A Centennial Exhibition

Food Will Win the War, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
World War I
World War I was a watershed event that reshaped American lives. The United States abandoned its history of isolation and assumed a larger role in the world. In 1914 most Americans wished to avoid engagement in a European war. By 1917 most Americans supported the government’s call for unity and sacrifice to defeat enemies who threatened their future, although a few continued to oppose war on humanitarian and other grounds. Participation in the war fostered hopes of increasing rights for African Americans, women, and immigrants, but wartime legislation, including the Espionage and Sedition Acts, curtailed individual and constitutional liberties and led to a retreat from the reforms of the Progressive era. The mixed legacies of World War I shaped the direction of American society for the next generation.
Work As You Would Fight, 1905-04-01, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

How did the men and women who lived through America’s World War I view their experiences of wartime service and sacrifices on the home front? A century later, we ask viewers to set aside modern assumptions and look at the war through the eyes of Americans who lived it. View this print on the Gilder Lehrman website.

Woodrow Wilson, 1905-03-29, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

View this portrait of President Wilson on the Gilder Lehrman website.

Quotation from Woodrow Wilson, 1912-04-02, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Newsreel footage captures headlines of war and early troop training. Film courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

A Bird's Eye View of Baltimore, 1905-03-26, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
The US: An Industrial Nation in the World
In the first decade of the twentieth century, the United States experienced rapid growth and increasing industrialization. The new order ruptured traditional ways of life. While many Americans benefitted from new opportunities, others were shut out from the economic, social, and political advances. As Americans faced disparities in wealth and opportunity at home, they also debated how to address the country’s growing economic investment and military intervention in the world. Some, like President Theodore Roosevelt, believed that peace and prosperity had to be sustained through American military and economic strength. Others, like the social reformer Jane Addams, argued that international relations had to be based on humanitarian principles and binding arbitration.
Jane Addams, 1905-03-24, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Jane Addams, a leading social reformer, appealed to both humanity and prudence in the face of the human and economic costs of war when she declared:

Quotation from Jane Addams, 1905-03-16, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Panama Canal (Courtesy of the Library of Congress), 1905-03-29, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The United States began work on the Panama Canal in 1904. Completed in 1914, the canal symbolized American technological advances and the economic power of the United States in the world.

Votes for Women!, 1905-03-29, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Suffragists were part of a broader reform movement that also included support for peaceful resolution of conflict. View this women's suffrage poster on the Gilder Lehrman website.

“Next!” (Courtesy of the Library of Congress), 1904-09-07, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

This 1904 cartoon depicts Standard Oil as an octopus strangling symbols of American government. Cartoons like this inspired reformers to pass laws to limit corporate control over American politics and society.

“Why We are at War,” Messages to Congress January to April, 1917, 1905-03-31, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
The Road to War
In 1914 most Americans were opposed to joining a foreign conflict. Isolationists, suffragists, and socialists spoke and demonstrated against going to war. Other Americans, led by former president Theodore Roosevelt, advocated military preparedness. On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat sank the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner, killing 128 Americans. The Lusitania brought the war from the theoretical to the practical, making it about America in a way that it had not been before.
Women's Peace Delegates (Courtesy of the Library of Congress), 1915-04, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

As war loomed in Europe, women reformers engaged in the peace movement. In 1915, activists Jane Addams, Carrie Chapman Catt, and others joined a delegation to the International Congress of Women for a Permanent Peace.

"Enlist" (Courtesy of the Library of Congress), 1905-03-29, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

On May 7, 1915, the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner, was sunk by a German submarine. This poster employs religious imagery to depict the Lusitania disaster.

Theodore Roosevelt, 1905-03-19, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

After the sinking of the Lusitania, Theodore Roosevelt, a leader of the pro-war movement, wrote:

Quotation from Theodore Roosevelt, 1915-06-23, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Oscar King Davis, 1915-06-23, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Roosevelt continued with a pointed reference to American history. Read Roosevelt's letter on the Gilder Lehrman website.

The Zimmerman Telegram (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration), 1917-01-19, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

On March 1, 1917, American newspapers printed the decoded Zimmermann telegram, sent from Germany to Mexico offering an anti-American alliance. The direct threat to the United States further inflamed public opinion against Germany.

“Why We are at War,” Messages to Congress January to April, 1917, 1905-03-31, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

On April 2, Wilson asked Congress to declare war and they did so on April 6, 1917. A small number of advocates of progressive reform opposed the war. Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin was one of six US senators to vote against war, which he argued only served the "war machine." View President Wilson's message to Congress on the Gilder Lehrman website.

World War I trench in France, 1905-04-01, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
The Experience of War: Why We Fight
More than two million soldiers served in Europe with the American Expeditionary Forces between 1917 and 1920. Among them were African Americans, who served in segregated regiments commanded by white officers and were assigned mostly to support services. The Selective Service boards also accepted immigrants. The two groups often viewed military service as a path to equality and citizenship.
Letter from Harold C. Hopkins in Camp Dix, New Jersey, to his mother, Mrs. A.W. Hopkins, 1919-04-02, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Letters and diaries written by soldiers reflect their day-to-day concerns over food, disease, boredom, and army discipline, echoing letters written during previous wars. Eager to reassure their families about their safety and mindful of military censorship, few described the brutality and unprecedented carnage of the war in their letters.

An Army nurse assists with the treatment of a patient during World War I. (Courtesty of the Department of Defense), From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Personal diaries, however, were more likely to record heroic deeds of patriotism and the horrors of war. What little people at home learned of the violence of war and Allied victories came from articles by journalists like Damon Runyon and Floyd Gibbons.

Diary of Ella Jane Osborn, 1905-04-01, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Ella Jane Osborn, an army nurse, was stationed in an evacuation hospital in France. In her diary she recorded daily events as well as the suffering of the soldiers under her care. Find out more about Ella Jane Osborn.

Quotation from Ella Jane Osborn, 1918-05-31, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Diary of World War I army nurse Ella Jane Osborn, 1918-07-29, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

In addition to her notes about the men under her care and events in France, Osborn jotted down two popular World War I poems, “In Flanders Fields,” by Canadian surgeon Lt. Col. John D. McCrae, and “The Answer,” by Lt. J. A. Armstrong of Wisconsin.

Letter from Helen Belknap to Mrs. Stowe, 1918-11-06, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

On November 4, 1918, Helen Belknap, a volunteer working in a YMCA canteen in Paris, wrote to the mother of a soldier who had visited the American-run relief center.

Quotation from Helen Belknap, 1918-11-06, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

This film from the National Archives shows soldiers on leave during the war -- dancing, bicycle riding, sightseeing in the company of YMCA and Red Cross workers.

Letter from George A. Chisholm to his girlfriend, Alice, 1918-10-28, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

In a letter to his girlfriend, George A. Chisholm reassured her that he wouldn't be swayed by the girls "Over There."

Quotation from George A. Chisholm, 1918-11-28, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
True Sons of Freedom, 1905-04-01, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

More than 350,000 African Americans enlisted and served in segregated units. W. E. B. Du Bois, a leader of the African American movement for civil rights, had opposed black participation in the “white man’s war.” After the United States entered the war, however, he wrote in The Crisis:

Quotation from W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918-07, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The 93rd Division, the focus of this film, was an African American unit which included the Harlem Hellfighters. Film courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration.

Troops resting in a trench, ca. 1918. (Courtesy of The New York Public Library), 1905-04-01, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

William Shepp, from West Virginia, enlisted on June 5, 1917, and kept a diary of his army experience. On January 5, 1918, the day before his twenty-first birthday, Shepp declared:

Diary of William Shepp, 1918-01-05, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

“The last day of my boyhood. Tomorrow I’ll be a man for Uncle Sammie instead of a boy. Gee, how proud I am of the fact.”
—William Shepp
January 5, 1918

Read more from the diary of William Shepp.

William Shepp, Company A, 7th Engineers, 1905-04-02, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Scenes of enlistment and Red Cross and troop deployment from The National Archives and Records Administration.

“The Navy Needs You! Don’t Read American History – Make It!”, 1905-03-31, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
The Home Front: Selling Unity, Suppressing Dissent
To further inspire patriotism and sacrifice at home, the Wilson administration established a propaganda department, the Committee on Public Information. Through posters, photographs, movies, and rallies, the CPI saturated the nation with patriotic messages, played on emotions, whipped up fear, and demonized the enemy. To meet the demand for support and sacrifice, citizens and immigrants bought war bonds to show they were “100% American,” sent food overseas for soldiers and European civilians, and adults and children joined the American Red Cross.
"Over There" (Courtesy of the Library of Congress), 1905-04-01, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Listen to the wartime hit "Over There" from the Library of Congress

Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware -
We'll be over, we're coming over,
And we won't come back till it's over, over there.

"I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Solider" (Coutresy of The Library of Congress_, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Those who spoke out against the war faced condemnation. Censorship assumed official form with the passage of laws to root out and punish espionage and sedition. The postmaster general, for example, used the Espionage Act to confiscate newspapers deemed “suspect,” and the courts upheld cases that severely limited free speech.

For Every Fighter A Woman Worker, 1905-04-01, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

As more men joined up, women entered the work force in the defense industries and military support jobs. The work was dirty, dangerous, and physically demanding.

Eugene V. Debs Speaking in Canton, Ohio, 1918 (Courtesy of the National Archives), 1918-06-16, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

When Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs spoke out against the war in 1918, he was arrested, charged with violating the Espionage Act, and sentenced to ten years in prison. His conviction was upheld by the US Supreme Court.

Quotation from Eugene V. Debs, 1905-04-01, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Food Will Win the War, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

This poster urges recent European immigrants to conserve food that could be sent to Europe, appealing to their love for their new country. View this print on the Gilder Lehrman website.

Concrete Ammunition / Second Line Defense, 1905-04-01, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

This poster exhorts men on the home front, both black and white workers, to equate their labor with the exertions of men on the battlefield, and to recognize that they are just as important to the success of the war. View this print on the Gilder Lehrman website.

Welcome Home (Courtesty of the Library of Congress), 1918-12-15, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Coming Home
World War I ended with an armistice on November 11, 1918. While Americans had been willing to fight for their own security, Wilson failed to convince a war-weary nation that the United States should actively participate in what seemed to be unenforceable plans to help rebuild Europe. Yet his vision for worldwide democracy continued to influence the growing US involvement in the world through the twentieth century.
Eighth Illinois Regiment, 1905-04-01, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

As the soldiers returned home, many faced an uncertain future. Jobs were scarce and labor lost ground to big business. African Americans were subjected to increasing discrimination and violence, and fears of Communist infiltration fueled the first Red Scare in 1919. Women’s contributions in wartime influenced the ratification in 1920 of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, giving women the right to vote.

Letter from Russell S. Flynn, 1918-11-28, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Russel S. Flynn sent a postcard to his mother from Lyon, France in late 1918.

Letter from Russell S. Flynn, 1918-11-28, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Quotation from Russell S. Flynn to M. J. Flynn, 1918-11-28, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Letter from Harold C. Hopkins in Camp Dix, New Jersey, to his mother, Mrs. A.W. Hopkins, 1919-04-02, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

After the war's end Harold Hopkins complained to his mother about his KP duties and hierarchy: "I'll have to beat it back and wash the dishes for some of the brave silver-stripe boys of the depot brigade who 'did their bit' by making life miserable for those who were foolish enough to enlist soon enough to go over to France."

Quotation from a letter from Harold C. Hopkins, 1919-04-02, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Colored man is no slacker, Renesch, E. G. (fl. 1917-1918), 1905-04-01, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Many African American men had enlisted in the US Army during World War I in hopes of gaining civil rights. After the war, violence against African Americans in the United States increased despite the black soldiers’ bravery in battle. In a sermon delivered in 1919, the Reverend Francis Grimké declared:

Quotation from a sermon by the Rev. Francis J. Grimké, 1905-04-02, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Representatives of the “Big Four” (Courtesy of The Library of Congress), 1919-05-27, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Woodrow Wilson traveled to Paris determined that the peace treaty would incorporate the ideals set forth in his Fourteen Points:

Quotation from Woodrow Wilson, 1918-01-08, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Scenes from Versailles and Armistice celebrations from The National Archives and Records Administration in the main window, returning soldiers in the smaller window. Video courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

President Harding placing wreath at Tomb of Unknown Soldier (Courtesy of the Library of Congress), 1923-06, From the collection of: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

On November 11, 1921, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated in Arlington National Cemetery. As conflicting memories over the meaning of the endured, the nation gave ceremonial recognition to the lives lost.

Credits: Story

This program is part of World War I and America, a two-year national initiative of The Library of America presented in partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and other organizations, with generous support from The National Endowment for the Humanities.

Exhibition developed by The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History; Michael S. Neiberg, advisor.

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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