By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Chapter Three: Chaos at Home
Progressives in the Crucible of 1919
IV. Mobilizing the Nation
"Three months ago," Senator Hiram Johnson wrote in June 1917, "if any man in our state had advocated the conscription of our youth to have them fight in Europe in this war, he would have been hooted from the platform. Today, our men are landed in France and our transports are upon the water. As I look back, the changes seem to me almost incredible." And what Johnson was witnessing was only the beginning. By the following summer, almost ten thousand newly christened doughboys a day would be sailing Over There, and by the end of the war, close to four million would wear the uniform -- half of those in the field.2
To muster such a force, the Wilson administration had originally wanted to rely on volunteers. But, for reasons of low turnout, efficiency -- and to stave off a corps of virile, mostly Republican crusaders being assembled by Teddy Roosevelt and Leonard Wood -- Wilson soon moved toward the idea of a draft once the war began: It would, he argued, only pick the men who were not engaged in jobs needed at home, and thus "disturb the industrial and social structure of the country just as little as possible." And so, on May 18th, the Selective Service Act was signed into law, mandating that all men ages 21-to-30 (later expanded to 18-to-45) register for military service.3
So as to avoid the type of memorable unpleasantness that afflicted New York City during the Civil War, the WWI draft disallowed substitutes and was run by local boards -- leading to significant regional disparities in exemptions and enforcement: Some religions saw the pacifism of conscientious objectors honored; others did not. Some communities exempted men with wives or children, others did not; others still used party, ethnicity, and race as determining factors. "The draft law," argued Hiram Johnson (whose son-in-law did not escape the net), "was being administered in such fashion as to make it unfair, unequal, partial, and discriminatory." Nonetheless, through this fashion, 2.8 million troops were added to Uncle Sam's ranks over the course of the war.4
But not without some protest. "Make no mistake about it," Amos Pinchot -- sensing a broader game afoot -- wrote Samuel Gompers in March 1917:
Conscription is a great commercial policy; a carefully devised weapon that the exploiters are forging for their own protection at home, and in the interest of American financial imperialism abroad…[B]ack of the cry that America must have compulsory service or perish, is a clearly thought-out and heavily backed project to mould the United States into an efficient, orderly nation, economically and politically controlled by those who know what is good for the people. In this country so ordered and so governed, there will be no strikes, no surly revolt against authority, and no popular discontent. In it, the lamb will lie down in peace with the lion, and he will lie down right where the lion tells him to….This, if we cut through the patriotic pretext and flag-waving propaganda, is the real vision of the conscriptionist.5Before the Selective Service Act passed into law, officers of the American Union against Militarism (AUAM), of which Pinchot was a guiding member - most notably former Presbyterian minister Norman Thomas and former St. Louis social worker Roger Baldwin - urged Congress to stand up for America's "glorious heritage" and include provisions in the bill for conscientious objection. "[A]utocracies may coerce conscience in this vital matter," they argued, "democracies do so at their peril." When this was not forthcoming, Baldwin and Crystal Eastman established in July, under the auspices of the AUAM, "a bureau for advice and help to conscientious objectors throughout the United States" -- the Civil Liberties Bureau. In October of 1917, due to the politically sensitive nature of their charge, this Bureau was split off into its own organization - first named the Civil Liberty Defense League, later the National Civil Liberties Bureau.6
Particularly while still under the auspices of the AUAM, the Civil Liberties Bureau believed it was possible to work with the Wilson administration and help conscientious objectors at the same time. Arguing in their literature that liberty of conscience was "essentially an Anglo-American tradition for which our ancestors fought and died, and for which thousands emigrated to America," members of the Bureau such as Baldwin, Thomas, Oswald Villard, and John Haynes Holmes encouraged objectors to "register - and when you register, state your protest against participation in war." This inside game was in keeping with Baldwin's general approach to reform, which was "we want to look patriots in everything we do. We want to get a good lot of flags, talk a good deal about the Constitution and what our forefathers wanted to make of this country, and to show that we are really the folks that really stand for the spirit of our institutions."7
But, once unshackled from AUAM (where progressive pacifists like Lillian Wald and Paul Kellogg were deeply uncomfortable with Baldwin and Eastman's more radical approach) - and as the Wilson government found their work increasingly distasteful, the NCLB moved into a more independent role. In April of 1918, they published The Truth about the I.W.W., a 56-page work -- promptly banned from the mails by Postmaster Burleson -- arguing that the Chicago conspiracy trial against the Wobblies was groundless. The following month, an official communiqué from the War Department informed Baldwin "it would not be in the public interest for us to continue to supply information pursuant to your request, or otherwise to cooperate in any way with the NCLB." (Unofficially, Baldwin was by now considered a "seditious pacifist," and under investigation.) Three months after that, in August 1918, NCLB offices were raided by federal agents and members of the American Protective League.8
And a month after that, Baldwin wrote his local draft board explaining why he himself should now be considered a conscientious objector. "I am opposed to the use of force to accomplish any end, however good," he argued. "I am therefore opposed to participation in this or any other war…[thus] I will decline to perform any service under compulsion regardless of its character." Arrested and tried soon thereafter, Baldwin was found in violation of the Selective Service Act and sentenced to the full penalty of one year in prison for his continued recalcitrance -- He would serve nine months, during which the national need for committed defenders of civil liberties would only grow more pronounced.9
Moving millions of men behind the war effort would be jarring enough, but it was only part of the mobilization process. The Wilson administration also set forward to take control of the entire economy. In August of 1917, Wilson allies moved the Lever Food and Fuel Control through the Congress, creating both the United States Food Administration, soon to be headed by Herbert Hoover, and the Fuel Administration, led by John Wheeler, president of Williams College. It authorized the Wilson government to set food and fuel prices and supply as deemed fit, and to "cooperate with any person or persons in relation to the processes, methods, activities of and for the production, manufacture, procurement, storage, distribution, sale, marketing, pledging, financing, and consumption of necessaries which are declared to be affected with a public interest." In the words of Lever act opponent Henry Cabot Lodge, the bill amounted to granting Wilson "despotic power" over America's food supply.10
For vital materials outside of food and fuel, Wilson turned to what historian David Kennedy calls "without doubt the most ambitious of the war agencies," the War Industries Board. In the words of its most successful director, financier Bernard Baruch, after the fact, the WIB was an attempt to invest "some Government agency…with…powers…to encourage, under strict Government supervision, such cooperation and coordination in industry as should tend to increase production, eliminate waste, conserve natural resources, improve the quality of products, [and] promote efficiency in operation." In other words, overlaying and complementing the "cooperative committees" of businessmen and government purchasers already working together, at the urging of the Council of National Defense, to supply the war effort, the WIB helped determine industrial priorities and manage prices and production in an organized, coherent fashion. It was, in effect, an attempt to bring rationality to the American economy, and similarly to "assist in cultivating the public taste for rational types of commodities."11
Without the explicit price-fixing power of the Lever Act at its disposal, Bernard Baruch and the WIB mainly had to coax and cajole industries to do things their way. All Baruch had, according to one biographer, "was an old piece of paper" naming him chairman of the Board. "If he had to, he showed it to people. That was the way he settled disputes. That was practically the only power he had except a personality and the sense other people had of his leadership." Nonetheless, the WIB managed to increase industrial production by 20% over the course of the war, and it proved the first of many federal experiments in the years to come of a political economy based on organized public-private cooperation.12
Part of the reason the WIB and Food and Fuel Administrations managed to accomplish these feats of mobilization during the war is by adopting a "high production level over low price" philosophy. "Cheap prices," argued Baruch, "could not in wisdom have been the single or even primary aim of Government control." Instead "[p]roduction in many industries had to be stimulated by every conceivable device; and the business man of America is so imbued with the habit of reaping where he sows, that even admitting for him the highest and most unselfish quality of patriotism, no device is more stimulating to his latent energy than a vision of a fair reward." Put more bluntly by one beneficiary in the steel industry: "We are all making more money out of this war than the average being ought to."13
These sorts of sweetheart deals drove progressives like Robert La Follette into apoplexy. Arguing that the war effort "openly enthroned Big Business in mastery of government," he deemed these agreements 'the greatest plan ever devised for looting the treasury.'" And yet, for the sake of comity and continued production, labor was not left out of such wartime generosity. Under the auspices of the War Labor Board, a joint business and labor committee headed by William Howard Taft to mediate labor disputes, the right to organize and bargain collectively was tentatively recognized (although so too was the open shop and the company shop, union-busting tools that would come into fashion in the decade to come.) And federal largesse, through the tool of cost-plus contracts, helped ensure that workers were paid adequately for their wartime service. One fall 1918 incident in Bridgeport, Connecticut notwithstanding, when Wilson threatened to bring the draft down hard upon striking machinists, labor troubles were relatively non-existent during the war. In fact, the ranks of labor unions swelled during the conflict.14
In short, by the fall of 1918, the Wilson administration had made of the United States a thriving and fully operational war machine. Men and materials flowed into the war effort, prices and production boomed, patriotism and service were both lauded and rigidly enforced.
And then the war ended.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Ibid, 169.
3. Ibid, 149, 156.
4. Ibid. Selective Service System: History and Records: http://www.sss.gov/induct.htm
5. Kennedy, 146.
6. Robert C. Cottrell, Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 53, 57, 61.
7. Cottrell, 53, 58. Dawley, 160.
8. Cottrell, 72-75.
9. Ibid, 81, 88, 100.
10. "Lever Bill Before Senate," New York Times, June 7, 1917. Kennedy, 123.
11. Kennedy, 126, 131.
12. Margaret Coit, Mr. Baruch (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), 173 Kennedy, 134.
13. Kennedy, 134-135. Here once again, Wilson played the role of prescient critic of his own policies. "Every reform we have won will be lost if we go into this war," he lamented to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels in 1917. "We have been making a fight on special privilege…War means autocracy. The people we have unhorsed will inevitably come into control of the country for we shall be dependent upon the steel, ore, and financial magnates. They will run the nation." Robert K. Murray, The Red Scare, 9.
14. Thelen, 156. Kennedy, 266-270.
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