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World War I and the Great Departure, Part 1


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The fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II has provided an occasion for revisiting the momentous events from 1939 to 1945 that reshaped the world. It may well be that this commemoration will lead to rediscoveries and new appreciation — the way the Bicentennial prompted popular and academic rediscovery of American tradition dating back to the Revolution and the Constitution.

The Great War — World War I — has now faded in the collective memory of Americans. But to the extent that World War I is almost universally cited by historians to explain the origins of World War II, it is fitting — indeed essential — that analysis of World War II include some appreciation for American experience during the First World War. Otherwise, the appreciations may be shallow or incomplete; worse, the lessons drawn from history could be the wrong ones.

Although America’s direct involvement in World War I was relatively brief, it signalled “the great departure” from American precedent at home and abroad. The Progressive Era may have been a bridge to modern times, but World War I blew up the bridge and left us on the other side. It was the point of discontinuity and departure. Diplomatically, all previous American conflicts had involved threats to American security, even if some were misperceived or overstated. Even the Spanish-American War (1898) was ostensibly linked to violations of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) and to security-based concerns about hostile European governments operating in the Western Hemisphere and quashing fledgling republican institutions in the Americas.

But Germany in World War I did not pose a security threat to the United States — not even implicitly. Furthermore, American involvement in the war marked the first explicit rejection of George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s advice — and subsequent American foreign policy — not to engage in disputes that were purely European in nature. World War I is also the first American war to depend primarily upon conscripts, three million of whom filled seventy-two percent of wartime Army ranks. Though not bound by entangling alliances, the United States entered the war anyway to “make the world safe for democracy.”

American entry into the war is all the more remarkable since Woodrow Wilson was reelected president in November 1916 on the slogan (broken five months later): “He kept us out of war.” Wilson had insisted on trading with all of the belligerents, but France and England continued to enforce a blockade of Germany. The English also mined the North Sea. All of this violated neutral rights, but the United States continued to trade — theoretically with both sides. Over time, however, it became clear that the United States traded almost solely with the Allies. Practically speaking, American neutrality had become decidedly one-sided.

While France and England put Germany in an economic stranglehold, the Allies were dependent on the merchant tonnage shipped from the United States. Germany responded by sinking American and Allied merchant vessels with her U-boats. Indeed, it was this submarine warfare, more than any other factor, that prompted United States involvement in the war: submarine warfare was “sneaky”; submarine warfare aimed at ships suspected of hauling cargo was indiscriminate; women and children were amongst the 1,198 passengers lost when the Lusitania went under. Yellow journalists had a field day.

World War I changed the domestic social, political, and economic environment. The administration established the Committee on Public Information (CPI), headed by progressive muckraking journalist George Creel. Because the American people were naturally averse to involvement in a European war, the CPI’s purpose was to mobilize and sustain the “right” kind of public opinion — that is, the kind that would support the war. It did so by commissioning an army of 75,000 speakers to tour in support of government wartime policies. The CPI also distributed 75 million pamphlets and produced dozens of anti-German films and expositions.

Other government agencies employed similar propaganda. The Food Administration found that “meatless Mondays” and “wheatless Wednesdays,” as well as other conservation measures, went over better in an atmosphere of patriotic frenzy. Likewise, the Treasury Department held mass rallies to encourage the purchase of war bonds-rallies that even Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, could have appreciated.

These techniques were highly successful. The government found that overt and subtle forms of propaganda fanned the requisite passions of pride and prejudice to fight a total war in Europe. Indeed, aggressive propaganda helped to skirt constitutional and statutory limitations on war policies — policies that would never pass rational scrutiny in peacetime. Empirically, it proved that government propaganda aimed at arousing strong feelings of American nationalism could facilitate the exercise of extralegal and extra-constitutional government power.

Sometimes the government baldly exercised that power, and sometimes the government let social pressures effect the government’s design. In one instance, for example, the Wilson administration nationalized the railroads (1917). In another, a German-American was actually bound in an American flag and lynched by a St. Louis mob (1918). Civil liberties were constricted through official policy and through socially sanctioned activities — and all of this was indirectly encouraged by government propaganda.

The administration quashed leftist political opposition by seizing membership lists and arresting unpopular leaders, especially socialists and members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Leftist and conservative criticism was quelled by legislation that made “disloyal speech” illegal in wartime. The Espionage Act of June 15, 1917, and the Sedition Act of May 16, 1918, provided the legal foundation to prosecute and punish pacifists and all sorts of religious and secular groups opposed to the war. Moreover, certain alien opponents were summarily rounded up and deported in the notorious Palmer raids immediately after the war.

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    Wesley Allen Riddle was awarded his B.S. degree from the United States Military Academy, West Point, and his M.Phil. with Distinction from Oxford University. He currently is professor of history at West Point.