Woodrow Wilson delivered his now-famous War Message to Congress on April 4, 1917. Four days later, Congress declared war and the United States became a formal partner in the war to end all wars. As the Wilson administration was to discover, however, declaring war and making war were two very different propositions. The former required only an abstract statement of ideals and justifications and a two-thirds Congressional majority; the latter required the massive mobilization of virtually every sector of American society – military, industrial, and economic, as well as public opinion.
The Wilson administration sought to accomplish this daunting task in two concomitant and interdependent fashions. First, it undertook an unprecedented assumption of federal control and regulation. The federal government established an array of bureaus and agencies endowed with sweeping powers to regulate the nation’s economy and industrial production. Furthermore, it passed a series of laws designed to support these agencies and to stifle what it deemed subversive antiwar opinion and activity.
Second, and of equal importance, the administration appealed to the public’s patriotism and sense of civic responsibility, effectively encouraging volunteerism in both the public and private sectors. Each of these tacks was bulwarked by a pervasive dose of pro-war government propaganda. In the end, in terms of raising an army, mobilizing the economy and influencing the outcome of the war, the administration’s mobilization efforts were largely successful. However, there were significant consequences to the government’s actions, most acutely in the realm of civil liberties, both during and in the aftermath of the war.
One of the earliest examples of federal muscle in wartime mobilization was the passage of the Lever Act in August 1917. The act gave the president the power to regulate supplies and prices of food and fuel by creating two new government agencies: the United States Food Administration and the United States Fuel Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover and Harry Garfield, respectively. Hoover and Garfield operated with “virtually unlimited power” and used the implicit threat of federal nationalization to regulate prices and cajole producers into increased production and conservation (Zeiger, 72).
In one instance, Garfield actually ordered the closure of thousands of factories in order to free up rail lines for much needed coal shipments. More often, though, the latent threat of federal takeover combined with government sponsored prowar propaganda, “tub-thumping exhortation and patriotic appeal” to engender producers’ own willingness to volunteer their services for the war effort (Zeiger, 72). Following the success of the Food and Fuel Administrations, the Wilson administration took an even more activist approach with regard to the nations’ railroads.
In December 1917, after private coordination of the complex railroad infrastructure proved inadequate, Wilson issued an executive order creating the United States Railroad Administration (USRA). The USRA gave the federal government direct control over virtually every aspect of the industry. In short, the “USRA did what the railroads separately could not do. It consolidated terminal facilities, coordinated traffic and routing, dipped into the federal treasury to improve rolling stock and equipment, and satisfied the restless railroad unions with generous wage settlements” (Zeiger, 71).
Indeed, by all accounts the USRA was a rousing success. By the following spring some 625,000 troops per month were being transported and the nations industrial needs were being met (Zeiger, 71). Such a sweeping assumption of federal control flew in the face of every established peacetime model of capitalist democracy. Yet under the cloud of national emergency, wealthy railroad industrialists called for federal intervention, although, as Zeiger points out, they opposed the sort of outright government operation that in fact ensued (Zeiger, 71).
Of course, Wilson’s most pressing concern in mobilizing the country for war was not industry, but manpower. He was faced with the imposing task of transforming America’s traditionally small and ill-disciplined army into a massive fighting force and doing so within a highly-accelerated time frame. Here, too, the federal government was willing to flex its’ muscle to accomplish the goal, although, as it turned out, it hardly needed to. Eschewing voluntary enlistment, Congress set up some 4,648 Selective Service boards around the country and declared all men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five eligible for immediate conscription.
As Robert Zeiger observes, the last time the United States resorted to conscription to fill its military ranks, during the Civil War, New York City had exploded into the “bloodiest and most destructive episode of urban insurrection in American history” (Zeiger, 60). Although there were pockets of resistance in 1917, on the whole the nation responded to the governments show of force with an equally impressive demonstration of patriotism and duty: Americans flocked to the Selective Service boards by the millions.
By the end of the war, twenty-four million men had registered, a number far exceeding the army’s actual manpower needs. Thus, as was the case with the Food and Fuel Administrations and the USRA, federal control in raising an army was augmented by a willingness on the part of the civilian population to sacrifice and toe the line. This notion of sacrifice and civic responsibility, which inspired millions of Americans to volunteer their services for the greater good, was not simply an issue of blind patriotism or enlightened altruism.
America’s spirit of volunteerism was in many ways the product of a carefully constructed government propaganda machine that underlay each of its wartime measures. The centerpiece of the government’s propaganda campaign was the Committee on Public Information (CPI), a federal agency established just one week after Wilson’s declaration of war. The CPI’s objective was to convince the American public of the “absolute justice of America’s cause [and] the absolute selflessness of America’s aims” (Woodrow Wilson, as quoted in Zeiger, 79).
To be sure, the converse of this was also true; the objective was not only to glamorize U. S. efforts, but to demonize the enemy, as a slew of racialized, highly derogatory anti-German propaganda made clear. To this end, the CPI made full use of the burgeoning fields of professional advertising and public relations, creating and distributing posters, pamphlets, billboards and slogans for agencies like the Fuel Administration, the USRA, and the Selective Service System and programs like the Liberty Loan drive.
Hoover made perhaps the most extensive use of CPI propaganda for his Food Administration. Posters with catchy slogans like “Wheatless days in America make sleepless nights in Germany,” and “If U fast U beat U boats,” drove home the government’s message: every American was a soldier in this war and only by doing one’s part could the United States fend off German aggression and make the world safe for democracy.
Other CPI initiatives, such as the highly successful “Four -Minute Men” program, where local volunteers would spout well-rehearsed pro-war polemics in between reel changes at movie theaters, drove home the same message. And to a large extent, the message resonated. If the success of federal programs like those mentioned above, and numerous others, is any indicator, the government’s propaganda struck a chord in the American public and was decisive in the mobilization and prosecution of the war.
In the event that propaganda failed to sway the public, however, the federal government fell back on coercion. Throughout the war, Congress passed a series of reactionary legislative measures designed to stifle dissent and supposed subversion. The Espionage Act of June 1917, the Trading With the Enemy Act of October 1917, and the Sedition Act of May 1918 each gave the government “wide powers to suppress free expression” and the “ability to punish unfriendly opinions” (Zeiger, 78).
In endowing the federal government with the power to, among other things, arrest those “deemed guilty of utterances or actions that might impede the war effort,” deport suspected alien radicals, and ban antiwar publications from the mail, Congress ran roughshod over the First Amendment (Zeiger, 197). Furthermore, by enlisting private organizations to search for suspected violators, the government encouraged the widespread vigilantism that characterized both the war years and the postwar period (Zeiger, 198).
The government’s efforts to suppress dissent were in tune with its overall policy of consolidating federal power as a wartime expedient. According to Zeiger, Wilson believed that “if this war was a good one — and in his view there could be no doubt that it was — citizens (and especially alien residents) would have to sacrifice their right to say or do unpatriotic or harmful things so that the war might be prosecuted with the utmost dispatch” (Zeiger, 199).
As evidenced by legislation such as the Espionage Act or the Sedition Act, the governments activism in prosecuting the war “with the utmost dispatch,” did not come without considerable consequences. These consequences became all the more acute when after the war it became clear that certain aspects of the government’s wartime activism and the public’s vigilance did not evaporate with the Armistice. Indeed, as Frederick Lewis Allen observes in his classic study of the postwar period and the 1920’s, Only Yesterday, “the nation went on thinking with the mind of people at war” (Allen, 16).
Americans had learned to “strike down the thing they hated; not to argue or hesitate, but to strike;” they had “formed a habit of summary action, and it was not soon unlearned” (Allen, 17). The most salient carry-over from this wartime psychology was the suppression of dissent and the demonization of the “other” that characterized the government’s legislation and propaganda. With the elimination of the German menace, America simply looked for a new target and found one in the Russian Revolution and the threat of Bolshevism. Nineteen-nineteen was an unprecedented year for labor activity.
Strikes erupted en masse throughout the country. In their own fashion, workers too were conditioned by the war to “strike down the thing they hated” and were acting accordingly. But to government and management, labor activism was synonymous with Communism and radical subversion. Under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the federal government simply shifted its “focus from antiwar activities to those of radicals and suspected radicals” (Zeiger, 200). What followed was a postwar witch-hunt characterized by hysteria, disorder, and violence.
Thus, the consequence of wartime expediency was a postwar “era of lawless and disorderly defense of law and order, of unconstitutional defense of the Constitution, of suspicion and civil conflict — in a very literal sense, a reign of terror” (Allen, 40). In certain meaningful respects America’s rapid mobilization for World War I was a truly remarkable success and a grand achievement. The Wilson administration successfully raised, trained, equipped (less successfully according to Zeiger) and deployed a standing army of four million men in less than one year.
It harnessed and streamlined America’s vast and diffuse economic and industrial potential in the same short period. And it was able to impact the outcome of the war in such a way as to maneuver the United States into a favorable postwar international position. But the question of whether the ends justified the means will continue to be debated. The Wilson administration relied on a concomitant combination of coercive federal regulation, prowar propaganda, and public volunteerism.
Agencies like the USRA, the Selective Service System, the Food and Fuel Administrations and coercive legislation like the Espionage Act or the Sedition Act represented a vast extension of government power, but would not have been effective had it not been for the public’s willingness to sacrifice their personal comfort, and some their traditional rights, for the common good. However, the public would not have consented so readily had it not been for the pervasive influence of another arm of federal power, the propaganda machine, represented by such things as CID sponsored Food Administration posters and the “Four-Minute Men. Thus, even in the public’s apparent volunteerism the increased power of the federal government played a decisive role. In the end, the answer to the question of whether the ends justified the means depended on whom you asked. For prowar politicians, business leaders, and members of the armed forces, among others, the answer would likely be “yes. ” But for organized labor, radicals, intellectuals, blacks, immigrants, and perhaps drunks and bar owners, the hyper-vigilance of the war years carried over into the postwar period and unleashed unfortunate consequences, which rendered patriotic wartime appeals largely hollow.