Written by: Melvyn Dubofsky, Binghamton University
By the end of this section, you will:
- Explain the context in which America grew into its role as a world power
- Explain the causes and effects of international and internal migration patterns over time
- Compare the relative significance of the major events of the first half of the 20th century in shaping American identity
By 1898, the United States had become the world’s leading industrial nation and a significant player in world affairs. It was also a nation wracked by conflicts arising from rapid industrialization, mass immigration, urbanization, and the burden of maintaining an overseas empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Industrialization led to mixed results. Increasing life expectancy, real wages, and economic growth benefitted workers, though many workers also toiled long hours in factories in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Industrialization also brought millions of new immigrants from Eastern Europe who sought greater opportunity and filled industry’s insatiable demand for labor. The flood of tens of millions of immigrants created rapidly growing cities and stretched the ability of government and civil society to provide adequate housing and services.
Vast economic, demographic, and social changes led to increased calls for political reforms at all levels, especially the national government. Reformers called Progressives wanted to use the regulatory powers of the national government to bring order and efficiency to what they saw as a chaotic society. They thought educated elites in government agencies and other institutions should manage society scientifically in what they believed to be the public interest.
With the Spanish-American War, the nation began expanding across the Pacific and Caribbean. The United States wanted to acquire colonial possessions, open new sources of raw materials and trade, and broaden its strategic interests. World War I in Europe and the peace treaty after the war contributed to new questions about American foreign policy. How could the nation manage its newly acquired overseas empire and grapple with its newly expanded role in the world?
Progressive Reform at the State and Local Levels
Nearly all sectors of society participated in the waves of reform that swept across the nation between 1898 and 1919. Businesses large and small aimed to tame cutthroat competition that decreased prices and profits, through either voluntary industrial associations or government regulation, though they did not always welcome government intervention. Smaller businesses sought to use government to limit the power of concentrated corporate enterprise. Liberal Protestant ministers promoted the Social Gospel, which held the promise of earthly salvation for those who worked to diminish poverty and social misery. University graduates tried to use knowledge, especially the social sciences, to reform society with efforts to alleviate poverty, overcrowding, and political corruption. Newly credentialled academics offered their knowledge as experts to serve politicians and state governments. Working people built trade unions to bargain with employers, allied themselves with political parties to enact legislative reforms, and, most radically (though in smaller numbers), joined the Socialist Party (of America). Progressivism was a divided movement whose members often acted at cross-purposes and for diverse, conflicting ends. The progressives generally sought to put their expert knowledge to use for the government to achieve their vision of a more ordered and efficient society.
Reform germinated at the state and local levels. The Constitution allowed the federal government to regulate interstate commerce, foreign trade, immigration, and foreign relations and left the regulation of health, safety, and welfare to the states. The states and local municipalities had police powers to regulate working conditions, including hours, safety, and sanitation, and to ensure that corporations did not abuse their power. City officials and reformers faced rapid population growth, demand for housing that outpaced supply, substandard housing, and inadequate sanitation that spread disease among poorer, working-class families. (See The Progressive Movement DBQ Lesson.)
Reformers faced the problems of rapid urban growth. The Atlantic Ocean acted as a highway on which people and ideas flowed in both directions. Americans went to Europe to study in universities and brought home European ideas about the welfare state. Florence Kelley, a leading progressive reformer from Philadelphia, had studied in Switzerland, where she adopted European socialist ideas. She returned to the United States and fought for the regulation of working conditions for women and children. Kelley subsequently led the National Consumers’ League, an organization overwhelmingly female in leadership and membership, which used the buying power of consumers to improve working conditions. The League issued white labels for employers to attach to their products certifying that they were made under sanitary working conditions.
Equally notable were Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, who founded settlement houses modeled on those in England. In Chicago, Addams turned an abandoned residence into Hull House, a refuge for the neighborhood’s new immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. There, immigrant children learned English and civics, and their parents, especially their mothers, also found a haven. Addams became the city’s leading social reformer. In Manhattan’s densely populated Lower East Side, the most congested neighborhood in the nation, Wald used the Henry Street Settlement House to create a visiting nurse service providing health assistance to tenement dwellers who suffered from tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. The settlement houses also provided childcare, neighborhood playgrounds, social clubs, and artistic events.
The early twentieth century saw social science knowledge used to foster social reform as never before. The alliance between social scientists and reformers achieved the most widespread reforms in the state of Wisconsin. The so-called Wisconsin idea relied on knowledge provided by University of Wisconsin academics, whose students eventually staffed state administrative offices as experts and pioneered social reforms. Governor Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette led Wisconsin to establish workers’ compensation for injured laborers, experiment with unemployment insurance for idled workers, and develop the concept of economic security for elderly citizens.
Nearly every northern and western state implemented some form of employers’ liability or workers’ compensation, regulated safety and hours for workers in dangerous trades, and limited the hours of labor for women and child workers. A tragic fire in a New York City garment factory in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, took the lives of 146 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian women. The public response to the blaze brought legislation that established statewide standards for factory safety and sanitation and regulated the conditions under which women and children worked. (See the Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, 1906 Primary Source.)
Federal and state courts approved the regulation of working conditions in dangerous trades, especially underground mining, and for children. Otherwise, judges ruled that employers and adult workers had a “liberty of contract” to set the terms of employment on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment. This interpretation received its fullest expression in the case of Lochner v. New York (1905), in which a Supreme Court majority declared a law limiting working hours for New York bakers to be an unconstitutional infringement of the right to liberty of contract. However, the Court did not consistently apply the Lochner rule; it sometimes sided with progressive arguments and accepted the use of social science in its decisions. In 1908, for example, the Supreme Court declared constitutional an Oregon law that regulated the hours of adult women workers. The court based its ruling on the “Brandeis brief” (named after Louis Brandeis, the famous attorney, progressive reformer, and, later, associate justice of the Supreme Court), which used sociological and medical evidence of dangerous working conditions and the harmful effects of long hours to argue for regulating the working conditions of women workers. (See the Lewis Hine, Photographs Documenting Child Labor, 1908 Primary Source.)
Two competing progressive tendencies—the desire for increased democracy and for rule by experts—spurred urban reform. Employers, real estate developers, and affluent citizens used social science to liberate municipal policy from the control of political bosses and to administer local government more efficiently and economically. To lower taxes and promote private enterprise, these progressive reformers limited the voting power of the people. They installed the commission system and city manager forms of government, in which skilled administrators, not an elected mayor or aldermen, made policy. They introduced citywide elections in place of ward or district ones, increasing the voting power of wealthier and better-educated citizens at the expense of immigrants and the poor. They instituted tighter regulations for voter registration that reduced turnout among poorer residents. Yet in other cities, most notably New York, political machines allied with local trade unionists and working-class, immigrant residents. Socialists won power in 200 small and mid-sized cities and in one metropolis, Milwaukee.
Progressive reforms thus simultaneously expanded and contracted citizen participation in politics. Primary elections enabled voters, not party conventions, to choose candidates for office. Initiatives and referenda offered citizens a direct means of enacting legislation. Recall elections enabled voters’ might to oust officials or overrule judicial decisions. Other steps, however, limited popular participation in politics. Republicans and Democrats made it more difficult for third parties and independent candidates to obtain ballot access. They instituted literacy tests in English that disqualified otherwise-eligible voters. In the South, states adopted constitutions that kept black citizens from the voting booth and poll taxes that disqualified millions of poor whites as well as blacks. Voter turnout at all levels of government declined in the Progressive Era.
Progressivism and National Politics
No figure better exemplified Progressivism on the national level than Theodore Roosevelt. Born to old wealth in New York and the beneficiary of an elite education, Roosevelt was an historian, a naturalist, a big-game hunter, and an advocate of the “strenuous life.” Unlike most men from his social circle, he chose a career in politics. As a Republican, he practiced a progressive model of government that favored civic order and social stability. He detested Populist “demagogues,” radical labor leaders, and socialists. He believed the best way to curb radicalism and class conflict was through economic and social reforms. In less than two decades, he rose from a member of the New York State Legislature, to assistant secretary of the Navy in William McKinley’s first term, to a “hero” of the Spanish-American War, to governor of New York, to McKinley’s vice president, to president after McKinley’s assassination. (See the Remember the Maine! Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders Narrative.)
As president, Roosevelt pursued progressive policies. He treated the presidency as a “bully pulpit” from which he could sermonize against the “malefactors of wealth” and the advocates of revolution. Only the president, he believed, had the power to deal effectively with a complex national economy. Only national power centralized in the regulatory agencies of the executive branch could create social stability and, through expert decision-making, avert autocracy from above and revolution from below. Roosevelt claimed that it was “not only [the president’s] right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws”.
In his first term, Roosevelt consistently appealed to the public interest to justify expanding the regulatory power of federal executive agencies over the economy. He signed the Elkins Act (1904), which authorized the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to outlaw railroad rebates, which were lower rates given to corporations but not to other shippers. Roosevelt authorized the Department of Commerce and its Bureau of Corporations to investigate and publicize the wrongs committed by corporate monopolists. He ordered the Department of Justice in 1902 to sue the Northern Securities Company, a corporate holding company that had eliminated transport competition in the Northwest by bringing the area’s dominant railroads under common management. In 1904, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that Northern Securities had practiced illegal restraint of competition in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. One wag commented that Roosevelt had slain a mosquito as if it were a lion. Yet Roosevelt won a reputation as a “trust buster.”
Roosevelt expanded executive power in other ways to deal with what he perceived as national crises. When, in 1902, anthracite coal miners in northeastern Pennsylvania struck to demand union recognition, higher wages, and improved working conditions from the large coal combination that owned the mines, Roosevelt intervened. The mine owners’ leader, George F. Baer, refused to recognize or bargain with the union. Baer’s stubbornness and the miners’ refusal to return to work threatened residents of the Northeast with a winter home-heating crisis that imperiled Republican electoral prospects. Seeking to prove his concern for the welfare of workers, the public interest, and the Republican Party, Roosevelt compelled the mine owners and the union officials to meet with a presidentially appointed commission under threat of government seizure of the mines by 10,000 federal troops. His attorney general and members of Congress raised constitutional objections to the president’s getting involved in the strike, because it was a private matter. Roosevelt admitted he had “no legal or constitutional right in the matter” but proceeded because he thought the national interest trumped constitutional authority. A presidential commission awarded the miners an increase in wages, improved working conditions, and an impartial federal commission that would resolve their grievances.
Elected to the presidency by a substantial popular and electoral college majority in 1904, Roosevelt claimed and exercised even greater presidential powers. He pressured Congress to grant the ICC power to regulate the railroad shipping rates of private companies in the Hepburn Act of 1906. Committed to the conservation of natural and human resources, Roosevelt urged Congress to protect the health of citizens and preserve the environment. He won legislation that regulated the slaughtering of meat and the production of food and drugs. In 1906, Congress passed a Meat Inspection Act and a Pure Food and Drug Act. Roosevelt also used executive power to protect national forests by requiring timber companies to adopt scientific forestry methods. Finally, he created a national park system, designated national monuments as areas closed to future private development, and shut enormous tracts of federal land to mining, lumbering, and other forms of private development.
Roosevelt worshipped power and order. With power he would impose order. In his ideal society, organized business, organized agriculture, and organized labor countervailed each other’s power, while the federal government acted as an impartial arbiter to promote the general welfare. The role of government was changing in the early twentieth century, as was the role of the president, which was becoming that of the “steward of the public welfare.”
Roosevelt and the World
Roosevelt similarly used executive power vigorously as he pursued his aims overseas. In the 1880s and 1890s, he joined other young Republicans advocating an expansive foreign policy, one that featured a navy. American businesses and politicians dreamed of opening overseas markets for the products of American farms and factories. As assistant secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration, Roosevelt had advocated annexation of the Hawaiian Islands and war against Spain to free Cuba and expand U.S. power. He demanded the spoils of the Spanish-American War, that “splendid little war,” which ended with American control over Puerto Rico, the Philippine Islands, and Cuba. When France and Germany tried to close the Chinese market to other nations, Roosevelt endorsed the Open-Door Notes, released by Secretary of State John Hay, that beseeched European powers in China to respect the commercial rights of all nations. Ever the realist, however, Roosevelt knew there was little the United States could do to enforce its policy in China. (See the Redfield Proctor vs. Mark Twain on American Imperialism, 1898–1906 Primary Source.)
As president, Roosevelt promoted expansion abroad but recognized the limits of American power. His actions in the Caribbean, which he considered America’s backyard because of the Monroe Doctrine, transformed it into an American lake. Unable to obtain the funds from Congress to build a two-ocean navy to help him command the Atlantic and Pacific, he instigated a revolution in the Colombian province of Panama, creating a new Panamanian state that granted the United States the right to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. To ensure the security of the future canal, Roosevelt acted to dominate Caribbean waters. When Caribbean island states and continental ones, most notably Venezuela, defaulted on loans to France and Germany, he promulgated the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. The Roosevelt Corollary suggested that the United States would act as guardian for all Caribbean states that defaulted on their debts to foreign investors; it would restore financial and political order in failed states to keep Europe out of the affairs of the western hemisphere. (See the Cartoon Analysis: A Lesson for Anti-Expansionists, Victor Gillam, 1899 Primary Source.)
In the Far East, Roosevelt acted somewhat more cautiously to exercise American power, because he had to contend with Japanese and European powers. Japan, a rising world power, waged war with Russia in 1904 to obtain primacy on the mainland of Northeast Asia. When Japan threatened to overwhelm Russia militarily, Roosevelt acted as peacemaker, achieving a treaty that granted Japan dominance in Korea and Manchuria but protected Russia from total defeat. For this Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize, an ironic award for a proponent of the manly virtues of warfare. Roosevelt realized Japan was emerging as a power in the Pacific and sought to defend American strength there. In 1906, he negotiated a “gentleman’s agreement” with Japan that regulated immigration more strictly in return for California modifying its policy of segregating Japanese children in public schools. In late 1907, he sent the “Great White Fleet,” a squadron of U.S. naval vessels, into the Pacific as a demonstration of force to the Japanese.
Roosevelt and his appointed administrator for the Philippine Islands, William Howard Taft, faced Filipino rebels who remained active even after brutal repression by the U.S. military, which was dispatched to the Philippine Islands by President McKinley. The United States resorted to torture and concentration camps to quell the insurgency. Thus, Roosevelt managed the perils as well as the possibilities of imperialism. His successors, although guided by different goals, continued to expand America’s global power. (See The Philippine-American War Narrative)
The Presidency of William Howard Taft
William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s chosen successor, became president in 1909. Taft’s greatest ambition, however, was to serve as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a goal he achieved in the 1920s. Always more conservative than Roosevelt, Taft sided with old-guard, establishment Republicans, who controlled congressional committees precisely when a bloc of “progressive” Republicans in Congress were demanding more radical reforms to regulate Wall Street (i.e., financial markets) and concentrated corporate power. As insurgent Republicans allied with Southern Democrats, who desired lower tariffs and firmer regulation of the financial sector, Taft was damaged politically when the 1909 Payne-Aldrich Tariff did not significantly lower rates.
Still, Taft’s administration was characterized by progressive reforms. More fully committed to the letter of the law than Roosevelt, Taft acted as the real “trust buster.” He prosecuted twice as many trusts as Roosevelt had, ordering the Justice Department to sue Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, American Tobacco, and other corporations for alleged violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Taft’s actions stirred resentment among Republicans supporting the financial sector and corporate interests, and in Roosevelt, who had distinguished between “good” corporations and their “evil” counterparts. In addition, Congress passed the Mann-Elkins Act (1910), which expanded the ICC’s authority to regulate railroad rates and telecommunications. The Republican Party ended up split between conservatives on one side and the progressive insurgency on the other.
The New Freedom vs. the New Nationalism
The election of 1912 created a political earthquake. Former president Roosevelt fought to regain leadership of the Republican Party, challenging Taft for the presidential nomination and campaigning on behalf of a “New Nationalism.” This platform was heavily influenced by intellectual, progressive Herbert Croly’s book The Promise of American Life, which supported centralization. Roosevelt demanded a more active federal government that would rapidly increase federal executive power to regulate the economy and society in the national interest. As a progressive, he believed he needed to strengthen federal power to protect the people against moneyed interests. He promoted policy ideas borrowed from the creation of the welfare states in Germany and Great Britain that sought stricter regulation of working conditions, health benefits, protection against unemployment, and security in old age. And he suggested that if the federal (or state) judiciary hampered the creation of a modern administrative state based on the Constitution, he would reform the courts.
Taft and the Republican old guard controlled the 1912 party convention. They relied on Southern state delegates and conservative delegates, who together formed a majority for Taft’s nomination. Roosevelt delegates declared the nomination stolen, walked out of the convention singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and invited Roosevelt to accept nomination as a third-party candidate. Evoking an evangelical fervor for the progressive vision, Roosevelt declared, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!” Declaring himself fit as a bull moose, Roosevelt agreed to run as the Progressive or “Bull Moose” party’s candidate for the presidency.
With the Republican party split, the Democrats had an opportunity to return to power. They chose as their candidate Thomas Woodrow Wilson, a son of the South, the author of books about history and government, a former college professor and president of Princeton University, and a successful reformist governor of New Jersey. Wilson answered Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” with a “New Freedom” that featured increased competition (by preventing business from becoming concentrated), a less intrusive federal government, Protestant morality (Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian minister), and control of Wall Street. However, Wilson envisioned a stronger regulatory state. As he wrote in New Freedom, “Without the watchful interference, the resolute interference, of the government, there can be no fair play between individuals and such powerful institutions as the trusts. Freedom to-day is something more than being let alone. The program of a government of freedom must in these days be positive, not negative merely.” Accordingly, his platform demanded stricter regulation of corporations, more decentralized banking, and reduced tariffs. His electoral base was strong in the Democratic South. Wilson was a Protestant moralist influenced by the Social Gospel who could compete for votes among evangelicals in the north and west and from labor union workers in the urban North, and as a candidate competitive with Roosevelt among professionals and the highly educated.
In the election, nearly three-fourths of all voters chose a reform candidate. Wilson won the presidency with just over 40 percent of the popular vote but an enormous electoral college majority, owing to the split in the Republican vote. Roosevelt won more votes than Taft but trailed in the electoral college in all but six states. Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist party candidate, secured almost 6 percent of the vote. (See The Election of 1912 Decision Point.)
1912 Election Results
|Candidate||Party||No. of Electoral Votes||No. of Popular Votes||Percentage of Popular Vote|
|Woodrow Wilson||Democratic||435||6 293 454||42.5|
|Theodore Roosevelt||Progressive||88||4 119 207||27.8|
|William H. Taft (incumbent)||Republican||8||3 483 922||23.5|
|Eugene V. Debs||Socialist||0||901 551||6.1|
Wilson and the Democrats quickly enacted the reforms promised in the New Freedom platform, although his expansion of federal regulatory agencies was more like Roosevelt’s presidency. First came tariff reduction in a bill that included the first federal income tax since the Civil War. The Court had ruled in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loans & Trust (1895) that the income tax was unconstitutional and that enacting it required amending the Constitution. The tax, necessitated by a larger role for the federal government and a decrease in revenue from lower tariffs, was made constitutional by the 1913 ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment. Progressives wanted the new tax law to reduce income inequality by taxing the wealthy, and conservatives thought it pitted the classes against each other.
Next came financial reform, with passage of the Federal Reserve Act, intended to lessen Wall Street’s financial dominance by establishing 12 regional federal reserve banks that made credit available in the south and west. Soon after came the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, which strengthened the regulatory power of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and benefited trade unions by declaring they were not trusts under the law. Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), praised the Clayton Act as labor’s “Magna Carta.” In 1914, Congress created the Federal Trade Commission to regulate commerce and industry. It both regulated competition (the New Freedom) and enabled corporate concentration (the New Nationalism).
As the election of 1916 approached, Wilson and the Democrats enacted additional reforms to win over progressives, because the Republicans had reunited. Other legislation made it easier for farmers to obtain loans and subsidized agricultural and vocational education. In 1916, Congress passed laws to curtail child labor and to provide railroad workers with an eight-hour day (the Adamson Act), even though the courts had taken a mixed view of the constitutionality of regulating workers’ hours and liberty of contract in several decisions over the preceding twenty years. (See the Wilsonian Progressivism Narrative.)
Democratic control of the White House and Congress also brought a darker side to the nation’s capital and to federal policy. Led by a president who embraced segregation and with Southern Democrats in command of Congress, the federal government instituted Jim Crow segregation rules. African Americans who had obtained federal employment and promotions during Republican administrations found themselves denied federal jobs and downgraded rather than promoted. Jim Crow ruled in Washington as it did in the former Confederate states, where even some southern progressives embraced segregation as advancing the social order. Wilson even presented the racist film “Birth of a Nation” in the White House and praised its portrayal of Reconstruction and the “Lost Cause.” (See the Jim Crow and Progressivism Narrative.)
The progressives’ support for the segregation of African Americans sprang from their belief in Social Darwinism, eugenics, and scientific racism, which argued there was a hierarchy of races. Many progressives believed that African Americans were racially inferior and that segregating them and denying them civil rights would maintain a natural racial hierarchy and establish social order. Progressives applied the same principle to immigrants, especially those from Eastern Europe, and justified immigration restriction on the basis of racial inferiority. This idea influenced foreign affairs in that belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority was used to support expansionism as a duty to help lesser races become civilized. The social engineering of this new “scientific” outlook combined with biological engineering by supporting population control and forced sterilization of the intellectually disabled and “unfit.”
The Wilson administration’s achievements and the president’s ability to keep the nation out of the European war that erupted in August 1914 buoyed Democratic hopes for victory in 1916 against a reunited Republican Party. Running on the accomplishments of the New Freedom platform and more emphatically on the theme, “He kept us out of war,” Wilson eked out a victory over his Republican opponent, Charles Evans Hughes. (See the Did the Progressive Movement Diverge from Founding Principles and Did It Affect the Purpose of Government? Point-Counterpoint.)
America and a World at War
Wilson pursued a foreign policy as ambitious to expand the nation’s role in the world as Roosevelt’s had been. Where Roosevelt favored realpolitik, Wilson was an idealist guided by a missionary zeal to spread democracy through military intervention. He intervened in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and deployed marines to Central America. He also presided over the opening of the Panama Canal (1914). When Mexico erupted in rebellion and civil war between 1910 and 1917, Wilson decided to teach the Mexicans how to act democratically and elect the leaders he wanted. Twice he intervened militarily, first staging a naval and marine invasion at the port of Vera Cruz in 1914, and again in 1916, sending a U.S. Army detachment under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa, one of the more notorious Mexican rebels, until Pershing was recalled to fight in World War I in Europe.
In the summer of 1914, Europe erupted into war as the Central Powers, led by Germany and Austria-Hungary, lined up against the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Tsarist Russia. Wilson wanted to maintain U.S. neutrality. He asked Americans to be neutral in thought as well as action.
However, neutrality proved impossible. Wilson supported the idea of “freedom of the seas” to allow Southern cotton growers and Midwestern farmers to ship their goods to overseas markets, particularly the allied nations. That same principle allowed American corporations to produce and ship armaments to Britain and France while American bankers made loans to the allies.
Britain used its sea power to blockade the continent and deny the Central Powers American goods, though Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan protested this as an unneutral stance by the United States in favor of the allies. Germany responded to the British naval blockade by declaring its own blockade of Britain and enforcing it with submarine warfare. U-Boats torpedoed Allied and American merchant ships in 1915, sinking the passenger liner Lusitania with the loss of more than 1,000 civilian lives, including 128 Americans. In response, Wilson threatened to break diplomatic relations with Germany unless it halted undersea warfare. Germany initially heeded Wilson’s demand but Bryan resigned, fearing that Wilson’s policy on submarine warfare would lead to war.
While Wilson struggled to maintain U.S. neutrality, the war in Europe became a bloody stalemate. With the belligerents unable to end it, Wilson proposed to act as a mediator, offering “peace without victory.” Despite having suffered irreparable human and material losses by the end of 1916, the combatants had no use for Wilson’s peacemaking. Rejected as a mediator by Britain and Germany, he appealed for peace on January 22, 1917, going over the heads of the warmakers to deliver a public address known as the “Peace without Victory” speech. In it, Wilson promised the world free seas, disarmament, self-determination, and a League of Nations to maintain international law and morality.
Wilson found no takers for his utopian peace plan. Instead, in February 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and gambled it could defeat the allies before the Americans could send an army overseas to join the allies. A month later, a liberal revolution in Russia deposed the Tsar and weakened resistance on the Eastern front. Germany now expected to turn the tide of battle on the Western front and worried less about U.S. intervention. The potential for a decisive German victory troubled Wilson, who favored an Anglo-American world order. The British encouraged him to intervene on the Allied side by providing Americans with the “Zimmerman telegram,” which conveyed an offer from the German foreign office to Mexico. If Mexico entered the war on the German side, a victorious Germany would return to Mexico the territories seized by the United States in the Mexican-American War.
Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany on April 2, 1917. He promised a crusade to “make the world safe for democracy” and better for all humanity. As the official wartime propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information, later expressed the U.S. war aim: It was not “merely to rewin the tomb of Christ, but to bring back to earth the rule of right, the peace, goodwill to men and gentleness he taught.” The rhetoric of Wilson and his administration promoted a progressive vision for a new world order of stability and lasting peace. (See the America Enters World War I Narrative; the Over There: The U.S. Soldier in World War I Narrative; and the George M. Cohan, Over There, 1917 Primary Source.)
U.S. intervention at first failed to turn the tide of battle. However, in November 1917, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and ousted the provisional government in a second communist revolution, withdrawing Russia from the war in March 1918. Not only did the Russian revolutionaries sign a peace treaty with Germany, they released the secret treaties negotiated among the belligerents in which the signatories had planned to divide the spoils of war by allocating territory and colonies to the victors. In January 1918, Wilson responded to these events with yet another speech expressing his progressive idealism, in which he enunciated his famous “Fourteen Points,” among them: 1) free seas; 2) free trade; 3) self-determination for all peoples; 4) colonial liberation; 5) arms reduction; 6) no secret diplomacy, but open covenants openly arrived at; and 7) a League of Nations to establish global law, peace, and harmony. Several clauses proposed self-determination for groups of people in collapsing European empires. Wilson again offered a peace without victory or victors. (See the Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, 1918 Primary Source.)
In November 1918, Germany sued for peace on the basis of the “Fourteen Points.” Early in 1919, the victors convened in Versailles, France, to negotiate a peace treaty. Wilson arrived in Europe to the applause of the British and French people. A hero in Europe, he had been repudiated by his own people in November 1918, as Republicans swept back into control in Congress. The peace conference, instead of creating a peace without victors, assembled only the triumphant. As the French leader Georges Clemenceau noted, “God gave us the Ten Commandments and we broke them. Wilson gives us the Fourteen Points. We shall see.”
The treaty that resulted violated many of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. It held the Germans solely responsible for the war and demanded they pay the victors enormous reparations. It distributed lands held in 1914 by Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire to both the victors and the new nations created in the aftermath of the war. Britain and France retained their prewar colonies, obtained control of former German colonies, and divided the Middle East between them. Wilson’s major accomplishment was the establishment of a League of Nations.
Wilson returned home to campaign for ratification of the treaty and its League of Nations. Republicans in the Senate, who had won a majority in the 1918 election, opposed the treaty because Article X stated that the international body could decide when the United States went to war, which violated Article I, section 8 of the Constitution. Some senators were willing to compromise if the offending clause were removed, while others were “irreconcilables” who would never vote for the treaty. In September 1919, Wilson began an 8,000-mile, whistle-stop train tour to sell the treaty to the American people over the next 22 days. In Pueblo, Colorado, however, he suffered a major stroke that completely disabled him for the remainder of his presidency. While the Senate debated ratification, the president’s wife and senior cabinet members ran the executive office. Wilson was obstinately opposed to removing Article X and damaging the cause of collective security and world peace, so he refused to compromise with Republican opponents of the treaty. Three times between December 1919 and March 1920, the Senate failed to obtain the two-thirds majority needed to ratify the treaty. (See The Treaty of Versailles Decision Point.)
The World War I Homefront
Domestically, war produced significant changes in the American economy and society, because the federal government quickly expanded to meet the progressive goal of an efficient and orderly mobilization managed by experts. The government instituted compulsory conscription and drafted millions of able-bodied men. It managed the labor supply to keep war industries adequately staffed with skilled workers. To finance the war, it raised income taxes on the wealthy, instituted a corporate “excess profits” tax, and peddled war bonds (called Liberty bonds) to ordinary citizens. It instituted a Committee on Public Information, managed by progressive George Creel, to control public opinion in support of the war through propaganda.
To ensure that the U.S. military and allied troops would be adequately fed, the federal government created a Food Administration that rationed vital foodstuffs. A War Industries Board coordinated production to keep the flow of war materials running smoothly. A Fuel Administration allocated coal and vital sources of energy to factories and to the railroads that shipped foodstuffs and armaments. The federal government nationalized the nation’s numerous rail companies temporarily for the duration of the war and set up the Railway Administration to coordinate traffic flow. The executive agencies created during World War I represented a rapid expansion of the scale and scope of federal government power and later became a model for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to combat the Great Depression.
During the war, the federal government aggressively intruded into the relationship between business and labor. The demands of war eliminated unemployment. Workers demanded higher wages and felt no compunction about quitting to get them. They also joined unions and used them aggressively. Early on, a wave of strikes threatened to disrupt war production. In response, the government acted as mediator, urging employers to bargain with their workers. In March 1918, Wilson established another executive agency, the National War Labor Board (NWLB), composed of representatives of industry, labor, and government. Cochaired by former president William Howard Taft and Frank P. Walsh, a radical Democrat from Missouri, the NWLB required employers to recognize unions that surrendered their right to strike during wartime, to create representative factory committees for workers lacking union representation, to observe eight hours as the standard workday, and to establish uniform wages without distinction by race or sex. Protected by the NWLB, AFL unions doubled their membership by the war’s end, increasing by more than two million and reaching nearly 20 percent of the nonfarm labor force. Union power came to the previously nonunion meatpacking industry and to the open-shop steel industry. Never had the power of unions seemed so great nor the prospects for improving working conditions better.
The war and the growth of state power had severely negative consequences for civil liberties, however. All criticism of or resistance to conscription and war became synonymous with treason. Germans and German culture suffered from popular repression. Frankfurters were renamed hot dogs, sauerkraut became victory cabbage, and hamburgers turned into Salisbury steak. The government urged private citizens to form loyalty leagues and to act as vigilantes who could threaten the uncooperative and lynch suspected traitors. In 1917 and 1918, Congress passed an Espionage Act and a Sedition Act, the latter defining criticism of conscription and war as a crime. The Postmaster General closed the mails to radical, pacifist, and antiwar publications. A federal jury convicted Eugene V. Debs, the four-time Socialist Party candidate for president, of sedition for a speech criticizing conscription, and the judge sentenced him to a federal penitentiary.
The radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) experienced more severe repression. Federal agents raided IWW headquarters nationwide and seized every piece of paper and artifact they could find. Afterward, the Department of Justice arrested hundreds of IWW officials and leaders, holding them for trial in Chicago, Wichita, and Sacramento for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Federal juries quickly convicted defendants, and federal district trial judges sentenced them to long terms in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. The Wilson administration had a poor record of respecting civil liberties of American citizens during the war. (See The Espionage Act of 1917 Primary Source and the Schenck v. United States DBQ Lesson.)
African Americans fought in the war to make the world “safe for democracy,” but they made only halting gains in enjoying democracy themselves. Whether they volunteered or were conscripted into the U.S. Army, they were eager to prove their patriotism to their country, even if it forced them into segregated units. Of the 400,000 black soldiers who served, most did menial labor, but the 92nd and 93rd Divisions served in combat alongside the French and fought bravely. At home, more than 500,000 African Americans moved to the North; others went to southern cities for job opportunities and to escape the ravages of the boll weevil infestation on southern cotton farms. However, they faced discrimination and segregation in jobs and housing even in the North. In 1917, race riots erupted, with 125 blacks killed in East St. Louis, Illinois, alone.
American women saw opportunity for advancements in civil rights and jobs during the war. They worked in factory jobs producing material for the war, but many were young, single women or immigrant women who were already working in factories before the conflict. Still, employment for women increased during the war, though it declined again as men returned from combat. Established unions such as the AFL were generally hostile to female employment, and the federal government did relatively little to protect it. When the United States entered the war, the National American Woman Suffrage Association pledged its support. After Wilson had previously opposed women’s suffrage, the imperatives of war, demonstrations by suffragists outside the White House, and the approaching 1918 congressional elections persuaded the President to support the women’s suffrage amendment. The Nineteenth Amendment passed Congress in mid-1919 and was ratified by the states in 1920. (See the Alice Paul and the Struggle for Women’s Suffrage Narrative.)
Postwar America suffered the chaos of labor strikes, race riots, and runaway inflation during its effort to demobilize the armed forces and return to peace. Four million workers went on strike in a massive labor action that included a strike by 300,000 steel workers, 400,000 coal miners, and textile and garment workers; a general strike in Seattle; and a police strike in Boston. The strikes generated widespread popular discontent and caused authorities to respond with severe repression. As a result, labor’s wartime gains in membership began to dissolve, vanishing by 1922. Women, who had enjoyed greater employment opportunities and higher wages during the war, returned to the home or to low-wage jobs defined as women’s work. African Americans suffered a similar fate, one that was compounded by race riots in 1919–1921, the worst of which occurred in Chicago in the summer of 1919 and in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921.
The turbulent first two decades of the twentieth century raised enduring questions about the American experiment. Progressives expanded the role of government to bring about social and economic order while introducing many reforms and mobilizing the economy for war. Vast economic and technological forces were unleashed as America became the world’s leading industrial power and biggest creditor nation. The country grew more involved in world affairs and expanded the reach of its global power from the Spanish-American War to World War I. Americans debated the desirability of these changes and the country’s response to them as the war reshaped the modern world and they faced the postwar period.
Additional Chapter Resources
- Ida M. Tarbell’s Crusade against Standard Oil Narrative
- Westward Expansion and the Quest to Conserve Narrative
- The Panama Canal Narrative
- Speaker Joseph Cannon Dethroned Narrative
- The Great Migration Narrative
- Elihu Root vs. William Jennings Bryan on Women’s Suffrage 1894-1914 Primary Source
- Carrie Chapman Catt Open Address to the U.S. Congress 1917 Primary Source
- Business and Advertising in the Early Twentieth Century 1910-1917 Primary Source
- Women’s Suffrage and the Nineteenth Amendment Lesson
1. By the beginning of the twentieth century the United States was undergoing massive changes including all the following except
- wide income disparities resulting from the industrial revolution
- negative reaction to massive immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe
- transition to an economy based on self-sufficient farmers and skilled artisans
- a significant role in the world due to a growing overseas empire
2. All the following were true of the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century except
- the Socialist Party’s electoral strength directly challenged the two-party system
- social science techniques were used in efforts to improve social conditions
- progressives were a diverse group with often competing goals
- labor wanted to limit the power of concentrated capital
3. Much Progressive Era reform started at the local and state levels because
- the U.S. Constitution did not grant the federal government power in matters of the health safety and the welfare of citizens
- the federal government lacked the constitutional power to regulate businesses operating across state lines
- the major political parties with little concern for urban politics were uninterested in pursuing national reform policies
- the U.S. Constitution gave Congress little to no power to regulate foreign and domestic trade
4. Urban reformers sought to limit the power of the political bosses by
- establishing settlement houses with visiting nurse services
- supporting court decisions that limited working hours
- instituting commission and city manager systems of government
- expanding the voting power of the working classes
5. Compared with rates during the Gilded Age voter participation at all levels of government during the Progressive Era
- remained the same
- totally collapsed due to lack of interest in national politics
6. Theodore Roosevelt’s expansion of federal regulatory power reflected his belief that
- Congress’s power was constitutionally superior to that of other branches of government
- the Supreme Court needed a national spokesperson to publicize its decisions
- the executive branch could best create social stability and avert revolution
- the federal bureaucracy needed to be severely curtailed to reflect the needs of the people
7. Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency expanded the regulatory powers of the executive branch by all the following actions except
- passing the Elkins and Hepburn Acts to give the Interstate Commerce Commission more power over railroad rates
- suing the Northern Securities Company for violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act
- authorizing the Department of Commerce to investigate corporate wrongdoing
- publicly supporting mine owners in the anthracite coal strike
8. Theodore Roosevelt’s accomplishments as president included all the following except
- expansion of private development of public lands
- protection of national forest land
- creation of a national park system
- passage of consumer protection legislation
9. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine centered on the belief that the United States should
- develop an overseas empire along the Pacific rim
- secure dominance in the Western Hemisphere
- distance itself from rising fascism in Europe
- fund the development of fledgling nation-states in the Caribbean
10. Progressives within the Republican Party viewed the presidency of William Howard Taft as
- characterized by widespread corruption and misconduct
- a worthy successor to that of Theodore Roosevelt
- more aggressive than Roosevelt’s in pursuing a progressive agenda
- lacking reform fervor
11. The results of the 1912 presidential election signaled
- an end to Progressive Era reform
- the demise of the two-party system
- a return to an isolationist foreign policy
- a continuation with some redirection of a national economic reform agenda
12. President Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom campaign agenda was exemplified by all the following except
- passage of the Clayton Anti-Trust Act
- creation of the Federal Trade Commission
- development of the Federal Reserve System
- expansion of women’s suffrage through a constitutional amendment
13. Intervention in Haiti the Dominican Republic and the Mexican Revolution demonstrated that President Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy
- continued an expansion of the United States’ role in the world
- abandoned the precedents established by Theodore Roosevelt
- concentrated on removing the threat of war in Europe
- recognized the threat of Soviet intervention in the Western Hemisphere
14. During the lead-up to World War I President Woodrow Wilson’s focus on freedom of the seas was challenged by
- unrestricted submarine warfare
- trench warfare
- a policy of U.S. neutrality
- a call for peace without victory
15. Key components of Woodrow Wilson’s Peace without Victory plan included all the following except
- freedom of the seas
- establishment of a League of Nations
16. The immediate events that led to a U.S. declaration of war against Germany in World War I included all the following except
- interception of the Zimmerman telegram
- resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare
- sinking of the USS Maine
- fall of Tsarist Russia
17. When President Woodrow Wilson proposed the Fourteen Points the Allied nations responded by
- incorporating the idealistic tone of the Fourteen Points into the Treaty of Versailles
- rejecting the concept of peace without victory
- inviting German representatives to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles
- supporting the creation of independent nations from the remains of the Austro-Hungarian empire
18. On the home front the United States’ entry into World War I led to an expansion of
- civil liberties
- federal power
- unrestricted immigration
- support for the Democratic Party
Free Response Questions
- Analyze the reasons why significant Progressive reforms began at the local and state levels.
- Explain how Woodrow Wilson’s administration implemented his New Freedom platform.
- Explain why the United States declared war in 1917.
- Explain why President Wilson failed to achieve peace without victory after World War I.
AP Practice QuestionsRefer to the image provided.
1. The publication of this document was most directly shaped by
- nativist sentiment due to increased immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe
- the need to finance U.S. involvement in World War I
- payment for territories acquired after the Spanish-American War
- negative reaction to violations of civil liberties at the end of World War I
2. A person who signed this document would be most likely to support
- victory for the Allies
- the National Consumers League
- the League of Nations
- New Nationalism
3. The beliefs stated in this document most clearly contributed to which of the following?
- Support for Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Point peace plan committing the United States to participate in the League of Nations
- Passage of the women’s suffrage amendment
- Failure of the U.S. Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles
- The need for a draft during World War I
“Section 7. That no corporation engaged in commerce shall acquire directly or indirectly the whole or any part of the stock or other share capital of another corporation engaged also in commerce where the effect of such acquisition may be to substantially lessen competition between the corporation whose stock is so acquired and the corporation making the acquisition or to restrain such commerce . . . or tend to create a monopoly . . .
No corporation shall acquire directly or indirectly the whole or any part of the stock or other share capital of two or more corporations engaged in commerce where the effect of such acquisition . . . may be to substantially lessen competition between such corporations . . . or to restrain such commerce . . . or tend to create a monopoly”
Clayton Antitrust Act U.S. Code 1914 (122 words)Refer to the excerpt provided.
4. The legislation in the excerpt most directly reflected a growing belief that
- the states possessed substantial power to address unfair business practices
- third parties would continue to dominate presidential politics
- the public was disinterested in limiting the power of industrialists
- the federal government needed to provide regulatory oversight in antitrust laws
5. What group would most likely support the passage of the legislation in the excerpt?
- Supporters of Social Darwinism
- Opponents of the collective security clause of the League of Nations covenant
- Progressive Era reformers
6. Which of the following government actions represented a historical continuity with the legislation in the excerpt?
- Prosecution of the Northern Securities Company and Standard Oil trust
- Prosecution of labor unions as “combinations in restraint of trade”
- Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women’s suffrage
- Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
For Roosevelt’s fullest statement of the “New Nationalism ” see the following transcript of a speech he delivered in October 1910 in Osawatomie Kansas: https://d43fweuh3sg51.cloudfront.net/media/media_files/9c8e2485-63bd-49be-82dd-48b5b0974752.pdf
For the full text of Wilson’s “Peace without Victory” speech see: http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=3&psid=3898
For Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” speech see: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/wilson14.asp
For Wilson’s fullest statement of his “New Freedom” platform see: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14811/14811-h/14811-h.htm
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