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America and the Great War


On April 6, 1917, the United States formally declared war on Germany and the Central Powers. Unlike Europeans, during that fateful summer of 1914, the American response to the nation finally entering the conflagration raging across the Atlantic was mixed. The U.S., being made up of multiple nationalities, political identities, religious beliefs, and heritages, found its “melting pot” theory tested by the Great War.

Two years before, former President Theodore Roosevelt declared “there is no room for the hyphenated American…[the XXXX-American] is to be a traitor to American institutions”1 amd furthermore asked for three elements to prepare the United States for war:

  1. a common language, the English language
  2. the increase in our social loyalty–citizenship absolutely undivided
  3. an intelligent and resolute effort for the removal of industrial and social unrest

Being only one or two generations removed from the Europe, immigrant Americans–particularly those of German, Irish, and Jewish descent–found themselves caught between citizenship in their new country and the ties of heritage. For the Irish Americans, setting aside their “hyphen” meant fighting alongside the British, and for many Jewish Americans, it meant fighting alongside Russia, whose violent and virulent antisemitism was a primary factor for their immigration. Besides the prospect of fighting their own kinsmen, German Americans dealt with the extra burden of the anti-Germany propaganda filling up the newspapers and magazines in the US and the UK, which placed the blame for the war solely on the shoulders of the Kaiser and German culture.

Anti-German WWI propaganda

In contrast, many African Americans were eager to shed the “hyphen” to pick up arms in order to prove their citizenship. The presence of black soldiers in America’s defining wars–from the Revolutionary to the Civil to the Spanish-American–were frequently used as proof of the earning of the full rights of African Americans. In a controversial Op-Ed written in The Crisis in 1918, W.E.B. Du Bois urged the black community to “[l]et us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.”2

Meanwhile, women’s responses were equally mixed. American neutrality weathered the German U-boat campaign and the sinking of the Lusitania, as well as the xenophobic paranoia of German spy plots, by the strength of women’s pacifist organizations. International peace movements linked American activists like Jane Addams to European allies. In 1915, over one thousand women gathered at The Hague to call for peace negotiations and express a large demonstration of anti-war solidarity to prove pacifism was not isolated to pockets of so-called radicals. Yet, many other American women were eager to do their bit, and filled positions in the Red Cross, the YWCA, the government, factories, etc.

The most drastic change to American society was the rapid and mass mobilization of the army. Before April 1917, the United States Army numbered only 128,000 officers and men.3 Through mass recruitment drives and the propaganda that seemed to spring up overnight, the US Army counted itself half a million soldiers strong within months. The following July (1918), there were 1.2 million American soldiers in France.

Besides the Anti-Germany propaganda and the drive for more troops, the other greatest mobilization was the conservation of food. The Victory Garden wasn’t a WWII creation, but a Great War innovation, promoted first for saving foodstuffs for the benefit of starving Belgians (under Herbert Hoover’s Commission for Relief in Belgium) and the importation of goods to the Allies. As in Britain, conservation of sugars, wheats, legumes, meats, and breads were promoted as patriotic and vital for undermining German plots–though, unlike Britain and other European countries, the US was never in danger of starving.

Liberty Loan drives also occupied the American public. The selling and buying of these war bonds exerted pressure on Americans to prove their allegiance to the nation and their Americaness. Pamphlets, newspaper articles, and propaganda abounded to inform Americans of the benefits of the bond and how communities could sell the most.

The increasing darker side of American patriotism during the war was an increase in xenophobia and racism, as well as extreme government surveillance. African Americans, already mistrusted by the government, found their leaders and newspapers monitored heavily by personnel, whether they were in the US or abroad. Socialists, suffragists, and labor leaders found themselves at risk of Imprisonment for their “unpatriotic” politics.

The most dangerous development was the formation of the American Protective League. A volunteer group initially formed with the approval of the FBI and the Justice Department in response to the German spy mania, the A.P.L. eventually turned to vigilantism to root out subversives to American society. With the rise of the A.P.L., neighbors grew increasingly paranoid, and anti-German sentiment was so virulent that practicality overnight, anything German disappeared. German language ceased being spoken, German food was renamed (frankfurters were now hot dogs, and sauerkraut was now Liberty cabbage), and there were even instances of lynchings. German Americans and others deemed subversive were eventually incarcerated in camps across the US.

Though the United States was only officially involved in the Great War for less than two years, the experience proved to be the nation’s coming of age and eruption into modernity. This war also marked the shift in global power away from Europe (Britain in particular) to the United States of America, which set the stage for the events of the 20th century and into today.

To learn more about the involvement of the United States in WWI, tune in next Monday for the premiere of the three part documentary series, The Great War.

Further Reading
Over Here: The First World War and American Society by David M. Kennedy
Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era by Chad L. Williams
The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I by Edward M. Coffman
American Women in World War I: They Also Served by Lettie Gavin
Private Politics and Public Voices: Black Women’s Activism from World War I to the New Deal by Nikki Brown
The World Remade: America in World War I by G.J. Meyer


  1. “Roosevelt Bars the Hyphenated.” New York Times, October 13, 1915.
  2. “Close Ranks.” The Crisis, July 1918
  3. Nelson Lloyd. 1919. How We Went to War. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 64

WWI Wednesday: Wheatless Wednesdays, Meatless Mondays, or the American Home Front at War


WWI Propaganda Poster

A few years ago, we discussed rationing in Britain during WWI. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, they had a model for conserving and preserving the foodstuffs and the Food Administration leaped to instruct Americans on how the war effort was hindered by wastefulness. As we in the U.S. approach the 100th anniversary of our entry into the First World War, I’m going to try a number of recipes from WWI ration cookbooks and share the results with you all!

Cantigny Day

Chicago Daily Tribune (May 29, 1920)
Former Leader of First Division and Hostesses: (l. to r.) Mrs. George A. McKinlock, Major General Charles P. Summerall, and Mrs. Harold Hood – Chicago Daily Tribune (May 29, 1920) source:

With 2017 lurking just around the corner, there has been a slight uptick in books published about the United States’s involvement in the First World War. Which is kind of funny–for me at least–because WWI is one of the forgotten wars in American public memory (the others are the Spanish-American War and the Philippines War). You can say Lexington and Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy, Seoul, Saigon…and images and associations immediately flood your brain. Meuse-Argonne, Cantigny, and Belleau Wood mean nothing, except perhaps assuming they are places in France.

As a result, I was surprised, and yet not surprised, while reading First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I by Matthew J. Davenport, to discover a major commemorative event celebrated in the United States that is now a footnote in history. Davenport even says that “[t]hrough the 1920s and ’30s, ‘Cantigny’ remained a symbol of American sacrifice and triumph, a uniting emblem that finally exorcised the dividing demons of the Civil War in a way the Spanish-American War never could. But then came Pearl Harbor. And D-Day. And the Bulge. And in the wake of these epochal events, the 1st Division’s attack at Cantigny lapsed into footnotes, its story left to slumber for a century.” 1

Though the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the American Expeditionary Force didn’t see real action until late spring of 1918: May 1918, to be more exact, and the Battle of Cantigny to be more precise. Arthur Wilson Page describes the significance of the battle:

The trial was at Cantigny. It was, naturally, planned some time in advance, but in the march of events a thing happened the day before the Cantigny attack which more than ever made the demonstration of American fighting ability necessary. Our attack was to begin on the morning of May 28th. On the morning of May 27th, a great mass of German troops suddenly pushed across the Ailette, up over the strong position of the Chemin des Dames, and before the day was over the French lines were completely broken, and the Germans had crossed the Vesle on their way south to the Marne. The communiques that reached Paris on the night of the 28th told of the rapid and continuous German progress. But there came also that night another piece of news. The American Army had at last actively entered the war. The 1st Division shed a bright little ray of light on the otherwise dismal picture. And this ray of light was of great significance, for if the Americans could successfully meet the Germans, the Allies were assured an effective force big enough to win the war—the Americans were then arriving at the rate of 250,000 a month. If the Americans could not successfully meet the Germans, then, well, the situation was very bad indeed.2

The 1st Division of the AEF captured Cantigny and ably defended itself against German counterattacks, thus proving that the Americans could hold their own weight.

News of the AEF’s first successful action in the Great War filled the newspapers back home, and after the war, as Davenport stated, “Cantigny Day” was celebrated alongside Memorial Day during the 1920s and 1930s. So as you’re commemorating the veterans of America’s wars on Monday, don’t forget to think about the 1st Division on May 28th! If you’re in the Chicago area, stop by the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park, which was founded to commemorate the division by Colonel Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, who fought with the division in the First World War.

  1. Matthew J. Davenport 2015. First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 13.
  2. Arthur Wilson Page. 1920. Our 110 Days’ Fighting. New York: Doubleday, Page, & Co., 20