The World Goes to War

National Constitution Center

From 2017 through 2019, the National Constitution Center featured artifacts to observe the centennial anniversary of U.S. involvement in World War I. Explore the origins of the war, the contributions of Americans at home and abroad, and the constitutional issues surrounding a nation at war.

World War I centennial display in the main exhibition of the National Constitution Center.

The United States Enters the Conflict
President Woodrow Wilson pledged to keep America out of World War I, a European conflict sparked in 1914 by the assassination of an Austrian archduke. By April 1917, German aggression forced the U.S. into the war. American troops soon arrived in France.

President Wilson's War Address, 1917

Woodrow Wilson delivered this speech to Congress, requesting a declaration of war against Germany. Although the president had vowed to keep the country neutral, recent acts of German aggression changed his mind: “The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind.” Four days later, Congress declared war, joining its allies Britain, France, and Russia.

Recruiting Poster, ca. 1917

When the Selective Service Act passed in May 1917, posters like this sprang up across the country. More than 9.5 million men registered on the first day of the draft, welcomed by cheering crowds and military bands. Less than a month later, American troops joined Allied forces in France.

U.S. Army Dog Tag, 1918

This dog tag was worn by Private John Schaffranek, a German-born draftee, while serving with the U.S. Army in France. Amid anti-German sentiment, he strongly affirmed his allegiance to his adopted country, allowing him to remain on the front lines. Approximately 18 percent of U.S. recruits were immigrants.

U.S. Army Gas Mask, 1919

This mask represents the war’s devastating impact—when the first large-scale use of chemical weapons left 1.3 million dead or injured. In response to German gas attacks, the newly established Chemical Warfare Service developed strategies to deal with toxic agents such as mustard gas. The Army also issued filter respirator masks, like the one seen here.

U.S. infantrymen pose with their gas masks during World War I.

The Home Front
At home, millions registered for the draft, the Food Administration encouraged food conservation, and the Treasury promoted Liberty Bonds and Loans. Congress also passed the Espionage Act—a wartime national security measure authorizing the government to punish individuals who interfered with the war effort.

"Must Liberty's Light Go Out?" 1917

This editorial cartoon contains powerful commentary on the proposed bill to forbid interference with the war effort. In the illustration, an arm labeled "Espionage Bill" snatches the torch of "Enlightenment" from Lady Liberty—hinting at the bill's potential violations of civil liberties. Despite strong public outcry, Congress passed the bill one month later.

Solicitation Letter from the Editor of "The Masses," ca. 1911-1917

In this letter, writer and activist Max Eastman seeks financial support for The Masses, a socialist magazine that criticized the war. Eastman promised to “fight conscription” and “fight the censorship” to resist the war effort. Under the Espionage Act, the government condemned the anti-war publication, causing it to fall out of print.

World War I Anti-Draft Pamphlet, 1917

“Help us wipe out this stain upon the Constitution!” Charles Schenck, a Socialist Party leader in Philadelphia, distributed this leaflet to encourage repeal of the draft. Schenck was arrested for violating the Espionage Act, a law that restricted individuals from undermining the war effort. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld his conviction.

Third Liberty Loan Poster, 1918

This poster encouraged Americans to prove their patriotism by purchasing war bonds. In April 1918, Congress passed the Third Liberty Loan Act to fund the war. By arousing fears of enemy spies and dissenters, this advertisement capitalized on the public’s desire to demonstrate loyalty during wartime.

Armistice Day
Germany surrendered in November 1918, but the warring nations struggled to establish peace. The final Treaty of Versailles, seeking to prevent future conflicts, instead left the door open for a second world war.
Credits: Story

This exhibit was developed and designed by the National Constitution Center.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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