World War I: The American Home Front

Camp Fire World War I
Figure 1.--American sympathies beginning with the German invasion of Bdlgium which launched World war I were on the Allid side. These Chicago Camp Fire Girls in 1916 were making bandages for wounded French soldiers more than a year before America entered the War. . Signs in the background read, "Please do not let muslin drop on the floor and please wash your hands before working on compresses or bandages."

America by 1914 had a modern navy, but virtually no army outside of a small professional force. America was, however, the largest producer of industrial and agricultural products in the world. This meant in any war of attrition that America would play an important role, even as a neutral country. The Royal Navy's command of the seas gave the Allies access to American production. This was extreemly frustrating to the Germans, but what the Germans did not correctly assess was that American as a beligerant would be a much great assett to the Allies. An American in the War would help the Allies finance war purchases and field an enormous army. War purchases created a booming economy, but the Allies were limited by their ability to pay for purchases. Once America entered the War, loans enabled the Allies to buy vast amounts of wa supplies and most of these loans were bever paid back. America's vast productive resorces meant that a strict rationing system was not required. America mobilized for war through a patriotic outburst and Government requests for voluntary compliance on the part of farmers, industry, and consumers. Several new Federal agencies were created to manage a war-time economy. The Food Administration was placed under Herbert Hoover and would not only oversee domestic markets but provide food assistance that would save millions of Europeans--especially children. Hoover became known as the Great Engineer. Hoover never instituted food ratiining, but did introduce a range of voluntary efforts that proved highly affected. Hoover as Food Administrator ncouraged American mothers as a patriotic act to hold to "meatless Mondays" and "wheatless Wednesdays" to conservev food supplies. The Treasury under William Gibbs McAdoo used some of the same voluntary tactics. McAdoo oversaw massive public rallies to sell war bonds. The Federal Government also created the War Industries Board which was administered by financeer Bernard M. Baruch,. The Board had broad powers, but for the most part used persuasion rather than draconian administrative action. Baruch was unsure of the legality of the Board's power and personally reluctant to oversee extensive Government intervention in the economy. He thus relied on persuasion, and on a few occassions public redicule.

American Public Opinion

President Wilson upon the outbreak of World War I declared the United states neutral (1914). His policy of neutrality was enormously popular with the American people. The German invasion of neutral Belgium amd midstreatment of Belgian civilians from the onset saw Germany as the major aggressor and a lawless nation. This was an entirely new assessment. Before the War, Germany was an admired mation. Not only had america not had any diplomatic differences with Germany (unlike Britain), but the Germans had become the largest etnic group in America. And the sinking of Lusitani cemented the new American assessment if Germany. The American assessment of Germany, however, did not mean that Aericans wanted to go to war with Germany. Peace and neutrality probably was the deciding factor in his reelection (1916). It was especially popular with German and Irish Americans. The Irish were strong Democratic supporters. The Germans were a major constituency in the Midwest which often determined the outcome of American elections. With the Germans it was probably more of an anti-War sentiment than a pro-German bias. Public opinion gradually shifted toward the Allies as a result of British propaganda, German policies in occupied Belgium, and incidents such as the xsinking of the RMS Lusitania. Even so the vast majority of Americans, especially the progressives, opposed American entry into the War. They also made any Administration efforts to strengthen the military difficult. The United States pursued a more friendly relationship with Great Britain and France than with Germany or Austria-Hungary, but Wilsonís administration maintained a strictly neutral stance. The President made diplomatic initiatives aimed at ending the War that suggested generous terms to the Germans. The Kaiser and his Government, were, however basically dimissive and internt on a military victory. In the end it was incredably misguided German policy that brought America into the War. Many Americans began having second thoughts about the War, even before it ended (November 1918).

American World War I Relief Effort

Private citizen Herbert Hoover set in motion one of the most remarable development in the history of warfare. Americans set out to\ save millions of Europeans put in danger by the outbreak of World War I. Nothing remotely like this hd evr occurred in hostory. and nothing more encapsulated American exceptionalism than this remarkavle effort. Both the fighting and the German seizure of Belgian food supplies put an entire nation in jepordy, both the refugees and the people who remained in their homes. American exceptionalism not only provided the capacity to increase food production to remrable levels, but the humanitarian commitment to give it away to the starving Belgians. This alone would mark America as an exceptional country. But America did not stop with Belgium. As the war continued, it soon becme clear that not only Belgium would need relief supplies, but essentilly the entire European continent. Again American rose to the occassion. No country before in history had saved a country as american saved Belgium. But America expanded its efforts to come to the assistance of an entire continent. Such an operation had never even been dreamt of it all of history, let alone attempted. And American not only attempted, but saved millions of people. And not only people in Allied countries, but people in the Central Powers as well as the new Soviet Union dedidicated to destroying America. America's only goal was to save starving people. Left-wing pundits object to the idea that capitalist america is an exceotional country, but when asked to name even a single country that had done what America did in World War I, they are at a loss to do so. And American World War I relief efforts are just one aspect of American exceptionalism.

Herbert Hoover and American Relief

It is said of Herbert Hoover that no one in history saved the lives of more European children. Some Americans might have added during the 1930s that few people did less to save the lives of American children during the Depression. One week before Hoover celebrated his 40th birthday in London, Germany declared war on France (1914). The American Consul General in London asked Hoover to help get stranded tourists home. Hoover's committee in 6 weeks helped 120,000 Americans return to the United States. Then Hoover turned to a far more daunting task, how to feed Belgium, which had attacked France through neutral Belgium and overrun most of the country. When the United States entered the war, President Wilson appointed Hoover head of the Food Administration (1917). Hoover succeeded in cutting consumption of foods needed overseas and avoided rationing at home, yet kept the Allies fed. Europe had been devestated by the War. The desestation and the battlefield losses significantly affected agricultural production. After the Armistice, Hoover, a member of the Supreme Economic Council and head of the American Relief Administration, organized shipments of food for starving millions in central Europe. He extended aid to famine-stricken Soviet Russia (1921). When a critic inquired if he was not thus helping Bolshevism, Hoover retorted, "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!" This was the greatest exercise in international relief in world history. Had it not been for American food aid after the War, millions mostly children would have starved throughout Europe.

Charities: Collecting Funds and Relief Supplies

The outbreak of World War I resulting in an outburst of charitable activity and orgnization of voluntary efforts. The initial effort was Belgian redlief bgan with efforts to get Americans home from Europe, but soon addresing the devloping humnitrian crisis in Europe as a result of the Geman invasion. There were some wll finded volunteer and chaitable efforts, but thee was also a hige outpouring og loval efforts, people in vurtually every city nd tiwn in america that wanted to help. No one kmows the number of the numbers of committees and other groups to help the various groups put at risk by the War. Local groups could collect maney and supplies for Europe. But they had no way of getting the relief aid overseas. The American Red Cross soon became the primary coordinating body for voluntary groups eeling to aid desperate people in Europe. In part because they set up operations overseas and had the cpavility of getting relief supplies overseas to the people who needed it.

U.S. Government: U.S. Food Administration

When the United States entered the War, President Wilson appointed Herbert Hoover to the post of United States Food Administrator (1917). Food had become a weapon in World War I and no country produced more food than America. Hoover succeeded in cutting consumption of foods needed overseas and avoided rationing at home, yet kept the Allies fed. America had to produce the food needed by the new large army America was building as well as for Allied armies and civilians. Hoover designed a voluntary program. He called it food conservation, but many Americans took to calling it "Hooverizing." Various promotions were devised, such as wheatless Wednesdays and meatless Mondays. Hoover was convinced that Americans would cooperate voluntarily to support the boys overseas. He did not want a mandatory program and Government regulated rationing. The idea was that American civilians would have to modify their eating habits voluntarily so that more food was available for shipment overseas. The American housewife was urged to conserve food and eliminate waste. Signs and posters appeared in workplaces and public areas with the slogan "Food Will Win the War". Hoover managed to voluntarily reduce domestic food consumption 15 percent without rationing. Hoover guaranteed the farmer a "fair price" and there was an overseas market for all that could be produced. American food exports tripled. Not only did America help feed the Allies, but the shipments created surplus stores of food that helped prevent a post-war famine in Europe. America after the War not only helped her Allies, but the former Central Powers countries as well as Soviet Russia.

Delivering the Relief Aid

It is said of Herbert Hoover that no one in history saved the lives of more European children. Some Americans might have added during the 1930s that few people did less to save the lives of American children during the Depression. One week before Hoover celebrated his 40th birthday in London, Germany declared war on France (1914). The American Consul General in London asked Hoover to help get stranded tourists home. Hoover's committee in 6 weeks helped 120,000 Americans return to the United States. Then Hoover turned to a far more daunting task, how to feed Belgium, which had attacked France through neutral Belgium and overrun most of the country. When the United States entered the war, President Wilson appointed Hoover head of the Food Administration (1917). Hoover succeeded in cutting consumption of foods needed overseas and avoided rationing at home, yet kept the Allies fed. Europe had been devestated by the War. The desestation and the battlefield losses significantly affected agricultural production. After the Armistice, Hoover, a member of the Supreme Economic Council and head of the American Relief Administration, organized shipments of food for starving millions in central Europe. He extended aid to famine-stricken Soviet Russia (1921). When a critic inquired if he was not thus helping Bolshevism, Hoover retorted, "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!" This was the greatest exercise in international relief in world history. Had it not been for American food aid after the War, millions mostly children would have starved throughout Europe.

Importance

America by 1914 had a modern navy, but virtually no army outside of a small professional force. America was, however, the largest producer of industrial and agricultural products in the world. This meant in any war of attrition that America would play an important role, even as a neutral country. The Royal Navy's command of the seas gave the Allies access to American production. This was extreemly frustrating to the Germans, but what the Germans did not correctly assess was that American as a beligerant would be a much great assett to the Allies. An American in the War would help the Allies finance war purchases and field an enormous army.

American Economy

War purchases created a booming economy, but the Allies were limited by their ability to pay for purchases. Once America entered the War, loans enabled the Allies to buy vast amounts of war supplies and most of these loans were bever paid back.

Ethnic Communities

World War I marked a major turning point in America's ethnic evolution and American emmigration policy. The United States at the time of the Civil War (1861-65) was a largely Protestant country with population mostly from the British Isles and Germany and most of the populated were relatively well assimilated, except the Catholic Irish. Catholic Europeans generally declinrd to emigrate to America. The Irish came out of desperation because of the Potato Famine (1840s). This changed dramtically after the Civil War. Large numbers of Catholic Europeans from southern Europe flooded into the country as well as an exotic addition of Jews from Eastern Europe. Earlier Jewish immogrants weremostly more assimilated German Jews. Thus at the time the War broke out in Europe (1914), America was a much more diverse country than was the case of the Civil War. The proportion of immigrants was the greatest in American history. The War would be the end of massive European immigration. The outbreak of fighting sharply reduced the flow of immigrants because borders were closed and dangers acccompanies ocean voyages. After the War restrictive immigration quotas were enacted. The Europeans, especially the Germans were not convinced that such an ethnically diverse country was a real country. It was one reason some in the German leadership, includung the Kaiser, discounted the imporatnce of the United States, in sharp contrast to th Britih who from an eaely point saw America as key to victory, especially after the Somme (1916). The overwhelming proportion of America's new immigrants supported the American war effort, including on the battlefield. Ethnic communitie, however, varied as to their attitudes towaed the War. The Germans were the largest ethnic community and they were the ethnic group most opposed to the war. The Germans were concentrated in the Mid-West and here pacisist feling was particularly strong. They voted very strongly for President Wilson and the Democrats because he had kept America out of the War (1916). The Irish were the most-anti-British community, especially after the Easter Rising (1916). Jews were not favorbly disposed toward the Russians. Once the United States declared war (1917), there was an outbreak of anti-German feeling. The U.S. Government was worried about the loyalties of German-Americans. And the U.SS. Government was not all that sure themselves. Harsh laws were passed. Very few Belgians and French emograted to Ameruca so there was not a lot of support from immigrant grouos to enter the War. One exception was thevItalians. Exceptiins were ethnic groups within the Astro-Hungain Empire or hostile to it (Czechs, Serbs, Slovaks, and Slovenes), but these were realtively smll groups). America's impresive public school system was doing an excellent job of assisimated the immigrants. Entry into the War and the draft accelerated the assimiltion process.

Pacifism

Feminists like tgheir counterparts in Europe commonly promoted peace and facifistic ideas. The thrust of the feminist movement targetted sufferage and prohibition. Some promoted efforts to mediate apeace. Once American dentered the War, however, most feminists strongly supported the war effort. After the War, hving achieved both sufferage and prohibiton, many feminists groups began promoting world peace. Many reached the conclusion that American entry into the War had been a terrible mitake.

Women's Land Army of America
Figure 2.-- A notable World War I experiment was the Woman's Land Army of America based on a British program. With so many men conscripted, there was concern over the 1917 and 18 harvest. And American food production was an important part of the Allied war effort. So young city women were recruited for farm labor. Thids poster was issued by the Women's Land Army of America in 1918. The artist was Herbert Andrew. Notice their blue uniform smocks.

Women in the Labor Force

Women were an important part of the labor force before World War I. Regulation of child and women labor was an important issue in the progressive movement. Women were, howver, limited as to their emoloyment opportunities available. Women were an important part of the relatively low paying garment and textile industry. Conditions here were exposed by the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire. Better paying factory jobs were closed to women. Almost all the pofessions (academia, physcians, lawyers) were closed to women. Women could persue careers as teachers and nurses, but were often expected to resign when they married. The War and the need for labor created many new opportunities for women. Women were anke to enter areas of public, commercial and industrial life that had previously been closed to them. This process was much more extensive in America and Britain than any other combatant nation, especially the Central Powers. This is somewhat surprising as Germany fought the War for 4 years and experienced severe shortages. America fought the war for only 1 1/2 year and did not experienbce severe shortages. Yet it was willing to emrace major social change. A particularly notable experiment was the Woman's Land Army of America based on a British program. With so many men conscripted, there was concern over the 1917 and 18 hsarvest. And American food production was an important part of the Allied war effort. So young city women were recruited for farm labor.

Black Migration

The migration of southerm blacks to the urban North and Far West during the 20th century is one of the most important demographic and cultural events in American history. At the time of emancipation, black Americans were a rural, mostly southern people. More than than 90 percent of blacks lived in the rural south, many on plantations. There were blacks in the north, but relatively small numbers. In contrast to the South, northern blacks primarily lived in cities. This dempgraphic pattern did not change significantly after Empancipation, but some southern blacks did move into cities, mostly southern cities. Few blacks moved north. This did not change until the 20th century. Large numbers of blacks first began moving north during World War I. This became known as the Great Migration. Rural blacks headed to northern cities. Blacks left the South for a range of reasons. The Jim Crow susten stripped blacks of civil rights and constricted most to eke out a miserable existence through sharecropping. Blacks wh resisted the system in any way risked extra-legal violence and the lynch mob. The North offered basic rights, decent paying jobs and living conditions as well as educational opportunities. Higration continued after World War I. After the Depression, World war II opened opportunities in the North never before available. The Great Migration trasforned the black population in America from a southern rural people to a northern urban population. It also brought poltical power to black Americans. Black urban voters often swing state elections

Civil Defense

Civil Defense was an important effort during Wrld War II. It was not, however, an important home front concern during Workld War I. At the time, the Atlantic Ocean acted as an effective shield.

Patriotic Support

There were a lot of parades and rallies organized by various civic groups to show support for the war effort. President Wilson did not find it necessary to convince the American public that going to war was necessary, even though that most Americans wanted to stay out of the War. The public strongly supported the Allies, despite the large German ethnic population and an Irish population that was anti-British. Germn actioins, especially the resumtin of unconditional submarine warfare and the Zimmerman Telegram helped convince many Americans that America should declare war. Thus while there were arange of rallies held around the country to support the war effort. After the War, the American public reassed the decesion to go to war. Many Americans decided that it was a mistake. As a result there was much more resistance to American entry into World war II, depite much more heinous German, Italian, and Japanese aggression.

Youth Groups

American youth groups were quite new when World War I began in Europe. Some groups were organized even in the late-19th century, but they were realtively small. The first major group was the Boy Scouts, followed closely by the Camp Fire Girls and Girl Scouts. All of the major groups (Boy Scouts (1909), Girl Scouts, and Camp Fire) organized programs to assist the war and releff effort. There was also a Junior Red Cross. The Junior Red Cross even enduced boys to join in the knitting campaign. These groups began working on relief efforts even before America entered the War (191u7). Some of this effort began even before America entered the War. Here we see Camp Fire Girkls making bandages for wounded French soldiers (figure 1). The Boy Scouts were involved in a wide range of efforts. This included agricultural labor and vegetable gardens to hrelp produce food.

Food

World War I histories focus on great movements of men and equipment, decisive batles and the key military and political figures. The War brought mmass passion and outburts of patriotism. Few in the military or civilian life unferstood when the German army smashed into Belgium that the greatest war in history up to tht time had been unleashed on Europe. It would last 4 years, cause immense damage, and mameme and kill millions of people. Through it all, the one thing that affected the population of combatant countries more than nything else was food. And several countries were poorly suited to feed their people during war time. These were nations that were defendent on imported food and Germany was one of them. This did not disuade the Kaiser from ordering the invasion of Belgium. His army commanders had assured him that Hermany had the most powerful army in Europe and would defeat the French in a few weeks. Thus the War could be won before food became a serious issue. It did not work that way. After the Miracle on the Marne, the war turned into a war of attrition. This was a war Germany was poorly equipped to wage after the British Royal Navy blockaded German ports. Agriculture and food distribution were issues that every beligerrant country and many neutral countries faced during the War. There were several major problems. First, some countries were dependant on food imports tp feed their people. Second, the war turned into a unimaginable blood letting. And when millions ere drafted, including farmes and farm labor, food production was impaired. Third, the avaiability of draft animals, equipment, and supplies (such as nitrate fertilizer) were impaired, furhher affecting harvests. Fourth, scarcity caused prices to rise causing hoarding and eventually the development of black markets. Some countries handled the problems well, others did not. The food situation in many countries turned into disasters. Russia and Turkey were amomg the countries where food distribution of food broke down. The Communist seizure of power began with urban food riots. People starved in Turkey. Austria-Hungary desintegrated both becaise of huge losses, but also because of food shortages. The Germand began to experience food shortages as early as 1916. Civoliam morale began to crack before morale at the front. This was a factor in resuming unrestricted sunmarine warfare, the desperate need to end the war quickly. Again the results were not what the Kaiser expected. The U-boats did not knock Britain out of the War. It did bring a massive new American Army to France which would crack the formidable Hindenburg Line wide open and force Germany to seek an armistice. America at the time it entered the war did not have a large army or an industrial economy producing massive quantities of arms. This was part of the reason the Germans decided to risk war with Amrica. America did have, however, a vast agricultural sector and one that unlike the Europeans could be expanded to meet the needs of not only its own people and army, but the people and armies of its allies. It would be American food that would prevent hunger in allied nations, excpet Russia which was difficult to supply. Amd American food would savbe millions of people from starvation after the War. This included the Russians, although the Bolsheviks imped the effort to feed the starving Russian people. Not only did American farmers expand harvests to extrodunary levels, but Government and private groups addressed the food situation.

War Bonds

The Treasury under William Gibbs McAdoo used some of the same voluntary tactics. McAdoo oversaw massive public rallies to sell war bonds. The Federal Government also created the War Industries Board which was administered by financeer Bernard M. Baruch,. The Board had broad powers, but for the most part used persuasion rather than draconian administrative action. Baruch was unsure of the legality of the Board's power and personally reluctant to oversee extensive Government intervention in the economy. He thus relied on persuasion, and on a few occassions public redicule.

Anti-German Hysteria









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Created: 11:21 PM 8/16/2007
Last updated: 7:05 PM 1/25/2016