The First World War was the beginning of several terrible trends in American government.
The decision to enter World War One was one of the worst mistakes in American history. President Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) and Congress compounded the mistake by adopting several horrendous policies.
The effects of those policies still harm American today, almost 103 years after the First World War. Hence, Americans who want to overcome those policies need to understand how they began.
Terrible Policies that began in World War I include:
1. The Draft (Conscription)
After entering World War I, President Wilson got a terrible surprise. Few American men wanted to volunteer for death in the trenches.
To correct that situation, Congress passed the Selective Services Act on May 18, 1917. The act required all men between 21 and 30 to register and drafted 2.8 million of them into the military. The act created the Selective Service System, which is still with us.
The draft ended after World War I. However, in September 1940, the Burke-Wadsworth Act imposed the first peacetime draft in US history and extended the draft to all men between 21 and 36 years of age. In 1943, they desegregated the draft by expanding it to African-Americans. The peacetime draft resumed in 1948 and continued until 1973.
President Richard M. Nixon (R-California) ended the draft in 1973, after popular opposition to the Vietnam War turned most Americans against conscription. The government has not tried to revive the draft since then. However, the Selective Service System still exists and all American men have to register at 18.
2. Fake News and Disinformation
In April 1917, Woodrow Wilson had a problem. Voters had reelected him in 1916 on the slogan “He Kept us Out of War.” However, Wilson began moving to enter World War I against the wishes of most Americans, soon after his second inauguration.
To sell World War I to the American people, Wilson launched a massive disinformation campaign run by the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The CPI, led by corrupt journalist George Creel, flooded the media with fake news.
The Creel Committee sent out 6,000 press releases and over 1,500 “patriotic advertisements.” Creel recruited famous authors to write propaganda disguised as news articles.
Editors and publishers were told they had to run the propaganda or face prosecution by the US Justice Department. In addition, Creel told publishers the Post Office would not distribute publications that did not print the CPI’s propaganda. The threats were a direct of violation if the First Amendment of the US Constitution which American men were supposedly dying to defend in the trenches.
Creel whipped up hysteria against Austria-Hungary and Germany and spread bigotry against German Americans. Creel’s agents promoted violence against Germans, pacifists, and critics of the war. Creel and Wilson hypocritically condemned vigilante violence and bigotry but did not nothing to stop it.
Creel’s propaganda contained many fake atrocity stories about Germans. One result of the CPI’s efforts was that in World War II, many Americans disbelieved factual accounts of German and Japanese atrocities. Another result was that Americans began distrusting their government and the media for the first time.
The tradition of using fake news to drum up support for military action continues to this day. For example, President George W. Bush (R-Texas), a good Wilsonian, used false stories about weapons of mass destruction to justify his needless invasion of Iraq in 2003.
3. The National Security State
America’s national security state had its beginnings in World War I. For example, The Espionage Act of 1917 banned criticism of President Wilson’s war effort and policies.
Two victims of The Espionage Act were Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer. Their “crime” was to distribute a pamphlet discussing a legitimate legal argument. The argument was that conscription was slavery and hence unconstitutional under the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. The pamphlet told American men that the draft was illegal and the government had no right to enforce it.
Frighteningly, the US Supreme Court upheld Schenck and Baer’s conviction in the loathsome Schenck v. United States decision from 1919. Today, the US Justice Department bases its questionable efforts to prosecute Julian Assange and WikiLeaks on the Espionage Act.
Another victim of the Espionage Act was Socialist politician Eugene V. Debs. On 16 June 1918, US marshals arrested Debs. Debs’ crime was to deliver a speech condemning America’s involvement in World War I. Federal prosecutors charged Debs with violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts for exercising his First Amendment rights.
“I believe in free speech, in war as well as in peace,” Debs declared. “If the Espionage Law stands, then the Constitution of the United States is dead.”
A Federal Court found Debs guilty on three counts and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Disgustingly, newspaper editorials applauded the court’s ruling. Frighteningly, a unanimous US Supreme Court upheld Debs’ blatantly unconstitutional conviction.
Debs spent two and a half years in prison for exercising his constitutional rights. Ironically , the Socialist Party nominated Debs as its presidential candidate in 1920 while he was in prison. Debs or Convict 9653 won 3.5% of the popular vote.
In December 1921, Wilson’s successor Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio) commuted Debs’ sentence and invited him to the White House. By the late 1930s, ten years after Debs’ death, most Americans, including many Republicans, had adopted the old socialist’s view of World War I as an atrocity orchestrated by arms dealers. It took Pearl Harbor for Americans to support another war.
Efforts to demonize antiwar protesters and critics continue to this day. As the efforts to prosecute Julian Assange show.
4. Federal Weapons Research
Federal weapons research began during World War I. Hence, the Military Scientific Industrial Complex began in World War I.
Government scientists developed and tested chemical weapons at the University Experiment Station near the Dalecarlia Reservoir in Maryland outside Washington, DC, The New York Times reports. The US Army Corps of Engineers was still cleaning up the weapons a century later, in 2018. Ironically, the World War I chemical weapons testing area is now a posh suburban neighborhood.
President Wilson launched federal weapons research by establishing the National Research Council in 1916 before America entered the war. The council was the predecessor of today’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). After the declaration of war, the War Department, American University, and the Bureau of Mines established the United States Chemical Warfare Service to develop chemical weaponry
The Chemical Warfare Service’s efforts resembled the Manhattan Project in World War II. Its creations included Lewisite, the most advanced chemical weapon created in World War I. Fortunately, the war ended before the Army could use the “super-poison gas” on the battlefield. Other projects were flamethrowers, gas masks, and protective suits for soldiers to wear in the trenches.
5. The Debt Ceiling
The eternal problem known as the debt ceiling began in World War I.
The idea behind the ceiling is to allow the Treasury to borrow some money in an emergency such as war. However, Congress wants to control the Treasury’s borrowing.
Hence, the US government cannot borrow unlimited amounts of money as the British government can. Instead, Congress needs to give the Treasury permission to exceed the debt ceiling.
The danger from the debt ceiling is that the Federal Government could run out of money if Congress refuses to raise it. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wants to make it easier to exceed the debt ceiling to avoid the next crisis, The Washington Post reports. Moreover, Yellen wants to abolish the debt ceiling completely.
The debt ceiling crisis could return as early as 3 December 2021, if Congress refuses to act. Hence, an emergency measure created to finance World War I is generating a political crisis, almost 103 years after the conflict’s end.
Hence, the modern American government began in World War I. The Great War still shapes modern America and affects our lives today.