War I on the Home Front
by Ralph Raico: America
Goes to War
Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal (2010)
Hunt Tooley will be teaching World
War One: A Revisionist Perspective, a Mises Academy online course,
starting October 29.
wrought in America during the First World War were so profound
that one scholar has referred to "the Wilsonian Revolution
Like other revolutions, it was preceded by an intellectual transformation,
as the philosophy of progressivism came to dominate political
Progressive notions of the obsolescence of laissez-faire
and of constitutionally limited government, the urgent need to
"organize" society "scientifically," and the
superiority of the collective over the individual were
propagated by the most influential sector of the intelligentsia
and began to make inroads in the nation's political life.
As the war
furnished Lenin with otherwise unavailable opportunities for realizing
his program, so too, on a more modest level, it opened up prospects
for American progressives that could never have existed in peacetime.
The coterie of intellectuals around the New Republic discovered
a heaven-sent chance to advance their agenda. John Dewey praised
the "immense impetus to reorganization afforded by this war,"
while Walter Lippmann wrote: "We can dare to hope for things
which we never dared to hope for in the past." The magazine
itself rejoiced in the war's possibilities for broadening "social
control ... subordinating the individual to the group and the
group to society," and advocated that the war be used "as
a pretext to foist innovations upon the country."
readiness to cast off traditional restraints on government power
greatly facilitated the "foisting" of such "innovations."
The result was a shrinking of American freedoms unrivaled since
at least the War Between the States.
It is customary
to distinguish "economic liberties" from "civil liberties."
But since all rights are rooted in the right to property, starting
with the basic right to self-ownership, this distinction is in the
last analysis an artificial one.
It is maintained here, however, for purposes of exposition.
the economy, Robert Higgs, in his seminal work, Crisis
and Leviathan, demonstrated the unprecedented changes in
this period, amounting to an American version of Imperial Germany's
Kriegssozialismus. Even before we entered the war, Congress
passed the National Defense Act. It gave the president the authority,
in time of war "or when war is imminent," to place orders
with private firms which would "take precedence over all other
orders and contracts." If the manufacturer refused to fill
the order at a "reasonable price as determined by the Secretary
of War," the government was "authorized to take immediate
possession of any such plant [and] ... to manufacture therein ...
such product or material as may be required"; the private owner,
meanwhile, would be "deemed guilty of a felony."
was declared, state power grew at a dizzying pace. The Lever Act
alone put Washington in charge of the production and distribution
of all food and fuel in the United States.
time of the armistice, the government had taken over the ocean-shipping,
railroad, telephone, and telegraph industries; commandeered
hundreds of manufacturing plants; entered into massive enterprises
on its own account in such varied departments as shipbuilding,
wheat trading, and building construction; undertaken to lend
huge sums to business directly or indirectly and to regulate
the private issuance of securities; established official priorities
for the use of transportation facilities, food, fuel, and many
raw materials; fixed the prices of dozens of important commodities;
intervened in hundreds of labor disputes; and conscripted millions
of men for service in the armed forces.
Wilson conceded that the powers granted him "are very great,
indeed, but they are no greater than it has proved necessary to
lodge in the other Governments which are conducting this momentous
So, according to the president, the United States was simply following
the lead of the Old World nations in leaping into war socialism.
novice bureaucrats eager to staff the new agencies overran Washington.
Many of them came from the progressive intelligentsia. "Never
before had so many intellectuals and academicians swarmed into
government to help plan, regulate, and mobilize the economic system"
among them Rexford Tugwell, later the key figure in the
New Deal Brain Trust.
Others who volunteered from the business sector harbored views
no different from the statism of the professors. Bernard Baruch,
Wall Street financier and now head of the War Industries Board,
held that the free market was characterized by anarchy, confusion,
and wild fluctuations. Baruch stressed the crucial distinction
between consumer wants and consumer needs, making
it clear who was authorized to decide which was which. When price
controls in agriculture produced their inevitable distortions,
Herbert Hoover, formerly a successful engineer and now food administrator
of the United States, urged Wilson to institute overall
price controls: "The only acceptable remedy [is] a general
price-fixing power in yourself or in the Federal Trade Commission."
Wilson submitted the appropriate legislation to Congress, which,
however, rejected it.
of the Income Tax Amendment in 1913 paved the way for a massive
increase in taxation once America entered the war. Taxes for the
lowest bracket tripled, from 2 to 6 percent, while for the highest
bracket they went from a maximum of 13 percent to 77 percent. In
1916, less than half a million tax returns had been filed; in 1917,
the number was nearly 3.5 million, a figure which doubled by 1920.
This was in addition to increases in other federal taxes. Federal
tax receipts "would never again be less than a sum five times
greater than prewar levels."
huge tax increases were not nearly enough to cover the costs of
the war. Through the recently established Federal Reserve System,
the government created new money to finance its stunning deficits,
which by 1918 reached $1 billion a month more than the
total annual federal budget before the war. The debt, which
had been less than $1 billion in 1915, rose to $25 billion in
1919. The number of civilian federal employees more than doubled,
from 1916 to 1918, to 450,000. After the war, two-thirds of the
new jobs were eliminated, leaving a "permanent net gain of
141,000 employees a 30 percent 'rachet effect.'"
might expect that such a colossal extension of state control provoked
a fierce resistance from heroic leaders of big business will be
sorely disappointed. Instead, businessmen welcomed government
intrusions, which brought them guaranteed profits, a "riskless
capitalism." Many were particularly happy with the War Finance
Corporation, which provided loans for businesses deemed essential
to the war effort. On the labor front, the government threw its
weight behind union organizing and compulsory collective bargaining.
In part, this was a reward to Samuel Gompers for his territorial
fight against the nefarious IWW, the Industrial Workers of the
World, which had ventured to condemn the war on behalf of the
working people of the country.
Of the First
World War, Murray Rothbard wrote that it was "the critical
watershed for the American business system ... [a war-collectivism
was established] which served as the model, the precedent, and
the inspiration for state corporate capitalism for the remainder
of the century."
Many of the administrators and principal functionaries of the
new agencies and bureaus reappeared a decade and a half later,
when another crisis evoked another great surge of government activism.
It should also not be forgotten that Franklin Roosevelt himself
was present in Washington, as assistant secretary of the navy,
an eager participant in the Wilsonian revolution.
effect of the war on the mentality of the American people, once
famous for their devotion to private enterprise, was summed up
by Jonathan Hughes:
legacy of war the dead, the debt, the inflation, the
change in economic and social structure that comes from immense
transfers of resources by taxation and money creation
these things are all obvious. What has not been so obvious has
been the pervasive yet subtle change in our increasing acceptance
of federal nonmarket control, and even our enthusiasm for it,
as a result of the experience of war.
fared no better in this war to make the world safe for democracy.
In fact, "democracy" was already beginning to mean what
it means today the right of a government legitimized by formal
majoritarian processes to dispose at will of the lives, liberty,
and property of its subjects. Wilson sounded the keynote for the
ruthless suppression of anyone who interfered with his war effort:
"Woe be to the man or group of men that seeks to stand in our
way in this day of high resolution." His attorney general Thomas
W. Gregory seconded the president, stating, of opponents of the
war: "May God have mercy on them, for they need expect none
from an outraged people and an avenging government."
Act of 1917, amended the next year by the addition of the Sedition
Act, went far beyond punishing spies. Its real target was opinion.
It was deployed particularly against socialists and critics of
People were jailed for questioning the constitutionality of the
draft and arrested for criticizing the Red Cross. A woman was
prosecuted and convicted for telling a women's group that "the
government is for the profiteers." A movie producer was sentenced
to three years in prison for a film, The Spirit of '76,
which was deemed anti-British. Eugene V. Debs, who had polled
900,000 votes in 1912 as presidential candidate of the Socialist
Party, was sentenced to ten years in prison for criticizing the
war at a rally of his party. Vigilantes attacked and on at least
one occasion lynched antiwar dissenters. Citizens of German descent
and even Lutheran ministers were harassed and spied on by their
neighbors as well as by government agents.
York Times, then as now the mouthpiece of the powers that
be, goaded the authorities to "make short work" of IWW
"conspirators" who opposed the war, just as the same
paper applauded Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia,
for "doing his duty" in dismissing faculty members who
opposed conscription. The public schools and the universities
were turned into conduits for the government line. Postmaster
General Albert Burleson censored and prohibited the circulation
of newspapers critical of Wilson, the conduct of the war, or the
The nation-wide campaign of repression was spurred on by the Committee
on Public Information, headed by George Creel, the US government's
first propaganda agency.
In the cases
that reached the Supreme Court the prosecution of dissenters was
upheld. It was the great liberal, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes,
Jr., who wrote the majority decision confirming the conviction
of a man who had questioned the constitutionality of the draft,
as he did also in 1919, in the case of Debs, for his antiwar speech.
In the Second World War, the Supreme Court of the United States
could not, for the life of it, discover anything in the Constitution
that might prohibit the rounding up, transportation to the interior,
and incarceration of American citizens simply because they were
of Japanese descent. In the same way, the Justices, with Holmes
leading the pack, now delivered up the civil liberties of the
American people to Wilson and his lieutenants.
Again, precedents were established that would further undermine
the people's rights in the future. In the words of Bruce Porter,
"Though much of the apparatus of wartime repression was dismantled
after 1918, World War I left an altered balance of power between
state and society that made future assertions of state sovereignty
more feasible beginning with the New Deal."
We have all
been made very familiar with the episode known as "McCarthyism,"
which, however, affected relatively few persons, many of whom were,
in fact, Stalinists. Still, this alleged time of terror is endlessly
rehashed in schools and media. In contrast, few even among educated
Americans have ever heard of the shredding of civil liberties under
Wilson's regime, which was far more intense and affected tens of
and most obvious infringement of individual rights was conscription.
Some wondered why, in the grand crusade against militarism, we
were adopting the very emblem of militarism. The Speaker of the
House Champ Clark (D-MO) remarked that "in the estimation
of Missourians there is precious little difference between a conscript
and a convict." The problem was that, while Congress had
voted for Wilson's war, young American males voted with their
feet against it. In the first ten days after the war declaration,
only 4,355 men enlisted; in the next weeks, the War Department
procured only one-sixth of the men required. Yet Wilson's program
demanded that we ship a great army to France, so that American
troops were sufficiently "blooded." Otherwise, at the
end the president would lack the credentials to play his providential
role among the victorious leaders. Ever the deceiver and self-deceiver,
Wilson declared that the draft was "in no sense a conscription
of the unwilling; it is, rather, selection from a nation which
has volunteered in mass."
of peace and enemy of militarism and autocracy, had no intention
of relinquishing the gains in state power once the war was over.
He proposed postwar military training for all 18- and 19-year-old
males and the creation of a great army and a navy equal to Britain's,
and called for a peacetime sedition act.
episodes, one foreign and one domestic, epitomize the statecraft
of Woodrow Wilson.
At the new
League of Nations, there was pressure for a US "mandate"
(colony) in Armenia, in the Caucasus. The idea appealed to Wilson;
Armenia was exactly the sort of "distant dependency"
which he had prized 20 years earlier, as conducive to "the
greatly increased power" of the president. He sent a secret
military mission to scout out the territory. But its report was
equivocal, warning that such a mandate would place us in the middle
of a centuries-old battleground of imperialism and war, and lead
to serious complications with the new regime in Russia. The report
was not released. Instead, in May 1920, Wilson requested authority
from Congress to establish the mandate, but was turned down.
It is interesting to contemplate the likely consequences of our
Armenian mandate, comparable to the joy Britain had from its mandate
in Palestine, only with constant friction and probable war with
Soviet Russia thrown in.
the United States Wilson's United States was the
only nation involved in the World War that still refused a general
amnesty to political prisoners.
The most famous political prisoner in the country was the Socialist
leader Eugene Debs. In June, 1918, Debs had addressed a Socialist
gathering in Canton, Ohio, where he pilloried the war and the
US government. There was no call to violence, nor did any violence
ensue. A government stenographer took down the speech, and turned
in a report to the federal authorities in Cleveland. Debs was
indicted under the Sedition Act, tried, and condemned to ten years
in federal prison.
1921, Debs was ailing and many feared for his life. Amazingly, it
was Wilson's rampaging attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer himself
who urged the president to commute Debs's sentence. Wilson wrote
across the recommendation the single word, "Denied." He
claimed that "while the flower of American youth was pouring
out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man,
Debs, stood behind the lines, sniping, attacking, and denouncing
them ... he will never be pardoned during my administration."
Actually, Debs had denounced not "the flower of American youth"
but Wilson and the other war-makers who sent them to their deaths
in France. It took Warren Harding, one of the "worst"
American Presidents according to numerous polls of history professors,
to pardon Debs, when Wilson, a "Near-Great," would have
let him die a prisoner. Debs and 23 other jailed dissidents were
freed on Christmas Day, 1921. To those who praised him for his clemency,
Harding replied: "I couldn't do anything else.... Those fellows
didn't mean any harm. It was a cruel punishment."
aura of saintliness surrounds Woodrow Wilson, largely generated
in the immediate post-World War II period, when his "martyrdom"
was used as a club to beat any lingering isolationists. But even
setting aside his role in bringing war to America, and his foolish
and pathetic floundering at the peace conference Wilson's
crusade against freedom of speech and the market economy alone
should be enough to condemn him in the eyes of any authentic liberal.
Yet his incessant invocation of terms like "freedom"
and "democracy" continues to mislead those who choose
to listen to self-serving words rather than look to actions. What
the peoples of the world had in store for them under the reign
of Wilsonian "idealism" can best be judged by Wilson's
conduct at home.
a wise and well-versed student of American history, though not
a professor, understood the deep meaning of the regime of Woodrow
children are taught in our schools that Wilson was one of our
greatest Presidents. That is proof in itself that the American
Republic has never recovered from the blow he inflicted on it.
Bruce D. Porter, War
and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern
Politics (New York: Free Press, 1993), p. 269.
Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., Progressivism
in America: A Study of the Era from Theodore Roosevelt to Woodrow
Wilson (New York: New Viewpoints, 1974); and Robert Higgs,
and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 11316. See
also Murray N. Rothbard's essay on "World War I as Fulfillment:
Power and the Intellectuals," in John V. Denson, ed., The
Costs of War, pp. 24999.
David M. Kennedy, Over
There: The First World War and American Society (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 3940, 44, 246; Ekirch,
of American Liberalism, p. 205.
See Murray N. Rothbard, The
Ethics of Liberty (New York: New York University Press,
Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan, pp. 12829.
Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan, pp. 123, 135.
Murray N. Rothbard, "War Collectivism in World War I,"
in Ronald Radosh and Murray N. Rothbard, eds., A
New History of Leviathan: Essays on the Rise of the American Corporate
State (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972), pp. 9798.
Tugwell lamented, in Rothbard's words, that "only the Armistice
prevented a great experiment in control of production, control
of price, and control of consumption."
Kennedy, Over There, pp. 13941, 243. Kennedy concluded,
p. 141: "under the active prodding of war administrators
like Hoover and Baruch, there occurred a marked shift toward corporatism
in the nation's business affairs. Entire industries, even entire
economic sectors, as in the case of agriculture, were organized
and disciplined as never before, and brought into close and regular
relations with counterpart congressional committees, cabinet departments,
and Executive agencies." On Hoover, see Murray N. Rothbard,
"Herbert Clark Hoover: A Reconsideration," New
Individualist Review (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Press,
1981), pp. 68998, reprinted from New Individualist Review,
vol. 4, no. 2 (Winter 1966), pp. 112.
Kennedy, Over There, p. 112. Porter, War and the Rise
of the State, p. 270.
Jonathan Hughes, The
Governmental Habit: Economic Controls from Colonial Times to the
Present (New York: Basic Books, 1977), p. 135; Kennedy,
Over There, pp. 10313; Porter, War and the Rise
of the State, p. 271.
Kennedy, Over There, pp. 25358; Hughes, The
Governmental Habit, p. 141. Hughes noted that the War Finance
Corporation was a permanent residue of the war, continuing under
different names to the present day. Moreover, "subsequent
administrations of both political parties owed Wilson a great
debt for his pioneering ventures into the pseudo-capitalism
of the government corporation. It enabled collective enterprise
as 'socialist' as any Soviet economic enterprise, to remain
cloaked in the robes of private enterprise." Rothbard,
"War Collectivism in World War I," p. 90, observed
that the railroad owners were not at all averse to the government
takeover, since they were guaranteed the same level of profits
as in 191617, two particularly good years for the industry.
Rothbard, "War Collectivism in World War I," p. 66.
Hughes, The Governmental Habit, p. 137. See also Higgs,
Crisis and Leviathan, pp. 15056.
Quotations from Wilson and Gregory in H. C. Peterson and Gilbert
C. Fite, Opponents
of War, 19171918 (Seattle, Wash.: University of
Washington Press, 1968 ), p. 14.
Ibid., pp. 3060, 15766, and passim.
Ekirch, Decline of American Liberalism, pp. 21718;
Porter, War and the Rise of the State, pp. 27274;
Kennedy, Over There, pp. 54, 7378. Kennedy comments,
p. 89, that the point was reached where "to criticize the
course of the war, or to question American or Allied peace aims,
was to risk outright prosecution for treason."
Ray Ginger, The
Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs (New
Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1949), pp. 38384.
Justice Holmes complained of the "stupid letters of protest"
he received following his judgment on Debs: "there was a
lot of jaw about free speech," the Justice said. See also
Kennedy, Over There, pp. 8486.
See the brilliant essay by H. L. Mencken, "Mr. Justice Holmes,"
in idem, A
Mencken Chrestomathy (New York: Vintage, 1982 ),
pp. 25865. Mencken concluded: "To call him a Liberal
is to make the word meaningless." Kennedy, Over There,
pp. 17879 pointed out Holmes's mad statements glorifying
war. It was only in war that men could pursue "the divine
folly of honor." While the experience of combat might be
horrible, afterwards "you see that its message was divine."
This is reminiscent less of liberalism as traditionally understood
than of the world-view of Benito Mussolini.
Porter, War and the Rise of the State, p. 274. On the
roots of the national-security state in the World War I period,
see Leonard P. Liggio, "American Foreign Policy and National-Security
Management," in Radosh and Rothbard, A New History of
Leviathan, pp. 22459.
Peterson and Fite, Opponents of War, p. 22; Kennedy,
Over There, p. 94; Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan,
pp. 13132. See also the essay by Robert Higgs, "War
and Levithan in Twentieth Century America: Conscription as the
Keystone," in Denson, ed., The Costs of War, pp.
Kennedy, Over There, p. 87; Ekirch, Decline of American
Liberalism, pp. 22326.
Carl Brent Swisher, American
Constitutional Development, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.:
Houghton Mifflin, 1954), pp. 68182.
Ekirch, Decline of American Liberalism, p. 234.
Bending Cross, pp. 35659, 36276, 40506.
Peterson and Fite, Opponents of War, p. 279.
Karp, The Politics of War, p. 340.
Raico [send him mail] is Professor
Emeritus in European history at Buffalo State College is a senior
fellow of the Mises Institute. He is a specialist on the history
of liberty, the liberal tradition in Europe, and the relationship
between war and the rise of the state. He is the author of The
Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville,
and Lord Acton. His latest book is Great
Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal. You can study
the history of civilization under his guidance here: MP3-CD
© 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.
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