Since the United States had entered the War, at the start of April 1917, the impact of its decision had been felt on every battlefront and in every belligerent country, or at least in those that could be considered strategically self-propelled (6 April, 1917: Woodrow Who?).
Belligerents on both sides knew the clock was ticking on a decisive shift in the War’s balance, and that had everyone on the hurry-up, including Allied strategists anxious to limit US influence over the shape and character of the post-War world. On the other hand, the USA wasn’t going to make much practical difference to the conflict in the short term, because it would take at least a few months to bring its enormous military and economic potential to bear on the battlefields, so at this stage the decision’s impact on the War was almost entirely psychological.
The same couldn’t be said of war’s impact on the United States. A century ago today, the US Congress passed the Selective Service Act into law, introducing conscription to the nation for the first time, so this seems a good moment to take a look at what joining the First World War did to a vast democracy founded on pacifism.
Three years of neutrality had hardly left the USA untouched. European wartime needs for armaments and raw materials had fuelled a massive manufacturing and trade boom. Because the Central Powers had been blockaded off the trading map, trade was focused almost exclusively on supplying the Allies, which had quickly exhausted their cash and saleable US assets before taking loans from US banks to the tune of $2.6 billion by April 1917 (out of a total spend of about $7 billion, compared to a German debt of only $27 million).
The boom altered the dynamics of American politics. The sudden rise to global economic status of the ‘great neutral’ shifted the balance of a long conflict between the non-interventionist, liberal values upon which the US was founded, and outward-looking, socially conservative elements seeking to establish a global economic empire through the unfettered expansion of big business. Weighed down with orders, politically ironclad as purveyors of the new prosperity, with money to burn and free to exploit all those markets (in Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific) left open by the flight of European money, big business couldn’t lose.
Although a steady improvement in US workers’ rights and conditions during the early 20th century continued after 1914, wartime political clout enabled businesses to maintain the restrictions on union action imposed by ‘antitrust’ laws. At the same time, the boom brought 40,000 women into the US workforce for the first time, adding strength to calls for female suffrage, and encouraged the migration of southern black workers to northern factories, creating new racial tensions in the north-eastern US and encouraging some southern communities to pass laws banning the departure of workers.
Conservative businessmen, who had literally billions of vested interests in an Allied victory, meanwhile used their wealth and influence to erode isolationist sentiment and promote intervention in world affairs through the Preparedness Movement. Funded and supported by business leaders, fronted by ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and ex-US Army Chief of Staff General Wood, the Movement dominated an ongoing public debate about neutrality. Comprehensively outgunning organisations promoting pacifism, it focused on demands for greatly increased military capability, in particular for ‘universal military training and service’ (UMT&S), which was essentially a euphemism for conscription.
By 1916 the Movement had gained widespread support among conservatives of all kinds, and had the backing of moderate unions, which were fighting their own battles for influence against left-wing organisations, but it was still seen by a majority of Americans as the extremist voice of big business. That was certainly the view of the Wilson administration, which represented the liberal, non-interventionist side of the great American argument.
Pacifist by inclination, and seeking re-election as ‘the man who kept us out of the War’, Wilson was ready and willing to intervene in Europe if the deadlock couldn’t be broken or peace brokered, but on strictly liberal terms that had nothing in common with the ambitious chauvinism of business interests. Safely back in office by the time the crunch came, he was careful to avoid any hint of imperialist aggression by declaring war against the German government for its specific crimes, rather than against the Central Powers or Germany – but he had no choice about announcing his intention to raise a ‘National Army’ for the fight. As the US public reacted to war with, broadly speaking, a muted version of the patriotic fervour that swept Europe in 1914, the fact of military expansion offered the business lobby an enormous opportunity to pursue its political agenda in the national interest.
The Preparedness Movement seized the chance with both hands, calling for the immediate dispatch of a volunteer army to Europe, to be led by an authentic (if rusty) military hero in Teddy Roosevelt. The campaign quickly recruited a corps of 25,000 men for the job, prompting Republican calls for it to be incorporated into the proposed National Army. The White House fought back with the Selective Service Act, which had been prepared the previous autumn with the aim of limiting flow of skilled workers into uniform, and which would have been opposed by many southern and western Democrats had Roosevelt not made conscription a party-political issue.
As it was, Wilson’s party rallied round to pass a bill that required all males between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the draft by 5 June, but that exempted all government officials at any level, clergymen, convicted criminals, aliens and mine workers. The Act also prohibited any volunteers from joining the National Army, though volunteers could still join the National Guard militia or the regular US Army, and all service in the US Navy remained voluntary. Conscription was later expanded to include men aged between 18 and 45, while exemptions were widened to include shipyard workers, pacifist sects and (a mere 4,000) conscientious objectors.
A total of 6,373,414 men were eventually conscripted into the wartime army, and it would be fair to say that the Act was a success, in that it re-established government control over the size and composition of the wartime army and did so without causing serious political disruption. Then again, racial discrimination in local draft boards meant that conscription had less impact on registered white males, of whom only 25% were deemed fit for service, than on registered Afro-Americans (36%), while pacifist and socialist opposition to US involvement in the War refused to go away. Its subsequent repression by the state demonstrated that compulsory military service was not the only big change in American life to sneak in via the war door.
The Espionage Act (June 1917) and the Sedition Act (May 1918) gave the federal government power to arrest dissenters for a wide range of ‘disloyal’ activities – and most of the 1,600 people imprisoned were charged with spoken offences – while the Trading With The Enemy Act (October 1917) allowed the administration to censor the foreign press, and federal control of the mail system enabled suppression of undesirable publications. American socialism, which had been a globally significant force before 1914, was particularly targeted, with Eugene Debs, leader of the resolutely pacifist Socialist Party of America, receiving a 20-year prison sentence for unpatriotic speeches after the October Revolution in Russia had sparked a nationwide ‘Reds scare’.
While the government was busy quelling opposition, it was also forming an ad hoc alliance with the same big business interests it had spent the neutrality years trying to restrain. The War Industries Board, established in July 1917 along with Food, Labor, Trade and Finance Boards, brought together industrialists and military authorities to control the production and supply of all war-related goods and materials. The Boards did an efficient and largely harmonious job of driving the US economy through the War, a process that happened to concentrate orders and profits in the hands of their co-opted tycoons, and that helped establish the dominance of big business over American politics through the 1920s.
This hasn’t been any kind of overall picture of the US at war, and wasn’t meant to be. I’m just picking out a few details from the big, popular picture of Uncle Sam’s world-historical march to superpower status, details offering yet another reminder that, a century ago, total war wreaked social havoc wherever it was practiced. Like every other belligerent, the USA was changed forever by the experience, but while the European empires were refashioned, mortally wounded or destroyed by the Great War, the Great Democracy learned to behave like an exuberant version of their nineteenth-century predecessors.