The impacts of world war one on American society were wide and far reaching, affecting all groups in society. The massive anomaly in industrial output was the “trigger” cause for this massive change but many slower events were also causes – for example mass immigration before and during the war, the increasing demands for power from women and the “problem” of the huge numbers of ex slaves looking for work.
A key impact is the political shift to the right after the war. This encouraged large industrialists like Henry Ford to start up their companies, kick starting the economy but resulting in some of the social changes outlined below. The right wing politicians believed in a “laissez-faire” approach to most things, and consequently did little to protect the vulnerable members of society such as poorly paid workers, women and immigrants. During the Republican Ascendancy 1921-29, there were three presidents. A classic president from this period was “silent Cal”, Calvin Coolidge (1924-28), who believed that there was no reason for him to intervene except to veto suggestions from men in congress more active than him. No president during this period intervened to defend the rights of the workers or any other vulnerable members of society despite the fact that they all mentioned it in nearly all state of the union address.
This policy was supported by many of the “new”, wealthy, middle class Americans who has a clear majority in the poles. Presidents such as Calvin Coolidge were popular at the time among these large elements of the population simply because they kept interest rates low and had a large surplus in tax revenue while still reducing tax rates year on year. The clear effect on this was to keep wealth redistribution to virtually nothing and to provide few benefits. This shows that one of the key impacts of world war one was the desperation of the middle classes to increase their standard of living through producing lots of consumer goods, without worrying about the quality of life of the worker who had to produce it!
There was a phenomenal effect on Women after the war. During the war, many women had taken up posts that were previously occupied by men due to the demand for low skilled labor. While doing this, some of them felt that they had shown that they were equal to men and continued the Woman’s suffrage movement that had started at Seneca Falls in 1848. Using arguments like the fact that the “inferior” African-Americans already had the vote (although they were in practice excluded from it), women got the vote with the 19th amendment on the 18th August 1920.
However, this did not result a large scale power increase for women as was anticipated by the early fighters for women’s suffrage, because women tended to vote with their husbands or not vote at all. This, combined with the still held viewpoint that was held by many women as well as men that women should remain at home resulted in less change than many anticipated until the large scale automation of domestic tasks later on in the twenties. This shows the clear social change towards more power of women, although it was power that in many cases was not used.
There was a large effect on Immigrants after the war. Many Americans felt that African-Americans, Eastern Europeans and Japanese were inferior. Acts such as the Quota act in May 1921 tied immigration to 3% of the 1919 population, effectively halting Asian immigration which was becoming a major problem on the west coast. Immigrants were completely unprotected by the government and miscarriages of justices were probably common. The case that is commonly highlighted is that of Sacco and Vanzetti. It is widely accepted now that Sacco was guilty and Vanzetti was not. However, the more important issue is that they clearly did not have a fair trial. The judge was biased and they were executed despite international protest.
Immigrants were regularly employed to do the jobs that no one else wanted to do, which in industries such as mining were regularly very dangerous. There was little government protection for most working Americans and for the “alien” workers there was none. The reemergence and support by senior officials of the Klu Klux Klan showed the extent of the rising intolerance and extent of the institutionalized racism. In one day of racial violence in Chicago in 1919 28 people died. The popular press applauded deportations of immigrants who lad done little wrong, for example the deportation of 249 suspected radicals on the Soviet Arc. By scapegoat immigrants, Palmer and Hoover (the two officials in charge of the drive) illuminated the distance many Americans had traveled from the new freedom days of 1912 to the sour, fearful and pessimistic mood of the Red Scare. This all shows how the influx of immigrants simply made existing tensions more noticeable, and was a major social change after the war.
The largest effects, however, fell on the lower class working men. During world war one they experienced large increases in income and they became more organized due to the increased demand for labor. After the war, there was a sharp recession as orders for military hardware and basic supplies from Europe ceased, and as competition from Europe started up again. This resulted in a large amount of unemployment, especially in unionized workers. This was because industrialists did not like unions and supported by the republican government they simply fired all workers who went on strike. Strike action did not work if there were millions of other workers prepared to work for less. The drive for a “closed house” (union membership compulsory) was crushed by large business through the “welfare capitalism” drive which was more beneficial, certainly in the short term, to the workers than union membership. This resulted in the effective destruction of the unions by 1925.
This destruction resulted in a huge problem in working class America. Combined with the “red scare” (which was very successfully hyped up by the government to make it seem like it was a real threat to the American way of life), workers found that it was impossible to negotiate with their employers because if they went on strike they were immediately accused of being a Bolshevik and arrested or deported. There was complete lack of sympathy for the workers and even basic demands (such as a 6 hour working day) were not even considered. Since there was now a demand for jobs (rather than for labor), large scale strike action was not practical. Since the unions often were very good at organizing strikes but less good at negotiating, the strikes that did take place were generally ineffective at getting gains for workers.
This shows that world war one had a long term negative effect on the lives of American workers who ended up in 1921 far worse off than they were in 1916. This was a massive social change and it was also the catalyst for some of the tensions that followed – unemployed Americans resented immigrants who were employed. This caused huge tensions that took many years to go away.
The final group of Americans who experienced massive changes as a result of the First World War were the farmers. When the United States entered the war, agricultural prices boomed and farmers did very well due to the zero competition for supplying the whole of Europe as well as America. Encouraged by the government, farmers during the war bought millions of acres and turned them over to food production. The golden area ended abruptly when the deflationary Federal Reserve policies, competition from South America and lessening European demand caused a recession. Many farmers could not sell their goods for more than the cost of production. Nearly one million farmers lost their farms in 1920 and 21. Farmers were resented and presented as backward “hicks” in magazines and films that were targeted at city audiences. Eventually, by creating the farm (or progressive) block the farming states were able to modify the federal policies and farming slowly improved through the twenties. This was a large change to a large portion of society, many of whom either became bankrupt or came very close to it.
In conclusion it can be seen that World War one had many effects on American society but the main areas of the population that were affected were Women, Immigrants and Working men. For women, the long term effects were positive, although they chose not to use their new found power. For Immigrants and working men, the long term effects were damaging and they found themselves in a harder position after the war. The dominance of the Republican Party shows that the working men were outnumbered and that there was little middle class sympathy for their plight. However, for all Americans the results were extensive.