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Preparing for War

President Wilson realized that to win the war in Europe, Americans had to organize at home. Wilson quickly took steps to muster support for the fighting.

A draft law strengthens the armed forces.

When the United States declared war, the army had only about 200,000 troops. The country had to create a large fighting force quickly. On May 18, 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act. This draft law required all men between 21 and 30 years old to register for the draft. These age limits were later expanded to 18 and 45.

In the next 18 months, almost 5 million Americans entered military service. About 3 million were drafted. Others volunteered or belonged to National Guard units that were called for duty. About 370,000 black Americans were among those who joined the armed forces. Blacks, however, suffered discrimination in many ways. They were not permitted to enlist in the Marine Corps. In the army, blacks were assigned to segregated, all-black units led by white officers. In spite of discrimination, black soldiers fought bravely, and many were among the war’s most decorated troops.

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Soldiers also joined the army from every other American ethnic group, including Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and Asians. In addition, thou sands of women served in the armed forces as nurses, ambulance drivers, and clerks.

The government spurs production of war resources.

The millions of draftees had to be quickly equipped with food, clothing, and weapons. The nation also had to produce vast amounts of heavy weapons and equipment, including locomotives, freight cars, railroad tracks, trucks, and cannon. Ships had to be built to transport troops and supplies to Europe. In addition, Americans knew early in 1917 that Britain and France were almost out of food and supplies. To win the war, the United States would have to supply the Allies as well as its own troops.

The government set up dozens of agencies and committees to spur production of needed war goods. The Food Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover, urged Americans to conserve and expand food supplies. Families grew their own vegetables in backyard “victory gardens.” Farmers planted extra crops. Americans observed “wheatless Mondays” and “meatless Tuesdays.” Another agency, the War Industries Board, regulated industry. It decided which factories would receive supplies of steel and other resources, and told the factories what to produce. The War Labor Board was set up to prevent strikes and labor problems. It regulated wages and working hours.

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To pay for the cost of the war, the government increased taxes. It also raised $21 billion through the sale of Liberty Bonds. Americans bought the bonds as a way of loaning money to the government. Movie stars and athletes helped sell the bonds. The government also organized thousands of “Four-Minute Speeches” to build support for the war. Speakers at clubs, theaters, churches, and union meetings spread the message that the war was necessary to de fend democracy.

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New workers join the labor force.

As men joined the armed forces, millions of women found opportunities to work outside their homes. Women ran elevators and streetcars, made ammunition and heavy machinery, directed traffic, and delivered mail. These had been considered men’s jobs. With so many women working, Americans began to change their view that women could only do certain kinds of work.

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Black Americans had new job opportunities as the nation mobilized. Many left farms in the south to move to northern cities. They found work in factories making goods for the war. Black ghettos began to develop in such northern cities as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit.


Opponents of the war are harshly treated.

Most Americans supported the war effort, but a few spoke out against it. Most of them were pacifists —people who oppose all wars. Pacifists were treated harshly be cause of their views. The government passed the Sedition Act in 1918, making it illegal to speak against the government or the war. More than 1,500 people were arrested under this law.

Harsh treatment was also directed at many German Americans. Some were fired from their jobs. Others were attacked on the A streets. Schools stopped teaching German, and many Americans refused to use German words such as hamburger and sauerkraut.