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World War I and the Great Departure, Part 2

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During World War 1, the persecution of Germans in American society was so pronounced that Germans were forced to abandon their language and customs, at least in public. German books were burned outside numerous libraries, while Beethoven was banned from symphonic repertories. The atmosphere was such that Germans hid the fact they were German and changed their own names-Schmitz to Smith, and so forth. For its part, the public renamed almost every German street and landmark and even altered menus, so that sauerkraut became Liberty Cabbage, and so on.

The War Industries Board (WIB) orchestrated American industrial production. The WIB set production schedules, allocated resources, standardized procedures, coordinated purchases, covered costs, and guaranteed profits. In tandem, the National War Labor Board (NWLB) arbitrated labor disputes, stipulated working conditions, established overtime pay, and encouraged union organization. Although the national government had assumed a great deal of power on the Union side during the Civil War, it achieved the first true command-and-control economy in America during World War 1.

Furthermore, the war established certain precedents for future peacetime emergencies. The New Deal’s National Recovery Administration was patterned on the WIB; the Wagner National Labor Relations Act of the second New Deal was based on NWLB legislation.

The Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917, raised the size of the Army from 200,000 to nearly four million. Some two million men and women served overseas with the American Expeditionary Force, under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing, and three-quarters of those were involved in direct combat.

Germans launched a massive offensive in March 1918, and American troops fought at Cantigny in May and at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood in June to stop them. The turning point of the war came in the second battle of the Marne in July, in which 275,000 American troops were engaged. Though Pershing resisted, Americans were placed under foreign command to perform assigned roles in the Allied counteroffensive, and Americans took particularly heavy casualties in the Meuse-Argonne attack launched on September 26, ending on November 11. It was the greatest battle in which U.S. troops had ever been engaged, involving 1,200,000 men.

At some points along the line of contact, Americans took ten casualties for every German, but Allied commanders used the sheer weight of American numbers to press an exhausted German army. It was not unlike Grant’s strategy of attrition during the Wilderness campaign, for which he earned the nickname “Butcher.” The difference is that Wilderness occurred in an American war, and casualties resulted from the orders of American commanders appointed over men by authority of the Constitution.

The armistice was signed on the last day of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The war in Europe obviously interrupted the normal flow of immigrants from that continent to the United States. On the other hand, conscription and command-and-control economic policies, as well as government hiring practices, also contributed to severe labor shortages. These shortages drew hundreds of thousands of African-Americans out of the South into the industrial North. Indeed, the government sent labor-recruitment agents south to spread the message that there was economic opportunity to be had in the North. The mass movement of labor into predominantly white communities sparked interracial friction and violence.

When war ended and the huge numbers of veterans returned home again, tensions flared red-hot as blacks were displaced from their new jobs and urban unemployment and poverty rates grew. Large race riots occurred in East St. Louis in July 1917 and in Chicago in July 1919; indeed, race riots occurred in nineteen other cities in 1919. Post-war labor dislocations also caused strikes to spread across the country in 1919. Acts of terrorism and violence led to antilabor hysteria, prompting the Palmer raids.

The postwar recession of 1920-22 worsened social conditions. The upshot was that government-sponsored intolerance and hysteria, encouraged for wartime purposes, continued to grow even after the war ended. Hence political nativism crested in the early 1920s, curtailing open immigration. At the same time, segregation was formalized into a rigid legal system in the South. Jim Crow literally became an American system of apartheid. Anti-Semitism also spread, with this unfortunate consequence: had immigration policies been relaxed and had public sensitivity been greater, more Jews might have been allowed to escape fascist European countries before the Holocaust.

The attitude of intolerance, combined with government power, had one more interesting political ramification, ironically related to vanishing Victorian social mores. By banning alcoholic drink, the Prohibition Amendment (1919) invaded people’s privacy and freedom to choose. And it brought an explosion of organized crime during the 1920s (since tremendous illicit profits were now involved), as well as a general decline in respect for law by the middle class, which flaunted the ban. The Prohibition Amendment would become the only constitutional amendment overturned by subsequent amendment.

Even America’s so-called postwar isolationism was colored with the tinge of intolerance, as “America first” in international relations proved to be far less than the traditional honest friendship with everyone. The interwar diplomatic period was marked by a narrow, nationalistic approach to international finance and trade, which sometimes complicated German repayment of reparations.

Finally, world historians write that World War I destroyed the old world order. The war killed a total of ton million and wounded twenty million more. Postwar starvation in Europe took the lives of millions. All told, the war swallowed a generation of Europeans, and many who survived were somehow still “lost.” The Great War caused disintegration of the Austria-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.

In the United States, the most dramatic effect was a psychic and cultural disillusionment. American dead numbered 112,432, due to combat and disease. The war’s direct financial cost, counting interest rates and veterans’ benefits, came to about $112 billion.

Everywhere, the modem age after the war was characterized by the renunciation of old values. In her book The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand called this the “spiritual treason” of our century.

In America, culture moved from the embrace of a social code based on self-restraint and virtue to one based on self-gratification; increasingly, the pursuit of self-gratification has led us to intellectual nihilism. In foreign relations, the Great War marked “the great departure,” because we ceased being an exemplar and became a crusader instead. Domestically, the United States lost some of her faith in the efficacy of liberty and the potential of free men. Ever since, statist policies have predominated over the traditional American faith in free minds and free markets. Progressivism and World War I-itself the culminating event of the Progressive Era-established the rationale and justification for the modem activist state, which has since evolved into the welfare-and-nanny state.

Our reflections on both world wars, as well as the Cold War, are good.

They are indispensable really, if we are to trace our departure and find our way back home.

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    Wesley Allen Riddle was awarded his B.S. degree from the United States Military Academy, West Point, and his M.Phil. with Distinction from Oxford University. He currently is professor of history at West Point.