UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Treaty of Versailles
*Wilson said he was going to war to make the world safe for
democracy. At first, Americans hoped that the Navy could win
the war, but it soon became apparent that we needed doughboys in
France to beat the Germans.
*To accomplish this, Congress passed the Selective Service Act in
May, 1917, allowing the government to draft men to fight in the
war. 2.8 million men were eventually drafted, and 2 million
more volunteered. 4 out of 4.8 million went to France during
*In many ways, the war was a great blessing to America, even
before war was declared. As men fought rather than farmed,
as wheat fields became battlefields, and as countries were cut off
from colonies that might have supplied them with food, American
farmers were able to make a killing selling foodstuffs around the
world (as were Latin American countries; Germany's unrestricted
submarine warfare would also bring Brazil into the war when a
gigantic coffee ship was torpedoed).
*American manufacturers sold weapons to both sides when they
could, although the British blockade ensured that most of them
went to the Allies.
*This was a problem for them, because when the war began Treasury
Secretary William McAdoo closed the New York Stock Exchange so
that European governments could not liquidate their assets there
(which would have caused a stock market crash). However,
this meant that they quickly used up their gold reserves, and had
to borrow money to buy American food and equipment.
*This was just fine, for the United States, though, because the
only place Europeans could really borrow money was from
America. J.P. Morgan might have been dead, but his money
lived on, and the Allies borrowed $10 billion. Of course,
this meant they had to win if Wall Street was going to be paid
*These stupendous exports of food, manufactured goods, and loans
helped America recover from a small recession in 1910-1911.
*To pay for the War, the government borrowed money by selling
bonds called Liberty Bonds (redeemable for the face value plus
interest). These raised over $20 billion, as Americans
invested their new prosperity in them, saving money that they
could spend to fuel the economy in the 1920s.
*Not everyone supported the war. There were protests and
strikes, as socialists and some unions accused Wilson of leading
America into war to protect the investments of bankers and weapons
manufacturers who had supported the allies. An assassin
broke into the mansion of J.P. Morgan, junior, and shot him (but
he recovered quickly). Some suffragettes protested against
Wilson, saying he cared more for democracy in Europe than for
democracy in America.
*In 1917, the Espionage Act (later made more powerful by
amendments in 1918 called the Sedition Act) made it illegal to
interfere with the war effort in any way, whether through strikes,
interference in the sale of War Bonds, or through making
disparaging comments about America's declaration of war, the US
Army, military uniforms, or the US flag. Violating these
laws could result in fines or jail time.
*Although the parts of the Espionage Act created by the Sedition
Act were overturned in 1920, parts of the Espionage Act remain
part of US law, and some Senators in the 21st Century have
suggested adding to its powers.
*Charles Schenck, a Socialist Party leader, was arrested under the
Sedition Act for printing and distributing flyers encouraging
young men to resist the draft. He appealed, but in 1919 in Schenck
v. United States, it was determined that Freedom of Speech
could be limited when it presented a ‘clear and present’ danger to
public safety, for example, ‘the most stringent protection of free
speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a
theatre and causing a panic.’
*Eugene V. Debs was arrested for speaking out against the war,
too, although he went on to run for the Presidency in 1920 and win
913,693 votes (3.41%). The Industrial Workers of the World
were harassed, and IWW leader Big Bill Haywood was arrested for
opposing the draft, but skipped bail in 1921 and fled the country,
going to communist Russia where he spent the rest of his life.
*On the other hand, Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of
Labor supported the war effort.
*Besides imprisoning his detractors, Wilson's government regulated
many aspects of the American economy and public life in order to
promote the war effort: the war would not just be fought on
the Western Front, but also on the Home Front. The
government regulated the production of food, coal, oil, as well as
the railroads to make sure the army got what it needed.
*To whip up support for the war, the Committee of Public
Information, led by George Creel, produced propaganda to encourage
people to support the war. The committee used
newsprint, posters, radio, telegraph, cable and movies to
broadcast its message. It recruited about 75,000 "Four Minute
Men," volunteers who spoke about the war at social events for an
ideal length of four minutes, because the average human attention
span was then thought to be four minutes (the average length of a
political sound bite today is 9 seconds). It staged
different presentations for different ethnic groups, finding
speakers and performers from that group to promote
patriotism. Americans were told that the war was a Great
*The Food Administration under Herbert Hoover asked Americans to
eat less in order to save food to send to soldiers. He had
already been involved in relief efforts based out of the UK, but
came home to America when the US entered the war. Hoover
believed 'food will win the war.' He established set days to
encourage people to save particular foods: meatless Mondays,
wheatless Wednesdays, and said 'when in doubt, eat
potatoes.' He also encouraged Americans to plant Victory
Gardens in order to raise food at home and not cut into commercial
agricultural production. During and after the war, Hoover
helped feed so many starving people that he was known as the Great
*Because so many American men went off to fight, many women went
to work in the factories, even middle-class women of the sort who
had not worked before. Others joined the Red Cross or worked
as nurses for other organisations. After the war ended, most
of them went back home to their traditional roles as wives and
mothers, but their service was one of the main reasons that
Congress and the states were convinced to ratify the XIX Amendment
*Many Blacks fought in the war, trying to earn respect through
their sacrifices, as W.E.B. Du Bois encouraged them to do (and
Booker T. Washington would have done so had he not died in
1915). In the US military, of course, Black solders
continued to serve in segregated units, mostly under white
officers, although there were a few Black officers by this point.
*Among the most outstanding Black units was the 369th Infantry
Regiment, formed from a New York National Guard regiment and
nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters by the Germans. Prior to
its formation, in fact, Black Americans who wanted fight in the
Great War had had to enlist in the Canadian or French armies—and
in Europe, the 369th was actually assigned to the French Army and
did not fight alongside the American Expeditionary Force.
They served the longest tour of duty of any American unit in
France, fought in several important battles, and suffered the
highest casualty rate or any American unit, and also won a Medal
of Honor and many other decorations, including 170 of the French
Croix de Guerre, including the first one awarded to an American
soldier. Furthermore, the 369th Regimental Band was very
popular among all the Allied troops, and played a large role in
popularizing jazz music in Europe. The Harlem Hellfighters
would also serve in the Pacific in World War II, although they did
not see much action until late in the War, helping to secure the
Philippines after they were retaken from the Japanese.
*Other Black people moved north in the Great Migration to work in
factories (where workers were needed after so many men went
overseas to fight) and to live in areas where they might face less
discrimination. New York, Chicago, and Detroit particularly
attracted large numbers of Black workers.
*These workers were managed by the War Industries Board under
Bernard Baruch, which controlled the production and prices of many
things manufactured during the war. It promoted the use of
mass production and standardisation, set quotas for factory
output, allotted raw materials to different companies, used
psychological testing to find the best jobs for workers, and
increased manufacturing production by 20% before ceasing
operations in 1920.
*To keep workers efficient, drinking was officially discouraged,
which was greatly appreciated by the Prohibition movement.
Americans were told that drinking was unpatriotic, because Germans
brewed a lot of beer.
*The Railway Administration, under Wilson's son-in-law and
Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, took over the nation's
railroads. It cut back on passenger service and competing
routes, built new locomotives and freight cars, gave shipment of
war materiel priority, and for a while refused to ship goods
manufactured by Henry Ford, because as a pacifist he refused to
convert his factories to war production, until forced to do so by
this policy. After the war, the railroads were returned to
*As revolutions shook the great empires of Europe, Woodrow Wilson,
the man who had fought to end war, saw that his time had
come. He issued a peace programme consisting of Fourteen
Points This would end secret alliances, remove trade barriers
between nations, reduce military forces worldwide, protect freedom
of the seas, and create a League of Nations where representatives
of all nations could meet to work out their differences and work
together to prevent future through collective security.
*For Wilson, America's involvement in the war was simply a grand
extension of his moral diplomacy. Wilson insisted this was
not a war of imperialism. America did not want to gain any
more territory, and indeed, he wanted self-determination for all
nations. In fact the war should be fought to bring a peace
*Wilson went to Europe to promote his plan, become the first
president to visit Europe while in office, and was greeted like a
king when he arrived in France. Streets were named for him,
crowds cheered him wherever he went, and people across Europe
expected a new age of peace and freedom. His offer of a
gentle peace helped convince Germany to agree to an
*In 1919, Wilson, David Lloyd-George of Britain, Georges
Clemenceau of France, Vittorio Orlando, and representatives of the
defeated powers and the minor allies and interested neutral
countries met in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the old palace
of the French kings outside of Paris. The other Allied
leaders were not impressed by Wilson’s plan. Clemenceau
said, ‘God only had Ten Commandments; Wilson has fourteen!’
Clemenceau had spent many years living in America as a young man,
and he had seen how Congress handled Reconstruction, and he liked
*One by one, Wilson’s points would be trimmed away, with only the
League of Nations saved to keep him happy. The Central
powers, especially Germany, were to be humiliated.
*Germany lost large sections of territory in the east, including
everything gained in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Polish
Corridor, and the now-Free City of Danzig. This cut East
Prussia off from the rest of Germany. Perhaps the most
symbolic loss for Germany was the Alsace-Lorraine, seized from
France in 1871.
*Germany lost most of her military, being permitted only 100,000
soldiers in the army, a very small navy, and no air force, tanks,
chemical weapons, or submarines.
*Germany was required to pay reparations of $33 billion to make up
for the damage done in the war, which was far more than Germany
could pay at the time. Germany only finished paying
reparations from the Great War in October, 2010.
*Finally, and most humiliating, Germany was required to sign the
War Guilt Clause, saying that the war was all their fault.
*The other Central Powers lost territory, too.
*Austria-Hungary was divided into many smaller countries.
The land taken from Austria and Germany created a reduced Germany,
and the countries of Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia
(with Serbia in charge), Poland (which had been wiped off the map
in the late 18th Century), Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland
and also gave land to Roumania, Greece, and France. Italy
demanded pieces of the old Empire, too, but Orlando was not a good
enough negotiator, and did not get much of what he wanted, which
embittered Italy towards the Allies. Germany also lost all
her overseas colonies.
*Large sections of the Ottoman Empire were carved off and given to
the Allies (although it later regained some). Britain got
Palestine, Transjordan, and Kuwait. The British colony of
Iraq was created out of three different Ottoman Provinces (Basra,
Baghdad, and Mosul) which contained different ethnic and religious
groups, who ended up dominated by the Sunni
Arabs. France got Lebanon and Syria. The
Ottoman Empire soon collapsed and the last Sultan fled the country
as Young Turks modernised the new Republic of Turkey.
Seeking to make a purely Turkish nation out of the remains of
their old empire, they killed around 1,000,000 Christian
*With the exception of limited self-determination in Europe,
Wilson did not get any of his Fourteen Points except one, the
League of Nations.
*When Wilson got home to present the treaty (with which he was not
particularly pleased, but which he supported in order to get the
United States into the League of Nations), he found that the
Republicans in Congress opposed it, partly out of partisan
politics (Wilson had deliberately excluded any Republicans from
his negotiating team) and partly because they did not want America
tied into the League of Nations which might have interfered with
*Wilson toured the country, but worked so hard he eventually had a
stroke, and for over a year the country was secretly run by his
second wife and his doctor.
*The United States never ratified the Treaty of Versailles, and
made different peace treaties with Germany, Austria, and Hungary
*The United States never joined the League of Nations.
*World War I was devastating to all the countries involved in
it. Most of the major countries involved lost over 3% of
their entire population. Just as the war was ending, the
world suffered another deadly tragedy, known as the Spanish Flu (a
strain of H1N1) (so-called because Spanish newspapers gave it the
first major coverage, even though the first known cases appeared
in the US and then in other European countries). It lasted
from 1918 to 1919.
*It is estimated that a third of the world’s population, on all
inhabited continents (and even remote Pacific Islands) was
infected, and between 50 million and 100 million people died—more
than died in World War I (about 14 million). Over 25% of
Americans were infected; over half a million died (far more than
the 53,000 Americans killed in battle in World War I or the 63,000
who died outside of combat).
*World War I changed the world. New nations were created, a
generation of young men was nearly wiped out, and the survivors
felt lost in the world around them. In many countries, the
generation that survived World War I was known as the Lost
Generation, which had a reputation for being cynical,
short-sighted, and unreligious (as religious belief declined in
countries who had all thought they were fighting with God on their
side). In Germany in particular, the burden of war
reparation, the loss of territory, and especially the humiliation
of the War Guilt Clause led to bitterness, resentment, and a
desire to find scapegoats and new leaders who would restore the
glory of the German Empire.
*Despite this sense of gloom in much of the world, America did not
feel quite so bad. After all, we had fought a war to end
war, and had won. There would never be another war again.
This page last updated 22 March, 2021.