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World War I: 1914–1918

​United States Enters World War I​

America Goes to War

The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, and moved quickly to mobilize troops to send overseas and to muster a workforce to replace the men sent into battle.

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, officially entering World War I. However, the United States had only a volunteer army ill-equipped to fight on foreign soil, and the exhausted French and British forces were in need of reinforcements. In addition to recruiting soldiers, the United States had to solve the problem of feeding, housing, and properly arming its fighting forces.

The Selective Service Act was signed into law by Woodrow Wilson on May 18, 1917. Over the next two years, 2.8 million American men would be drafted, or forcibly enlisted, into the U.S. military. Initially men ages 21–30 were required to register for the draft. Congress amended the law in August 1918 to expand the pool of registrants to all men between the ages of 18 and 45.

World War I changed the role of women in American society forever. The millions of men who left for Europe to fight in the war left a sizable hole in almost all sectors of the U.S. economy. Women's universities began training women to work in agriculture. The Advisory Council of the Women's Land Army of America (WLAA) was formed in December 1917. Between 1917 and 1919, over 20,000 women worked in agriculture roles traditionally occupied by men.

Manufacturing was a sector of particular note that suffered a labor shortage during the war. Manufacturing was critically important to supplying the war effort. Women stepped in to take over factory jobs left behind by men deployed to fight in the war. Women worked in every capacity—from manual labor on the factory floors to production design and testing. Women were expected to work as hard and produce as much as men even though they often did not receive equal pay for their work.

World War I marked the first time that women other than nurses served on active duty in the U.S. military. Women were enlisted into the navy and marines to take over stateside positions held by men who were deployed overseas. In these services, the women received the same pay and rank as the men they replaced and were able to enjoy veterans' benefits after the war. Women also served in the army, but they were not treated as equitably. Some women served overseas, taking on critical roles such as journalists, telephone operators for the Signal Corps, nurses, and office clerks.

Committee on Public Information

The Committee on Public Information, founded on April 13, 1917, was created by Woodrow Wilson to garner support for the war.

The Committee on Public Information (CPI) was created by Woodrow Wilson only a week after the United States declared war on Germany. This government agency would be responsible for convincing the American public to support the war and everything that U.S. participation in the war entailed for Americans, including the draft. The CPI worked toward this goal by implementing a propaganda campaign that utilized all of the media available at the time. One of the most iconic images of the century, the poster featuring Uncle Sam proclaiming "I Want You for U.S. Army," was created for the CPI. Speakers called "Four-Minute Men" were recruited to deliver short speeches in public and private gatherings, in front of any audience they could find, in support of the war effort. With guidance from the CPI, it is estimated that as many as 75,000 of these volunteers gave speeches around the country.

The CPI was headed by George Creel, an American journalist. He eschewed the word propaganda, stating, "for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption." Creel saw the CPI as a vehicle for the government to inform and educate the American public. Yet the agency did employ some sinister tactics, including demonizing the enemy with threatening images of German soldiers and slogans such as "Destroy This Mad Brute." This approach to manipulating public opinion would serve as inspiration for World War II propaganda by the Nazis. Nevertheless it is indisputable that the CPI was an effective propaganda machine for the American government and was an incubator for the burgeoning field of public relations.
During World War I the Committee on Public Information used marketing strategies such as recruitment posters to encourage men to enlist in the armed forces. Though around 72 percent of the armed forces were draftees, most new soldiers believed in the war. Morale remained high and desertion levels remained low throughout the remainder of the war.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-03521

Espionage and Sedition Acts

The Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) were passed by Congress to suppress dissension during the war.

Congress passed two laws to suppress dissension during World War I—the Espionage Act in 1917 and the Sedition Act in 1918. The Espionage Act made it illegal to interfere with or impede the success of the U.S. military or to promote or enable enemies of the United States. The law was interpreted to allow prosecution of anyone who protested the war or the newly instated draft. The law was written broadly enough to allow for the confiscation of publications deemed treasonous by the postmaster general. The Sedition Act, passed a year later, criminalized speech that maligned the U.S. government, Constitution, military, and flag. Usually referred to together, the Espionage and Sedition Acts were used to suppress free speech, violate civil rights, and prosecute those the government saw as radicals during this time of war. Those prosecuted under these acts included socialists, pacifists, recent immigrants from countries the United States deemed hostile, and foreign journalists who questioned the role of the United States in the war.

One of those prosecuted and jailed was Eugene Debs. Debs belonged to the Socialist Party and was founder of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a labor union that opposed the war. Debs was convicted of violating the Espionage Act after giving a speech in which he criticized the law and voiced opposition to the draft. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Nearly 2,000 such cases were tried in court. One case reached the Supreme Court in 1919. It concerned Charles Schenck, who opposed America's involvement in the war. In 1917 he mailed thousands of pamphlets to draftees claiming the government had no right to send people to war in foreign lands. Schenck claimed he had a 1st Amendment right to speak his mind. The lower courts disagreed, and in 1919 the Supreme Court upheld their decision. In Schenck v. United States the court found that the extent of a person's freedom of speech is dependent on the circumstances. Just as a person may not shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater, a person may not jeopardize the government's efforts to win a war by discouraging recruitment of soldiers. When the words used by a person create a clear and present danger, the person may be punished.

Congress repealed the Sedition Act in December 1920. A year later, Eugene Debs’s sentence was commuted, or reduced, to time served by President Warren Harding.

American Expeditionary Forces Arrive in Europe

The United States' entry into the war ended the stalemate and turned the tide in favor of the Allies.
The long-anticipated entry of the United States into World War I would turn the tide of war. The addition of the U.S. naval fleet assisted British forces in suppressing the threat posed by German submarines. The addition of 1.2 million American Expeditionary Forces to the Allied forces on the Western Front helped disrupt the stalemate and end the war a year earlier than predicted. The American Expeditionary Forces, the name of the American forces who fought in World War I, were under the leadership of General John J. Pershing. The Western Front, the primary theater of war, stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland.

Key U.S. Battles in World War I

Date Location Summary
May 28, 1918 Battle of Cantigny This was the first major battle for the American Expeditionary Forces. Americans attacked Germans at Cantigny, France, and won the battle decisively.
September 12–16, 1918 Battle of Saint-Mihiel The first offensive led by United States forces took place at Saint-Mihiel, France. The United States led the Allied forces to victory over the Germans. This battle marked the first time the U.S. Army Air Service fought in a major battle.
September 26–November 11, 1918 Meuse-Argonne Offensive This was the last Allied offensive of the war. For 47 days, Allied forces fought Germany and the Central Powers. It was the largest offensive of the war and the deadliest campaign in U.S. military history. Over 26,000 American lives were lost during the campaign. This offensive campaign led to the Allied defeat of the Central Powers and the end of World War I.
September 29–October 10, 1918 Battle of St Quentin Canal Allied forces broke through one of the most heavily guarded portions of the Hindenburg Line, the German defensive position in the Western Front. This proved to be a pivotal battle, as German troops were demoralized while Allied forces were inspired to continue toward victory.