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.

Relief Effort

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.

Volunteer Work

The most important volunteer group in America during World War I was the American Red Cross. The Red Cross was, however, still a very small organization and not yet a very well known group in the United States when World War I broke out in Europe (1914). With America as a neutral nation, the Red Cross' first major project was to equip a ship with emergency supplies and medical workers. The ship was the SS Red Cross which became known as "the Mercy Ship." It was staffed with 170 surgeons and nurses who were assigned to assist in the medical care of combat casualties. It was to assist the casualties of both sides of the conflict, although I am not sure how this was accomplished as the ship I assume could only get to Allied ports. (I'm not yet sure about the port of calls.) This policy followed the Geneva Conventions and the principles of the Red Cross Movement which required strict neutrality. The American Red Cross shipped further supplies, but eventually had to terminate the project because of inadequate funds. It was after America entered the War (1917) that the Red Cross began to grown and become a major humanitarian organization. The American Red Cross played an important role in coordinating volunteer efforts. President Woodrow Wilson was appointed the honorary chairman of the Red Cross. The President urged Americans to support the Red Cross. There were programs such as ambulances, medical supplies as well as a range of other efforts to support the troops. One of these was a nationwide knitting campaign to produce woolen socks and other warm weather clothing. The Red Cross helped to recruit ad train ambulance drivers and orderlies at various universities. There was also a youth effort. By the time the war ended in November 1918, the Red Cross had become a major national humanitarian organization. It had developed a huge membership base with chapters throughout the country. This enabled the Red Cross to play a major role after the War in fighting the influenza epidemic. Volunteer workers, for example made masks.

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: 11:37 PM 12/6/2014