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How Our Modern World Was Shaped by 'The Great War'

by Jacob Hillesheim
April 10, 2017 | I ❤️ PBS

A controversial war. “Freedom” foods. Legislation curbing civil liberties in the name of national security. 2004? Try 1914. PBS’s “The Great War” shows how the first World War dramatically overturned the international order and brought about important changes in the United States—some that are still evident today.

The first 'total war'

World War I was the first to take advantage of mass production techniques. The result was “total war.” The war killed 18 million people, including 7 million civilians, and wounded 20 million more. France and Germany both lost 4 percent of their populations. To put it in perspective, that would be the equivalent of 12.8 million people in the U.S. today. These casualties inspired the “Lost Generation” of artists that included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Franz Kafka and Erich Maria Remarque.

More nations, more problems

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A 1918 publicity shot of a group of U.S. Marines. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

The Great War, as WWI was called at the time, also destroyed the European balance of powers created after the Napoleonic Wars. While this ever-shifting series of treaties negatively impacted nationalist sentiment and ethnic minorities, it also helped make the 19th century one of the most peaceful in European history. WWI brought down the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, creating scores of new nations and, in the case of the Ottomans, the Armenian Genocide.

The old order was torn down, but nothing effective was built in its place. President Woodrow Wilson pushed for the creation of the League of Nations (think of it as a buggy prototype of the United Nations), but was not able to convince the United States to join. The League did little but watch as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan conquered their neighbors.

A troubling time for German immigrants

In 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. World War I was never as popular with the American people as World War II would be. By the end of the war, over 300,000 men were labeled “draft evaders” by the U.S. government.

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American troops help wounded German soldiers in a forested area at Meuse-Argonne, France, in September 1918. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As a result, President Woodrow Wilson turned to the Committee on Public Information to popularize the war. Unfortunately, the CPI was maybe too effective, as war fever quickly turned into anti-German hysteria. Hamburgers became “liberty sandwiches.” Sauerkraut was called “liberty cabbage.” Frankfurters were renamed “hot dogs.”

Unfortunately, the movement did not stop at rechristening popular foods. Vigilantes attacked ethnic Germans and socialists across the country. A mob captured Robert Prager, a German immigrant in Illinois, and lynched him.

Changes to free speech

Not to be outdone, Congress passed a pair of laws in 1918 that seemed at odds to the First Amendment right to free speech. The Espionage Act banned interference with the war effort. It was a defensible law, but enforced in a way that made opposition to the war illegal. It was later amended by the Sedition Act, which flat-out made dissenting speech illegal.

More than 2,000 people were arrested for breaking these laws. Thirty South Dakotans were arrested for threatening to vote the governor out of office if the state’s draft procedures weren’t revised. In Minnesota, a man was arrested because he told a knitting woman that “no soldier ever sees these socks.” Robert Goldstein was arrested for producing a movie about the American Revolution which cast America’s British allies in a poor light.

A push forward for civil rights

World War I also sparked massive social change in the United States. With their employees fighting the war, factories needed workers, a need met largely by African Americans from the South. Over the next 15 years, 1.5 million African Americans moved to Northern cities as part of the Great Migration.

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The Harlem Hellfighters (members of the 369th African American Infantry) on a boat right after it docked at New York City. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

There was no lack of prejudice or segregation in the North, but job opportunities were plentiful and Northern racism was usually less violent than that of the South. In the 1950s, African American communities in Northern cities would provide political and financial support critical to the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the South.

World War I also helped the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Alice Paul’s National Women’s Party took a more aggressive approach than her colleague and rival Carrie Chapman Catt. When the US joined the war, Catt urged women to support the war effort. Meanwhile, the NWP continued their demonstrations in front of the White House. They were arrested and sometimes brutally beaten in prison.

When word of their treatment became public knowledge, the paternalistic Wilson was forced to support the 19th Amendment. All of that may have happened without the Great War, but the war gave Alice Paul a powerful message (Why are we fighting to “make the world safe for democracy” in Europe when there is no democracy at home?) and Catt the opportunity to demonstrate women’s patriotism.

For most people, thinking back on World War I does not inspire the same level of interest as World War II or Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement. But based on the historic changes to our country that occurred during that time, it should.

"The Great War" premieres Monday, April 10 on "American Experience." Check your local PBS station for broadcast dates and times, or watch online at

Jacob Hillesheim
Jacob Hillesheim is a Minnesota educator, historian and ice cream enthusiast with master’s degrees in teaching and learning and in history.
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