The armistice ending World War I took effect on November 11,1918. The horrible nightmare was ended, Americans had made their individual and collective sacrifices. The Journal Courier’s Tuesday, Nov. 12, 1918, bold headline declared, “WORLD’S PEACE IN SIGHT! Armistice Signed and Fighting Stopped Monday – Full Terms as Made Public Are Equivalent to Unconditional Surrender – Kaiser Wilhelm Abdicates And Flees to Holland.”
Once again, the local newspaper captured the nation’s sentiments and the collective relief felt by Americans.
The impact and results of the war were both immediate and longer term. This was true globally, nationally and locally.
The reality at Versailles
The defeat of Germany and its Central Powers allies — Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire — by the victorious Triple Alliance and the United States was the most immediate result of World War I. The three defeated nations were forced to surrender large amounts of territory, and the “re-mapping” of central and eastern Europe followed. Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia came into existence. German militarism and territorial aggression was halted for the short term. The price of this aggression would be high and was to be determined by the victors at the Versailles peace conference. The Fourteen Points peace plan was so important to Woodrow Wilson that he did what no previous American president had done by voyaging to France to meet with his “Big Four” counterparts to negotiate the terms of a peace treaty.
Upon his arrival, Wilson was hailed by millions as he toured different European capitals. The Journal Courier’s December 18,1918, headline reported, “BRITISH THRONGS CHEER WILSON – President Welcomed by Royal Pair And Is Conveyed to Palace in Triumph – Royal Salute Is Fired.”
But, the Versailles peace conference proved to be a far more difficult setting for Wilson.
British and French negotiators had a strong desire to punish Germany. This will overwhelmed Wilson’s ideals and his League of Nations dream. Britain and France had suffered immensely and they clamored for more than a single pound of German flesh in revenge.
European casualties and revenge
Combined, Britain and France had suffered 2.5 million dead among the overall nine million deaths and approximately 40 million casualties of World War I. They would have their revenge. The Germans were forced to return disputed territory back to France and to surrender foreign colonies in Asia and Africa. They also had to significantly decrease the size of their armed forces, halt the production of munitions and make cash reparation payments to Britain and France. The territorial forfeitures, military restrictions and reparation payments made by Germany following World War I would later create the damaged collective psyche of the German people that made possible the rise of Adolph Hitler in the 1930s.
President Wilson was able to include his plan for a League of Nations in the peace treaty, but Republicans in the U.S. Senate were later able to reject its ratification. In addition to suffering over 100,000 dead in World War I, America was also impacted in other ways.
How World War I impacted America
Although Europe absorbed the far greater impact of the war, Americans were also affected both during the war itself and in the decade that followed. After Congress gave Woodrow Wilson his declaration of war in 1917, the call went out for a million volunteers to fight the war, but only 73,000 enlisted in the first six weeks. Clearly, many Americans did not share the president’s enthusiasm for meddling in European affairs.
Consequently, in June 1917, Congress implemented the nation’s first draft since the Civil War. The Selective Service Act resulted in 2.8 million men being called by lottery into the armed forces. All told, 4.7 million were eventually issued uniforms for World War I, with over two million being sent to Europe. Additionally, there were 65,000 conscientious objectors during World War I. The government sponsored thousands of public speakers to convince a reluctant public that America’s national interests were directly affected by events in Europe. There were around 49,000 American combat deaths and over 112,000 total Americans killed in World War I. The trenches of Europe allowed for a horrible flu epidemic and it had taken its deadly toll. These collective costs left many Americans disillusioned. A foreign policy of isolationism resulted in the 1920s.
Hitler, Mussolini and the rise of European totalitarianism filled the void left by America’s non-involvement in world affairs.
World War II would be the result of European revenge against Germany and American isolationism.
World War I must also be measured in terms of its socio-economic and civil liberties impact in America.
Opportunity for some — punishment for others
World War I resulted in a degree of social upheaval, enhanced economic opportunity for women and African-Americans and Constitutional liberty limitations for others. Many women moved into the workplace to fill jobs vacated by soldiers. Also, over 300,000 blacks left the segregated South and migrated northward, to compete for factory jobs and to escape KKK brutality. Northern racial tolerance would be put to the test.
The process of deciding to ask Congress for a declaration of war had been a difficult one for President Wilson. He initially called for neutrality and restraint, but once he crossed the threshold for war, his liberal progressivism seemed to have been cast aside. The president hated criticism and viewed any critic of the war as an enemy of human welfare. Massive violation of civil liberties followed, including the strict enforcement of the 1917 Espionage Act and the 1918 Sedition Act. These two laws provided the legal basis for Wilson to suppress opposition.
Perhaps the most egregious example of civil rights violation was the ten year jail sentence for three time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs for declaring, “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.”
Eventually, there would be around 2,000 prosecutions under these laws. The persecution of many Americans continued during the post-war Red Scare. Americans with minority political views were routinely rounded up, prosecuted and often deported back to their countries of origin. The arrest, conviction and 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti was the most controversial example. Congress enacted immigration quotas. In many ways, World War I also brought the Progressive Era to a jolting end. Wilson’s vision of an “international progressivism” would be thwarted in 1919.
Republicans defeat Wilson’s treaty and rise to power
Woodrow Wilson’s failure to have most of his “Fourteen Points” included in the Treaty of Versailles left him in no mood for further compromise when he returned to America. The Republicans were successful in turning the Treaty of Versailles into a hot button political issue during the 1920 election campaign. Wilson traveled around the nation seeking public support for the treaty. The strenuous ordeal took its toll when he suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving the nation largely without a president for the remainder of his term.
Senate Republicans denied Wilson the two-thirds vote Constitutionally required for treaty ratification. The 1920 election included a great ethnic backlash against Anglo-Americanism. Republicans swept both the presidency and control of Congress. Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding and his “return to normalcy” slogan easily defeated Democrat James Cox 16 million to nine million in the popular vote. Despite being in prison, the Socialist Eugene V. Debs received 919,799 popular votes. The city of Little Falls also voted strongly for Harding. The November 2, 1920, Journal Courier headline read, “Harding And Coolidge Sweep the Country! – James W. Wadsworth, Senator – Homer P. Snyder, Congressman.
Irish, German and Italian voters all turned against Wilson’s treaty and the Democrats in general and towards the Republicans. Indeed, World War I had been an explosive political event resulting in a major electoral realignment that would in turn make it possible for the Republican Party to dominate the political arena throughout the Roaring 20s. They were able to implement their pro-big business economic policies.
Post-World War I America also witnessed massive labor unrest. This unrest was fueled by a labor surplus and by the difficulty of restoring the nation’s peacetime economy. Many factory owners were able to lower wages due to the expanded workforce combination of returning veterans, women and blacks. The pre-World War I Progressive Era focus of public purpose and democratic ideals was replaced by the 1920s big business focus on private interest and excessive capitalist zeal. In addition to the political and economic impact of the war, there was great social change.
A new urban America
The 1920 Census reported that for the first time more Americans lived in cities than in rural areas. The population of the city of Little Falls mirrored this national trend. Our 1895 population was 9,897 and by 1915 the city had expanded to a population of 13,022.
The increasingly urbanized nation provided the setting that launched the Jazz Age of the Roaring 20s. The Eighteenth Amendment, ratified in 1919, created national prohibition. Prohibition-induced speakeasies proved the perfect setting for the new morals of the 1920s.
Many American soldiers and women serving in World War I Europe had adopted the “live for today, for tomorrow you may die” attitude. More open European moral standards came home to America following the war. Independent minded female flappers were influenced by this changing morality. The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 granting suffrage to women. Suffrage and the more open morality launched the flapper generation into the Roaring 20s. Talking movies and radio also set the moral tone. Widespread automobile ownership made secluded intimate settings more accessible. What could be more thrilling to the “alienated youth” of the 1920s than a late night ride to a speakeasy?
The literature of the post-war decade condemned the sacrifices of wartime as the result of moneyed interests. The “lost generation” writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Sinclair Lewis, expressed disillusionment with the aftereffects of the war and with the materialism of the business-oriented culture of the 1920s.
Black culture and segregation
The northward migration of southern blacks to northern cities in search of factory work and escape from the segregated South also influenced post World War I America. On the upside, the north became more racially balanced and the black-inspired Jazz Age provided the musical pulse of 1920’ America. Best said by Langston Hughes in his poem Lenox Avenue: Midnight, “The rhythm of life is a jazz rhythm, honey.”
The 1920s Harlem Renaissance first awakened America to the diverse complexity of black culture. The jazz of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington was the popular music of the 1920s. Unfortunately, as blacks moved into northern cities, the KKK enjoyed a resurgence, both in its traditional southern birthplace and in many northern states. White northern tolerance was being tested. America’s new multi-racial and multi-ethnic urban composition created the tribal 20s. Nativism reared its ugly head and racism was rampant. Race riots occurred in a number of American cities. During this period the South average around 100 social lynchings per year. The post World War I industrial boom left many older rural-based Americans confused and searching for simplistic scapegoat answers. The confused reasoning connecting all of the newcomers with the changed cultural and social climate made sense to many.
World War I also had significant local impact.
World War I and Little Falls
Any examination of the local impact of World War I has to begin with the twenty-four Little Falls residents who left for service and did not return home. Twelve men would die from wounds received in battle and twelve others perished from the influenza epidemic that ravaged through American forces. Some of the other 255 Little Falls soldiers were injured in combat, a number from German gas attacks. Theodore Johnson, father and grandfather of the two authors of this series of articles, was gassed in action at the 1918 second battle of the Somme River in France. These soldiers and their families suffered the consequences of America’s decision to enter World War I in 1917.
Community life in Little Falls went on during World War I, often reflecting the dynamics of the war itself. In the political arena, Republican Abram Zoller defeated incumbent Democrat Frank Shall in the 1915 Little Falls mayoral election. The November 2, 1915, edition of The Journal Courier reported, “City of Little Falls – Every Republican Candidate Elected – Abram Zoller, Mayor – Only Three Democrats in Common Council Next Year.” Zoller received 1,230 votes and Shall received 1022 votes. Zoller took office in January 1916, almost two years after the outbreak of World War I and just over a year before America entered the war.
Other local affairs during the war
America’s decision to enter World War I was controversial. Two 1917 Journal Courier articles captured local events related to this entry.
The April 4, 1917, headline proclaimed, “Now at War with Germany – Regular Troops on Duty Here – Protect Public Works – Mayor Zoller Allows Cohoes Arsenal to Camp at City Playgrounds in Eastern Part of The City.” Interestingly, the April 3 headline proclaimed war, but the actual Congressional declaration of war had not been made until April 6. President Wilson addressed Congress on April 2 and stated that a state of warfare with Germany already did exist. Additionally, the article only hints at why public works, such as the canal and the recently completed Little Falls lift lock and local power stations, had to be guarded. Was the fear of domestic sabotage the reason? Were recent German immigrants the target of this suspicion? The April 10, 1917, Journal Courier set of headlines and related articles are of further interest, “Mayor Zoller’s Proclamation – No One of Foreign Birth Have Fear – U.S. Called by Wilson to Join the War – Police Army on Guard – 12,000 Armed with Rifles in New York City Defense – Two Views of Germany – Some Want to Fight Physically, Others Financially to Aid Entente at Any Cost.”
It can be assumed that some form of local ethnic backlash occurred following the declaration of war.
Is there was concern once again over the prospect of domestic unrest, particularly in larger cities. The April 17, 1917, Journal Courier headline hints at an anti-German sentiment, “U.S. Halts German Citizenship Rush – No More Naturalization until Test Case Decision.” One can only wonder whether or not local residents suffered any sort of personal reprisal for their native country’s decision to wage war against America and our allies.
The first post-World War I mayoral election in Little Falls also showed a Republican political sentiment. Republican Nelson Gilbert defeated the Democrat Foley 1,943 to 1,688. In addition to voting for the Harding – Coolidge Republican ticket in the 1920 election. Little Falls also helped to elect city native Republican Homer P. Snyder to Congress. He easily defeated the Democrat Huntington for the Congressional seat 10,499 to 4,378. The study of the early 1920s also gives us the opportunity to examine the ongoing local impact of the war.
1920s in the Little Falls area
The World War I era suspicion of civil liberties gave way to the Red Scare that followed. The northward migration of southern blacks and the nativist backlash against the “new immigrants” from southern and eastern Europe resulted in a disturbing growth in KKK membership to over five million members by the mid-1920s. Many new Klan chapters formed in northern states. Richard Buckley’s excellent book on the history of Little Falls, “Unique Place Diverse People,” provides its readers with a number of historical instances of how this conservative reaction to a more urbanized nation played out locally. Buckley writes extensively about the Americanization programs that flourished locally as Little Falls struggled to assimilate its growing ethnic diversity. The national campaign against new immigrants was mirrored locally with a number of misguided efforts lashing out at people of different ethnic backgrounds. Shamefully, the Little Falls area also tolerated the existence of racist KKK activity.
Buckley’s book includes three Evening Times references providing compelling testimony about KKK activity locally. Apparently, post-World War I racist instincts were acted upon by some area residents. An August 1924, headline read, “A Gathering of Valley Klansmen,” and a July 2, 1925, article addressed local cross burning activity. A 1928 headline relating to the upcoming presidential election read, “Beat Smith Klan War Cry.”
New York Democrat Governor Alfred E. Smith was the target of KKK hatred because he was the first Catholic to run for president. Republican Herbert Hoover did easily defeat Smith in the 1928 presidential election, but Little Falls voted for Smith, probably due to the city’s strong Irish and Italian Catholic populations. All of this World War I influence of local political and social activity is of interest, but the main focus of this final article needs to end with emphasis on its primary purpose.
The purpose of this series of articles was to both foster a greater appreciation of national and local history and to honor the sacrifices made by local soldiers in World War I. Hopefully, as we visited the graves of loved ones over this past Memorial Day weekend we took a moment to reflect upon these sacrifices. We need not glorify war itself, but we do need to recognize and honor the efforts of those who have gone before us.
Our additional burden is to properly maintain and respect the burial grounds of our deceased loved ones.