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Military Wiki
Home Front
Date 1917 – 1919
Location United States

For broader coverage of this topic, see United States in World War I.

The home front of the United States in World War I saw a systematic mobilization of the entire population and the entire economy to produce the soldiers, food supplies, munitions and money needed to win the war. Although the United States entered the war in April 1917, there had been very little planning, or even recognition of the problems that the British and other Allies had to solve on their homefronts. As a result, the level of confusion was high in the first 12 months, then efficiency took control.

The war came in the midst of the Progressive Era, when efficiency and expertise were highly valued. Therefore, the federal government (and states as well) set up a multitude of temporary agencies to bring together the expertise necessary to redirect the economy and society into the production of munitions and food necessary for the war, as well as the production of ideas necessary to motivate the people.

Temporary agencies[]

Congress authorized President Woodrow Wilson to create a bureaucracy of 500,000 to 1 million new jobs in five thousand new federal agencies.[1] To solve the labor crisis the Employment Service of the Department of Labor attracted workers from the South and Midwest to war industries in the East.

Government propaganda[]

In April 1917, the Wilson Administration created the Committee on Public Information (CPI), known as the Creel Committee, to control war information and provide pro-war propaganda. Employing talented writers and scholars, it issued anti-German pamphlets and films. It organized thousands of "Four-Minute Men" to deliver brief speeches at movie theaters, schools and churches to promote patriotism and participation in the war effort.[2]

Military draft[]

A World War I era draft card.

In 1917 the administration decided to rely primarily on conscription, rather than voluntary enlistment, to raise military manpower for World War I. The Selective Service Act of 1917 was carefully drawn to remedy the defects in the Civil War system and—by allowing exemptions for dependency, essential occupations, and religious scruples—to place each man in his proper niche in a national war effort. The act established a "liability for military service of all male citizens"; authorized a selective draft of all those between twenty-one and thirty-one years of age (later from eighteen to forty-five); and prohibited all forms of bounties, substitutions, or purchase of exemptions. Administration was entrusted to local boards composed of leading civilians in each community. These boards issued draft calls in order of numbers drawn in a national lottery and determined exemptions. In 1917 and 1918 some 24 million men were registered and nearly 3 million inducted into the military services, with little of the resistance that characterized the Civil War.[3]

Secretary of War Newton Baker draws the first draft number on 20 July 1917.


The private American Protective League, working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was one of many private patriotic associations that sprang up to support the war and at the same time identify slackers, spies, draft dodgers and anti-war organizations.[4]

Civil liberties[]

The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 attempted to punish enemy activity and extended to the punishment expressions of doubt about America's role in the war. The Sedition Act criminalized any expression of opinion that used "disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language" about the U.S. government, flag or armed forces. Government police action, private vigilante groups and public war hysteria compromised the civil liberties of many Americans who disagreed with Wilson's policies.[5]

In a July 1917 speech, Max Eastman complained that the government's aggressive prosecutions of dissent meant that "You can't even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage."[6]


The nascent film industry produced a wide variety of propaganda films. The most successful was The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, a "sensational creation" designed to rouse the audience against the German ruler. Comedies included Mutt and Jeff at the Front. The greatest artistic success, considered by many a landmark of film history, was Charlie Chaplin's Shoulder Arms, which followed the star from his induction into the military, his accidental penetration of the German lines, and his eventual return having captured the Kaiser and Crown Prince and won himself a pretty French girl.[7]

Farming and food[]

Food Administration poster 1917

The U.S. Food Administration under Herbert Hoover launched a massive campaign to teach Americans to economize on their food budgets and grow victory gardens in their backyards.[8] It managed the nation's food distribution and prices.[9]

Gross farm income increased more than 230% from 1914 to 1919. Apart from 'wheatless Wednesdays' and 'meatless Tuesdays' due to poor harvests in 1916 and 1917, there were 'fuelless Mondays' and 'gasless Sundays' to preserve coal and gasoline.[citation needed]


World War I saw many women taking traditionally men's jobs for the first time in American history. Many worked on the assembly lines of factories, producing tanks, trucks and munitions. For the first time, department stores employed African American women as elevator operators and cafeteria waitresses. The Food Administration helped housewives prepare more nutritious meals with less waste and with optimum use of the foods available. Most important, the morale of the women remained high, as millions join the Red Cross as volunteers to help soldiers and their families, and with rare exceptions, the women did not protest the draft.[10]

World War I US poster calling girls to help out.

Girls too young for paid jobs learned how they could help the war effort.


For example, a number of fathers and brothers entered the war, and many were subsequently maimed in action or killed, causing many children to be brought up by single mothers.[11] Additionally, as the male workforce left for battle, mothers and sisters began working in factories to take their positions, and the family dynamic began to change; this affected children as they had less time to spend with family members and were expected to grow up faster and help with the war effort. Similarly, Woodrow Wilson called on children involved in youth organizations to help collect money for war bonds and stamps in order to raise money for the war effort.[12] This was very important because the children were having a direct effect on the financial state of the United States government during World War I. As children were collecting large amounts of money outside of school, within the classroom, curriculum also began to change as a result of the war. Woodrow Wilson again became involved with these children as he implemented government pamphlets and programs to encourage war support through things like mandatory patriotism and nationalism classes multiple times a week.[13] Even though war was not being fought on United States soil, children's lives were greatly affected as all of these changes were made to their daily lives as a result of the conflict. World War I affected children in the United States through several social and economic changes in the school curriculum and through shifts in parental relationships.

Victory gardeners, 1918


Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, and nearly all labor unions were strong supporters of the war effort. They minimized strikes as wages soared and full employment was reached. The AFL unions strongly encouraged their young men to enlist in the military, and fiercely opposed efforts to reduce recruiting and slow war production by the anti-war IWW and left-wing Socialists. President Wilson appointed Gompers to the powerful Council of National Defense, where he set up the War Committee on Labor. The AFL membership soared to 2.4 million in 1917. In 1919, the AFL tried to make their gains permanent and called a series of major strikes in meat, steel and other industries. The strikes ultimately failed, forcing unions back to positions similar to those around 1910.[14] Anti-war socialists controlled the IWW, which fought against the war effort and was in turn shut down by legal action by the federal government.

To keep factories running smoothly, Wilson established the National War Labor Board in 1918, which forced management to negotiate with existing unions.

Americanization of ethnics[]

The outbreak of war in 1914 increased concern about the millions of foreign born in the United States. The short-term concern was their loyalty to their native countries and the long-term was their assimilation into American society. Numerous agencies became active in promoting "Americanization" so that the ethnics would be psychologically and politically loyal to the U.S. The states set up programs through their Councils of National Defense; numerous federal agencies were involved, including the Bureau of Education, the United States Department of the Interior and the Food Administration. The most important private organization was the National Americanization Committee (NAC) directed by Frances Kellor. Second in importance was the Committee for Immigrants in America, which helped fund the Division of Immigrant Education in the federal Bureau of Education.[15]

The war prevented millions of recently arrived immigrants from returning to Europe as they originally intended. The great majority decided to stay in America. Foreign language use declined dramatically. They welcomed Americanization, often signing up for English classes and using their savings to buy homes and bring over other family members.[16]

Kellor, speaking for the NAC in 1916, proposed to combine efficiency and patriotism in her Americanization programs. It would be more efficient, she argued, once the factory workers could all understand English and therefore better understand orders and avoid accidents. Once Americanized, they would grasp American industrial ideals and be open to American influences and not subject only to strike agitators or foreign propagandists. The result, she argued would transform indifferent and ignorant residents into understanding voters, to make their homes into American homes, and to establish American standards of living throughout the ethnic communities. Ultimately, she argued it would "unite foreign-born and native alike in enthusiastic loyalty to our national ideals of liberty and justice.[17]

Alien internments[]

See also German American internment during World War I

German citizens were required to register with the federal government and carry their registration cards at all times. Some 2,048 German citizens were imprisoned beginning in 1917, and all were released by spring 1920. Allegations against them included spying for Germany or endorsing the German war effort. They ranged from immigrants suspected of sympathy for their native land, civilian German sailors on merchant ships in U.S. ports when war was declared, and Germans who worked part of the year in the United States, including 29 players from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and other prominent musicians.[18]

Anti-German activity[]

War bonds[]

Elaborate propaganda campaigns were launched to encourage Americans to buy Liberty Bonds. Sometimes, ethnic groups were pitted against each other, so that the Polish American population in Chicago was urged to out purchase bonds compared to the German American population[citation needed].

Economic confusion in 1917[]

In terms of munitions production, the first 15 months involved an amazing parade of mistakes, misguided enthusiasm, and confusion. Americans were willing enough, but they did not know their proper role. Washington was unable to figure out what to do when, or even to decide who was in charge. Typical of the confusion was the coal shortage that hit in December 1917. Because coal was by far the major source of energy and heat a grave crisis ensued. There was in fact plenty of coal being mined, but 44,000 loaded freight and coal cars were tied up in horrendous traffic jams in the rail yards of the East Coast. Two hundred ships were waiting in New York harbor for cargo that was delayed by the mess. The solution included nationalizing the coal mines and the railroads for the duration, shutting down factories one day a week to save fuel, and enforcing a strict system of priorities. Only in March, 1918, did Washington finally take control of the crisis [19]

Attacks on the USA[]

The Central Powers carried out a number of acts of sabotage and a single submarine attack against the mainland of the USA during the war, but never staged an invasion of the country, although there were rumours that German advisors were present at the Battle of Ambos Nogales.


Numerous rumors of German plans for sabotage were in circulation. After midnight on July 30, 1916, a series of small fires were found on a pier in Jersey City, New Jersey. Sabotage was suspected and some guards fled, fearing an explosion; others attempted to fight the fires. Eventually they called the Jersey City Fire Department. An explosion occurred at 2:08 a.m., the first and biggest of the explosions. Shrapnel from the explosion traveled long distances, some lodging in the Statue of Liberty and other places. Seven people died.

Black Tom Pier shortly after the explosion.

Attack on Orleans[]

On the morning on July 21, 1918, a German U-boat quietly positioned itself off of Orleans, Massachusetts. It then opened fire on a tugboat, the Perth Amboy, and its four barges. Men from the nearby Coast Guard Station rushed up to the tower to see what all the commotion was about. One of them called Chatham Naval Air Station to inform them of the U-boat attack. The tug was quickly sent to the bottom and U-156 then started firing upon the barges. The barges sank and American aircraft arrived. They dropped their payload above the German submarine but it escaped undamaged.

See also[]


  1. Spencer Tucker and Priscilla Mary Roberts, eds., World War I: encyclopedia (2005), p. 1205
  2. Kennedy, Over Here, 61-62
  3. John Whiteclay Chambers II, To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America (1987)
  4. Fischer, Nick (2011). "The American Protective League and the Australian Protective League – Two Responses to the Threat of Communism, c. 1917–1920". pp. 133–149. Digital object identifier:10.1080/14743892.2011.597222. 
  5. Schaffer, Ronald (1978). The United States in World War I. Santa Barbara: Clio Books. p. ?. ISBN 0874362741. 
  6. Steel, Ronald (1980). Walter Lippmann and the American Century. Boston: Little, Brown. p. 124. ISBN 0316811904. 
  7. Mock, James R.; Larson, Cedric (1939). Words that Won the War: The Story of the Committee on Public Information, 1917–1919. Princeton University Press. pp. 151–152. 
  8. "Teaching With Documents: Sow the Seeds of Victory! Posters from the Food Administration During World War I"
  9. Nash, George H. (1996). The Life of Herbert Hoover: Master of Emergencies, 1917–1918. New York: Norton. p. ?. ISBN 0393038416. 
  10. Gavin, Lettie (2006). American Women in World War I: They Also Served. Boulder: University Press of Colorado. ISBN 0870818252. 
  11. Greenwald, Maureen (1980). Maurine Weiner. Women, War, and Work: the Impact of World War I on Women Workers in the United States. Westport: Greenwood Press. p. 4. ISBN 0313213550. 
  12. McDermott, T. P.. "USA's Boy Scouts and World War I Liberty Loan Bonds". p. 70. 
  13. Spring, Joel (1992). Images of American Life. Albany: State University of New York Press. p. 20. ISBN 0791410692. 
  14. Philip Taft, The A.F.L. in the time of Gompers (1957)
  15. McClymer, John F. (1980). War and Welfare: Social Engineering in America, 1890–1925. Westport: Greenwood Press. pp. 110–111. ISBN 0313211299. 
  16. Archdeacon, Thomas J. (1984). Becoming American. London: Collier Macmillan. pp. 115, 186–187. ISBN 0029008301. 
  17. McClymer, War and Welfare, pp 112-3
  18. New York Times: "Dr. Muck Bitter at Sailing," August 22, 1919, accessed January 13, 2010
  19. Kennedy, Over Here 113-25

Further reading[]

  • Breen, William J. Uncle Sam at Home: Civilian Mobilization, Wartime Federalism, and the Council of National Defense, 1917-1919 (Greenwood Press, 1984)
  • Chambers, John W., II. To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America (1987)
  • Clements, Kendrick A. The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson (1992)
  • Cooper, John Milton. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009)
  • Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society (2004), comprehensive coverage
  • Link, Arthur Stanley. Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910–1917 (1972) standard political history of the era
  • Link, Arthur Stanley. Wilson: The Struggle for Neutrality: 1914–1915 (1960); Wilson: Confusions and Crises: 1915–1916 (1964); Wilson: Campaigns for Progressivism and Peace: 1916–1917 (1965), the standard biography to 1918
  • Malin, James C. The United States after the World War (1930) online
  • Schaffer, Ronald. America in the Great War: The Rise of the War-Welfare State (Oxford University Press, 1991), ISBN 0-19-504904-7
  • Tucker, Spencer C., and Priscilla Mary Roberts, eds. The Encyclopedia of World War I : A Political, Social, and Military History (5 vol. 2005)
  • Vaughn, Stephen. Holding Fast the Inner Lines: Democracy, Nationalism, and the Committee on Public Information (University of North Carolina Press, 1980)
  • Venzon, Anne ed. The United States in the First World War: An Encyclopedia (1995)
  • Young, Ernest William. The Wilson Administration and the Great War (1922) online edition
  • Zieger, Robert H. America's Great War: World War I and the American Experience 2000. 272 pp.


  • Controvich, James T. The United States in World War I: A Bibliographic Guide (Scarecrow, 2012) 649 pp

External links[]

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