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The Political Legacy of World War I

By John E. Moser
via the Cato Unbound web site

n July 1918, Columbia University philosophy professor John Dewey offered an explanation for why so many Progressive intellectuals had embraced U.S. involvement in the First World War. True, the “immediate aim” of the war was a mere expression of “the will to conquer,” but to focus exclusively on this was to miss the exciting possibilities that the war offered to society. Throughout the world, the conflict has “made it customary to utilize the collective knowledge and skill of scientific experts in all lines, organizing them for community ends.” “In every warring country,” he continued, “there has been the same demand that in the time of great national stress production for profit be subordinated to production for use. Legal possession and individual property rights have had to give way before social requirements. The old conception of the absoluteness of private property has received the world over a blow from which it will never wholly recover.” Not only would the eventual defeat of German autocracy and militarism make the world “safe for democracy,” as Woodrow Wilson had put it in his April 1917 war address, but it would “initiate a new type of democracy,” in which “the supremacy of the public and social interest” would finally be established “over the private possessive interest.”[1]

unbound 10 20 0World War I was arguably the most important conflict of the twentieth century, bringing down four great empires and redrawing the map of Europe. The effect on the United States was quite different; it did not alter the country’s boundaries, or change its fundamental form of government, and the number of American men who lost their lives (126,000) paled in comparison to the figures from the European belligerents (2 million Germans, 1.4 million Frenchmen, nearly a million Britons). However, the war redefined the role of the federal government. While it did not quite lead to the democratic socialism that Dewey embraced, it redefined the relationship between Washington and its citizens, and set precedents to which subsequent presidents would repeatedly refer.

To say that the United States was unprepared for war in 1917 would be a serious understatement. The U.S. Army had well below 200,000 soldiers (by contrast, the Russian Army had nearly 6 million on the eve of war; the German Army had 4.5 million, while even Bulgaria fielded 280,000 men), and no arms industry capable of producing weapons heavier than rifles and pistols. While the reforms of the Progressive Era had marginally increased the power of the federal government, most authority still resided in the states, and the economy was almost entirely market-driven.

In order to assemble an army large enough to make a difference on the battlefields of Europe, the Wilson administration employed the power of the federal government on an unprecedented level. Even before the war the president had established a nonpartisan advisory committee—the Council for National Defense—made up of business and labor leaders to oversee the process of mobilization. When, in the first weeks of the war, calls for volunteers failed to meet army quotas, Wilson pushed through Congress a Selective Service Act that instituted mass conscription. To make sure that the new army—and the soldiers and civilians of Allied countries—would be properly fed, the president persuaded Congress to pass the Food and Fuel Control Act, which authorized the administration “to requisition foods, feeds, fuels, and other supplies necessary to the support of the Army…or any other public use connected with the common defense.” The bill created a Food Administration—headed by former mining engineer Herbert Hoover—that was empowered to fix prices and even control the amount of food consumed by American civilians; soon “wheatless” and “meatless” days became regular features of American life.

Read the entire article on the Cato Unbound web site.

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