Birthing a Super Power: US Society and Imperialism from World War I to World War II. A Brief Historical Narrative.

The United States Enters the Great War.

World War I (1914–1918) was arguably the formative event of the twentieth century, yet the United States had stayed out of the opening rounds of the war. Reelected in 1916 using the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war,” President Woodrow Wilson was very aware that American public opinion was dead set against entry into “the European war.”

However, the 1917 outbreak of the Russian Revolution took Russia out of the war, allowing Germany to attempt to move the full force of its army to the West—and presenting the possibility of a German victory. Powerful U.S. business lobbies, which had extended loans and credit to the Allies, particularly to Great Britain — and which felt that a German victory would threaten the return on their investments — began to pressure for U.S. entry into the war.


US troops near the Hindenburg Line

Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information, also called the Creel Committee, in an effort to change public opinion about the war. Composed of leading writers, journalists, academics, and filmmakers, the committee embarked on a propaganda campaign that created false stories of German atrocities, whipped up spy hysteria, and forced German Americans to kiss the flag and swear loyalty to the United States. In this way, it instilled an anti-German frenzy in a previously anti-war American populace. The frenzy even compelled German Americans to anglicize their names, and turned sauerkraut and frankfurters into “liberty cabbage” and “liberty sausage.”

Actions by the German government didn’t help. The sinking of the British liner Lusitania, which the Germans claimed was shipping munitions to Britain, killed 168 American passengers. That combined with the decoding of the secret Zimmermann Telegram—in which German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann promised the government of Mexico the return of Texas and California should it invade the United States from the south—to give Wilson all the excuse he needed. On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war against Germany and its allies. A fresh and rested power was joining the fray against weary and battered opponents.

Winning the War.

Total war meant the full participation of civilian populations, shortages, hunger, and ever-increasing death counts, which were published in the daily newspapers in Europe and abroad. A feeling of despair began to spread among combatants on all sides. Desertions, mutinies, and rebellions increased. A wave of strikes and demonstrations against the war gripped Germany.

By 1918, the Russian Revolution was fully underway, and when red flags started appearing in the streets of Berlin, this also raised the specter of communist revolution in Germany. The German leadership concluded that it would rather sue for peace and accept whatever terms the British, French and American allies might demand than face the possibility of a communist revolution in Germany.  On November 11, 1918, Germany surrendered.

With between ten and thirteen million dead, Europe was devastated. Almost an entire generation of young men had been wiped out. The unrest and disruption caused by the war led to the spread of revolution and rebellion. Famine, high taxes, and unemployment greeted the soldiers as they returned home.

Insecurity, chaos, and instability overtook the world. The United States emerged as a major world power for the first time. The Russian Revolution brought the world’s first socialist government to power. Western culture was in a stunned state of disbelief, in which nothing had the power to shock anymore. Many ex-soldiers felt a sense of betrayal as established traditions, values, and certainties such as patriotism, honor, and humanitarianism, seemed to have been shattered by the bloody reality of the war. Thanks to last-minute U.S. intervention, the victorious Allies were able to humiliate the defeated Germans in the terms of the surrender, setting the stage for another, even more destructive, war.

Losing the Peace.

On January 18, 1919, the victorious allies—Great Britain, France, Italy, and the United States — met at the Palace of Versailles, twelves miles outside of Paris, to come to an agreement regarding a post-war settlement. The Versailles Conference, as it was called, would be in session for a year, closing on January 20, 1920. By the end of the conference, the Allies had redrawn the map of the world, and set the stage for another world war.


Of course, the defeated Central Powers—Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire—were not invited. Neither was Russia, which was busy with its revolution. As a guiding principle, the conference accepted the Fourteen Points. Drafted by American President Woodrow Wilson, the Fourteen Points were a plan that urged arms reduction, free trade, the right of all peoples to self-determination, and the creation of the League of Nations—a new international forum where the nations of the world could work out their differences without resorting to war.

“Seeing Red:” The Red Scare.

As World War I ended, strikes, riots, and rebellions broke out in the former belligerent countries. However, Russia’s revolution had erupted during the war, forcing the Russian monarch, Tsar Nicholas II, to  abdicate in March 1917. By the fall of that year, a radical Marxist group within the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party, the Bolsheviks, had seized control of the government. The Bolsheviks renamed their new organization as the Russian Communist Party.

Around the world, socialist parties split over whether to support the Bolsheviks. Those that considered them too extreme or too violent became the Social-Democratic parties of today. Those that embraced the Bolsheviks formed their own separate parties, often calling themselves “communists,” in emulation of them. The Bolsheviks sponsored the Communist International, or Comintern—an umbrella organization to coordinate the efforts of these newborn parties. The world communist movement was born.

The same pattern was repeated in the United States. In August 1919, the American supporters of the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of radical journalist John Reed, split from the Socialist Party of America to establish not one, but two American communist parties. The two parties merged in 1921 under the name Communist Party, USA (CPUSA).

john reed

John Reed

American fears of the communist movement’s potential growth were widespread, and a newly created government office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was charged with suppressing the CPUSA. Under the direction of then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and citing the Sedition Act of 1918, thousands of suspected communists and anarchists were arrested. Many of those who were foreign born were deported, and fear of international influence soon took other forms.

Isolation and Intervention.

Although the United States refused to join the President Wilson’s proposed world forum for the resolution of international disputes, the League of Nations , foreign relations in the 1920s were still dominated by attempts to limit arms and prevent another World War. Treaties such as the Kellog-Briand Pact of 1928 (named after US Secretary of State Frank Kellog and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand) condemned war and tried to place limits on weapons production. However optimistic these agreements were, they ultimately failed—as subsequent history would demonstrate.

For most of the 1920s, and into the 1930s, the United States adopted an isolationist stance. Fear of foreign entanglements and worries about being drawn into European conflicts, as exemplified by the experience of World War I, heightened the feeling that the United States should leave other nations’ affairs alone and concentrate on its internal issues and problems.

However, even though the isolationist mood was dominant with respect to U.S. involvement in European affairs, the United States actively intervened in Latin America.

Using the Monroe Doctrine’s policy of regional leadership as justification, the United States continued a policy of military-based “Gunboat Diplomacy” inherited from the late nineteenth century. Between 1912 and 1934, the United States militarily intervened, on multiple occasions, in Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The intense interest in Latin American affairs could be explained by the fact that, by 1930, U.S. government and corporate investments in the region amounted to millions of dollars.

While in this era the United States exerted its influence in Latin America, it continued to fret about other nations’ influence at home.

Immigration Restrictions.

One of the consequences of the Red Scare was fear of foreign “radicals.” This fear was epitomized by the case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants and professed anarchists, who were convicted and executed for the 1920 robbery and murder of a payroll guard in Boston. Their case sharply divided public opinion, then and now. Some argued that Sacco and Vanzetti were living proof of the radical elements that many Americans feared. Others claimed that racism and xenophobia played a larger role in their conviction than did any legal evidence. The Red Scare bolstered anti-immigrant feeling on the supposed grounds that the country needed protection from dangerous, un-American foreigners, be they anarchists or communists.

Sacco and Vanzetti after they have been arrested, 20th century, United States, Washington. National archives, . (Photo by: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

Immigration restriction was the result. Immigration opponents expressed concerns about the “racial purity” of the United States, and about immigrants who supposedly did not share American cultural values and traditions. Some trade unionists feared competition from immigrant workers. Others argued that machinery, mechanization, and “scientific management” would decrease the need for unskilled immigrant factory workers and farm laborers.

Although immigration would continue, the factors mentioned above—fear of “dangerous foreign radicals,” worry about racial purity and the “weakening” of American traditions, and concern about the potential loss of jobs—contributed to a general anti-immigrant feeling, and the creation of stricter immigration quotas. This, in turn, strengthened the isolationist mood of the country, and its determination to return to normalcy.

Despite the culture clash of “Jazz Age” exuberance on the one hand and a reborn conservative religious fundamentalism on the other, the 1920s were, overall, a time of great prosperity. The “Roaring Twenties” were a period when money flowed, fortunes were made, and social and personal experimentation and extravagance were evident everywhere. Some may have known that the good times couldn’t last; few expected that they would explode.

Panic: The Stock Market Collapses.

On October 29, 1929, the New York Stock Exchange, the financial nerve center of the world economic system, collapsed. Panic hit Wall Street, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average eventually lost 89 percent of its value.

Almost overnight, stock values disintegrated, and banks were forced to close as people, desperate to preserve their saving, withdrew their money. As a result of the crash, the nation experienced unemployment and homelessness on a massive scale. The Great Depression had arrived.

The Great Depression soon spread out from Wall Street to envelop the whole world. Among major powers, only the socialist Soviet Union, which was not part of the world capitalist system, was spared.

Governments seemed paralyzed and unable to do anything to address the crisis, and people did what they could to try to cope with hard times. Many people dispossessed by the Great Depression looked to aggressive trade-union activism as a means toward improving their plight. In some parts of the world, the reaction was more severe, as authoritarian regimes, such as that of fascist Italy, tried to maintain social order by force.

A “New Deal” for Americans.

From the time of the market crash, the Great Depression raged without any sign of ending. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to the presidency in the 1932 election, however, Americans began to see a glimmer of hope. As a candidate, Roosevelt promised to completely overhaul the economic system in a recovery program he referred to as the “New Deal.” The cornerstones of the New Deal were enacting policies for guaranteeing the supply of money  in the banks, creating the Federal Reserve to manage monetary policy, and putting people back to work through massive, federally funded public-works programs. Roosevelt approved the development of the Social Security retirement system.

US postage stamp: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

After he was elected, Roosevelt’s policies had a positive effect on the economy, but it was a slow, uphill struggle. One of the hardest-hit sectors of the economy were the agricultural industry and factories. Agricultural workers, migrant workers, and factory workers organized unions and issued their demands. Rather than passively wait government aid; they actively demanded direct action from the government in Washington. These efforts pushed for relief from the worst consequences of the Great Depression for those who had endured them and suffered the most. Farmers effectively demanded federal support and received better prices for their crops, as well as farm-management programs and government subsidies. Labor unions organized support for New Deal programs, and social and political activism became the order of the day for many laborers. As labor activism increased, more and more radical voices rose and demanded to be heard.

“Workers Unite!” Radical Labor Activism on the Rise .

In the United States, and throughout the world, many people thought of the Great Depression as the death throes of capitalism. Massive unemployment, homelessness, and hunger led to an increasing politicization and radicalization of society as mass movements, often led by socialist and communist parties, rallied the unemployed to demand more radical social and economic reforms.

In fact, some feared that a social revolution was brewing. The 1930s would see a spike in activity by American radicals and communists. Spurred on by the experience of the Great Depression and the rise of labor militancy, and under the direction of energetic leaders such as William Z. Foster, the Communist Party, USA skyrocketed in membership from an estimated 7,000 members at the beginning of the 1930s to some 100,00 members by the decade’s close. And, these numbers only count known party members; sympathizers and supporters would significantly increase that number.

The communists’ popularity and influence grew as the CPUSA led unemployment councils, strikes and demonstrations demanding fair wages and food relief, struggles for rent control and against evictions, and, in the Deep South, the struggle for civil rights for African Americans.

The radical left also made inroads into the cultural sphere. The art and literature of this era often reflected a newfound awareness of social struggles, and many artists, writers, and entertainers flirted with radical politics. Indeed, some felt that with capitalism struggling, communism or fascism were the only choices. Some artists and public figures, including Charlie Chaplin, Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, Humphrey Bogart, Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway expressed varying degrees of support for the left. Others, such as Ezra Pound, Errol Flynn, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, and Charles Lindbergh chose various positions on the right.

Soon, these loyalties would be put to the test in the Spanish Civil War and World War II.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) would come to be seen by many as a precursor to the Second World War. The conflict began as a military uprising, headed by Spanish General Francisco Franco and supported by fellow fascists Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, attempted to overthrow the leftist, reform-minded Spanish Republic in July 1936.

Though the coup attempt was stalled, it wasn’t fully defeated, and Spain became divided between the territory held by Franco’s military and its sympathizers (the Nationalists), and that held by those loyal to the Republic (the Republicans). The Spanish Civil War had begun, and would continue for three years.

Fearful that the fighting in Spain would expand into a new world war, an international Non-Intervention  Committee was formed under British and French sponsorship, with the intent of denying arms and supplies to either side. However, it soon became clear that non-intervention was a one-sided affair, as Franco received arms, money, and troops from Mussolini and Hitler, while the Republic was left isolated, only supported by Mexico and the Soviet Union.

Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteers.

The plight of Republican Spain caught the world’s imagination. Thousands of troops arrived, from nearly every country, to volunteer on behalf of the Republic. These volunteers made up the celebrated International Brigades. Some three thousand Americans volunteered to fight Franco and fascism, and were organized as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. These troops fought with distinction at the battles of Jarama, Teruel, and Brunete, and in the Aragon and Ebro Offensive. The Lincolns also gained fame as the first American military unit to be fully racially integrated, from rank-and-file soldiers to commanding officers.

Despite the efforts of the Republic and its volunteer allies, Franco’s forces achieved victory in1939, ending the war in Spain. Many Lincoln Brigaders continued their anti-fascist activism, however. Many served in World War II, and some were instrumental in providing aid and assistance to anti-Nazi underground and partisan resistance movements in occupied Europe.

The Radio Priest.

One outspoken enemy of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was Father Charles Coughlin of Detroit, whose weekly radio broadcasts reached an audience of 30-40 million. Nicknamed “the Radio Priest,” Father Coughlin was so popular that, in 1934, he received more mail than any other individual in the United States—80,000 letters a week. Coughlin became the best-known and most-effective American fascist of the 1930s by condemning “Jewish bankers and financiers” as instigators of the Great Depression and attacking unions and communists.

Nativist, racist, and anti-immigrant sentiment was nothing new in the United States, but full-blown fascism was rare. Attempts to launch a genuine fascist movement, such as the anti-Semitic Silver Shirts and the pro-Nazi German American Bund, had limited success. The Ku Klux Klan had experienced unprecedented growth in the 1920s, but its membership and influence had declined dramatically by the end of that decade. Father Coughlin was a different story.

Fascist of the airwaves: Father Coughlin, the “Radio Priest.”

First appearing on air in 1926, Coughlin’s early broadcasts focused on religious matters. After his show was picked up for national distribution by CBS, and with the start of the Great Depression, Coughlin’s broadcasts became more overtly political. Strongly anti-socialist and anti-communist, Coughlin at first supported Roosevelt’s New Deal for supposedly blocking the appeal of the radical left through reforms. Soon, however, Coughlin not only turned against Roosevelt, whom he accused of being a “tool of Jewish Wall Street,” but began to publicly support Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan’s Hideki Tojo.

Coughlin tried, unsuccessfully, to form his own political party in 1936, and launched a magazine, Social Justice, which regularly published anti-Jewish and pro-Nazi articles. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, radio stations across the country began to drop Coughlin’s program. In 1942, his bishop ordered him to end his political activities, and Father Coughlin returned to being a parish priest. He died in 1979, his days as “The Radio Priest” all but forgotten.

America First!

Coughlin was not the only famous American who took the fascists’ side, so did famous aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Founded at the close of the decade, the America First Committee would seem to occupy a political position somewhere between the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and Father Coughlin.

The committee was created in order to encourage isolationist sentiment and to advocate for non-intervention in European affairs. Standing firmly in support of the Neutrality Acts Congress had passed in the course of the 1930s, the America First Committee argued that the United States should remain neutral in any war in Europe.

However, American neutrality made it difficult for the U.S. to support its allies, including Britain and France. Roosevelt had an extreme distaste for Hitler and Mussolini, and had been in communication with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill since the beginning of hostilities. Roosevelt clearly hoped for a British victory, which he viewed as in line with American interests. Roosevelt’s so-called “lend-lease” policy of supplying food, oil and other essential materials to the Allies caused the  America First Committee to see him as having violated neutrality, and the Committee tried to block any aid to Britain and France.

At its peak, the America First Committee claimed to have 135,000 members across the country. Its number included many prominent businessmen, including Robert Wood of Sears-Roebuck, Sterling Morton of Morton Salt, publisher Joseph Patterson of the New York Daily News, writers Sinclair Lewis and E. E. Cummings, and celebrities such as Walt Disney and Lillian Gish. Future presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford were both members.

US postage stamp: Aviator and Nazi sympathizer, Charles A, Lindbergh.

The most prominent public member of the America First Committee, though, was aviator Charles Lindbergh. His experience illustrates the committee’s downfall.

Lindbergh made several trips to Nazi Germany. In 1938, Hermann Goering, Hitler’s future vice chancellor, personally decorated Lindbergh with the Order of the German Eagle. Lindbergh was vocal in supporting racist and anti-Semitic causes, and it soon became apparent that the Germans were using him as a spokesperson in an effort to keep America from entering the war on the Allies’ side. Lindbergh’s association with Nazi Germany eroded his credibility, and, by association, that of the America First Committee as well.

The issue was decided on December 7, 1941 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war. The America First Committee was dissolved three days later.

Categories: Anti-Fascism, Imperialism, Imperialist War, United States History, Workers Struggle

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