The American Experience of the First World War: Outbreak, August 1914

The First World War (1914-1918) is often regarded as a conflict that has been forgotten within the United States. While the Second World War (1939-1945) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975) may provide the iconic images of twentieth century warfare, it was the First World War that radically altered the United States and set in place the “American century.”

Some scholars have suggested that the absence of recognition for the conflict is due to the entry of the United States into the war only in 1917. However, while this official declaration of war may have delayed military involvement, this was a war that the citizens of the United States were part of right from the outset of the conflict.

To understand this process, the national and local newspapers can be examined to demonstrate how Americans connected themselves to the war in a variety of ways. In a conflict that was about race, class, and representation, the United States didn’t join the war in 1917. It was part of this global conflagration from August 1914.

War in Europe

With the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, the United States declared its official neutrality. Such assertions were not possible in a war that spread from the battlefields of Europe to the Middle East, Africa, and across the seas. In a global war, the impact on the United States was inevitable as trade, industry, and economics were shaped by combatant nations seeking victory.

Indeed, with the advent of war, the United States suffered an economic setback as markets for goods closed, shipping lines were disrupted by the British naval blockade of the Atlantic, and prices fluctuated. The value of exports in the United States dropped suddenly in 1914 to $3.9 billion from $4.27 billion the previous year. In this manner, the nation was drawn into the war regardless of any neutral stance. While jobs, goods, and food prices may have been the immediate connection for many citizens in the United States with the war, there were other far more significant ways in which 1914 marked the beginning of the war for the nation.

The First World War was a conflict fought on the issues of economics, race, class, citizenship, representation, and power. In the early twentieth century, these were also issues which divided the United States. With the declaration of war, the tensions that beset the nation were exacerbated as war in Europe brought greater focus on society at home.

The war begins at home

In 1914, the Unites States was severely divided on the basis of race and poverty. The population numbered over 91 million people with the 1910 Census classifying 88.9% of the nation as of European descent, 10.7% of African descent and 0.4% classed as “other races”. This represented a dramatic increase as the population figure was a rise of 21% from the previous census in 1900. New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, and Texas were the most populous states due principally to immigration, industrial development, and agricultural expansion.

With this increase in population, tensions had developed in the cities and in rural areas of the United States as to what it meant to be an “American.” Newly arrived immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were suspected of harboring allegiances to foreign ideals or set on encouraging political radicalism which made them unable to integrate into wider society.

The legacy of enslavement had also ensured that African Americans were effectively disenfranchised within the southern states through repressive legislation while communities were subject to the threat of extreme violence and brutality. Within northern states, prejudice and discrimination also barred African Americans from employment, housing, and education. Race riots across the nation from the 1890s to 1910s saw deaths, damage to property, and the intimidation of families and communities.

With news of war breaking out in Europe, the national papers discussed the intrigue and repercussions of Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia mobilizing their great armies against one another [1]. However, across the United States, local newspapers began associating themselves with the events and forging connections between what was taking place thousands of miles away and what was happening at home.

What does the war mean?

For some observers within the African American press the descent into conflict provided a means of making pointed criticism against racist notions of European superiority by indicating the barbarity and savagery of warfare [2]. This reporting of the conflict was also marked by a consideration of how the war may serve as an opportunity for the undermining of imperial powers and the liberation of colonized people [3].

The civil rights leader, W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), through his work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led the critical response to the war as an extension of imperialism. Crisis, the periodical of the NAACP, stated unequivocally that, “the rivalry of leading European countries in their lust for colonies is the underlying cause of this war [4].”

Such sentiments brought the war home to the United States as some African American citizens regarded the impact of the conflict on others with a shared African heritage. For example, the Afro-American Ledger, published in Baltimore, Maryland, considered the effect on international trade for the development of the African state of Liberia [5]. The newspaper also reported the deployment of African troops in the colonial armies of Britain and France as a recognition of equality [6].

The war provided a greater degree of focus on issues within the nation, as reports of atrocities in Belgium after August 1914 appeared to garner greater critical response in the mainstream press than the lynching of African Americans that had terrorized populations in the southern states [7]. Du Bois stated:

“Within the last month lynchings have occurred within our borders which equal in barbarism any of the atrocities which are reported from the theater of war in Europe [8].”

On this basis, African American newspapers made connections to the war and a range of concerns at home [9]. The African American newspaper, The Appeal, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and with coverage across the Midwest region, made an ironic comparison between senators and governors from the United States who encouraged or allowed lynching to take place with the wartime slaughter in Europe [10].

Similarly, The Chicago Defender used the war to draw attention to a range of issues. The conflict in Europe was presented as a great tragedy for peoples across the world, an act of wrongdoing which would have implications for all concerned [11]. The war as a “crime” was used as a point of comparison as to how African Americans in the city were being cheated by real estate brokers as they sought to purchase houses in the South Side area of Chicago [12].

Hyphenated Americans

Whether local concerns, national agendas, or international solidarity, it was through these connections that Americans participated in the war. This was particularly true for immigrant groups whose nations of origins were involved in the conflict. Immigration from Europe throughout the nineteenth century meant that across the United States, individuals, families, and communities were connected to the war by cultural, political, or religious affiliation. In 1914, the major immigrant groups were:

Great Britain – 1,221,283

Ireland – 1,352,251

Germany – 2,501,333

Austria-Hungary – 1,670,582

Italy – 1,343,125

Russia – 1,732,462

With the outbreak of war, these first-generation immigrants alongside second- and third-generation immigrants reflected upon their status as Americans in the context of the war.

The thriving immigrant presses within the United States served as the platform for this process. Irish newspapers with ties to the republican movement might declare their support for the Kaiser to undermine British rule in Ireland [13]. Yiddish language newspapers which may be read by Jewish immigrants who had fled the pogroms in Russia could declare their support for Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary in opposition to the Tsar [14]. German language newspapers could declare their support for the Fatherland against French aggression and British deception [15].

However, this enthusiasm for the war was phrased in the language of loyalty and allegiance to the United States. It was American principles of fair play, liberty, and independence that were called upon by immigrant groups to support the cause of their former homelands or communities in Europe.

For example, Czech Americans formed the Bohemian National Alliance in Chicago in September 1914 as a coordinating organization to mobilize Czech newspapers and communities in the United States for the purpose of Czech peoples in Europe [16]. Polish language newspapers across the nation also reported on the war to readers and the potential for the rebirth of an independent Poland which was encouraged by the Polish National Alliance [17].

German language newspapers clearly demonstrated this dual character of the immigrant within their pages after the outbreak of the war. German Americans declared their support for the Kaiser and the Fatherland but did so as citizens of the United States [18]. In Texas, the Seguiner Zeitung, which had been published in Seguin since 1903 by German immigrants who settled in the area during the nineteenth century, proclaimed “a united Germany cannot perish” in August 1914 [19]. Such assertions were not against the United States, but a demonstration of the liberties and freedoms which had been acquired by these immigrants as Americans.


The official declaration of neutrality by President Wilson in August 1914 was not a demand that the nation should avoid the war. Rather, it indicated that the nation was already embroiled in the conflict:

“The effect of the war upon the United States will depend upon what American citizens say and do. Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned [20].”

Indeed, this call for neutrality was the beginning of the war for citizens of the United States as while the conflict progressed, the notion of an “American” came under increasing surveillance by the authorities as a narrower sense of national identity was promoted and policed by public and private organizations. The First World War should not be regarded as a minor point within the history of the nation. Indeed, it set in place a process that would redefine identity within the United States.


[1] Los Angeles Times, June 29, 1914; The Washington Post, June 29, 1914. [2] New York Age, September 10, 1914. [3] W.E.B. Du Bois, “World War and the Color Line,” The Crisis, 9(1) (1914a): 28-30. [4] Anon, Our baby pictures. The Crisis, 8(6) (1914b): 298-303. [5] Afro-American Ledger, August 29, 1914. [6] Afro-American Ledger, September 19, 1914. [7] New York Age, October 1, 1914. [8] W.E.B. Du Bois, “Of the Children of Peace,” The Crisis, 8(6) (1914c): 289-291. [9] See The Tulsa Star, August 8, 1914. [10] The Appeal, September 19, 1914. [11] The Chicago Defender, September 26, 1914. [12] The Chicago Defender, September 5, 1914. [13] Gaelic American, August 1, 1914. [14] Die Warheit, June 29, 1914, 1. [15] Abendpost, August 6, 1914; New Yorker Staatszeitung, August 11, 1914 [16] The Bohemian National Alliance in America, The position of the Bohemians (Czechs) in the European war (Chicago: The Bohemian National Alliance in America, 1915). [17] See Dziennik Związkowy, September 1, 1914. [18] Pennsylvanische Staats-Gazette, September 16, 1914; Der Deutsche Correspondent, August 2, 1914. [19] Seguiner Zeitung, August 27, 1914. [20] Woodrow Wilson, Message to Congress, 63rd Cong., 2d Sess., Senate Doc. No. 566 (Washington, 1914), pp. 3-4.

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