World War 1, 1914 - 1918

Taken from The encyclopedia of New York State, editor in chief, Peter Eisenstadt ; managing editor, Laura-Eve Moss, Syracuse, N.Y. Syracuse University Press, 2005.

World War I, by Christopher Capozzola

The Coming Storm After the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914,New York State officials shared Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s official position of neutrality. Responses to the war in local communities, however, varied from indifference to strident nationalism, particularly among recent immigrants from the warring European countries. In Utica, city residents of English ancestry enlisted in the British and Canadian armed forces, while German immigrants raised funds for their homeland. The state’s economy shifted toward war production after 1914 even though the United States was not a combatant. Factories produced military equipment and munitions, many of them shipped through the Port of New York. Initially, the outbreak of war shocked the New York City financial markets; the New York Stock Exchange was closed for the second half of 1914 in response to the unsettled European situation. Eventually these markets emerged from the war far stronger than before. Financial institutions, particularly the J. P. Morgan Bank in New York City under the direction of the vigorously pro-British J. P. Morgan Jr, funded the Allied war effort.

The outbreak of the war led to a division among Progressive reformers as peace organizations expanded into a full-fledged movement to stop the war. Most prominent were two New York City-based organizations, the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) and the Woman’s Peace Party (WPP), both founded in 1915. At the same time, other New York State residents pressed the government to strengthen its military power and to enter the war on the side of the Allies. Prominent among the interventionists were former president Theodore Roosevelt and Walter Hines Page, president of Doubleday, Page publishers in Garden City (Nassau Co), who served as US ambassador to Great Britain from 1913 to 1918. Advocates of military preparedness set up an officer training camp at the Plattsburgh Barracks in the summer of 1915 for college students and businessmen and gathered some 1,300 recruits from the country’s elite in its first session; by the next summer, 16,000 men attended similar camps nationwide. The program became known as the Plattsburgh Idea and laid the groundwork for the US Army’s ROTC program.

Naval warfare severely curtailed international travel by civilians and brought an end to the steady stream of immigrants who had shaped New York State life for decades. Attacks on American ships and travelers also eroded support for neutrality; the sinking of the Lusitania on 7 May 1915,during a run from New York City to Liverpool, England, killed nearly 1,200 people. A massive explosion on 30 July 1916 at the munitions factories on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor fostered fears of German sabotage, although the true cause of the explosion remains unknown. Tensions over the war also surfaced in the state during the hotly contested presidential election of 1916; Wilson defeated US Supreme Court justice and former New York State governor Charles Evans Hughes, but Hughes won New York State by more than 100,000 votes. Although Wilson was reelected on the slogan He Kept Us Out of War, world events soon pressed the country into an official declaration of war on 6 Apr 1917.


Within days, New York State began to mobilize troops. State residents reported to cantonments across the country: more than 25,000 went to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina, while a handful traveled as far as Camp Lewis in Washington State. More than 73,000 New Yorkers, mostly inductees from New York City and Long Island, trained as part of the US Army 77th Division at Camp Upton, near Yaphank (Suffolk Co). Among them was songwriter Irv in g Berlin, who commemorated the experience in the wartime musical Yip! Yip! Yaphank (1918). By wars end, 367,864 New Yorkers had served in the armed forces. Among the states military regiments was the 369th US Infantry, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. During the war African American men mobilized in segregated units under the command of white officers. The 369th gathered black soldiers from across New York State. Cpl. Henry Johnson of Albany earned America’s first Croix de Guerre for service in combat in France. The regiments band, under director James Reese Europe, was the first to play live jazz in Europe. At home, the migration of African Americans to northern urban areas brought increasing numbers to New York State cities. More moved to Harlem than anywhere else, and by the end of the war Harlem had emerged as the unofficial capital of black America.

With the United States officially in the war, the state’s industries turned dramatically toward a war footing. In the Mohawk Valley, Remington Arms in Ilion (Herkimer Co) produced rifles while Utica’s Savage Arms factory provided the US military with machine guns. The huge plant of the Lackawanna Iron and Steel Co (Erie Co) produced steel for the war effort, while in nearby Buffalo, National Aniline manufactured explosives, and the Curtiss Aeroplane Co produced thousands of military aircraft. In 1916 a subsidiary, the Curtiss Engineering Corp, opened a factory in Garden City, marking the beginning of Long Islands aviation industry. In Rochester Bausch and Lomb produced range finders, gun sights, trench periscopes, and other optical equipment with military uses. During the spring and summer of 1918, the Boys5 Working Reserve excused thousands of state schoolchildren (both boys and girls) from classes to fill shortages of agricultural labor. Finance continued from New York City banks, now supplemented with federal funds. Reformers in the American Committee on War Finance, founded in March 1917 by Amos Pinchot, pressed for progressive taxation and against war profiteering.

 A Divided Home Front

 Mobilizing New York State’s home front required intellectual support as well as industrial and agricultural production. Gov. Charles S. Whitman established home defense committees at the county level across the state. Hundreds of thousands volunteered with local chapters of the American Red Cross. Food conservation drew the New York State Federation of Women’s Clubs. Volunteer public speakers known as “Four Minute Men” roused audiences in rallies and at movie theaters; film stars Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Mary Pickford participated in bond drives. Motivational speakers in Albany included the Hip Hip Hooray Girls, a burlesque troupe from the city’s Empire Theatre. Whitman appointed James Montgomery Flagg the state’s official military artist; he would later go on to fame with his US Army recruiting poster of Uncle Sam featuring the words “I Want You.” In Rochester, George Eastman took charge of the Patriotic and Community Fund Drive in May 1918.

Not all efforts on the home front were so upbeat. Immigrants came under special scrutiny. Citizens of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire were required to register as enemy aliens and forbidden to enter areas of military importance. German Americans in particular were targets of repression. Buffalo’s German-American Bank renamed itself Liberty Bank; in 1918 in New York City the Germania Life Insurance Co became the Guardian Life Insurance Co of America. Italian and French composers replaced Germans in the lineup of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. More serious episodes occurred as well. The states vibrant German language press all but disappeared under wartime strictures that required submitting English translations to postal inspectors before publication; German newspapers in Utica, Buffalo, Albany, and Troy (Rensselaer Co) either ceased or significantly reduced publication. Schools across the state eliminated German from the curriculum; the school board in Mount Vernon (Westchester Co) even voted to destroy the German language textbooks that had been used in the school before the war. A German immigrant in Utica who refused to purchase war bonds was arrested on charges of sedition. Germans were not the only subjects of surveillance. Irish Americans with ties to the rebellious home country were also suspect; the Irish World and American Industrial Liberator, published in New York City was censored. On the other hand, for immigrants who found their national aspirations in tune with American policy, the war was a welcome chance to express their views. Most Jews, of whatever political ideology, were reluctant to align themselves with the notoriously anti-Semitic regime in Russia. By the time America declared war, the overthrow of the czar and Wilson’s promises of a new order in eastern Europe made the war effort more popular. After Italy joined the Allies in 1915, most Italian immigrants supported the war effort.

During the war political radicals and pacifists found themselves the subject of investigation and numerous schoolteachers were relieved o f their positions, including Mary McDowell, a Quaker teacher in Brooklyn charged with “conduct unbecoming a teacher.” Columbia University professor James McKeen Cattell was dismissed in October 1917 for opposing the war; the furor among academics over his dismissal led to other resignations, including Charles A. Beard, who left to help found the New School for Social Research in New York City. Police in Buffalo visited 55,000 homes to gather “ voluntary” purchases of war bonds. Conscientious objectors faced ridicule and harassment, and all the state’s draft-age men were subject to “ slacker raids” conducted by the American Protective League. This volunteer draft-enforcement organization detained over 50,000 men (only 8 of whom turned out to be draft dodgers) during the nation’s largest raid in New York City in early September 1918.

Despite formal and informal repression, antiwar activism continued throughout the war. The New York City branch of the WPP was among the nation’s most active women’s peace organizations; after the war, it would merge into the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The AUAM unraveled but many o f its leading figures turned their attention to protecting the rights of draftees, immigrants, and radicals as the union’s Bureau of Conscientious Objectors. This group became the National Civil Liberties Bureau in 1917 and merged with several other organizations to form the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. Several key free-speech cases were heard in federal courts in New York City, among them the trial of Jacob Abrams and four others charged for distributing seditious materials. Although the Abrams convictions were upheld by the US Supreme Court in Abrams v United States (1919),dissents in that case by Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis D. Brandeis laid the groundwork for modern Understandings of tree speech.

Political radicalism continued as well, despite significant repression. On 28 July 1917 a parade of 8,000 African Americans marched down New York City’s 5th Ave in silent protest of a recent race riot in East St. Louis, Ill. The Socialist Party (the only national political party to take an official stand against the war) reaped marked gains across the state in the 1917 elections, sending 10 candidates to the state assembly. Mayoral elections in New York City voted in Tammany functionary John R Hylan and pushed out John Purroy Mitchel, whose strident pro-war stance had alienated ethnic German American and Irish American voters. The unpopular Mitchel finished just ahead of Morris Hillquit, who ran on the Socialist Party ticket.

Faced with wartime inflation (prices rose 79% over the course of the war), housing shortages, and increased working hours, workers pushed for bargaining rights, higher wages, and better working conditions. The National War Labor Board, a federal agency, urged companies with war contracts to bargain with organized labor and to meet minimal workplace requirements; in return, many major labor unions pledged not to strike for the duration of the war. Moderate labor leader Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor succeeded in his quest to bring Pres Wilson before the union’s convention in Buffalo in November 1917. Labor protest did not disappear, though. The more radical Amalgamated Clothing Workers, under the leadership o f Sidney Hillman, achieved a significant wartime victory in Rochester.

Supporters of woman suffrage pressed their case throughout the war. New York State women, under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, won the right to vote in a state referendum in November 1917. On 4 June 1919,New York State’s congressional delegation voted overwhelmingly to submit the 19th Amendment to the states, although Sen James W. Wadsworth Jr of Geneseo (Livingston Co) continued his lifelong opposition. The state legislature adopted the amendment on 16 June 1920 in a unanimous vote. The movement for Prohibition also gained momentum during the war; residents who sought to conserve foodstuffs urged restrictions on whiskey (produced from valuable corn); others supported the legislation in response to wartime propaganda that demonized the political power of the German-dominated brewing industry. Temporary wartime measures set the stage for the adoption on 29 Jan 1919of the 18th Amendment, which passed with strong support from Protestant communities outside of the New York City area.

 Victory and Postwar Adjustment

Meanwhile, New York State troops in France contributed to the Armistice, achieved on 11 Nov 1918. That day, the streets of Albany filled with at least 50,000 people. Victory celebrations, however, were mostly postponed by the global epidemic of Spanish influenza. The disease first appeared in New York City in September 1918 and spread rapidly throughout the state. Perhaps as many as 500,000 took ill and more than 60,000 died. Elections that fall were also disrupted by the epidemic; those who made it to the polls joined a nationwide reaction against the wartime leadership of the Democratic Party, although Democrat Alfred E. Smith won the governor^ race. Wartime victory celebrations would wait until the fall of 1919,after troops returned from Europe. New York City’s Victory Parade that September, led by Gen John Pershing and Pres Wilson, drew massive crowds. Wilson marched in the Victory Parade as part of his effort to win support for the Treaty of Versailles and American participation in the League of Nations. The proposed treaty was voted down on 19 Nov 1919.

Wartime anti-Germanism subsided almost as quickly as it had risen (though German American culture never returned to its prewar vibrancy), but it was soon replaced by concerns over labor unrest. Postwar economic dislocation, which h it war-industry workers particularly hard, spurred a wave of strikes in the fall of 1918,beginning on the docks of New York City in November and among trolleymen in Buffalo in December. The nationwide steel strike of 1919 crippled plants in Erie Co and elsewhere. When New Yorkers heard news of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in November 1917 and learned its leader Vladimir Lenin had been supported by the imperial German government (which was true, but not the sole reason for his success), fears of conspiracy in the United States exploded into the nation’s first Red Scare. Socialist radicals, beleaguered by wartime repression and fragmented by internal ideological divisions over developments in Russia, faced formidable enemies in New York State.

New York City mayor Hylan refused to allow the display of the red flag, a banner of socialism, on city streets; other cities followed. The Lusk Committee, chaired by Sen Clayton Lusk o f Cortland, investigated “ seditious activities” o f Hundreds of state organizations. US Att. Gen. A. Mitchell Palmer launched his crusade against un-American radicals with raids in New York City in November 1919; further raids took place in Buffalo, Rochester, and Utica in December. Many foreign-born radicals were deported, among them anarchists Emma Goldman and Mollie Steimer, the latter one of the Abrams case defendants. In January 1920 the state assembly refused to seat five legitimately elected assemblymen who were members of the Socialist Party. A September 1920 bomb in the Wall St area of New York City, which killed 35 people and injured 130 others, further fanned the flames, although the responsible party was never found.

Monuments to approximately 14,000 New Yorkers killed in the war were soon constructed across the state to honor their service. In later years, accounts of the state’s experience during World War I highlighted unity and patriotic togetherness and erased many memories of genuine discord and tumult. The war marked an important turning point in the state’s history, putting an end to mass immigration and political progressivism, and ushering in a new era of prohibition and antiradicalism along with postwar economic growth.

Bean, Philip A. “The Great War and Ethnic Nationalism in Utica, New York, 1914—1920” New York History 74 (Oct 1993): 383-413

 Bristow, Nancy K. Making Men Moral: Social Engineering during the Great War (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1996)

 Clifford, J. Garry. The Citizen Soldiers: The Plattsburgh Training Camp Movement, 1913—1920 (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1972)

 Early, Frances H. A World without War: How US Feminists and Pacifists Resisted World War I (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1997)

 Harris, Bill. The Hellfighters of Harlem: African- American Soldiers Who Fought for the Right to Fight for Their Country (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2002)

 Jaffe, Julian F. Crusade against Radicalism: New York during the Red Scare, 1914-1924 (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1972)

 Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980)

 Polenberg, Richard. Fighting Faiths: The Abrams Case, the Supreme Court, and Free Speech (New York: Viking Press, 1987)

 Summerscales, William. Affirmation and Dissent: Columbia's Response to the Crisis of World War I (New York: Teachers College Press, 1970)

 Witcover, Jules. Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany’s Secret War in America,1914-1917 (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1989)

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