USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

The United States and the First World War

World War I altered or accelerated the six key trends outlined in the previous page. Clearly, the war helped foster a sense of U.S. national identity. Coming at the end of the imperial age, the Great War provided the United States with an opportunity to define itself in relation to the rest of the world. The U.S. was independent; it was exceptional. It was democratic and supported (in theory) democratic movements throughout the world. It stood for an end to tyranny. It stood for an opening of the seas and free trade (again, in theory). Many of the defining attributes of what we think of the American identity today are traceable not to the founding era of the nation but to the era around WWI. Economically, the war brought an enormous boom to the U.S. economy. A net debtor to Europe in the years before the war, the United States became the world’s single largest creditor nation during it. The war enabled industrial production in the United States to an unprecedented degree. It also sharply increased the demand for U.S. agricultural products. Needless to say, WWI demonstrated the potential of U.S. military power. This potential would from then on be a critical one in the unfolding of world affairs, though not always in predictable ways. The fourth trend, immigration, was also changed by the war. The war and the transition from wartime to peacetime economy aroused many fears of the continued migration of people to the United States. A new sense of isolationism rippled through U.S. society and led to drastic reductions of immigration. One of the key elements of this reduction was the perceived link between immigration and political radicalism, a link that became highly politicized in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent “Red Scare.” Events like the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti added to the growing fear of the imaginary immigrant/communist menace. Progressivism continued into the 1920s in a variety of ways. Some progressive achievements had massive significance, like the passage in 1920 of the 19th amendment to the Constitution that gave women the right to vote, or the outlawing of alcohol by prohibition.

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