Skip to main content

Exhibition Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I

Over Here

William L. Houston to Charles Hamilton Houston, September 20, 1918. William L. Houston Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (036.00.00)

Never before had the United States mobilized for war on such a scale. Government agencies sought to shape public opinion; private industry geared up war production; home front volunteerism surged to unprecedented heights; bond drives raised funds to finance the war; and labor unions and workers organized to increase national output. For the first time in its history, the nation's military would be derived largely from conscripts rather than volunteers. General John J. Pershing crafted the largest army in U.S. history from a force that in 1915 was a fraction of the size of the armies contesting in Europe.

Newly inducted soldiers found themselves training for war in military camps throughout the United States. Women dedicated themselves to the war effort by laboring in war industries, organizing food conservation, and growing crops. Civil liberties contracted as the Espionage and Sedition Acts limited free speech and made dissent a risky proposition. German Americans found their loyalties questioned and were subject to occasional violence.

U.S. mobilization revealed contradictions within the American democratic experiment. Conscription heightened questions regarding the rights and obligations of citizenship. For women, immigrants, and African Americans the war simultaneously provided an opportunity to demand expanded rights previously denied and demonstrated the limits of such efforts. Women's contributions to the war effort bolstered their long-standing claims for equal voting rights. Immigrants and African Americans hoped that military service would lead to greater inclusion into civic life in the United States. African Americans endured a rigidly segregated military, and experienced discrimination and racial violence as many moved into northern cities to take advantage of wartime employment opportunities.

Raising an Army
War Industry
Home Front Contributions
Americanization
A Changing America
Surveillance and Censorship

Raising an Army

In previous conflicts, the United States had utilized conscription, but World War I marked the first time the nation's military raised its army primarily through a draft. In order to balance federal power with state autonomy, local civilian draft boards administered the selective service system. Posters, printed materials, films, and music all helped the government to conduct a national campaign that conveyed the legal requirement for men to register with the selective service or to enlist. Officials struggled to forge a unified fighting force from a segregated military consisting mostly of native-born whites, American Indians, and African Americans, along with large numbers of immigrants. The draft also raised questions about the obligations of citizenship, especially the duty to serve. Though the policy developed and changed over the course of the war, the U.S. War Department created the status of  "conscientious objector" for Americans who viewed military service as a violation of their religious, ethical, or political beliefs.

Mad Brute

Harry R. Hopps. Destroy This Mad Brute, Enlist—U.S. Army. San Francisco Army Recruiting District, April 4, 1918. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (025.00.00)

War Industry

The challenge of global war required the cooperation of organized labor, industry, and a broader public on an unprecedented level. Hoping to avoid accusations of government coercion,the Wilson administration encouraged voluntary collaboration between government and business. The coordinating agency Congress established, the War Industries Board, could only keep business aligned with national interests through cajolery, growing profit margins, and the threat of negative publicity that would label uncooperative businesses as unpatriotic. Large unions including the American Federation of Labor saw the war as an opportunity to secure better wages and working conditions. Labor conflicts still arose. In 1917, more than 4,000 strikes caused work stoppages, many of which occurred in the mines, shipyards, and forests of the western United States where smaller but more militant unions exerted greater influence. More than one million women found skilled temporary employment in factories and offices as they left domestic service and non-factory textile labor.

Arming the Military

Woman at work on a "Venting Machine, U.S. Cartridge Co., Lowell, Mass." U. S. Signal Corps, between 1914 and 1918. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (051.00.00)

Home Front Contributions

The need for labor, food conservation, and a variety of volunteer efforts only increased with America's deepening involvement in the war. Women played a critical role on the home front whether working in factories, growing and harvesting crops in Victory gardens, or organizing knitting circles to provide socks for troops. The federal government harnessed state and municipal activism through women's organizations including the General Federation of Women's Clubs and the National Association of Colored Women. In many organizations, like the Red Cross and Committee on National Defense, a glass ceiling prevented women from holding the most influential positions. While a handful of states gave women the franchise, most did not. Despite these barriers and disappointments, women viewed the war as a chance to expand upon their rights thereby serving as the fulcrum upon which volunteerism functioned.

Farmerettes

Get Behind the Girl He Left Behind Him / Join the Land Army. New York: The American Lithographic Company, ca. 1918. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (061.00.00)

Americanization

Dating back to the late eighteenth century, native-born Americans worried about assimilating immigrants; the nation's entrance into the war heightened this already palpable concern. In 1917, one out of every three U.S. citizens was either a first- or second-generation American. Nearly one fifth of the army had been born abroad. Despite scant evidence of disloyalty, U.S. political and military leaders wondered if citizens could balance allegiances between their nation of ancestry and their new home. "Americanization," the name given to the process of imbuing in immigrants an American identity, took numerous forms. Roughly speaking, however, Americans divided into two camps regarding Americanization. One side demanded what many called "100% Americanism" or the complete abandonment of Old World languages, traditions, and loyalties. In contrast, progressive reformers, and eventually military leaders, encouraged the adoption of American values while still respecting Old World traditions and culture. Some communities found 100% Americanization far more oppressive. German Americans lived under increased government and public surveillance, and were sometimes subject to vilification and violence.

Americanization Day

Make the Fourth of July Americanization Day: Many Peoples—But One Nation. New York: National Americanization Day Committee, 1915–1919. Woodrow Wilson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (082.00.00)

A Changing America

With the rise of industry in the nineteenth century, U.S. cities grew with every passing decade. The war helped to fuel what we today refer to as the Great Migration, a decades-long process that ultimately reshaped American culture, society, and politics. Beginning in the 1910s, African Americans migrated from southern farms and small towns into northern cities. Many hoped to escape Jim Crow, the South's system of legalized segregation and disenfranchisement, while simultaneously exploiting employment opportunities created by the war. Adjusting to their new urban circumstances, migrants endured segregation, discrimination, and sometimes physical violence.

At the same time, women worked to expand the right to vote nationally. The suffrage movement predated the war by decades, but World War I proved a pivotal moment. Radical suffragists picketed the White House, while more moderate groups touted their contributions to the war. As a result, Woodrow Wilson became the first president to advocate a constitutional amendment. In 1919, Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote, which was ratified in 1920.

Silent Protest

Silent protest parade in New York City against the East St. Louis riots, 1917. Copyprint. NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (085.00.00)

Surveillance and Censorship

Fighting a war in Europe required a clear message and a cooperative public. The federal government established the Committee on Public Information (CPI), which deployed propaganda to convince Americans of World War I's legitimacy and the importance of civic contributions. Congress also passed the Espionage (1917) and Sedition (1918) Acts to enforce loyalty and silence dissent. Postmaster General Albert Burleson used the Espionage Act to ban from the mail those magazines and newspapers he perceived as promoting discord against the government and undermining national unity. Government policies and wartime nationalism encouraged citizens to police one another's loyalty and patriotism. As a result, political dissidents, ethnic minorities, and militant labor organizations and their leaders were subject to increased scrutiny and, on occasion, violence. Ultimately, challenges by citizens to limits on free speech would help create a modern conception of citizenship based on individual rights and civil liberties.

Sedition Law Passes

William Allen Rogers. Now for a Round Up. Published in the New York Herald, May 9, 1918. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (092.00.00)

 Back to top