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Chapter 5 The Late Progressive Era and World War, 1912–1920
On the morning of June 29, 1914, Americans awoke to the news that the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary had been killed. The news seemed remote to most Americans, but the assassination would soon become the pretext for a global war of attrition. Austrian demands for retaliation mixed with existing tensions, ambitions, and alliances in a way that led a number of nations to declare war on each other. In July and August of 1914, the leading nations of Europe rushed to join what they hoped would be a limited and brief war that would unite their citizens and lead to the acquisition of new territories. While some Europeans leaders attempted to stop the war, once the soldiers of their rivals began to march, they feared that failure to respond in kind would lead to disaster. A system of alliances involving European empires meant that war would have a profound impact on colonized peoples throughout North America, Asia, North Africa, Australia and the Middle East. More than 60 million men served in the armies of the belligerent nations, and 9 million of these soldiers perished. At least this many women and children also died because of famine and disease directly related to the war. Among the casualties of the war was the end of the Progressives’ faith that modern technology, democracy, and rationality might lead to a new age in which scarcity and misery would be eliminated.
US businesses sought to profit from the war by selling goods to the belligerents while maintaining neutrality. Prior to this time, Americans congratulated themselves for following the advice of their founders and avoiding “foreign entanglements.” Chief among such entanglements were the pledges of mutual defense that formed the basis of European alliances and might have required US mobilization in 1914. Instead, exports of US grain and military supplies led to reduced unemployment and increased corporate profits. The war also brought a sudden halt to European immigration to the United States, which increased domestic demand for labor and resulted in modest wage increases. However, the fact that the bulk of this very profitable trade was conducted with Britain and France led Germany to respond by attacking ships believed to be transporting US-made supplies to its enemies. These vessels often carried US civilians, and when these vessels were sunk, political and business leaders along with the majority of “old-stock” Americans from Western Europe responded with anger. American public opinion increasingly turned against Germany, especially after the discovery of a secret communication by German leaders seeking an alliance with Mexico against the United States. Yet even after the US declaration of war in 1917, most Americans felt grateful that a vast ocean separated their nation from the killing fields of Europe.
This 1917 poster depicts a US sailor being sent overseas by the goddess of liberty. It reflects the belief among Americans about the purity of their motives in World War I.
The Progressive Era’s faith in government regulation had led to a host of domestic reforms under the Wilson administration. Although these reforms had dominated Woodrow Wilson’s first administration, they quickly gave way to wartime mobilization. Even as the nation began to prepare for war, the Progressive faith in the positive momentum of history continued. Americans demanded, and Wilson promised, that the United States would not only would turn the tide of war against German aggression but also would ensure that this be the last war of its kind. Women and minorities agreed to support their nation’s fight to spread freedom and democracy, but demanded that these principles be applied in their homeland. Despite the hastening of Progressive reforms such as women’s suffrage, the nation would retreat from Progressive ideals in the postwar summer of 1919 that was dominated by anti-Communist hysteria and racially motivated violence.
By 1920, the nation returned to its isolationist orientation. Business and political leaders focused on promoting development and only indirectly addressed the difficulties of reconstruction in Europe and the rest of the world. For Europeans, World War I would claim the lives of millions and ignite revolutions in its wake. Even European nations that had not been dissolved politically had been at least partially transformed by the experiences of war at home and abroad. For most Americans, the experiences of the war were far less traumatic. Only directly involved in the conflict for nineteen months, the United States was never under any credible threat of invasion. Ten times as many Americans would lose their lives in an influenza pandemic that occurred at the end of the war than on the battlefields of Europe. Yet for most Americans, the war and the revolutionary changes that occurred in its aftermath forever altered the way they viewed the rest of the world, labor relations, and the role of government. In addition, the moralistic tenor with which many viewed their participation in the war shaped their ideas about America’s role in the world and would have a profound effect on the way they viewed a second war that erupted two decades later.