U.S. Entry into World War I

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Woodrow Wilson delivered his now-famous War Message to Congress on April 4, 1917. Four days later, Congress declared war and the United States became a formal partner in the war to end all wars. As the Wilson administration was to discover, however, declaring war and making war were two very different propositions. The former required only an abstract statement of ideals and justifications and a two-thirds Congressional majority; the latter required the massive mobilization of virtually every sector of American society - military, industrial, and economic, as well as public opinion. The Wilson administration sought to accomplish this daunting task in two concomitant and interdependent fashions. First, it undertook an unprecedented assumption of federal control and regulation. The federal government established an array of bureaus and agencies endowed with sweeping powers to regulate the nation’s economy and industrial production. Furthermore, it passed a series of laws designed to support these agencies and to stifle what it deemed subversive antiwar opinion and activity. Second, and of equal importance, the administration appealed to the public’s patriotism and sense of civic responsibility, effectively encouraging volunteerism in both the public and private sectors. Each of these tacks was bulwarked by a pervasive dose of pro-war government propaganda. In the end, in terms of raising an army, mobilizing the economy and influencing the outcome of the war, the administration’s mobilization efforts were largely successful. However, there were significant consequences to the government’s actions, most acutely in the realm of civil liberties, both during and in the aftermath of the war. One of the earliest examples of federal muscle in wartime mobilization was the passage of the Lever Act in August 1917. The act gave the president the power to regulate supplies and prices of food and fuel by creating two new government agencies: the United States Food Administration and the United States Fuel Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover and Harry Garfield, respectively. Hoover and Garfield operated with “virtually unlimited power” and used the implicit threat of federal nationalization to regulate prices and cajole producers into increased production and conservation (Zeiger, 72). In one instance, Garfield actually ordered the closure of thousands of factories in order to free up rail lines for much needed coal shipments. More often, though, the latent threat of federal takeover combined with government sponsored prowar propaganda, “tub-thumping exhortation and patriotic appeal” to engender producers’ own willingness to volunteer their services for the war effort (Zeiger, 72). Following the success of the Food and Fuel Administrations, the Wilson administration took an even more activist approach with regard to the nations’ railroads. In December 1917, after private coordination of the complex railroad infrastructure proved inadequate, Wilson issued an executive order creating the United States Railroad Administration (USRA). The USRA gave the federal government direct control over virtually every aspect of the industry. In short, the “USRA did what the railroads separately could not do. It consolidated terminal facilities, coordinated traffic and routing, dipped into the federal treasury to improve rolling stock and equipment, and satisfied the restless railroad unions with generous wage settlements” (Zeiger, 71). Indeed, by all accounts the USRA was a rousing success. By the following spring some 625,000 troops per month were being transported and the nations industrial needs were being met (Zeiger, 71). Such a sweeping assumption of federal control flew in the face of every established peacetime model of capitalist democracy. Yet under the cloud of national emergency, wealthy railroad industrialists called for federal intervention, although, as Zeiger points out, they opposed the sort of outright government operation that in...
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