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5.4 Conclusion

Many of the labor strikes that occurred during and immediately after World War I were crushed by state and federal agencies. However, continued activism demonstrated that working-class Americans did more than experience a significant increase in their income during the war—they also raised their expectations and were more willing to demonstrate on behalf of their rights as workers. The wartime boom also initiated a rising economic standard that would expand during the 1920s, survive the Great Depression, and continue after World War II. Government involvement during the war had lasting consequences in convincing employers to recognize worker’s demands before strikes occurred. That the government might also intervene on behalf of workers demonstrated the importance of mobilizing the political potential of union members. During the war, business leaders were forced to recruit workers; recruitment helped to establish new trends favoring the spread of employee benefits and Progressive reforms such as the eight-hour day. Although the end of the war reduced the advantage some workers and unions had enjoyed, many business leaders had concluded that a degree of voluntary reform could bring greater efficiency and higher output. They also recognized that these reforms might help to prevent the spread of labor unions—something that became one of the leading goals of business leaders in the decades that followed.

The war put new stresses on US institutions and challenged notions of race and gender. Discrimination based on race, class, and gender was largely unaffected by the war although the expectations of women, workers, and minorities were not left unchanged. The result was both an increase in civil rights activism and an intensification of alienation and despair among those who continued to endure discrimination. While government propaganda masked the separateness of experience based on race, class, and gender, the realities of life for most Americans were still largely determined by these categories. By placing greater stresses on unity as a form of patriotic expression, however, the government helped to further the image that discrimination was contrary to the ideals the nation was fighting to defend.

In a number of instances, white and black women came together to advance their common interest in promoting suffrage. However, most women failed to bridge the racial divide in ways that reflected the culture of the early twentieth century. Race would prove to be the most significant obstacle limiting the unity of the suffrage movement since white and minority women generally belonged to separate organizations that only occasionally and tentatively worked together. However, through the efforts of a diverse range of local and national suffrage organizations and groups such as the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, women would secure their right to vote through the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. In the meantime, cities and states were the front line in the battle for votes for women. Although the Progressives focused many of their efforts at reform through the federal government, the lives of Americans were still more impacted by the decisions of state and municipal governments. As a result, these early suffrage victories were significant both in their own right and in influencing male political leaders of these states to support women’s suffrage on a national scale. The Nineteenth Amendment was passed and ratified by men only after women had secured the right to vote locally in many communities. While some male Progressives supported the Nineteenth Amendment as a matter of equality, most did so only to avoid alienating large and empowered groups of women who cast votes in local elections.

The Western Allies might have been able to win the war without US troops, but they could not have even continued the war into 1918 without the food US farmers produced. Once they finally arrived in France, US troops were equally dependent on foreign-made artillery and other materials, as well as support provided by the British and French. After a failed German offensive in the spring of 1918 and the arrival of over a million US troops, the Allied Powers seized the momentum and began pushing German forces eastward. German propaganda and government-censored newspapers made light of these developments, leading many Germans to wonder why their armies surrendered, even as the bulk of German forces were still in Belgium and France. Adolf Hitler was a soldier in the German army at this time and would later espouse the belief that his nation had somehow been betrayed by cowardly or even traitorous leaders. In reality, German military leaders had expended their supplies in the failed offensive of 1918. The most thoughtful among them recognized that the best they could hope for by November 1918 was to somehow form a line of defensive fortifications that was too deep for the Western Allies to ever overrun. If successful, this combat operation would return to the status quo of 1917, and the war of attrition would continue indefinitely even as millions of US troops entered the fight. As a result, the decision to surrender, even though Germany still held enemy territory, was one that prevented further suffering and the continuation of a war that Germany might prolong indefinitely but never win.