britain’s right to claim former German colonies in Africa. Finally, according to Wilson, those nations which threatened his vision of a new, democratic, cooperative world order should be excluded from membership. Germany, for example, was forced to renounce its empire and was encouraged to establish an elective form of government; only after a period of probation, during which it had to prove its commitment to democratic principles and international cooperation, could Germany be admitted to the League. Likewise Russia, which had recently embraced Bolshevism, was viewed as an enemy of liberty and of democracy and was also excluded.
With the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919 by the European powers, the League of Nations became a reality and a new world order was established thanks to the tireless advocacy of Woodrow Wilson. In fact, the establishment of the League occupied the very first of the lengthy treaty’s 440 articles, a testimony to the overriding importance Wilson ascribed to this new international body. Indeed, Wilson was willing to go to great lengths to promote the League. By personally attending the peace talks at Versailles, Wilson became the first U.S. president to travel abroad during his time in office. Additionally, Wilson had to convince Congress to adopt the treaty as well. Soon after he returned home, Wilson addressed the U.S. Senate, insisting that the League was the “indispensable instrumentality for the maintenance of the new world order.”
Yet, ironically, Congress never authorized the United States to join the League of Nations. Many women, too, despite their achievements in the workforce during the war, had to cede their jobs to the men returning home from battle. These facts, however, should not obscure the new realities for American society inaugurated by World War I. The United States asserted itself, in the person of Woodrow Wilson, as the leading power in world politics and as the great champion of international democracy during the post-war peace talks at Versailles. Women proved that they could do the work of men, that they had helped carry their nation to victory, and that they thus deserved to be acknowledged as full citizens possessing the right to vote. Economically, the war served as a great stimulus to American industries and trade, simultaneously prompting the development of a larger, highly industrialized military. Unquestionably these new realities—America as the international guardian of democracy, women as full citizens with the right to vote, national industry and technology as the guarantees of overwhelming military force—guided America through the Second World War by inspiring the creation, respectively, of the United Nations, of the women’s labor movement (symbolized by Rosie the Riveter), and of the atomic bomb. These realities still persist today and now define, problematically, our modern American culture.