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USHISTORY.RU



Current R., Williams T. H., Freidel F., Brinkley A. American History: a survey. 7th edition; New York, 1987.


 

Chapter 23. America and the Great War

The Great War, as it was known to a generation unaware that another, greater war would soon follow, began modestly in August 1914 when Austria invaded the tiny Balkan nation of Serbia. Within weeks, however, it had grown into a widespread conflagration, engaging the armies of all the major nations of Europe and shattering forever the delicate balance of power that had maintained a general peace on the Continent since the early nineteenth century. Americans looked on with horror but also at first with a conviction that the conflict had little to do with them. They were wrong.

After nearly three years of attempting to affect the outcome of the conflict without becoming embroiled in it, the United States formally entered the war in April 1917. In doing so, it joined the most savage conflict in history. The fighting had already dragged on for two and a half years, inconclusive, almost inconceivably murderous, engaging not only the armies of the contending nations but their civilian populations as well. Although the American Civil War had greatly increased the ferocity and extent of combat, World War I was the first truly "total" war. It pitted entire societies against one another, and it had by 1917 left Europe exhausted and on the brink of utter collapse. By the time it ended late in 1918, Germany had lost nearly 2 million soldiers in battle, Russia 1.7 million, France 1.4 million, Great Britain 900,000. An entire generation of European youth was decimated; centuries of political, social, and economic traditions were eroded and all but destroyed.

For America, however, the war was the source of a very different experience. As a military struggle, it was brief, decisive, andin relative termswithout great cost. Only 112,000 American soldiers died in the conflict, half of them from disease rather than combat. Economically, it was the source of a great industrial boom, which helped spark the years of prosperity that would follow. And the war propelled the United States into a position of almost unquestioned world supremacy.

In other respects, however, World War I was a painful, even traumatic experience for the American people. At home, the nation became obsessed with not only a search for victory but a search for social unitya search that continued and even intensified in the troubled years following the armistice, and that helped shatter many of the progressive ideals of the first years of the century. And in the world at large, once the conflict ended, the United States encountered frustration and disillusionment. The "war to end wars," the war "to make the world safe for democracy," became neither. Instead, it led directly to twenty years of international instability that would ultimately generate another great conflict.

The Road to War

Wilson's policy of maintaining American neutrality was based on a false premise. The United States had nothing at stake in this war, he told the nation. In fact, America had a great deal at stake, and as the war continued, that stake grew.                                                                                                                                           

A False Neutrality

Wilson called on his countrymen in 1914 to remain "impartial in thought as well as deed." His own thoughts, however, were far from neutral Like many Americans of his background, he was a fervent admirer of Englandits traditions, its culture, its political system; almost instinctively, therefore, he attributed to the cause of the Allies (Britain, France, Italy, and Russia) a moral quality that he denied to the Central Powers (Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottomanor TurkishEmpire).

More important, however, he soon recognized that economic realities made it essential for him to adopt one policy toward England and quite another toward Germany. The neutral rights that he so ardently sought to uphold included, among other things, the right of an impartial nation such as the United States to trade freely with both sides in the conflict. But the British, whose control of the seas was their most effective weapon, clamped a naval blockade on Germany to prevent munitions and suppliesfrom neutrals as well as belligerentsfrom reaching the enemy. Wilson had two choices. He could preserve a genuine American neutrality by denouncing the blockade and imposing an embargo on trade with Great Britain; or he could accept the situation and allow trade with England to continue and trade with Germany to cease.

Economic realities, combined with his own inclination to support the British, caused him to choose the latter. The United States could survive an interruption of trade with the Central Powers. It could not, however, easily weather an embargo on trade with the Allies as well, particularly when war orders from Britain and France jumped from $824 million in 1914 to $3.2 billion two years later. The war had produced the greatest economic boom in the nation's history, and Wilson could ill afford to destroy it.

By 1915, therefore, the United States had gradually transformed itself into the arsenal of the Allies. In the process, it had replaced its stance of genuine neutrality with something quite different. Quietly, or with only feeble protests, Americans acquiesced in violations of their rights by the British, who periodically seized American ships suspected of carrying supplies destined for Germany. When Germany infringed on neutral rights, however, the response of the United States was harsh and unyielding.

The Germans intensified that antagonism by resorting to a new and, in American eyes, barbaric tactic: submarine warfare. Unable to challenge British domination on the ocean's surface, Germany began early in 1915 to use the newly improved submarine to try to stem the flow of supplies to England. Enemy vessels, the Germans announced, would be sunk on sight, prompting Wilson to declare that he would hold Germany to "strict accountability" for unlawful acts.

A test of this pronouncement came only months later, when on May 7, 1915, a German U-boat (short for Unterseeboot, "undersea boat") sank the British passenger liner Lusitania without warning, causing the deaths of 1,198 people, 128 of them Americans. The ship was, it later became clear, carrying not only passengers but munitions; at the time, however, the attack seemed to most Americans to be what Theodore Roosevelt called it: "an act of piracy."

Wilson reacted by initiating an angry exchange of notes with Germany, demanding assurances that such outrages would not recur and that the Central Powers would respect the rights of neutral nations, among which, he insisted, was the right of their citizens to travel on the nonmilitary vessels of belligerents. (After one particularly threatening note, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryanwho argued that equally strenuous protests should be sent to the British in response to their blockaderesigned from office as a matter of principle, one of the few high government officials of the United States ever to do so.) The Germans finally agreed to Wilson's demands, but a pattern of relations had been established that would increasingly bring the two nations into conflict.

Early in 1916, American-German relations soured anew when, in response to an announcement that the Allies were now arming merchant ships to sink submarines, Germany proclaimed that it would fire on such vessels without warning. A few weeks later, it did just that, attacking the unarmed French steamer Sussex and injuring several American passengers. Again, Wilson demanded that Germany abandon its "unlawful" tactics; again, the German government relented. Lacking sufficient naval power to enforce an effective blockade against Britain, the Germans decided that the marginal advantages of unrestricted submarine warfare did not yet justify the possibility of drawing America into the war.

Preparedness Versus Pacifism

Despite the president's increasing bellicosity in 1916, he was still far from ready to commit the United States to war. One obstacle was American domestic politics. Facing a difficult battle for reelection, Wilson could not ignore the powerful factions that continued to oppose intervention. His policies, therefore, represented an effort to satisfy the demands both of those who, like Theodore Roosevelt, insisted that the nation defend its "honor" and economic interests and those who, like Bryan, La Follette, and others (including many German-Americans and Irish-Americans hostile to Britain), denounced any action that seemed to increase the chance of war.

The question of whether America should make military and economic preparations for war provided a preliminary issue over which the two coalitions could battle. Wilson at first sided with the anti-preparedness forces, denouncing the idea of an American military build-up as needless and provocative. As tensions between the United States and Germany grew, however, he changed his mind. In the fall of 1915, he endorsed an ambitious proposal by American military leaders for a large and rapid increase in the nation's armed forces, to cost more than half a billion dollars; and amid howls of outrage from pacifists in Congress and elsewhere, he worked hard to win approval of it. He even embarked on a national speaking tour early in 1916 to arouse support for the proposal. By midsummer his efforts had in large part succeeded, and rearmament for a possible conflict was well under way.

Still, the peace faction wielded considerable political strength. How much strength became clear to Wilson at the Democratic Convention that met to renominate him in the summer of 1916. The keynote speaker turned his address into a litany of praise for Wilson's efforts to avoid American intervention. He evoked a remarkable response. As he recited the president's diplomatic accomplishments, the delegates chanted again and again, "What did we do? What did we do?" And the speaker shouted in response, "We didn't go to war! We didn't go to war!" Out of that almost hysterical exchange came one of the most prominent slogans of Wilson's reelection campaign (although one that he himself never used or approved): "He kept us out of war."

In the face of such pressures, therefore, Wilson remained highly cautious. When prowar rhetoric became particularly heated, Wilson spoke defiantly of the nation being "too proud to fight." And when the Republicans chose as their 1916 presidential candidate Charles Evans Hughes, a progressive who attracted the support of the bellicose Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson did nothing to discourage those who argued that Hughes was more likely than he to lead the nation into war. At times, he issued such warnings himself. Wilson's promises of progressivism and peace ultimately combined to give the Democrats, once again a minority party against the reunited Republicans, a narrow victory in November. Wilson won reelection by one of the smallest margins in American history: fewer than 600,000 popular votes and only 23 electoral votes, with the Democrats retaining a precarious control over Congress.

A War for Democracy

With the election behind him, and with tensions between the United States and Germany unabated, there remained for Wilson a final obstacle to involvement in the world war. He required a lofty justification for American intervention, one that would not only unite public opinion but satisfy his own sense of morality. The Germans had gone far toward providing such a justification with their "barbaric" tactics on the seas and their alleged atrocities on land (including, as the American prowar press ardently reported, the use of poison gas and the senseless butchering of women and children). Wilson himself, however, created the most important rationale. The United States, he insisted, had no material aims of its own in the conflict. The nation was, rather, committed to using the war as a vehicle for constructing a new world order, one based on the same progressive ideals that had motivated reform in America.

In a speech before Congress in January 1917, he presented a plan for a postwar order in which the United States would help maintain peace through a permanent league of nationsa peace that would include self-determination and equality for all nations, a "peace among equals," a "peace without victory."

In the first months of 1917, when new provocations once again inflamed German-American relations, Wilson was at last ready to fight. In January, after months of inconclusive warfare in the trenches of France, the military leaders of Germany decided on one last dramatic gamble to achieve a quick and decisive victory. They would launch a series of major assaults on the enemy's lines in France. At the same time, they would begin unrestricted submarine warfare in an effort to cut off vital supplies from Britain. The Allies would collapse, they hoped, before the United States had time to intervene. Beginning February 1, the German ambassador informed Wilson, U-boats would sink all ships, enemy and neutral alike, in a broad zone around the British Isles. If America chose to continue supplying the Allies, it would have to risk attack.

With that, the president recognized that war was inevitable; the only question remaining was the appropriate time to declare it. Two additional developments helped clear the way. On February 25, the British turned over to him an intercepted telegram from the German foreign minister, Arthur Zim-mermann, to the government of Mexico. It proposed that in the event of war between Germany and the United States, the Mexicans should join the struggle against the Americans. In return, they would regain their "lost provinces" to the north when the war was over. Widely publicized by British propagandists and in the American press, the Zimmermann telegram inflamed public opinion and helped build up popular sentiment for war.

A second event, in March, provided Wilson with additional comfort. A revolution in Russia toppled the reactionary czarist regime, which had been tottering ever since the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. A new, republican government took its place. The United States would now be spared the embarrassment of allying itself with a despotic monarchy. The war for a progressive world order could proceed untainted.

On the rainy evening of April 2, two weeks after German submarines had torpedoed three American ships, Wilson appeared before a joint session of Congress and spoke words that brought to an end the years of uncertain waiting: "It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our heartsfor democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own Governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free."

The audience in the House chamber roared its approval. In Europe, the Allied nations rejoiced at their deliverance. Even some of Wilson's bitterest enemies, men such as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, offered warm words of praise.

The sentiment for war was not, however, unanimous. For four days, amid cries of treason and cowardice, pacifists in Congress carried on their futile struggle. When the declaration of war finally passed on April 6, fifty representatives and six senators had voted against it. America was entering a new era, but it was doing so divided and fearful. And Woodrow Wilson, perhaps aware of the ordeal that lay ahead, returned to the White House after his dramatic war address and, according to one account, broke down and wept.

"War Without Stint"

Armies on both sides in Europe were decimated and exhausted by the time of Woodrow Wilson's declaration of war. The German offensives of early 1917 had failed to produce an end to the struggle, and French and British counteroffensives had accomplished little beyond adding to the appalling number of casualties. The ghastly stalemate continued, and the Allies looked desperately to the United States to provide them with a chance for victory.

The Americans were eager to oblige. Wilson had called on the nation to wage war ''without stint or limit." And in that spirit, the American government proceeded to launch massive campaigns against German submarines in the Atlantic and against German armies in France, and to mobilize the nation's economic resources on a grand scale.

The Military Struggle

The conflicts at sea had brought the United States into the war; and it was on the naval struggle that American participation had the most immediate effect. By the spring of 1917, Great Britain was suffering such vast losses from attacks by German submarinesone of every four ships setting sail from British ports never returnedthat its ability to continue ferrying vital supplies across the Atlantic was coming into serious question. Within weeks of joining the war, the United States had begun to alter the balance. A fleet of American destroyers aided the British navy in its assault on the U-boats; other American warships escorted merchant vessels across the Atlantic; American assistance was crucial in sowing antisubmarine mines in the North Sea.

The results were dramatic. Sinkings of Allied ships had totaled nearly 900,000 tons in the month of April 1917; by December, the figure had dropped to 350,000; by October 1918, it had declined to 112,000. The flow of weapons and supplies from the United States to England and France continued; without it, the Allied cause would have been lost.

At first, most Americans believed that this naval assistance was all that would be required of them. It soon became clear, however, that a major commitment of American ground forces would be necessary as well. Britain and France by 1917 had few reserves left on which to draw. Russia was in even direr straits; and after the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917, the new government, led by Nikolai Lenin, negotiated a hasty and costly peace with the Central Powers. Battalions of German troops were now free to fight on the western front. It would be up to American forces to counterbalance them.

In 1917, however, those forces barely existed. The regular army was pathetically small, and little thought had been given to an effective method for expanding it. Theodore Roosevelt, old and ill, swallowed his personal hatred of President Wilson and visited the White House, offering to raise a regiment to fight in Europe. Others, similarly, urged an entirely voluntary recruitment process. The president, however, decided otherwise. Only a national draft, he insisted, could provide the needed men; and despite the protests of those who agreed with House Speaker Champ Clark that "there is precious little difference between a conscript and a convict," he won passage of the Selective Service Act in mid-May. The draft brought nearly 3 million men into the army; another 2 million joined various branches of the armed services voluntarily.

The engagement of these forces in combat was intense but brief. Not until the end of 1917 did the first members of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), as it was called, arrive in Europe. Not until the following spring were American troops there in significant numbers. Eight months later, the war was over.

Under the command of General John J. Pershing, whose unhappy experience in Mexico only a year before had not diminished his military reputation, the fresh American troops first joined the existing Allied forces in turning back a series of new German assaults. In early June, they assisted the French in repelling a bitter German offensive at Chateau-Thierry, near Paris. Six weeks later, the AEF helped turn away another assault, at Rheims, farther south. By July 18, the German advance had been halted; and for the first time in what seemed years, the Allies began a successful offensive of their own.

On September 26, an enormous American fighting force began to advance against the Germans in the Argonne Forest as part of a grand, 200-mile attack that was to last nearly seven weeks. Over 1 million American soldiers took part in the assault, using more ammunition than the entire Union army had used in four years of the Civil War; and by the end of October, they had helped push the Germans back to their own border and had cut the enemy's major supply lines to the front.

Faced with an invasion of their own country, German military leaders now began to seek an armisticean immediate cease-fire that would, they hoped, serve as a prelude to negotiations among the belligerents. Pershing wanted to drive on into Germany itself; but other Allied leaders, after first insisting on terms so stringent as to make the agreement little different in effect from a surrender, accepted the German proposal. On November 11, 1918, the Great War shuddered to a close. And American troops, .having fought in it for only about eight months of its four years, boasted proudly that it had been they who had won it. Whether or not the claim was militarily accurate, it was already clear that the United States was the only real victor in the conflict.

Financing the War

At home, in the meantime, the war was having profound economic and social effects. The conflict had begun to transform the American economy even before the United States joined the struggle. After the declaration of war, the pace of change quickly accelerated.

Americans encountered many surprises in 1917. They were surprised when they learned that substantial American ground troops would be necessary in Europe. They were surprised when they discovered that a draft would be necessary to recruit them. And they were surprised above all when they learned how much the war was going to cost them. Many government officials had scoffed at early predictions that the United States would need to spend $10 billion before the fighting ceased, but it soon became clear that even that figure was preposterously low. Before it was over, the federal government had appropriated $32 billion for expenses directly related to the war. This was an enormous sum by the standards of the day; the entire federal budget had seldom exceeded $1 billion before 1915. To raise it, the government relied on two devices. First, it launched a major drive to solicit loans from the American people by selling "Liberty Bonds" to the public. By 1920, the sale of bonds, which was accompanied by a carefully orchestrated appeal to patriotic fervor, had produced $23 billion. At the same time, new taxes were bringing in an additional sum of nearly $10 billion some of it from levies on the "excess profits" of corporations, much of it from new, steeply graduated income and inheritance taxes that ultimately rose as high as 70 percent in some brackets. The nation financed the war by spreading the burden widely and reasonably efficiently.

The War Boards

An even greater challenge than raising the necessary funds was the task of organizing the nation's economy to ensure that war needs could be met. The administration made use of two very different approaches.

The first approach was in many ways reminiscent of Wilson's early commitment to the New Freedom concept of economic decentralization. In 1916, Wilson established a Council of National Defense, composed of members of his cabinet, to coordinate policy; connected with it was a Civilian Advisory Commission, which set up local defense councils in every state, county, and school district. Economic mobilization, according to this early plan, was to rest on a large-scale dispersal of power to local communities.

But this early administrative structure soon proved completely unworkable. And some members of the Council of National Defense, many of them disciples of the engineering gospel of Thorstein Veblen and the "scientific management" principles of Frederick Winslow Taylor, began to urge a more centralized approach. Instead of dividing the economy geographically, they proposed dividing it functionally by organizing a series of planning bodies, each to supervise a specific sector of the economy. Thus one agency would control transportation, another agriculture, another manufacturing. Associated with each agency would be "consulting boards," to encourage efficiency and standardization within industries.

The administrative structure that slowly emerged reflected many of the technocrats' assumptions, although it seldom worked as smoothly as they had envisioned. It was dominated by a series of "war boards." A Railroad War Board, under the direction of Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, attempted to run the nation's major transportation resource as a single unified system. Using a half-billion-dollar budget for improving equipment and raising wages, McAdoo succeeded in untangling the flow of rail traffic and dramatically increasing the transportation of goods to the East, where they could be shipped on to Europe. A new Fuel Administration was charged with allocating the increasingly scarce supplies of coal among the many contending groups seeking to buy it. Production increased, but the fuel shortage continued to intensify, forcing the agency to adopt drastic measures. Eastern industries were forced to endure several coal "holidays" early in 1918; some energy consumers were encouraged to forgo using coal altogether and convert to a newer, cheaper, and more plentiful fuel: oil.

Perhaps the most dramatically effective of all the new war agencies was the Food Administration, headed by the brilliant young engineer and business executive Herbert Hoover. Hoover had supervised a spectacularly successful effort earlier in the war to provide food and relief to Belgium, which had been devastated by the German invasion. He brought the same administrative skills to bear on the far greater task of supervising the feeding of the nation, its armies, and its Alliesall of whom were becoming dependent on the products of American agriculture. Hoover attempted to increase supplies by encouraging voluntary conservation. At the same time, he encouraged increased production of basic foodstuffs such as wheat by arranging for the government to purchase crops at high prices to stimulate farmers to plant as much as possible. The nation managed to supply many of the needs of Europe as well as to continue feeding itself; and Hoover emerged from the war as one of the most admired figures in the country.

Government, Industry, and Labor

At the center of the effort to rationalize the economy was the War Industries Board, an agency created in July 1917 to coordinate government: purchases of military supplies. Casually organized at first, it stumbled badly until March 1918, when Wilson restructured it and placed it under the cofttrol of the Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch. From then on, the board wielded powers greater than any government agency had ever possessed. Baruch became, in popular legend, a virtual czar of American industry. It was Baruch who decided which factories would convert to the production of which war materials; it was he who set prices for the goods that resulted; it was he who imposed standardized production procedures on industries to increase the efficiency of their operations and to promote interchangeability of parts among their products. When materials were scarce, Baruch decided to whom they should go. When corporations were competing for government contracts, he chose among them. He had become, it seemed, the ultimate expression of the progressive ideals of the New Nationalism. He was providing the centralized regulation of the economy that many reformers had long urged.

There was, however, a crucial difference between the image and the reality. For one thing, the WIB never worked as well as Baruch and his admirers liked to claim. It performed better than it had earlier in the war; but confusion and mismanagement continued rampant. Only because American resources and productive capacities were so great was the nation able to meet its war needs. Nor was the WIB in any real sense an example of state control of the economy. Baruch viewed himself, openly and explicitly, as the partner of business; and within the WIB, businessmen themselvesthe so-called dollar-a-year men, who took leave from their corporate jobs and worked for the government for a token salary supervised the affairs of the private economy.

Indeed, the relationship between the public and private sectors during the war was so warm and mutually supportive that to many people it began to seem as though the line between the two had all but dissolved. Baruch ensured that manufacturers coordinating their efforts in accord with his goals would be exempt from antitrust laws. He helped major industries earn enormous profits from their efforts. Steel manufacturers, for example, saw their prices rise 300 percent during a single year of the war. Corporate profits as a whole increased threefold between 1914 and 1919. Rather than working to restrict private power and limit corporate profits, as many progressives had urged, the government was working to enhance-the private sector through a mutually beneficial alliance. Business itself, once antagonistic to the idea of any government interference, was beginning to see the advantages of having the state control competition and sanction what were, in essence, collusive arrangements.

This growing link between the public and private sectors extended, although in greatly different form, to labor. The National War Labor Board, established in April 1918, served as a kind of supreme court for labor disputes. It pressured industry to grant important concessions to workers: an eight-hour day, the maintenance of minimal living standards, equal pay for women doing equal work, recognition of the right of unions to organize and bargain collectively. In return, it insisted that workers forgo all strikes and that employers not engage in lockouts. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, sat on the board and supported its decisions; and he watched approvingly as membership in labor unions increased by more than 1.5 million between 1917 and 1919. Many of these organizational gains, however, would not long survive the armistice.

The Results of Organization

Despite the enthusiasm with which government and business alike greeted their new, cooperative relationship, the material results were often disappointing. The proliferation of government agencies at times created more confusion than order. Bureaucracies occasionally contradicted one another in the directives they issued. Lines of authority were never entirely clear. And excessive regulation sometimes slowed, rather than enhanced, production.

There were spectacular accomplishments, of course: Hoover's efficient organization of food supplies, McAdoo's success in untangling the railroads, and others. In some areas, however, progress was so slow that the war was over before many of the supplies ordered for it were ready. The Aircraft Production Board, for example, had promised to deliver 22,000 new planes to the western front by July 1918. By the time the armistice was signed, it had managed to produce only 1,185 of them. The Emergency Fleet Corporation, created to oversee production of a vast armada of merchant vessels, took more than a year to overcome the effects of its own incompetent management. By the end of the war, American shipbuilding facilities were beginning to produce new ships at a remarkable rate; but most were not completed in time to contribute to the war effort. Had the fighting continued another year, it is likely that the productive machinery the Wilson administration had so painstakingly constructed would have begun to accomplish great feats. As it was, the eighteen months of war were not enough time for the war economy to learn to function with real efficiency. Even so, many leaders of both government and industry emerged from the experience convinced of the advantages of a close, cooperative relationship between the public and private sectors. Some hoped to continue and extend the wartime experiments in the peacetime world.

The Search for Social Unity

The idea of unitynot only in the direction of the economy but in the nation's social purposehad been the dream of many progressives for decades. To them, the war seemed to offer an unmatched opportunity. At last, America was to close ranks behind a great common cause. In the process, they hoped, society could achieve a lasting sense of mutual purpose.

In fact, however, the search for unity that the progressives had so optimistically foreseen became an experience of ugly hysteria and bitter repression. American society remained divided, both in its attitude toward the war and in its larger political and social goals. And the attempt to impose unity on a diverse and contentious people became a painful exercise.

Selling the War

Government leaders were painfully aware of how deeply divided public opinion had been up to the moment of America's declaration of war. They knew, too, that many pacifists and isolationists remained opposed to United States participation even after that participation had begun. It was easy to argue, therefore, that a crucial prerequisite for victory was the uniting of public opinion behind the war effort. The government approached that task in several ways.

Most conspicuous was a propaganda campaign far greater than any the government had ever undertaken. A Committee on Public Information (CPI), under the direction of journalist George Creel, supervised the distribution of innumerable tons of prowar literature (75 million pieces of printed material in all). War posters plastered the walls of offices, shops, theaters, schools, churches, homes. Newspapers dutifully printed official government accounts of the reasons for the war and the prospects for quick victory. Creel encouraged reporters to exercise "self-censorship" when reporting news about the struggle; and although many people in the press resented the suggestion, the veiled threats that accompanied it persuaded most of them to comply.

The CPI attempted at first to distribute only the "facts," believing that the truth would speak for itself. As the war continued, however, their tactics became increasingly crude. Government-promoted films, at first relatively mild in tone, were by 1918 becoming vicious portrayals of the savagery of the Germans, bearing such titles as The Prussian Cur. CPI-financed advertisements in magazines appealed to citizens to report to the authorities any evidence among their neighbors of disloyalty, pessimism, or yearning for peace.

Legal Repression

The Wilson administration soon began not only to encourage public approval but to suppress opposition. The Espionage Act of 1917 imposed heavy fines and stiff jail terms on those convicted of spying, sabotage, or obstruction of the war effort. Those crimes were often broadly defined. The law also empowered the postmaster general to ban from the mails any "seditious" materialan authority he exercised enthusiastically and often capriciously. More repressive were two measures of 1918: the Sabotage Act of April 20 and the Sedition Act of May 16. These bills expanded the meaning of the Espionage Act to make illegal any public expression of opposition to the war; in practice, it allowed officials to prosecute anyone who criticized the president or the government.

The most frequent target of the new legislation (and one of the reasons for its enactment in the first place) were such anticapitalist groups as the Socialist party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Unlike their counterparts in Europe, American socialists had not dropped their opposition to the war after their country had decided to join it; the impact of this decision on them was devastating. Many Americans had favored the repression of socialists and radicals even before the war; now, the new government policies made it possible to move against them with full legal sanction. Eugene V. Debs, the humane leader of the party, an opponent of the war but no friend of Germany, was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1918. Only a presidential pardon ultimately won his release in 1921. Big Bill Haywood and members of the IWW were especially energetically prosecuted. Only by fleeing to the Soviet Union did Haywood avoid long imprisonment. In all, more than 1,500 people were arrested in 1918 for the crime of criticizing the government.

Popular Repression

The federal government was not alone in fueling the hysteria of the war years. State governments, local governments, corporations, universities, and above all the actions of private citizens contributed as well to the climate of repression. Vigilante mobs sprang up to "discipline" those who dared challenge the war. A dissident Protestant clergyman in Cincinnati was pulled from his bed one night by a mob, dragged to a nearby hillside, and whipped "in the name of the women and children of Belgium." An IWW organizer in Montana was seized by a mob and hanged from a railroad bridge.

A cluster of citizens' groups emerged to mobilize "respectable" members of their communities to root out disloyalty. The American Protective League, probably the largest of such groups, enlisted the services of 250,000 people, who served as "agents" prying into the activities and thoughts of their neighbors, stopping men on the street and demanding to see their draft cards, opening mail, tapping telephones, and in general attempting to impose unity of opinion on their communities. Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory described them approvingly as a "patriotic organization." Other vigilante organizationsthe National Security League, the Boy Spies of America, the American Defense Societyperformed much the same function.

The most frequent victims of such activities were immigrants, who had throughout the early decades of the century been a source of concern to much of American society. Now they became the targets of special abuse. "Loyal" Americans described immigrant communities as spawning grounds for radicalism. Vigilantes devoted special attention to immigrant groups suspected of sympathizing with the enemy. Irish-Americans faced constant accusations because of their historic animosity toward the British and because they had, before 1917, often expressed hopes for a German victory. Jews aroused suspicion because many had expressed opposition to the anti-Semitic policies of the Russian government, until 1917 one of the Allies. Immigrant ghettoes were strictly policed by the "loyalist" citizens' groups. Even some settlement house workers, many of whom had once championed ethnic diversity, contributed to such efforts.

The German-Americans

The greatest target, perhaps the inevitable target, of abuse was the German-American community. Its members had unwittingly contributed to their plight; in the first years of the war in Europe, some had openly advocated American assistance to the Central Powers, and many had opposed United States intervention on behalf of the Allies. But while most German-Americans loyally supported the American war effort once it began, public opinion turned hostile.

A campaign to purge society of all things German quickly gathered speed, at times assuming ludicrous forms. Sauerkraut was renamed "liberty cabbage." Hamburger became "liberty sausage." Performances of German music were frequently banned; German books were removed from the shelves of libraries; courses in the German language were removed from school curricula. For Americans of German descent, moreover, life became a dangerous ordeal. Germans were routinely fired from jobs in war industries, lest they "sabotage" important tasks. Others were fired from positions entirely unrelated to the war; Karl Muck, the German-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was forced to resign his position and was interned for the last months of the war. Vigilante groups routinely subjected Germans to harassment and beatings; there was even a lynchingin southern Illinois in 1918. Relatively few Americans favored such extremes, but many came to agree with the belief of the eminent psychologist G. Stanley Hall (the man responsible for the first visit of Sigmund Freud to America in 1909) that "there is something fundamentally wrong with the Teutonic soul."

The Search for a New World Order

In the meantime, the United States was articulating a vision of a new international order based on lofty democratic principles. Woodrow Wilson had led the nation into war promising a more just and stable peace at its conclusion. Even before the armistice, therefore, he was beginning preparations to lead the fight for a postwar settlement based on principle, not selfish nationalism.

It was, he realized, a difficult task. America had barely joined the war when the new Bolshevik government in Russia began disclosing terms of secret treaties negotiated earlier among the Allies. Britain, France, and imperial Russia had already agreed, according to these reports, on how to divide the colonies of their enemies among them. To Wilson, such treaties ran counter to the idealistic vision for which he was exhorting Americans to fight. It was all the more important, he decided as a result, to build strong international support for his own war aims.

The Fourteen Points

On January 8, 1918, therefore, Wilson appeared before a joint session of Congress to present the principles for which he claimed the nation was fighting. The war aims fell under fourteen headings, widely known as the Fourteen Points; but their essential elements clustered in three major categories. First, Wilson's proposals contained a series of specific recommendations for adjusting postwar boundaries and for establishing new nations to replace the defunct Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, all reflecting his belief in the right of all peoples to self-determination. Second, it contained a set of general principles to govern international conduct in the future: freedom of the seas, open covenants instead of secret treaties, reductions in armaments, free trade, and impartial mediation of colonial claims. Finally, and most important of all to Wilson, there was a proposal for a league of nations that would help to implement these new principles and territorial adjustments, and serve to resolve future controversies. It would be, Wilson announced, "a general association of nations . . . formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike." Together, Wilson told Congress, the Fourteen Points would help make the world "fit to live in."

There were serious flaws in Wilson's proposals, a result more of what they omitted than of what they contained. He provided no formula for deciding how to implement the "national self-determination" he promised for subjugated peoples. He made no mention of the new Soviet government in Russia, even though its existence had struck fear in the hearts of all Western governments (and had helped spur Wilson to announce his own war aims in an effort to undercut Lenin's appeal). He said little about economic rivalries and their effect on international relations, even though it had been just such economic rivalries that had been in large part responsible for the war.

Nevertheless, Wilson's picture of the postwar world was the clearest and most eloquent expression of an international vision that would enchant not only much of his own generation but members of generations to come. It reflected his belief, strongly rooted in the ideas of progressivism, that the world was as capable of just and efficient government as were individual nations; that once the international community accepted certain basic principles of conduct, and once it constructed modern institutions to implement them, the human race could at last live in peace. The rule of law, he promised, would replace the rule of national passions and self-interested diplomacy.

The Fourteen Points came at a low moment in the warbefore American troops had arrived in Europe in substantial numbers, at a time when many among the Allies believed the struggle might still be lost. It was greeted, therefore, with special yearning both in America and in Europe. The Allied leaders might have been cool toward the proposals, but there was an enthusiastic popular response among liberals, working people, and others throughout the world.

Early Obstacles

Wilson was confident, as the war neared its end, that this popular support would enable him to win Allied approval of his peace plan. He seemed at times to expect virtually to dictate a settlement. There were, however, ominous signs both at home and abroad that his path might be more difficult than he expected. In Europe, leaders of the Allied powers were marshaling their energies to resist him even before the armistice was signed. Most of them had long resented what they considered Wilson's tone of moral superiority. They had reacted unhappily when Wilson refused to make the United States their "ally" but had kept his distance as an "associate" of his European partners. They had been offended by his insistence on keeping American military forces separate from the Allied armies they were joining. Most of all, however, Britain and France, having suffered incalculable losses in their long years of war, and having stored up an enormous reserve of bitterness toward Germany as a result, were in no mood for a benign and generous peace. They were determined to gain something from the struggle to compensate them for the catastrophe they had suffered.

At the same time, Wilson was encountering signs that he might also face problems at home. In 1918, with the war almost won, Wilson unwisely appealed to the American people to show their support for his peace plans by returning Democrats to Congress in the November elections. A Republican victory, he declared, would be "interpreted on the other side of the water as a repudiation of my leadership." Only days later, the Republicans captured majorities in both houses of Congress. Domestic economic troubles, more than international issues, had been the most important factor in the voting; but because of the president's ill-timed appeal, the results were interpreted both at home and abroad just as he had predicted: as a sign of his own political weakness.

The election fiasco contributed as well to another dangerous development: Wilson's alienation of the leaders of the Republican party. They had been furious when he attempted to make the 1918 balloting a referendum on his war aims, especially since many Republicans had been loyally supporting the Fourteen Points. And Wilson further antagonized the Republican leadership when he refused to appoint any important Republicans to the negotiating team that would represent the United States in Paris, where a treaty was to be drafted. Although such men as Elihu Root and William Howard Taft had supported his war aims, Wilson named only one Republicana little-known diplomatto the group.

To the president, who was becoming almost obsessed with his own moral mission, such matters were unimportant. There would be only one member of the American negotiating team with any real authority: Wilson himself. And once he had produced a just and moral treaty, the weight of world and American opinion would compel his enemies to support him. Confident of his ability to create a new world, Woodrow Wilson stepped aboard the steamer George Washington and on December 3, 1918, sailed for Europe.

The Paris Peace Conference

Wilson arrived in Europe to a welcome such as few men in history have experienced. To the war-weary people of the Continent, he was nothing less than a savior, the man who would create a new and better world. And when he arrived in Paris on the afternoon of December 13, 1918, he saw clear evidence of their adulation in the form of the largest crowd in the history of France. It was the kind of demonstration that Wilson believed would make it impossible for other world leaders to oppose his peace plans. The negotiations themselves, however, proved far less satisfying.

The meeting in Paris to draft a peace treaty was almost without precedent, and it entailed a sizable risk. International negotiations had traditionally been the province of diplomats; kings, presidents, and prime ministers had generally avoided direct encounters. In Paris there were four national leaders meeting face to face: David Lloyd George, the prime minister of Great Britain; Georges Clemenceau, the president of France; Vittorio Orlando, the prime minister of Italy; and Wilson, who hoped to dominate them all. Some of Wilson's advisers had warned him that if agreement could not be reached at the ''summit," there would be nowhere else to go and that it would therefore be better to begin negotiations at a lower level. Wilson, however, was adamant; he alone would represent the United States.

Wilson's commitment to personal diplomacy encountered difficulties from the start. Heads of state in the glare of world publicity were, he soon found, reluctant to modify their nations' demands. The atmosphere of idealism he had sought to create was, therefore, competing with a spirit of national aggrandizement. There was, moreover, a pervasive sense of unease about the situation in eastern Europe, where starvation seemed imminent and the threat of communism menacing. Russia, whose new Bolshevik government was still fighting "White" counterrevolutionaries, was unrepresented in Paris; but the radical threat it seemed to pose to Western governments was never far from the minds of the delegates.

In this tense and often vindictive atmosphere, the Fourteen Points did not fare well. Wilson was unable to win approval of many of the broad principles he had espoused: freedom of the seas, which the British refused even to discuss; free trade; "open covenants openly arrived at" (the Paris negotiations themselves were often conducted in secret). Despite his support for "impartial mediation" of colonial claims, he was forced to accept a transfer of German colonies in the Pacific to Japan, to whom the British had promised them in exchange for Japanese assistance in the war. His pledge of "national self-determination" for all peoples suffered numerous assaults. Italy, for example, obtained new territory in which 200,000 Austri-ans lived, and then expressed outrage at not also receiving the port of Fiume, which became part of the new nation of Yugoslavia. Poland received a corridor to the sea which ran through territory that was ethnically German. Economic and strategic demands were constantly coming into conflict with the principle of cultural nationalism.

Where the treaty departed most conspicuously from Wilson's ideals was on the question of reparations. As the conference began, the president was staunchly opposed to exacting punitive damages from the defeated Central Powers. The other Allied leaders, however, were intransigent, and slowly Wilson gave way. Although he resisted the demand of the French government that Germany be required to pay $200 billion to the Allies, he ultimately bowed to pressure and accepted the principle of reparations, the specific sum to be set later by a commission. The final figure, established in 1921, was $56 billion, supposedly to pay for civilian damages and military pensions. Although lower than some earlier demands, it was still far more than the crippled German economy could absorb. The reparations, combined with other territorial and economic penalties, constituted an effort to keep Germany not only weak but prostrate for the indefinite future. Never again, the Allied leaders believed, should the Germans be allowed to become powerful enough to threaten the peace of Europe.

Wilson did manage to win some important victories in Paris. He secured approval of a plan to place many former colonies in "trusteeship" to be supervised by the League of Nationsthe so-called mandate system. He blocked a French proposal to break up western Germany into a group of smaller states, although in return he had to concede to France the disputed territory of Alsace-Lorraine and agree to a demilitarization and Allied occupation of the Rhineland. He oversaw the creation of the new nations of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and the strengthening of Poland.

Such accomplishments were of secondary importance to Wilson, however, when compared with his most visible triumph: the creation of a permanent international organization to oversee world affairs and prevent future wars. On January 25, 1919, the Allies voted to accept the "covenant" of the League of Nations; and with that, Wilson believed, the peace treaty was transformed from a disappointment into a success. Whatever mistakes and inequities had emerged from the peace conference, he was convinced, could be corrected later by the League.

The covenant provided for an assembly of nations that would meet regularly to debate means of resolving disputes and protecting the peace. Authority to implement League decisions would rest with a nine-member Executive Council; the United States would be one of five permanent members of the council, along with Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. The covenant, like the larger treaty of which it was a part, left many questions unanswered, most notably how the League would enforce its decisions. Wilson, however, was confident that once established, the new organization would find suitable answers. The League of Nations, he believed, would become not only the centerpiece of the treaty, but the cornerstone of a new world order. Like other progressives considering other issues, the president was placing his hopes for the future in the process, rather than the substance, of international relations. If rational institutions could be established, then the actual conduct of world affairs would become rationalized as well.

The Ratification Battle

Wilson was well aware of the political obstacles awaiting him at home. Many Americans, accustomed to their nation's isolation from Europe, questioned the wisdom of this major new commitment to internationalism. Others had serious reservations about the specific features of the treaty and the covenant. On a brief trip to Washington in February 1919, during a recess in the peace conference, the president listened to harsh objections from members of the Senate and others; and although he reacted angrily and haughtily to his critics, he returned to Europe and insisted on certain modifications in the covenant to satisfy them. The amendments provided that a nation need not accept a mandate (responsibility for overseeing a League territory) against its will, that a member could withdraw from the organization with two years' notice, and that the League would not infringe on the Monroe Doctrine. Beyond that, however, Wilson refused to go. When Colonel House, his close friend and trusted adviser, told him he must be prepared to compromise further, the president retorted sharply: "I have found that you get nothing in this world that is worth-while without fighting for it."

How bitter that fight would be soon became clear, for there was ample inflexibility and self-righteousness on both sides of the conflict. Wilson presented the Treaty of Versailles (which took its name from the palace outside Paris where the final negotiating sessions had taken place) to the Senate on July 10, 1919, asking: "Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?" In the weeks that followed, he consistently refused to consider even the most innocuous compromise. (His deteriorating physical condition he was suffering from hardening of the arteries and had apparently experienced something close to a stroke in Parismay have contributed to his intransigence.)

The Senate, in the meantime, was raising a host of objections to the treaty. For the fourteen so-called "irreconcilables"Western progressives who included Hiram Johnson, William Borah, and Robert La Follettethe Versailles agreement was totally unacceptable. The United States should never become embroiled in the sordid politics of Europe, they argued; not even the most generous compromise could have won their support for the League. Other opponents, with less fervent convictions, were more concerned with constructing a winning issue for the Republicans in 1920 and with embarrassing a president whom they had not yet forgiven for his political tactics in 1918. Most notable of these was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the powerful chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. A man of stunning arrogance and a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt (who had died early in 1919, spouting hatred of Wilson to the end), Lodge loathed the presb dent with genuine, unrestrained passion. "I never thought I could hate a man as I hate Wilson," he once admitted- He used every possible tactic to obstruct, delay, and amend the treaty.

Public sentiment clearly favored ratification, so Lodge at first could do little more than play for time. When the document reached his committee, he spent two weeks slowly reading aloud each word of its 300 pages; then he held six weeks of public hearings to air the complaints of every disgruntled minority (Irish-Americans, for example, angry that the settlement made no provision for an independent Ireland). Gradually, Lodge's general opposition to the treaty crystallized into a series of "reservations"amendments to the League covenant limiting American obligations to the organization.

Wilson might still have won approval at this point if he had agreed to some relatively minor changes in the language of the treaty. But the president refused to yield. The United States had a moral obligation, he claimed, to respect the terms of the agreement precisely as they stood. When one senator warned him that his position was becoming hopeless, that he would have to accept some of the Lodge reservations to have any hope of victory, Wilson retorted: ''Never! Never! . . . I'll appeal to the country!"

Wilson's Ordeal

What followed was a political disaster and a personal tragedy. Against the stern warnings of his physician, Wilson decided to embark on a grueling, crosscountry speaking tour to arouse public support for the treaty. For more than three weeks, he traveled by train from city to city, covering more than 8,000 miles, writing his own speeches as he went along, delivering them as often as four times a day, an hour at a time. He received little rest. In the beginning, the crowds were small and the speeches clumsy. As the tour progressed, however, both the size and the enthusiasm of the audiences grew; and Wilson's own eloquence and fervor increased. Had it been possible to sway the Senate through public opinion, the tour might have been a success. But it had long ago become plain that the opposition in Washington had little to do with popular sentiment. So the tour was not only an exhausting ordeal for Wilson but a futile one as well.

Finally, the president reached the end of his strength. After speaking at Pueblo, Colorado, on September 25, he collapsed with severe headaches. Canceling the rest of his itinerary, he rushed back to Washington, where, a few days later, he suffered a major stroke. For two weeks, he was close to death; for six weeks more, he was so seriously ill that he could conduct virtually no public business. His wife and his doctor formed an almost impenetrable barrier around him, shielding the president from any official pressures that might impede his recovery, preventing the public from receiving any accurate information about the gravity of his condition.

Wilson ultimately recovered fully enough to resume a limited official schedule, but he was essentially an invalid for the eighteen remaining months of his presidency. His left side was partially paralyzed; more important, his mental and emotional state was precarious and unstable. Like many stroke victims, he found it difficult to control his feelings, often weeping at the slightest provocation. And his condition only intensified what had already been his strong tendency to view public issues in moral terms and to resist any attempts at compromise. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee finally reported the treaty, recommending nearly fifty amendments and reservations, Wilson refused to consider any of them. When the full Senate voted in November to accept fourteen of the reservations, Wilson gave stern directions to his Democratic allies: they must vote only for a treaty with no changes whatsoever; any other version must be defeated. On November 19, 1919, forty-two Democrats, following the president's instructions, joined with the thirteen Republican "ir-reconcilables" to reject the amended treaty. When the Senate voted on the original version without any reservations, thirty-eight senators, all but one a Democrat, voted to approve it; fifty-five voted no.

It did not seem so at the time, but the battle was now for all intents and purposes over; Wilson's long and painful struggle for a new world order was lost. There were sporadic efforts to revive the treaty over the next few months; on March 19, 1920, the day of the final vote, the amended version came as close as seven votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority. But Wilson's opposition to anything but the precise settlement he had negotiated in Paris remained too formidable an obstacle to surmount. He was, moreover, becoming convinced that the 1920 national election would serve as a "solemn referendum" on the League, that the force of public opinion could still compel ratification of the treaty. He even spoke, somewhat pathetically, of running for reelection himself. By now, however, public interest in the peace process had begun to fadepartly as a reaction against the tragic bitterness of the ratification fight, but more in response to a series of other crises.

A Society in Turmoil

Even during the Paris Peace Conference, the attention of many Americans was directed less toward international matters than toward events at home. There were increasing economic problems; there was widespread social unrest and violence; there was a growing fear of revolution. Some of this unease was a legacy of the almost hysterical social atmosphere of the war years; some of it was a response to issues that surfaced after the armistice. Whatever the reasons, however, America was, in the immediate postwar years, a turbulent and often unhappy place.

The Troubled Economy

Citizens of Washington, on the day after the armistice, found it impossible to place long-distance telephone calls. The lines were jammed with officials of the war agencies canceling government contracts. The fighting had ended sooner than anyone had anticipated; and without warning, without planning, the nation was launched into the difficult task of economic reconversion.

At first, to the surprise of almost everyone, the wartime boom continued. But it was a troubled and precarious prosperity, based largely on the lingering effects of the war (government deficit spending continued for some months after the armistice) and on sudden, temporary demands (a booming market for scarce consumer goods at home, a strong European market in the war-ravaged nations). It was accompanied, moreover, by raging inflation, a result in part of the precipitous abandonment of wartime price controls. Through most of 1919 and 1920, prices rose at an average of more than 15 percent a year.

Finally, late in 1920, the economic bubble burst, as many of the temporary forces that had created it disappeared and as inflation began killing the market for consumer goods. Between 1920 and 1921, the gross national product (GNP) declined nearly 10 percent; the index of wholesale prices fell from 227.9 to 150.6; 100,000 businesses went bankrupt; 453,000 farmers lost their land; nearly 5 million Americans lost their jobs.

Labor Unrest

Perhaps the most visible result of the postwar economic problems was a dramatic increase in labor unrest. American workers had generally refrained from strikes during the war. But with the fighting over, they were willing to be patient no longer. Many factors combined to produce labor discontent: the raging inflation, which wiped out what had been at best modest gains in wages during the war; concern about job security, heightened by the return to the labor force of hundreds of thousands of veterans; arduous working conditionssuch as the perpetuation of the twelve-hour day in the steel industry. Employers aggravated the discontent by using the end of the war (and the end of government controls) as an excuse for taking back some of the benefits they had been forced to concede to workers in 1917 and 1918most notably recognition of unions. Mine owners reneged on promised wage increases. In such a climate, conflict was virtually inevitable.

The year 1919, therefore, saw an unprecedented wave of strikesmore than 3,600 in all, involving over 4 million workers. Several of the strikes received wide national attention and raised particular alarm. In January, a walkout by shipyard workers in Seattle, Washington, evolved into a general strike that brought the entire city to a virtual standstill. The mayor requested and received the assistance of U.S. Marines to keep the city running, and eventually the strike failed. But the incident was widely cited as evidence of the vulnerability of any community to disruption from labor agitation. In September, there was an even more alarming strike by the Boston police force, which was demanding recognition of its union. Seattle had remained generally calm; but with its police off the job, Boston erupted in violence and looting. Efforts by local businessmen, veterans, and college students to patrol the streets proved ineffective; and finally Governor Calvin Coolidge called in the National Guard to restore order. (His public statement at the time that "there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time" attracted national acclaim.) Eventually, Boston officials dismissed the entire police force and hired a new one.

Of all the strikes of 1919, the greatest was the one, also in September, by 350,000 steelworkers in several Midwestern cities. They were demanding an eight-hour day and recognition of their union; but Elbert Gary, president of U.S. Steel, led the industry management in standing firm. The strike was long and bitter, marked by frequent violent conflicts, and climaxed by a riot in Gary, Indiana, in which eighteen strikers were killed. With the assistance of their own armed guards, steel executives managed to keep most plants running with nonunion labor; and by January, the strike had collapsed. Public opinion had turned so decisively against the strikers that Samuel Gompers and the AFL had finally and timidly repudiated them. It was a setback from which organized labor would not recover for more than a decade.

The Red Scare

The great wave of strikes seems notable in retrospect chiefly for its failure, for how it demonstrated the weakness of the American labor movement and the strength of the corporate establishment. To much of the public at the time, however, the industrial warfare appeared to be a frightening omen of social instability. More than that, it was a sign of a dangerous increase in domestic radicalism. The mayor of Seattle claimed that the general strike was an attempt by revolutionaries "to establish a Soviet government." The leaders of the steel industry insisted that "radical agitators" had stirred up trouble among their employees, who were, they claimed, content with things as they were.

This was in part because other evidence emerging at the same time seemed likewise to suggest the existence of a radical menace. The Russian Revolution of November 1917 had been disturbing enough by itselfso disturbing to Woodrow Wilson, in fact, that in 1918 he permitted the landing of American troops in the Soviet Union. They were there, he claimed, to help a group of 60,000 Czech soldiers trapped in Russia escape. But the Americans soon became involved, both directly and indirectly, in assisting the White Russians (the anti-Bolsheviks) in their fight against the new regime. Some American troops remained as late as April 1920. Wilson's actions failed to undermine Lenin's communist regime; they did, however, become a source of lasting Russian-American hostility and mistrust, American concerns about the communist threat grew even more intense in 1919 when the Soviet government announced the formation of the Communist International (or Comintern), whose purpose was to export revolution around the world.

In America, meanwhile, there was, in addition to the great number of imagined radicals, a modest number of real ones. And when they heard the frightened warnings that a revolution was imminent, they tended to believe them. Some engaged in sporadic acts of terrorism to speed the supposed crisis on its way. It was these small bands of radicals, presumably, who were responsible for a series of bombings in the spring of 1919 that produced great national alarm. In April, the post office intercepted several dozen parcels addressed to leading businessmen and politicians that were triggered to explode when opened; several reached their destinations, one of them severely injuring the servant of a Georgia public official. Two months later, eight bombs exploded in eight cities within minutes of one another, suggesting a nationwide conspiracy. One of them damaged the facade of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's home in Washington.

In response to these and other provocations, the nation embarked on a crusade against radicalism that resembled in many ways its wartime crusade against disloyalty and dissent. Nearly thirty states enacted new peacetime sedition laws imposing harsh penalties on those who promoted revolution; some 300 people went to jail as a result. Citizens in many communities removed "subversive" books from the shelves of libraries; administrators in some universities dismissed "radical" members from their faculties. A mob of off-duty soldiers in New York City ransacked the offices of a socialist newspaper and beat up its staff. Another mob, in Centralia, Washington, dragged an IWW agitator from jail and castrated him before hanging him from a bridge.

Perhaps the greatest contribution to the Red Scare, as it later became known, came from the federal government. Attorney General Palmer, angered by the bombing of his home and ambitious for his party's 1920 presidential nomination, ordered the Justice Department to take steps to quell what he later called the "blaze of revolution . . . sweeping over every American institution of law and order." On New Year's Day, 1920, he orchestrated a series of raids on alleged radical centers throughout the country and arrested more than 6,000 people. The Palmer Raids had been intended to uncover huge caches of weapons and explosives; they netted a total of three pistols and no dynamite. Nevertheless, many of those arrested spent days and weeks in jail with no formal charges filed against them. Most were ultimately released, but about 500 who were not American citizens were summarily deported. For these violations of civil liberties, A. Mitchell Palmer, who harbored thinly concealed ambitions for the presidency, received a barrage of favorable publicity and enjoyed a period of intense (if brief) national popularity.

The ferocity of the Red Scare soon abated, but its effects lingered well into the 1920s, most notably in the celebrated case of Sacco and VanzettL In May of 1920, two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were charged with the murder of a paymaster in Braintree, Massachusetts. The evidence against them was at best questionable; but because both men were confessed anarchists, they faced a widespread public presumption of guilt. The judge in their trial, Webster Thayer, was openly prejudiced; and it was perhaps unsurprising under the circumstances that they were convicted and sentenced to death. Over the next several years, however, public support for Sacco and Vanzetti grew to formidable proportions. But all requests for a new trial or a pardon were denied. On August 23, 1927, amid widespread protests around the world, Sacco and Vanzetti, still proclaiming their innocence, died in the electric chair. It was a cause that a generation of Americans never forgot, an episode that kept the bitter legacy of the Red Scare alive for many years.

Racial Unrest

No group suffered more from the inflamed climate of the postwar years than American blacks. To them more than to most, the war seemed to offer a major opportunity for social and economic advancement. Over 400,000 blacks served in the army, half of them in Europe, over 40,000 of them in combat. They had endured numerous indignities during the conflict. They had been placed in segregated units, under the command of white officers who often held them in contempt. They had put up with these humiliations, however, in the belief that their service would earn them the gratitude of the nation when they returned.

For many other American blacks, the war raised expectations in other ways. Nearly half a million migrated from the rural South to industrial cities (often enticed by Northern "labor agents," who offered them free transportation) in search of the factory jobs that the war was rapidly generating. Almost overnight, the nation's racial demographics were transformed; suddenly there were enormous black communities crowding into the urban North, most of which had received only a relatively few blacks in the past. Just as black soldiers expected their military service to enhance their social status, so black factory workers regarded their move north as an escape from racial prejudice and an opportunity for economic gain.

Even before the war ended, however, the racial climate had begun to sour; and in 1919, it turned savage and murderous. In the South, there was a sudden increase in lynchings: More than seventy blacks, some of them war veterans, died at the hands of white mobs in 1919 alone. In the North, conditions were in many respects even worse. When the war ended, black factory workers faced widespread layoffs as returning white veterans displaced them from their jobs. Black veterans were cruelly disillusioned when they returned to find a society still unwilling to grant them any significant social or economic gains. These immediate economic problems helped inflame an already tense racial climate. The Great Migration, which had begun in 1915, had thrown thousands of blacks into close proximity with Northern whites who were unfamiliar with and generally hostile to them. The new black migrants were often unskilled and uneducated rural men and women, whose country ways often made them seem even more alien to their new urban neighbors. As they jostled together on the streets, trolleys, and subways of the overcrowded cities, tensions escalated; and as whites became convinced that black workers with their lower wage demands were hurting them economically, the animosity grew further. The result was a rash of disorder and violence. As early as 1917, serious race riots had flared in cities as diverse as Houston, Philadelphia, and East St. Louis (where forty-nine people, thirty-nine of them blacks, were killed). In 1919, things grew worse. In Chicago, a black teen-ager swimming in Lake Michigan on a hot July day happened to drift toward a white beach. Whites on shore allegedly stoned him unconscious; he sank and drowned. The incident became the match that ignited already severe racial tensions in the city; and for more than a week, Chicago was virtually at war. White mobs roamed into black neighborhoods, shooting, stabbing, and beating passers-by, destroying homes and properties. Blacks fought back and inflicted violence and destruction of their own. In the end, 38 people died15 whites and 23 blacksand 537 were injured; over 1,000 people were left homeless. The Chicago riot was the worst but not the only racial violence during the so-called red summer of 1919; in all, 120 people died in such racial outbreaks in the space of little more than three months.

Blacks responded to the turmoil in various ways. Some were simply bewildered, deeply disillusioned at the shattering of their hopes, frightened by the savagery to which they were now exposed. Others were defiant. The N AACP urged blacks to fight back, to defend themselves and demand government protection. At the same time, a black Jamaican, Marcus Garvey, began to attract a wide American following with an ideology of black nationalism. Black culture was superior to that of white society, he told supporters; blacks should leave America and return to Africa, where they could create a new society of their own. At the peak of his popularity, Garvey claimed a following of 4 million. In the end, however, most blacks had little choice but to acquiesce in the social and economic subjugation being forced on them. Although they continued to make certain limited gains, it would be more than thirty years before they made any substantial progress toward social or economic equality.

Retreat from Idealism

The economic problems, the labor unrest, the fear of radicalism, the racial tensionsall combined in the years immediately following the war to produce a general sense of disillusionment. By 1920, the American people seemed to have grown tired of idealism, reform, controversy, and instability. For decades, they had been living in turbulent times. They yearned now for tranquillity.

How deeply they yearned for it became apparent in the election of 1920. Woodrow Wilson wanted the campaign to be a referendum on the League of Nations. The Democratic candidates, Ohio Governor James M. Cox and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, worked hard to keep Wilson's ideals alive. The Republican presidential nominee, however, offered a different vision. He was Warren Gamaliel Harding, an obscure Ohio senator whose only real asset seemed to be his pliability; party leaders had settled on him late one night in a "smoke-filled room" in a Chicago hotel, confident that he would do their bidding once in office. In the course of his brief and spiritless campaign, Harding offered no soaring ideals, only a vague and comfortable reassurance of stability, the promise of a return, as he later phrased it, to "normalcy." He won in a landslide. The Republican ticket received 61 percent of the popular vote and carried every state outside the South. The party made major gains in Congress as well.

Woodrow Wilson, for so long a symbol of many of the nation's ideals, stood repudiated. Early in 1921, he retired to a house on S Street in Washington, where for the next three years he lived quietly and generally inconspicuously. In February 1924, he died.

 


 

 



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