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Belligerents and Participants
in World War One:
The United States of America  pt1


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By 1914 the United States already had a long history of foreign military intervention, despite its seemingly isolationist attitudes. These tended to be short conflicts where small amounts of troops were sent into week nations when American economic interests were threatened. Getting embroiled in the affairs of Europe were another matter. The Spanish-American War of 1898 was a notable exception in that it was directed against a European power even if a weak one. Fighting however never took place in either Spain or the United States but was reserved for colonial possessions that would satisfy America’s imperialist ambitions.

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Even the relatively small Spanish-American War put a strain on America’s military because its armed forces remained insignificant when compared to the size of the nation. This was due to the traditional fear of despotism that came with a standing army, and the reluctance of Congress to raise revenues to support one. When World War One broke out, the varying ethnic backgrounds of the American populace led to many divergent opinions on how to proceed, but most were overjoyed that there were no treaty obligations that would force the United States into the conflict. In this atmosphere President Woodrow Wilson declared America’s neutrality, but even at this date the United States was too large a power to strictly adhered to such a stance.

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Even without going to war, industrialists and bankers were turning huge profits by feeding arms and loans into the War. Despite President Wilson’s declaration of neutrality, he clearly favored the British and saw to it that they were supplied with what ever they needed. About forty percent of all war materials used by the Allies was made in the United States. This mockery of neutrality generated constant complaints from Germany, and propaganda cards criticizing this behavior were published on both sides of the Atlantic to influence the volatile American public. One of the more interesting postcard sets surrounding these arguments was published in the United States by The Fatherland magazine.

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German efforts to win over Americans did not have much success for they generally rubbed against popular sensibilities. Their excuses for their actions in Belgium and the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania caused more harm than good. The British who were masters of propaganda did much more to win Americans over, though their postcards did not follow one simple strategy. While some cards emphasized common cultural bonds, others openly criticized America’s willingness to profit from the War without fighting in it. Other cards tried to appeal to American’s sense of justice by depicting the atrocities committed by German troops entering Belgium; a wrong that America needed to set right.

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Many Americans wanted to help the Allied war effort without taking part in the fighting. One of these was the archeologist Richard Norton who in the fall of 1914 organized the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps in London. Backed by private donations and largely staffed by collage age men, they began their work on the battlefields of France. Though the drivers were non-combatants, the work was still dangerous and many were killed. Another volunteer ambulance group was the American Field Service organized in 1915 from the American colony in Paris. While initially set up to support the French Army, they grew to work on many other fronts. Their service of these groups was romanticized and glorified by those wishing America would enter the War. Many of these sentiments were expressed on American postcards, and eventually extended to all ambulance drivers and Red Cross workers on the battlefront.

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The experience of those with German or Irish ancestry who served as soldiers in the American Civil War had not been good, and their grievances led them to generally assume an antiwar stance in the years that followed. The idea of Germans fighting against their cousins or of Irish fighting for the British oppressing Ireland created a great deal of resistance to supporting Britain in the Great War. This was especially true after the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin. These communities made up a large percentage of the American population, and they would throw their vote to Woodrow Wilson in the 1914 election of because of his non-interventionist pledge. Many German-Irish Leagues were formed to keep up the pressure on politicians. Not all German and Irish Americans went along with neutrality quietly; many tried to enlist in the German Army. Others began to sabotage armament factories and cargo ships carrying explosives and arms. One of the largest acts of sabotage was the destruction of the Black Tom munitions pier in New York Harbor, carried out with the help of German naval personnel interned there.

(See Black Tom dated August 30, 2010, in the archive of the website’s Blog section for more information on this subject)

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There had long been a debate over what types of ships were legitimate targets during wartime, but no consensus was ever formed. Each nation historically pursued their own self interests as they did now in the Great War. In February 1915 Germany launched its campaign of unlimited submarine warfare against the ships of all nations aiding Great Britain. In May they had sunk the Lusitania with the loss of 128 American lives. After more Americans died in the sinking of the passenger liner Arabic that August, Wilson threatened to break relations with Germany and they ceased attacking merchant shipping. In February 1916 German U-boats only began attacking merchant ships that were fitted with arms, but this led to more American lives being lost when the Sussex was sunk. While the German navy wanted to expand the naval war against neutrals, the army felt they could not afford to have more nations aligned against them. Fearing a confrontation with the United States, Germany ended this new policy in May. Warships and U-boats always walked a tightrope when confronting neutral vessels at sea for it had become more of a political issue than a military one.

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Americas were angered over the lives lost to U-boats attacks; and even though Wilson strongly protested, he did little to strengthen America’s military other than make modest increases in the Navy’s budget. In May 1915 President Wilson gave his Americanism and the Foreign Born speech at a citizen naturalization ceremony in Philadelphia. Its most famous passage reads, “The example of America must be a special example. The example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world and strife is not. There is such a thing as a man being so right it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” While it did not mention the Lusitania by name, everyone knew this speech was in reference to its sinking. His words then became known as the Too Proud to Fight speech. While many favoring war ridiculed the President for this stance, Wilson was able to gage the mood of the country and was re-elected in 1916 largely because of his campaign slogan, “He Kept Us out of War.” Once war was declared, many postcards would mock this speech by referencing the words Too Proud to Fight in this new situation.

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Just because the United States was not an early participant in the War, it did not mean the conflict had no effect its postcard industry. Already in a decline inspired by the poor application of tariffs, the British embargo of Germany insured that no cards would arrive on America’s shores from their biggest supplier. Many cards continued to be produced in the United States but they were generally of poorer quality than the public had come to expect. The embargo also cut off supplies of printing ink and postcards suffered for it. Military cards during this neutral period often try to stir up the virtues of being American. They emphasize greatness and sometimes even might despite the fact that we had no standing army or navy that any European power was fearful of.

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Wilson’s declaration of neutrality did not stop the issue from being fought over along party lines. By 1915 the Republicans endorsed the Preparedness Movement that called for the building of a substantial army and navy supported by universal military service. It embraced the currently popular concepts of Social Darwinism, believing that the nation’s survival depended upon having a strong economy and military, not the ideals of democracy held by the masses. Wilson however was an idealist, even if a flawed one in practice. With grass roots support he could ignore the calls for more military spending as long as the public largely saw the Preparedness Movement as a contrivance aimed at benefiting war profiteers and bankers who lent money to the Europeans to buy American arms. Reports of German atrocities in Europe and the U-boat war at sea would shift public opinion but it did not create a consensus. The Preparedness Day Parade held in New York City in May 1916 drew huge crowds and participants. Another held in San Francisco that July was bombed. These type of events both large and small were captured by many postcards.

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While war supplies flowed to Great Britain from the Untied States, the British blockade of Germany prevented even those willing to help from sending badly needed supplies there. In July 1916 the German U-boat Deutschland, which had evaded the British blockade unexpectedly arrived in Baltimore. It was designed with an extra large hull to covertly transfer desperately needed materials back to Germany. Before U.S. authorities could decide what to do with the vessel, it slipped away and headed for home. Its arrival inspired many pro-German publishers in America to produce cards of this incident. After the Deutschland safely returned home many German publishers also picked up on this theme turning Captain Koenig, commander of this U-boat, into a hero. The Deutschland would return to America once more on November 1st, this time to Connecticut, but the country's mood was changing and only a few postcards were made to note this visit. Those that were carry the same pictures from Baltimore with the New London location printed over them. With the United States poised to enter the Great War anti-German fever was at a high pitch and publishing pro-German postcards had quickly become a dangerous activity.

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Despite Wilson’s isolationist tendencies in regard to Europe, his strong moral convictions gave him the arrogance to believe he had the obligation to teach others how to govern. This would lead to multiple militarily interventions in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. Offended by the coup that placed Victoriano Huerta into power, Wilson refused to recognize the new government of Mexico and imposed and arms embargo to be enforced by the U.S Navy. This would eventually lead to an American attack on Vera Cruz in April 1914 that almost turned into a full scale war.

(See From Tampico to Vera Cruz dated April 26, 2014, in the archive of the Blog section for more information on this subject)

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While the Americans left Vera Cruz after six months of occupation, the continuing revolution in Mexico spilled over the New Mexican border in March 1916 when Pancho Villa attacked the town of Columbus. The Punitive expedition organized by General Pershing accomplished little beyond creating more ill feelings between the two nations. Germany tried to exploit these tensions in January 1917 when their Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann sent a coded telegram proposing a military alliance with Mexico if the United States entered the conflict in Europe.

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When 1917 opened, the ground war in Europe was little better than a stalemate. Germany made the calculation that an all out U-boat campaign against Britain would force it into submission before the United States could make a substantial contribution by entering the War. As neutral ships began being sunk, more American lives were lost at sea in February, and tensions rose again. Though many clamored that the United states should give Germany no excuse for war, Wilson finally agreed to a position of armed neutrality that called for the arming of merchant vessels. It was a last ditch effort to protect Americans while keeping the United States out of the War.

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To help win over the pacifists in Congress, Wilson revealed the contents of the Zimmerman telegram in March. It had been intercepted by British Intelligence and revealed to the American Ambassador. Mexican relations with the United States were just finally improving and there was little chance that they would now agree to engage in hostile actions, but the revelation still had the desired effect. The German promise to help Mexico reconquer Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas did more than influence Congress, it caused American public opinion to suddenly turn against Germany. When even more American ships were lost to U-boat attacks, Wilson had enough. He stated before Congress in April that this German policy of unlimited submarine warfare was warfare against mankind. (Mexico, still angered over the invasion of Vera Cruz, remained neutral while allowing German agents to work within its borders.)




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Even though President Wilson stated that unrestricted U-boat warfare was tantamount to a declaration of war, it is doubtful that he would have take the United States to war over lost ships alone. Circumstances however were changing and this shifted his perspective toward intervention. Though America’s entry into the War would clearly produce even more economic gains, Wilson was more an idealist who saw his nation’s role in moralistic terms. Like many Americans, he believed the United States had a special destiny to fulfill; and now it was he who was destined to take up this call from God to create a lasting peace. After Congress passed a declaration of war against the Central Powers, he would sign it on April 6, 1917.

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At first no one seemed to know what going to war actually entailed. Some thought the declaration meant little more than increasing U.S. loans to its bankrupt allies. When Wilson met with the British and French missions, he was astounded to hear them claim that they were on the brink of defeat. Wilson came to feel that only by sending an American army directly into the conflict could he exert enough influence to shape it toward his personal goals. After much debate the Selective Service Act was signed into law in May and American men began registering for the draft. While there was some violent resistance to conscription, the nation as a whole reluctantly accepted it as inevitable.

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At the time war was declared, America was not ready to send troops into action. They had to first be mobilized, trained and equipped. In the meantime German-born residents would have to register so that the government could keep tract of their whereabouts. This first only applied to men, but German-born women were forced to register a year later. The Alien Enemy Bureau rounded up foreign nationals they deemed dangerous, and they were either paroled or interned. German warships that found themselves in American waters had already been interned when the War broke out. While they were not allowed to move under their own steam, they were considered sovereign foreign territory so American authorities kept off them. Visitors however came and went; and while the crews of some spent their time producing hand made postcards, some of these naval vessels became centers for sabotage. Now these vessels were confiscated for military use and their crews turned into prisoners of war. Now privately owned ships from Germany were also interned. Many became curiosities by their mere presence, leading them to be reproduced on real photo postcards.

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Since the American public was still widely divided over the War, a massive propaganda war was also launched to help sway opinion. The Committee on Public Information was formed under the journalist George Creel, an enthusiastic Wilson supporter, in which tens of thousands of community leaders across the country were specially selected to promote the War. With the March revolution in Russia having forced the Czar to abdicate, the conflict could now be reframed as one keeping the world safe for democracy. Through censorship, propaganda and a keen understanding of human psychology, Creel would turn the public’s lukewarm acceptance of the War into a passionate anti-German frenzy. All means of communicating with the public, including postcards, were to be used in his propaganda war.

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To help attract support for the War and raise money for bonds, the Committee on Public Information created the Allied War Exposition. It displayed war photographs of American, Belgian, British, Canadian, French and Italian troops, as well as models of equipment used. As many war trophies as possible were also put on display, and the public was treated to reenactments of battles that occasionally included a British tank. Pictures of trophies and scenes from these reenactments were captured on real photo postcards by the Photographic Advertising Co. The name of this promotional event was eventually changed to the United States Government War Exposition. Fourteen expositions were held by War’s end that included shows in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Waco, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Chicago.

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The Committee on Public Information also had a darker side using long held prejudices to support their harassment of German-Americans and Irish Catholics. All those with pro-German sentiments were victimized, and a great hatred was drummed up for all that was German. The German language stopped being taught in schools, performances of classical German music was banned, and German language newspapers were shut down regardless of their position toward the War. Even things as silly as the Frankforter were renamed the Hot Dog, which is not to be confused with the liberty dog that were formally referred to as Dachshunds. All this built up paranoia persuaded private citizens to form The American Protective League to turn in their fellow Americas thought to be subversive anarchists, antiwar activists, labor organizers or just too sympathetic toward Germany. President Wilson who feared the nations was full of German agents and sympathizers demanded the nation keep in lockstep with his polices.

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To help ensure no one strayed off message, Wilson insisted that no government employee speak to the press. He further tries to institute complete censorship over the press on the basis that it was absolutely necessary to the public safety. Although the Espionage Act of 1917 passed on June 15, 1917, it was watered down do to congressional backlash. Even so the government retained complete control over War news, and the postmaster had discretion over what opinions would be allowed on materials sent through the mail. Imprisonment was a possibility for anyone who interfered with the military’s prosecution of the War. More rights were suppressed by the Sedition Act on May 16, 1918, which prohibited many forms of speech deemed disloyal, or that challenged government policy. While antiwar postcards were published prior to America’s entry into the conflict, and forbidden afterwards; it is difficult to say if these repressive Acts had anything to do with the small number of cards to be found today.

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The size of the army the United States needed to raise to match its commitment far surpassed its existing forces. About half of those in the National Guard had never even fired a gun. Training and organizing such an army was a monumental task. Great Britain thought this a wast of time, and wanted American levies to be funneled directly into the standing British army. It wasn’t just that the other Allies had little confidence in American troops, they wanted no outside interference in their directing the War. Wilson would have none of this; he understood that the only way he was going to have a say in the War’s outcome was if American troops were victorious on the battlefield, and this is why he entered the War.

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Most of the first military postcards produced revolved around camp life and training. There are numerous scenes of troops, digging trenches, practicing with bayonets, and complaining about sore feet. Most of these are generic cards but there are also many that give the names of the specific forts that troops were mobilized at. Even so there is never a guarantee that the place depicted is the one on the caption. These types of cards outnumber those that depict American troops in action.

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Publishers in the United States did not always know what sort of imagery to place on military postcards. There was obviously a great demand for them by troops who were bored and wanted to write home, but there was also no need to raise the anxiety of families further before American forces were even engaged in combat. One solution was the generic card that could be used by sailors or soldiers and yet said nothing. They would include some generalized patriotic symbols but often little else. Some of these cards had the ability of being more personalized by adding a photograph. These types of generics must have been popular with photographers working aboard ships or at camps.

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Most U.S. warships were shifted to serve in the Atlantic, leaving defenses in the Pacific to the Japanese. Oil shortages in Britain prevented the most modern ships from being stationed overseas, but five of the older coal-burning dreadnoughts were sent over to Ireland where they formed a formidable squadron. The remaining dreadnoughts remained at home protecting coastal waters with a number of smaller craft. Other armored and scout cruisers along with some destroyers were assigned to convoy duty, either down the coast of the Americas or in the Atlantic where they protected troopships. Overseas bases were set up for these ships in Queenstown, Ireland, and St Nazaire and Brest, France, and Gibraltar. While American warships did not partake in major naval engagements, they did have a number of deadly encounters with German U-boats.

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When war came, the United States was not really prepared for it; and as great as the nation’s industrial capacity was, it was not geared to supporting a large American presence in Europe. While some called to create a Department of Public Defense to coordinate the economy, others were fearful that this would bring big business into the government and strengthen monopolies. The Council of National Defense was set up in August 1916 as a compromise, but had no true power to control industry and resources. War efforts were not all disorganized; agreements were made with Britain that she would protect the sea lanes while America concentrated on constructing merchant ships to ensure a steady flow of supplies to the European front in the face of the U-boat war. The Emergency Fleet Corporation was set up to take charge of this, and these ships were constructed by the American International Shipbuilding Corporation on Hog Island, near Philadelphia. Though the output of this gigantic yard was tremendous, production crawled and none of these Hog Islander ships saw service before the War ended. While much of the weaponry produced in the United States never saw service, it was widely believed that Americans would only go into combat in 1919.

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While the government used propaganda to gain public support for the War, find recruits, and keep up morale, it also needed cold hard cash to keep it running. This was done through the selling of war bonds, which were authorized five times during the War&rsqio;s duration. They were a hard sell and so they were quickly included in the propaganda campaign as Liberty Bonds (they were called Victory Liberty Bonds in the fifth campaign). Many extraordinary art posters were designed to increase sales, but these did not always make it down to the postcard format. A card set highlighting the wartime challenges Americans faced was produced to promote Liberty Bonds.

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Some cards issued for free soldier’s mail also promoted the sale of Liberty Bonds. Sets like the photo-based monochrome Overseas Post Cards were not as attractive as their domestic counterparts, but their subject matter was deemed more appropriate for men under arms.

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Posters and postcards were not enough to get the American people to buy war bonds. Often spectacles such as movie-star led rallies or large parades were arranged to raise public interest in these drives. The second loan campaign resulted in the Liberty Day Parade in New York City in October 1917 that included a British tank driving up Fifth Avenue and a captured German U-boat on display in Central Park. While postcards were not made of this event to promote the sale of bonds, many local photographers took advantage of this spectacle to produce their own real photo postcards as mementoes.

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The United States was home to much vernacular architecture, so it is not surprising that this tradition was employed during the War to help sell bonds and raise recruits. Perhaps the most outstanding of these efforts was the U.S.S Recruit, a 200 foot long battleship with a 40 foot beam modeled after the battleship Maine that was built in the middle of New York’s Union Square. It was the idea of Mayor John Purroy Michel who financed it through his Committee on National Defense. Though made of wood it was a fully rigged ship rising seven stories and manned by a crew of naval cadets. After being inaugurated on Memorial Day 1917 its crew, when not performing their training duties, gave tours and signed up volunteers. It proved a great success. The ship was the subject of numerous printed postcards, but it also attracted many to take photographs of it that wound up on real photo postcards.

(See When the Navy Landed at Union Square dated June 30, 2011, in the archive of the website’s Blog section for more information on the U.S.S. Recruit)

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A popular genre for American publishers became the farewell card. It was often situated in New York Harbor because it was a major debarkation port for soldiers departing for France, and many cards capture the troops final goodbyes. These tend not to be excessively sentimental but simple farewells to loved ones, reminding them that they have important work to do and that they will be back soon. The same sort of image was also used in conjunction with troops returning home; only here the captions were often more celebratory, though simple. This theme is also represented on real photo cards taken from the decks of actual troop transports in New York Harbor.

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New York was also important on farewell postcards because the harbor holds Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty. Though its original purpose to symbolize American French friendships had largely faded from public consciousness in favor of representing American values, its connection to France could not be overlooked once the United States entered the Great War. Even so, the more traditional representation of the United States through Columbia was now being surpassed by Lady Liberty. This symbolic connection was solidified during the War years, and she was presented with more reverence in the years that followed.

(See Liberty dated May 17, 2015, in the archive of the website’s Blog section for more information on this subject)

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While Columbia was still used to symbolize the United States on domestic cards, the Statue of Liberty was used almost exclusively beyond America’s shores. It was probably the most internationally recognized symbol of the United States by 1914. Cards of many foreign nations had long used images of the Statue of Liberty this way, but during the Great War she took on greater meaning. The likeness of the famous statue found her way onto many postcards to not only represent all of the Allied nations in their quest for victory, but as a symbol of freedom for those seeking liberation from the Central Powers and those nationalistic movements seeking independence. There are probably as many representations of the Statue of Liberty on foreign cards as there are on cards published in the United States.

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Columbia’s countenance as a symbol of the United States had slowly been fading as the popularity of the more masculine Uncle Sam grew. There was however no consensus on how to represent Uncle Sam until James Montgomery Flagg unveiled his version on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly in July 1916. He wasn’t the first artist to render Uncle Sam in this manner, but this particular image proved so popular that Flagg used it again for a recruitment poster that became the most widely used during the Great War. The design was based on a British poster featuring Lord Kitchner, but Flagg used his own likeness for Uncle Sam. His interpretation then became the standard for all those who followed. American troops were often nicknamed Sammies on postcards in reference to Uncle Sam.




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