Part 13: The Effects of World War I

Part Thirteen: The Effects of World War I

In the fall of 1914, the United States "escaped a depression only by virtue of war orders." American moneylenders loaned over a billion dollars to the allies who used this money for the purchase of supplies from the United States. As a result, by August 1915, American prosperity was becoming dependent upon the sell of these "war orders" to the allies.

When Germany threatened submarine warfare in the Atlantic, the United States faced, "without shipping to move American goods overseas," economic collapse, and "Great Britain faced the loss of the war."

Now, Germany had long been restive under the Monroe Doctrine, and had cast jealous eyes upon Latin America as a field for colonial expansion. The British intercepted some secret German dispatches headed for Mexico which they decoded and turned over to the American government on March 1, 1917, revealing that: "The German Foreign Minister had offered the States of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, together with liberal financial aid, if Mexico would join Germany, in the event of war between Germany and the United States."

So then, if the English lost the war, and thus giving the control of the Atlantic to Germany, American national interest would be threatened. Hence, this posed a crucial situation that was magnetically drawing the United States into the war.

"Wilson's argument that 'we entered the war as the disinterested champions of right' was a rationalization." When he said, "the world must be made safe for democracy," he struck a magic chord. For a war to make the world free from autocratic rulers who were "free to build up military machines and declare war on peace-loving at will" would be a "war to end all wars."

"Under the circumstances, it might have been expected that Negroes would have viewed America's entry into World War I, the 'war to end all wars', the war to 'make the world safe for democracy', with more than a little irony. But the clamor of the drums in April 1917 was accompanied by an upsurge of Negro patriotism. Like other Americans, Negroes rushed to 'make the world safe for democracy'…Negroes dreamed that a substantial contribution on their part toward victory overseas would somehow lead to an improvement in their status at home. Negroes flocked to enlist, and the War Department was deluged with offers of Negro troops. But the War Department was uncertain as to what policy it would pursue in regard to Negro soldiers. A month after war was declared the department stopped the enlistment of Negroes."

"The old fears that Negro troops would not or could not fight made themselves felt once again in conservative military circles. However, the Selective Service Act of May 1917, at least made certain that Negroes would not 'miss' the war. Although volunteering was closed to him, the Negro found himself drafted—and overdrafted. … Of all Negroes registered for the draft, 31.74 percent were called to arms, while only 26.84 percent of registered whites were actually enrolled. More than 365,000 Negroes were eventually taken into the armed forces."

The Negroes were subjected to segregated units throughout their length of service; not only in the military but even in the communities where they received their training, and especially in the South. (For example, some white citizens goaded into desperation members of the Negro Twenty-fifth Infantry Regiment in Houston, Texas, in 1917. This action led to a riot under the cry: "To hell with going to France let's clean up this dirty town!" Thirteen Black soldiers were hanged and forty sentenced to life imprisonment as a result of the killing of seventeen whites during the disturbance.)

Overseas, the Black soldier was compiling an impressive record on the fighting front—drawing praises from General John J. Pershing himself as well as from France. Individuals as well as fighting units won medals of honor (especially the "Croix-de-Guerre," i.e., war cross, from the French). However, more than two-thirds of the Black troops in France were "relegated to the Quartermaster Corps, where they did the back breaking, humdrum, and essential heavy labor which kept the armies supplied up front."

On the home from, there was a phenomenon taking place changing the sociology of America. In order to meet the demands of the "war orders," laborers were needed in the northern factories. Because of high draft calls and the cessation of European immigration, due to their need for servicemen, the manufacturers looked south toward the Blacks. As an offer of better jobs and higher wages for an incentive, the Blacks began, during the decade 1910–1920, their second wave of migration northward.

The "war migration" had two sociological impacts. The first was the strained racial tensions brought about by the cheap Black labor, which was used to break strikes and to lower the price of white labor. This phenomenon led to many race riots such as the one in East St. Louis, Illinois, in July 1919, "claiming the lives of nearly two hundred Negroes and destroying almost half a million dollars worth of property."

Strangely enough, the white south, spewed with race hatred, baptized in Black lynchings, actually did not want the Blacks to leave. For they soon realized that they too were running short of workers. After the East St. Louis riot some white southerners sent delegations up North "with great-hearted offers to take the workers to a lesser hell. The man from Greenville, Mississippi, who wanted a thousand got six,…"

Secondly, the "war migration" created the ghettos of the North. For most of the new arrivals were jammed into the rat infested and over-flowing Black ghettos. "They competed for housing and services with poor white workers, and, after the war, for jobs. The wretched conditions under which both Black and white laborers lived in northern cities with the tensions of new competition, were at the roots of the race riots."

The returning Black soldiers in 1919 encountered the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and all that it does and stands for. Also, their return accentuated the situation in the northern cities and industrial areas. Black workers were laid off to make room for the returning white soldiers. The scarcity of jobs contributed to the mounting racial tension. A series of over twenty brutal race riots ranged from Longview, Texas to Washington, D.C. Perhaps the most significant was the riot in Chicago involving the deaths of twenty-three Blacks and fifteen whites.

A transubstantiation of Black people had taken place. For "the pre-war migrants had taken jobs as porters, janitors, and domestic servants. The war migrants became laborers at Swift, Armour, Pullman, and International Harvester."

Many Blacks found full employment for the first time. In July 1918, "after some doubts, DuBois used his influence in the editorial pages of the Crisis (NAACP's publication) to support America's entry into the conflict in his famous editorial entitled 'Closed Ranks'." ("Not a few Blacks denounced DuBois and the war, but many Blacks participated on the home front and on the front lines.")

Closed Ranks

This is the crisis of the world. For all the long years to come men will point to the year 1918 as the great Day of Decision, the day when the world decided whether it would submit to military despotism and an endless armed peace—if peace it could be called —or whether they would put down the menace of German militarism and inaugurate the United States of the World.

We of the colored race have no ordinary interest in the outcome. That which the German power represents today spells death to the aspirations of Negroes and all darker races for equality, freedom and democracy. Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but make it gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills.

As a result of the experiences gained, both home and abroad, during the war, a change was induced in the souls of Black folks such that, many observed, they had acquired "a ready willingness…to retaliate when attacked, and a Negro editor in New York bade good-bye to Uncle Tom."


Bennett, Lerone, Jr.— Before the Mayflower
DuBois, W. E. B. — Darkwater
Goldston, Robert — The Negro Revolution
Hicks, John D. — The American Nation
Resh, Richard — Black America
All quotations are from the above references.