United States home front during World War I

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search
Home Front
Weapons for Liberty.jpg
Weapons for Liberty – U.S.A. Bonds by J. C. Leyendecker, 1918
Date 1917-19
Location United States

The home front of the United States in World War I saw a systematic mobilization of the entire population and the entire economy to produce the soldiers, food supplies, ammunitions and money needed to win the war. Although the United States entered the war in April 1917, there had been very little planning, or even recognition of the problems that the Great Britain and other Allies had to solve on their home fronts. As a result, the level of confusion was high in the first 12 months, then efficiency took control.

The war came in the midst of the Progressive Era, when efficiency and expertise were highly valued. Therefore the federal government (and states as well) set up a multitude of temporary agencies to bring together the expertise necessary to redirect the economy and society into the production of munitions and food necessary for the war, as well as the production of ideas necessary to motivate the people.

American entry into the war

<templatestyles src="Module:Hatnote/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Firmly maintaining neutrality when World War I began in Europe in 1914, the United States helped supply the Allies, but could not ship anything to Germany because of the British blockade. Sympathies among many politically and culturally influential Americans had favored the British cause from the start of the war, as typified by industrialist Samuel Insull, born in London, who helped young Americans enlist in British or Canadian forces. On the other hand, especially in the Midwest, many Irish Americans and German Americans opposed any American involvement and were anti-British. The suffragist movement included many pacifists, and most churches opposed the war.[1]

German efforts to use its submarines ("U-boats") to blockade Britain resulted in the deaths of American travelers and sailors, and attacks on passenger liners caused public outrage. Most notable was the torpedoing without warning the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915. Germany promised not to repeat, but it reversed its position in early 1917, believing that unrestricted U-boat warfare against all ships headed to Britain would win the war even at at the cost of American entry. When Americans read the text of the German offer to Mexico, known as the Zimmermann Telegram, they saw an offer for Mexico to go to war with Germany against the United States, with German funding, with the promise of the return of the lost territories of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. On Apr 1, 1917, Wilson called for war, emphasizing that the U.S. had to fight to maintain its honor and to have a decisive voice in shaping the new postwar world.[2] Congress voted on April 6, 1917 to declare war, but it was far from unanimous.[3]

Temporary agencies

Congress authorized President Woodrow Wilson to create a bureaucracy of 500,000 to 1 million new jobs in five thousand new federal agencies.[4] To solve the labor crisis, the Employment Service of the Department of Labor attracted workers from the South and Midwest to war industries in the East.

Government propaganda

In April 1917, the Wilson Administration created the Committee on Public Information (CPI), known as the Creel Committee, to control war information and provide pro-war propaganda. Employing talented writers and scholars, it issued anti-German pamphlets and films. It organized thousands of "Four-Minute Men" to deliver brief speeches at movie theaters, schools and churches to promote patriotism and participation in the war effort.[5]

Military draft

<templatestyles src="Module:Hatnote/styles.css"></templatestyles>

File:King, Stoddard WW1 draft card.jpg
A World War I era draft card.

In 1917 the administration decided to rely primarily on conscription, rather than voluntary enlistment, to raise military manpower for World War I. The Selective Service Act of 1917 was carefully drawn to remedy the defects in the Civil War system and—by allowing exemptions for dependency, essential occupations, and religious scruples—to place each man in his proper niche in a national war effort. The act established a "liability for military service of all male citizens"; authorized a selective draft of all those between twenty-one and thirty-one years of age (later from eighteen to forty-five); and prohibited all forms of bounties, substitutions, or purchase of exemptions. Administration was entrusted to local boards composed of leading civilians in each community. These boards issued draft calls in order of numbers drawn in a national lottery and determined exemptions. In 1917 and 1918 some 24 million men were registered and nearly 3 million inducted into the military services, with little of the resistance that characterized the Civil War.[6]

File:U.S. draft lottery.jpg
Secretary of War Newton Baker draws the first draft number on 20 July 1917.

Using questionnaires filled out by doughboys as they left the Army, Gutièrrez reports that they were not cynical or disillusioned. They fought "for honor, manhood, comrades, and adventure, but especially for duty."[7]

Civil liberties

The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 attempted to punish enemy activity and extended to the punishment expressions of doubt about America's role in the war. The Sedition Act criminalized any expression of opinion that used "disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language" about the U.S. government, flag or armed forces. Government police action, private vigilante groups and public war hysteria compromised the civil liberties of many Americans who disagreed with Wilson's policies.[8]

The private American Protective League, working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was one of many private patriotic associations that sprang up to support the war and at the same time identify slackers, spies, draft dodgers and anti-war organizations.[9]

In a July 1917 speech, Max Eastman complained that the government's aggressive prosecutions of dissent meant that "You can't even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage."[10]


The nascent film industry produced a wide variety of propaganda films. The most successful was The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, a "sensational creation" designed to rouse the audience against the German ruler. Comedies included Mutt and Jeff at the Front. The greatest artistic success, considered by many a landmark of film history, was Charlie Chaplin's Shoulder Arms, which followed the star from his induction into the military, his accidental penetration of the German lines, and his eventual return having captured the Kaiser and Crown Prince and won himself a pretty French girl.[11] Other activities included film shorts supporting the sale of war bonds or for war relief such as Tom's Little Star.


Munitions production before U.S. entry

By 1916, Britain was funding most of the Empire's war expenditures, all of Italy's and two thirds of the war costs of France and Russia, plus smaller nations as well. The gold reserves, overseas investments and private credit then ran out forcing forced Britain to borrow $4 billion from the U.S. Treasury in 1917–18.[12] Much of this money was spent paying United States industries to manufacture ammunition. United States Cartridge Company expanded its work force ten-fold in response to September 1914 contracts with British purchasing agents; and ultimately manufactured over two billion rifle and machine gun cartridges.[13] Baldwin Locomotive Works expanded their Eddystone, Pennsylvania, manufacturing facilities in 1915 to manufacture Russian artillery shells and British rifles.[14] The United States production of smokeless powder was equal to the combined production of the European Allies during the last 19 months of the war; and by the end of the war United States factories were producing smokeless powder at a rate 45 percent higher than the European Allies' combined production. Production rate of explosives by the United States was similarly 40 percent higher than Britain and nearly twice that of France.[15] Shipments of American raw materials and food allowed Britain to feed itself and its army while maintaining her productivity. The financing was generally successful.[16] Heavy investment in ammunition manufacturing machinery did not bring long term prosperity to some major American companies. The United States Cartridge Company Lowell, Massachusetts, factory which manufactured nearly two-thirds of the small arms cartridges produced in the United States during the war, closed eight years later.[17] After Baldwin manufactured over six million artillery shells, nearly two million rifles, and 5,551 military locomotives for Russia, France, Britain and the United States,[14] postwar production never used more than one-third the capacity of the Eddystone factory; and Baldwin declared bankruptcy in 1935.[18]

Farming and food

<templatestyles src="Module:Hatnote/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Food Administration poster 1917

The food program was a major success, as output expanded, waste was reduced, and both the home front and the Allies received more food.[19] The U.S. Food Administration under Herbert Hoover launched a massive campaign to teach Americans to economize on their food budgets and grow victory gardens in their backyards.[20] It managed the nation's food distribution and prices.[21]

Gross farm income increased more than 230% from 1914 to 1919. Apart from '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.[22]

Economic confusion in 1917

In terms of munitions production, the first 15 months involved an amazing parade of mistakes, misguided enthusiasm, and confusion. Americans were willing enough, but they did not know their proper role. Washington was unable to figure out what to do when, or even to decide who was in charge. Typical of the confusion was the coal shortage that hit in December 1917. Because coal was by far the major source of energy and heat a grave crisis ensued. There was in fact plenty of coal being mined, but 44,000 loaded freight and coal cars were tied up in horrendous traffic jams in the rail yards of the East Coast. Two hundred ships were waiting in New York harbor for cargo that was delayed by the mess. The solution included nationalizing the coal mines and the railroads for the duration, shutting down factories one day a week to save fuel, and enforcing a strict system of priorities. Only in March, 1918, did Washington finally take control of the crisis[23] The transportation system then worked smoothly.[24]

Shipments to Europe

Shipbuilding became a major wartime industry, focused on merchant ships and tankers.[25] Merchant ships were often sunk until the convoy system was adopted using British and Canadian naval escorts, Convoys were slow but were effective in stopping uboat attacks.[26] The troops were shipped over on fast passenger liners that could easily outrun submarines.[27]

An oil crisis occurred in Britain due to the 1917 German submarine campaign. Standard Oil of NJ, for example, lost 6 tankers (including the brand new "John D. Archbold") between May and September. The solution was expanded oil shipments from America in convoys. The Allies formed the Inter-Allied Petroleum Conference with USA, Britain, France, and Italy as the members. Standard and Royal Dutch/Shell ran it and made it work. The introduction of convoys as an antidote to the German U-boats and the joint management system by Standard Oil and Royal Dutch/Shell helped to solve the Allies' supply problems. The close working relationship that evolved was in marked contrast to the feud between the government and Standard Oil years earlier. In 1917 and 1918, there was increased domestic demand for oil partly due to the cold winter that created a shortage of coal. Inventories and imported oil from Mexico were used to close the gap. In January 1918, the U.S. Fuel Administrator ordered industrial plants east of Mississippi to close for a week to free up oil for Europe.[28]

The coal shortage caused sharp increases in the demand and prices of oil and industry called for voluntary price control from the oil industry. While Standard Oil was agreeable, the independent oil companies were not. Demand continued to outpace supply because of the war and the growth in automobiles in America. An appeal for “Gasolineless Sundays” in US was made with exceptions for freight, doctors, police, emergency vehicles, and funeral cars.


File:American anticommunism.jpg
1919 New York Herald cartoon portraying "reds" and IWW members as a violent mob held back by threat of a US Army gatling gun

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) and affiliated trade unions were strong supporters of the war effort. Fear of disruptions to war production by labor radicals provided the AFL political leverage to gain recognition and mediation of labor disputes, often in favor of improvements for workers.[29] They resisted strikes in favor of arbitration and wartime policy, and wages soared as near-full employment was reached at the height of the war. The AFL unions strongly encouraged young men to enlist in the military, and fiercely opposed efforts to reduce recruiting and slow war production by pacifists, the anti-war Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and radical socialists. To keep factories running smoothly, Wilson established the National War Labor Board in 1918, which forced management to negotiate with existing unions.[30] Wilson also appointed AFL president Samuel Gompers to the powerful Council of National Defense, where he set up the War Committee on Labor.

After initially resisting taking a stance, the IWW became actively anti-war, engaging in strikes and speeches and suffering both legal and illegal suppression by federal and local governments as well as pro-war vigilantes. The IWW was branded as anarchic, socialist, unpatriotic, alien and funded by German gold, and violent attacks on members and offices would continue into the 1920s.[31]

The AFL membership soared to 2.4 million in 1917. In 1919, the AFL tried to make their gains permanent and called a series of major strikes in meat, steel and other industries. The strikes ultimately failed, forcing unions back to membership and power similar to those around 1910.[32]


<templatestyles src="Module:Hatnote/styles.css"></templatestyles>

World War I saw many women taking traditionally men's jobs for the first time in American history. Many worked on the assembly lines of factories, producing trucks and munitions. For the first time, department stores employed African American women as elevator operators and cafeteria waitresses. The Food Administration helped housewives prepare more nutritious meals with less waste and with optimum use of the foods available. Most important, the morale of the women remained high, as millions joined the Red Cross as volunteers to help soldiers and their families, and with rare exceptions, the women did not protest the draft.[33][34]

File:Howard Chandler Christy WWI poster 04.jpg
Girls too young for paid jobs learned how they could help the war effort.


<templatestyles src="Module:Hatnote/styles.css"></templatestyles>

For example, a number of fathers and brothers entered the war, and many were subsequently maimed in action or killed, causing many children to be brought up by single mothers.[35] Additionally, as the male workforce left for battle, mothers and sisters began working in factories to take their positions, and the family dynamic began to change; this affected children as they had less time to spend with family members and were expected to grow up faster and help with the war effort. Similarly, Woodrow Wilson called on children involved in youth organizations to help collect money for war bonds and stamps in order to raise money for the war effort.[36] This was very important because the children were having a direct effect on the financial state of the United States government during World War I. As children were collecting large amounts of money outside of school, within the classroom, curriculum also began to change as a result of the war. Woodrow Wilson again became involved with these children as he implemented government pamphlets and programs to encourage war support through things like mandatory patriotism and nationalism classes multiple times a week.[37] Even though war was not being fought on United States soil, children's lives were greatly affected as all of these changes were made to their daily lives as a result of the conflict. World War I affected children in the United States through several social and economic changes in the school curriculum and through shifts in parental relationships.

Americanization of ethnics

The outbreak of war in 1914 increased concern about the millions of foreign born in the United States. The short-term concern was their loyalty to their native countries and the long-term was their assimilation into American society. Numerous agencies became active in promoting "Americanization" so that the ethnics would be psychologically and politically loyal to the U.S. The states set up programs through their Councils of National Defense; numerous federal agencies were involved, including the Bureau of Education, the United States Department of the Interior and the Food Administration. The most important private organization was the National Americanization Committee (NAC) directed by Frances Kellor. Second in importance was the Committee for Immigrants in America, which helped fund the Division of Immigrant Education in the federal Bureau of Education.[38]

The war prevented millions of recently arrived immigrants from returning to Europe as they originally intended. The great majority decided to stay in America. Foreign language use declined dramatically. They welcomed Americanization, often signing up for English classes and using their savings to buy homes and bring over other family members.[39]

Kellor, speaking for the NAC in 1916, proposed to combine efficiency and patriotism in her Americanization programs. It would be more efficient, she argued, once the factory workers could all understand English and therefore better understand orders and avoid accidents. Once Americanized, they would grasp American industrial ideals and be open to American influences and not subject only to strike agitators or foreign propagandists. The result, she argued would transform indifferent and ignorant residents into understanding voters, to make their homes into American homes, and to establish American standards of living throughout the ethnic communities. Ultimately, she argued it would "unite foreign-born and native alike in enthusiastic loyalty to our national ideals of liberty and justice.[40]

Alien internments

See also German American internment during World War I

German citizens were required to register with the federal government and carry their registration cards at all times. Some 2,048 German citizens were imprisoned beginning in 1917,

and all were released by spring 1920. Allegations against them included spying for Germany or endorsing the German war effort. They ranged from immigrants suspected of sympathy for their native land, civilian German sailors on merchant ships in U.S. ports when war was declared, and Germans who worked part of the year in the United States, including 29 players from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and other prominent musicians.[41]

Anti-German activity

<templatestyles src="Module:Hatnote/styles.css"></templatestyles>

1918 bond posters with germanophobic slogans

German Americans by this time usually had only weak ties to Germany; however, they were fearful of negative treatment they might receive if the United States entered the war (such mistreatment was already happening to German-descent citizens in Canada and Australia). Almost none called for intervening on Germany's side, instead calling for neutrality and speaking of the superiority of German culture. They were increasingly marginalized, however, and by 1917 had been excluded almost entirely from national discourse on the subject.[42]

When the war began, overt examples of German culture came under attack. Many churches cut back or ended their German language services. German parochial schools switched to the use of English in the classroom. Courses in German were dropped from public high school curricula. Some street names were changed. One person was killed by a mob at a tavern in a southern Illinois mining town.[43]

War bonds

Elaborate propaganda campaigns were launched to encourage Americans to buy Liberty bonds. In ethnic centers, ethnic groups were pitted against each other so that groups were encouraged to purchase more bonds compared to their historic rivals in order to demonstrate superior patriotism.[44]

Attacks on the USA

The Central Powers carried out a number of acts of sabotage and a single submarine attack against the mainland of the USA during the war, but never staged an invasion of the country, although there were rumors that German advisers were present at the Battle of Ambos Nogales.


Black Tom Pier shortly after the explosion.

<templatestyles src="Module:Hatnote/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Numerous rumors of German plans for sabotage alarmed Americans. After midnight on July 30, 1916, a series of small fires were found on a pier in Jersey City, New Jersey. Sabotage was suspected and some guards fled, fearing an explosion; others attempted to fight the fires. Eventually they called the Jersey City Fire Department. An explosion occurred at 2:08 a.m., the first and biggest of the explosions. Shrapnel from the explosion traveled long distances, some lodging in the Statue of Liberty and other places. Seven people died.

On July 21, 1918, a German U-boat positioned itself off of Orleans, Massachusetts opened fire and sank a tugboat and some barges until it was driven off by American warplanes.

See also


  1. On the historiography, see Justus D. Doenecke, "Neutrality Policy and the Decision for War" in Ross Kennedy ed., A Companion to Woodrow Wilson (2013) pp: 243-69 Online
  2. For detailed coverage of Wilson's speech see NY Times main headline, April 2, 1917, President Calls for War Declaration, Stronger Navy, New Army of 500,000 Men, Full Cooperation With Germany's Foes
  3. Cooper, John M. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009)
  4. Spencer Tucker and Priscilla Mary Roberts, eds., World War I: encyclopedia (2005), p. 1205
  5. Kennedy, Over Here, 61-62
  6. John Whiteclay Chambers II, To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America (1987)
  7. Edward A. :Gutièrrez, Doughboys on the Great War: How American Soldiers Viewed Their Military Experience (2014)
  8. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  9. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  10. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  11. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  12. Steven Lobell, "The Political Economy of War Mobilization: From Britain's Limited Liability to a Continental Commitment," International Politics (2006) 43#3 pp 283–304
  13. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  15. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  16. M. J. Daunton, "How to Pay for the War: State, Society and Taxation in Britain, 1917–24," English Historical Review (1996) 111# 443 pp. 882–919 in JSTOR
  17. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  18. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  19. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  20. "Teaching With Documents: Sow the Seeds of Victory! Posters from the Food Administration During World War I"
  21. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  22. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  23. Kennedy, Over Here 113-25
  24. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  25. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  26. Brian Tennyson, and Roger Sarty. "Sydney, Nova Scotia and the U-Boat War, 1918." Canadian Military History 7.1 (2012): 4+ online
  27. Holger H. Herwig, and David F. David. "The Failure of Imperial Germany's Undersea Offensive Against World Shipping, February 1917–October 1918." Historian (1971) 33#4 pp: 611-636.
  28. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  29. Joseph A. McCartin, Labor's great war: the struggle for industrial democracy and the origins of modern American labor relations, 1912-1921 (1997).
  30. Richard B. Gregg, "The National War Labor Board." Harvard Law Review (1919): 39-63 in JSTOR
  31. Robert L. Tyler, Rebels of the woods: the IWW in the Pacific Northwest (U of Oregon Press, 1967)
  32. Philip Taft, The A.F.L. in the time of Gompers (1957)
  33. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  34. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  35. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  36. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  37. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  38. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  39. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  40. McClymer, War and Welfare, pp 112-3
  41. New York Times: "Dr. Muck Bitter at Sailing," August 22, 1919, accessed January 13, 2010
  42. Frederick C. Luebke, Bonds of Loyalty: German-Americans and World War I (1974)
  43. Donald R. Hickey, "The Prager Affair: A Study in Wartime Hysteria," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1969) 62#2 pp 126–127 in JSTOR
  44. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.

Further reading

  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.; comprehensive history of military and home front; full text online; has photos
  • Breen, William J. Uncle Sam at Home: Civilian Mobilization, Wartime Federalism, and the Council of National Defense, 1917-1919 (Greenwood Press, 1984)
  • Chambers, John W., II. To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America (1987)
  • Clements, Kendrick A. The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson (1992)
  • Cooper, John Milton. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009)
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica (12th ed. 1922) comprises the 11th edition plus three new volumes 30-31-32 that cover events since 1911 with very thorough coverage of the war as well as every country and colony. Included also in 13th edition (1926) partly online
  • Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society (2004), comprehensive coverage
  • Link, Arthur Stanley. Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910–1917 (1972) standard political history of the era
  • Link, Arthur Stanley. Wilson: The Struggle for Neutrality: 1914–1915 (1960); Wilson: Confusions and Crises: 1915–1916 (1964); Wilson: Campaigns for Progressivism and Peace: 1916–1917 (1965), the standard biography to 1918
  • Malin, James C. The United States after the World War (1930) online
  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. full text online
  • Schaffer, Ronald. America in the Great War: The Rise of the War-Welfare State (Oxford University Press, 1991), ISBN 0-19-504904-7
  • Tucker, Spencer C., and Priscilla Mary Roberts, eds. The Encyclopedia of World War I : A Political, Social, and Military History (5 vol. 2005)
  • Vaughn, Stephen. Holding Fast the Inner Lines: Democracy, Nationalism, and the Committee on Public Information (University of North Carolina Press, 1980)
  • Venzon, Anne ed. The United States in the First World War: An Encyclopedia (1995)
  • Young, Ernest William. The Wilson Administration and the Great War (1922) online edition
  • Zieger, Robert H. America's Great War: World War I and the American Experience 2000. 272 pp.


  • Controvich, James T. The United States in World War I: A Bibliographic Guide (Scarecrow, 2012) 649 pp

External links