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World War I: Homefront

World War I sparked major changes in the United States. The government used propaganda to rally support for the war and restricted freedom of speech. The war created better job opportunities for African Americans, leading to the Great Migration. However, the war also led to increased discrimination against immigrants and did not result in significant civil rights gains for African Americans.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In 1917 the United States entered World War I on the side of the allies. After several years of neutrality, Woodrow Wilson, who was serving as President of the United States at the time, even campaigned for reelection on the slogan: He kept us out of war. But, less than a month after his second inauguration, Wilson went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Germany. It wasn't easy to achieve an abrupt about face from a country that was determined not to become involved in the conflict to a country that was wholly dedicated to the war effort. So the US Government swept into action to convince everyone to support the war. The new committee on pubic information churned out propaganda to convince people to war bonds and to keep soldiers well supplied with food and weapons. Propaganda campaigns strongly linked patriotism with unquestioning support of the American Government and of Capitalism. Dissenters were not just called Un-American, they were also in danger of being arrested or deported under new laws that restricted freedom of speech. For many immigrants and African Americans in this time period, the home front during World War I, offered both new opportunities and great dangers. One major opportunity brought on by World War I was the prospect of better jobs for African Americans. The war slowed down immigration to about a tenth of what it had been previously. Since torpedo's made the Atlantic a dangerous place for ships. The sudden drop in immigrants and the need to produce war material led to an explosion in the number of factory jobs that were available to black workers. In the decade that surround World War I, half a million African Americans left the South and headed for Northern and Mid-Western cities in a mass exodus known as the The Great Migration. Even though black factory workers didn't enjoy anything, like the wages or privileges afforded to white workers, they still could make more money in the North than they could as share-croppers in the South. In the North they also had the right to vote and were less likely to encounter racial violence like lynching. But, racial violence, segregation, discrimination, were still prominent fixtures of black life in the North. Several of the most deadly race riots in American History happened during this period in Northern cities. Another opportunity that World War I offered to immigrants and African Americans was the ability to boost their status in society by contributing to the war effort. Many immigrants saw displays of patriotism as a way to show they were truly American and had assimilated through the melting pot. US Government appealed to immigrants specifically to show their patriotism by enlisting, participating in parades, or buying war bonds. Take a look at this propaganda poster showing immigrants passing by the Statue of Liberty. It's written in Yiddish, the language commonly spoken Eastern European Jews. And it says: You came here seeking freedom, now you must help preserve it. And it instructs them not to waste food. So, conspicuous to displays of patriotism and other efforts to help the war, were a way that immigrants could show that they were America and therefore deserve to be treated just the same as other Americans. For similar reasons, African American leaders like, W.E.B. DuBois encouraged black men to enlist for military service hoping that serving honorably in the war would help improve the status of African Americans. Just as the service of black service had done in the Civil War. This poster celebrated the accomplishments of the all black 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hell Fighters, who were the first allied soldiers to engage the Germans in combat. The French Government awarded many of them the Croix de Guerre, its medal for heroism. But, despite the hopes of DuBois and others, the war time service of African Americans didn't result in any significant Civil Right's gains during the war or when they returned home. Army units were segregated and most soldiers were confined to menial duties. The Wilson Administration didn't even allow black soldiers to participate in victory parades at the end of the war. At home, failure to fully embrace American patriotism was sharply punished. In 1917 and 1918 Congress passed the Espionage Act which made it a crime to spy, interfere with the draft, or make false statements about the military. And the Sedition Act, which criminalized statements critical of the government. These laws were especially dangerous for immigrants who were more likely to advocate for Socialism and for labor unions, which were by their vary nature, a critique of the American Economic System. Thousands of people were arrested as a result of these laws for doing things like publishing newspapers or handing out pamphlets. German immigrants faced particular discriminations since they were suspected of sympathizing with, or colluding with the enemy. The push for a unified American public during the war also led to new immigration restrictions. In 1917 Congress required that immigrants pass a literacy test and after the war Congress would pass a series of new laws establishing ethnic quotas among immigrants which heavily discriminated against the new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. These laws were partly motivated by fears that radicals sympathetic to the Russian Revolution in which Communists took control of the Russian Government were part of a global conspiracy to undermine capitalism. There were a series of labor strikes in 1919 that seemed to confirm this suspicion leading to a crackdown on labor unions and Socialist organizations known as the Red Scare. Red was the color of the Russian Communists. Thousands more people were arrested as possible radicals and many immigrants were deported. So, World War I and the United State's response to it at home caused huge changes in the flow of people to and within the United States. The dangers of war slowed what had been a tidal wave of immigrants from Europe down to just a trickle. And the economic opportunities it brought in the form of war-time factory work led hundreds of thousands of African Americans to leave the South and head to Northern cities. But, restrictions on civil liberties and fear that immigrants might be importing radical ideas from abroad led many to define who was eligible to become an American more narrowly than before. Setting the stage for a series of cultural and political battles in the 1920s about what kind of society the United States should be in this new modern era.