By The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
World War I
World War I was a watershed event that reshaped American lives. The United States abandoned its history of isolation and assumed a larger role in the world. In 1914 most Americans wished to avoid engagement in a European war. By 1917 most Americans supported the government’s call for unity and sacrifice to defeat enemies who threatened their future, although a few continued to oppose war on humanitarian and other grounds. Participation in the war fostered hopes of increasing rights for African Americans, women, and immigrants, but wartime legislation, including the Espionage and Sedition Acts, curtailed individual and constitutional liberties and led to a retreat from the reforms of the Progressive era. The mixed legacies of World War I shaped the direction of American society for the next generation.
How did the men and women who lived through America’s World War I view their experiences of wartime service and sacrifices on the home front? A century later, we ask viewers to set aside modern assumptions and look at the war through the eyes of Americans who lived it. View this print on the Gilder Lehrman website.
View this portrait of President Wilson on the Gilder Lehrman website.
Newsreel footage captures headlines of war and early troop training. Film courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
The US: An Industrial Nation in the World
In the first decade of the twentieth century, the United States experienced rapid growth and increasing industrialization. The new order ruptured traditional ways of life. While many Americans benefitted from new opportunities, others were shut out from the economic, social, and political advances. As Americans faced disparities in wealth and opportunity at home, they also debated how to address the country’s growing economic investment and military intervention in the world. Some, like President Theodore Roosevelt, believed that peace and prosperity had to be sustained through American military and economic strength. Others, like the social reformer Jane Addams, argued that international relations had to be based on humanitarian principles and binding arbitration.
Jane Addams, a leading social reformer, appealed to both humanity and prudence in the face of the human and economic costs of war when she declared:
The United States began work on the Panama Canal in 1904. Completed in 1914, the canal symbolized American technological advances and the economic power of the United States in the world.
Suffragists were part of a broader reform movement that also included support for peaceful resolution of conflict. View this women's suffrage poster on the Gilder Lehrman website.
This 1904 cartoon depicts Standard Oil as an octopus strangling symbols of American government. Cartoons like this inspired reformers to pass laws to limit corporate control over American politics and society.
The Road to War
In 1914 most Americans were opposed to joining a foreign conflict. Isolationists, suffragists, and socialists spoke and demonstrated against going to war. Other Americans, led by former president Theodore Roosevelt, advocated military preparedness. On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat sank the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner, killing 128 Americans. The Lusitania brought the war from the theoretical to the practical, making it about America in a way that it had not been before.
As war loomed in Europe, women reformers engaged in the peace movement. In 1915, activists Jane Addams, Carrie Chapman Catt, and others joined a delegation to the International Congress of Women for a Permanent Peace.
On May 7, 1915, the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner, was sunk by a German submarine. This poster employs religious imagery to depict the Lusitania disaster.
After the sinking of the Lusitania, Theodore Roosevelt, a leader of the pro-war movement, wrote:
Roosevelt continued with a pointed reference to American history. Read Roosevelt's letter on the Gilder Lehrman website.
On March 1, 1917, American newspapers printed the decoded Zimmermann telegram, sent from Germany to Mexico offering an anti-American alliance. The direct threat to the United States further inflamed public opinion against Germany.
On April 2, Wilson asked Congress to declare war and they did so on April 6, 1917. A small number of advocates of progressive reform opposed the war. Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin was one of six US senators to vote against war, which he argued only served the "war machine." View President Wilson's message to Congress on the Gilder Lehrman website.
The Experience of War: Why We Fight
More than two million soldiers served in Europe with the American Expeditionary Forces between 1917 and 1920. Among them were African Americans, who served in segregated regiments commanded by white officers and were assigned mostly to support services. The Selective Service boards also accepted immigrants. The two groups often viewed military service as a path to equality and citizenship.
Letters and diaries written by soldiers reflect their day-to-day concerns over food, disease, boredom, and army discipline, echoing letters written during previous wars. Eager to reassure their families about their safety and mindful of military censorship, few described the brutality and unprecedented carnage of the war in their letters.
Personal diaries, however, were more likely to record heroic deeds of patriotism and the horrors of war. What little people at home learned of the violence of war and Allied victories came from articles by journalists like Damon Runyon and Floyd Gibbons.
Ella Jane Osborn, an army nurse, was stationed in an evacuation hospital in France. In her diary she recorded daily events as well as the suffering of the soldiers under her care. Find out more about Ella Jane Osborn.
In addition to her notes about the men under her care and events in France, Osborn jotted down two popular World War I poems, “In Flanders Fields,” by Canadian surgeon Lt. Col. John D. McCrae, and “The Answer,” by Lt. J. A. Armstrong of Wisconsin.
On November 4, 1918, Helen Belknap, a volunteer working in a YMCA canteen in Paris, wrote to the mother of a soldier who had visited the American-run relief center.
This film from the National Archives shows soldiers on leave during the war -- dancing, bicycle riding, sightseeing in the company of YMCA and Red Cross workers.
In a letter to his girlfriend, George A. Chisholm reassured her that he wouldn't be swayed by the girls "Over There."
More than 350,000 African Americans enlisted and served in segregated units. W. E. B. Du Bois, a leader of the African American movement for civil rights, had opposed black participation in the “white man’s war.” After the United States entered the war, however, he wrote in The Crisis:
The 93rd Division, the focus of this film, was an African American unit which included the Harlem Hellfighters. Film courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration.
William Shepp, from West Virginia, enlisted on June 5, 1917, and kept a diary of his army experience. On January 5, 1918, the day before his twenty-first birthday, Shepp declared:
“The last day of my boyhood. Tomorrow I’ll be a man for Uncle Sammie instead of a boy. Gee, how proud I am of the fact.”
January 5, 1918
Read more from the diary of William Shepp.
Scenes of enlistment and Red Cross and troop deployment from The National Archives and Records Administration.
The Home Front: Selling Unity, Suppressing Dissent
To further inspire patriotism and sacrifice at home, the Wilson administration established a propaganda department, the Committee on Public Information. Through posters, photographs, movies, and rallies, the CPI saturated the nation with patriotic messages, played on emotions, whipped up fear, and demonized the enemy. To meet the demand for support and sacrifice, citizens and immigrants bought war bonds to show they were “100% American,” sent food overseas for soldiers and European civilians, and adults and children joined the American Red Cross.
Listen to the wartime hit "Over There" from the Library of Congress
Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware -
We'll be over, we're coming over,
And we won't come back till it's over, over there.
Those who spoke out against the war faced condemnation. Censorship assumed official form with the passage of laws to root out and punish espionage and sedition. The postmaster general, for example, used the Espionage Act to confiscate newspapers deemed “suspect,” and the courts upheld cases that severely limited free speech.
As more men joined up, women entered the work force in the defense industries and military support jobs. The work was dirty, dangerous, and physically demanding.
When Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs spoke out against the war in 1918, he was arrested, charged with violating the Espionage Act, and sentenced to ten years in prison. His conviction was upheld by the US Supreme Court.
This poster urges recent European immigrants to conserve food that could be sent to Europe, appealing to their love for their new country. View this print on the Gilder Lehrman website.
This poster exhorts men on the home front, both black and white workers, to equate their labor with the exertions of men on the battlefield, and to recognize that they are just as important to the success of the war. View this print on the Gilder Lehrman website.
World War I ended with an armistice on November 11, 1918. While Americans had been willing to fight for their own security, Wilson failed to convince a war-weary nation that the United States should actively participate in what seemed to be unenforceable plans to help rebuild Europe. Yet his vision for worldwide democracy continued to influence the growing US involvement in the world through the twentieth century.
As the soldiers returned home, many faced an uncertain future. Jobs were scarce and labor lost ground to big business. African Americans were subjected to increasing discrimination and violence, and fears of Communist infiltration fueled the first Red Scare in 1919. Women’s contributions in wartime influenced the ratification in 1920 of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, giving women the right to vote.
Russel S. Flynn sent a postcard to his mother from Lyon, France in late 1918.
After the war's end Harold Hopkins complained to his mother about his KP duties and hierarchy: "I'll have to beat it back and wash the dishes for some of the brave silver-stripe boys of the depot brigade who 'did their bit' by making life miserable for those who were foolish enough to enlist soon enough to go over to France."
Many African American men had enlisted in the US Army during World War I in hopes of gaining civil rights. After the war, violence against African Americans in the United States increased despite the black soldiers’ bravery in battle. In a sermon delivered in 1919, the Reverend Francis Grimké declared:
Woodrow Wilson traveled to Paris determined that the peace treaty would incorporate the ideals set forth in his Fourteen Points:
Scenes from Versailles and Armistice celebrations from The National Archives and Records Administration in the main window, returning soldiers in the smaller window. Video courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
On November 11, 1921, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated in Arlington National Cemetery. As conflicting memories over the meaning of the endured, the nation gave ceremonial recognition to the lives lost.
This program is part of World War I and America, a two-year national initiative of The Library of America presented in partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and other organizations, with generous support from The National Endowment for the Humanities.
Exhibition developed by The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History; Michael S. Neiberg, advisor.