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THE GILDED AGE
It was a nation founded on the proposition that all men are created equal, and its people struggled against one another to bring that vision to reality; fighting a civil war that cost the lives of more than six hundred thousand Americans. No other country had sacrificed so much to defeat slavery within its own borders. Through the perseverance of its wounded people, the United States recovered, entering a period of innovation and prosperity known as the “Gilded Age.” Americans had come to the end of their pioneer days, welcoming a new era of inventiveness, industrial development, and global expansion.
The year 1877 marked a phase of declining hostilities between American Indian and white populations, as General Philip Sheridan achieved victory for the United States government in the Great Sioux War. Wearied by battle, Chief Joseph of the valiant Nez Perce tribe ordered his warriors to lay down their arms and seek peace with government troops. With the promise of a new home on a vast, federally protected reservation, Chief Joseph delivered these immortal words: “I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. The old men are all dead.…The little children are freezing to death.…My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
Over the next thirteen years, the final remnants of opposition Indian fighters would be subdued by government forces. Conflicts that had routinely occurred in the past would no longer be experienced by successive generations.
Indeed, America experienced a rebirth after its difficult post-Civil War recovery period. Free enterprise fueled the jubilant era, as individual Americans embraced new opportunities to follow their own economic initiatives. Under a culture influenced by the Protestant work ethic, diligent visionaries invested in new industries, making practical use of such abundant natural resources as iron, oil, and coal. All the while, rail transportation lines were further developed to link communities together.
New wealth was created, enabling Americans of meager means to reach unparalleled heights of prosperity in a relatively brief period of time. One of the best known beneficiaries of the free enterprise system was John D. Rockefeller, a former office clerk who applied his own earnings to the development of an oil refinery. By 1877, his business had grown into the mammoth Standard Oil Company of Ohio. Also in 1877, the Bell Telephone Company was organized for the purpose of creating a communications network for telephones, the first of which had been patented in America by Alexander Graham Bell. During that same period, a young inventor named Thomas Alva Edison developed a mimeograph machine, producing multiple copies of a single document. He also introduced a microphone for sound communication. These were but the first of many technological innovations created during the illustrious career of the famed inventor.
More efficient means of productivity enabled Americans to enjoy leisure-time activities. The National League of Professional Baseball Players placed a number of teams on tour, initiating the new trend of spectator sports. Colleges across the country followed, organizing football teams. Rail transportation enabled mass audiences nationwide to enjoy the advent of circus entertainment, the largest of which was run by P.T. Barnum. Reading, meanwhile, remained the favorite individual pastime, as traditional Romantic Era literature was overtaken by the popular new style of Realism. Prominent in this emerging literary movement was author Samuel Clemens, who, under the pen name of Mark Twain, introduced such beloved fictional characters as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It was Clemens who characterized the new period of American prosperity as the “Gilded Age.”
The rapid expansion of railroads made it possible to transport vast amounts of manufactured goods from one part of the country to another. Likewise, passenger trains enabled people to travel great distances over short periods of time, and journeys that had once taken days could be completed in hours. However, this positive development was briefly halted by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Strikers demanding more pay were replaced by new workers who were satisfied with the wages offered. Nevertheless, the strikers refused to leave the rail yards, and violence erupted from Pittsburgh to Chicago. President Rutherford B. Hayes was forced to intervene, dispatching army personnel to restore order.
The president was determined to nurture and protect economic growth, while encouraging new avenues of trade. Trade with Mexico was secured after President Hayes formally recognized Porfirio Diaz administration as the legitimate Mexican government. This was followed by the expansion of U.S. commerce in the Pacific through an 1878 Samoan Island agreement that granted the U.S. a naval base in Pago Pago. Simultaneously, the federal government signed an 1878 treaty to enhance previously established terms of trade with Japan.
Meanwhile in Europe, national pride and jealousy over America’s rapid economic growth prevented many prominent elitists from accepting the fact that free enterprise was the best means to achieve prosperity and secure the well-being of the people. Among the most influential contrary thinkers of the era were German atheists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, whose 1848 booklet, The Communist Manifesto, had finally reached American shores in its English translation. Throughout their vicious diatribe, Marx and Engels assailed every institution that defined the American character; including marriage and family, ownership rights, religious freedom, the rewards of productivity, innovative progress, Judeo-Christian ethics, open competition, and the fruits of achievement. Middle-class property owners, whom Marx and Engels despised, were labeled Bourgeois, while manual laborers were hailed as Proletarians. The myth created by The Communist Manifesto was that achievers contributed to society only out of motivation to dominate and oppress others. Marriage and parenthood were viewed, not as acts of love, but as the means by which middle class men exploited women and children.
The following are excerpts from The Communist Manifesto:
“…[T]here is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.…Thereupon the workers begin to form combinations (Trades Unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there the contest breaks out into riots.… The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property.…The abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom is undoubtedly aimed at.…Abolition of the family!”
Beyond the writings of Marx and Engels, scoffers of religious faith stretched the theories of English naturalist Charles Darwin to support their atheistic worldview. Darwin’s contribution to the biological sciences came primarily from his discovery that the sizes of finch beaks appeared to change over time, in response to specific environments. While evolution was a sound theory in terms of gradual, generational adaptations within a certain species, atheists proclaimed it an explanation for the origin of all living things; citing Darwin’s suggestion that even the most complex biological systems were products of a mindless, undirected process called “natural selection.” However, in the same way that clocks and automobiles could never be assembled by randomly blowing winds, protoplasmic life—far more complicated that the most elaborate man-made structures—could never have fallen randomly together in the absence of purposeful crafting. Nevertheless, closed-minded Darwinian disciples refused to consider the theory of intelligent design as a remote possibility.
While empirical science was that which provided hard evidence through experimentation, calculation, indisputable observations, or laboratory reproduction, no scientist was ever able to discover any natural biological mechanism that could either transform one species into another or create life where there previously was no life. Despite the profound deficiencies of Darwin’s theory in explaining the origin of life, his supporters in the scientific community shrouded this secularist dogma under the farfetched label of “scientific fact.” A more sinister aspect of Charles Darwin’s “natural selection” concept was reflected in his book, The Descent of Man. He predicted: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races.” Elitists would subsequently use this text as justification for the mistreatment—and in some cases, the genocide—of their fellow man on the basis of race, ethnicity, background, and physical condition. It was not by coincidence that Karl Marx dedicated his book, Das Kapital, to Charles Darwin.
Meanwhile, the era of industrialization marked the further decline of the Protestant influence over America. The nation’s largest northern cities were flooded with European immigrants, rapidly doubling the populations of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Pittsburgh. The majority of newcomers were either Irish Catholics or Eastern European Jews. Nevertheless, people of such diverse beliefs made homes for themselves in this nation founded on religious freedom. All the same, the immigration boom was not without its problems. Overwhelmed port cities were unable to accommodate the arriving masses, and urban slums arose. Facing poverty, many immigrants placed their own children in the workforce. To alleviate their hardship, Congregationalist minister Washington Gladden launched a “social gospel” movement, mobilizing Christians to provide housing to new immigrants. At the same time, William Booth, who had established the Salvation Army to serve England’s downtrodden, brought his outreach to America’s urban centers, providing food, shelter, clothing, medical assistance, and vocational training to the poor. Meanwhile, Dwight L. Moody, prominent leader in the Protestant revival movement to urban areas, undertook an essential role in the growth of the Young Men’s Christian Association—better known as the YMCA.
As the nation became a melting pot of diverse cultures and ideologies, the 1880 presidential election was held. The incumbent, Rutherford B. Hayes, chose not to run for a second term, forcing fellow Republicans to seek a new candidate. After thirty-six ballots, they nominated Congressman James A. Garfield of Ohio, a former college professor and lay minister. Garfield’s running mate was Chester Arthur of New York.
Democrats endorsed General Winfield S. Hancock of Pennsylvania, with William English of Indiana as his running mate. Republican Garfield won the election, becoming the nation’s twentieth president. But only four months after taking the oath of office, he was shot by Charles Guiteau, a rejected consulate applicant. Garfield lingered nearly two months, dying on September 10, 1881. He was the second president to be assassinated and the fourth to die in office.
Vice President Chester Arthur ascended to the nation’s highest office at a time of accelerated technological and social progress. America’s most prolific inventor, Thomas Edison, brought a new form of illumination to city streets, offices, parks, and homes with his creation of the electric light bulb. Another invention of Edison’s, the phonograph, made it possible to create voice and music recordings.
In the field of education, former slave Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama during 1881, for the purpose of teaching Americans of African heritage how to lead productive and successful lives in a variety of vocations. In addition to teaching technical skills, the institute promoted the Protestant work ethic, integrity, and high moral character. The quality of graduates produced at Tuskegee would do much to disprove misguided Darwinian theories asserting the supposed inferiority of the African race.
Also during 1881, the American National Red Cross, a disaster relief agency, was founded by famed Civil War and Franco-Prussian War nurse, Clara Barton. The new organization would aid people in peacetime emergencies, as well as in wartime situations.
The era was also characterized by cultural progress, with the construction of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Prominent artists of that time included Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, and James Whistler. The period also marked the onset of a golden age in children’s literature, as Joel Chandler Harris’ characters, Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Uncle Remus, gained immense popularity among America’s youngest readers. The entertainment-hungry nation also embraced the new traveling Wild-West shows. William F. Cody, best known as “Buffalo Bill,” established the first of such shows in 1883, thrilling audiences with live buffalo, sharp-shooting cowboys, and demonstrations of war skills by American Indians.
Despite the widespread mood of excitement across the country, the federal government was rife with turmoil. The Stalwart faction of the Republican party failed to pressure President Chester Arthur to employ a “spoils system” for making government appointments. To the Stalwarts’ dismay, Arthur approved the Pendleton Act of 1883, establishing open competitive examinations for civil service positions. The president also signed a new Tariff Act to lower duties on imported goods, thus stimulating trade with foreign countries. Unable to control the president, the Stalwarts convinced fellow Republicans to deny Chester Arthur a second term of office. Secretary of State James G. Blaine became the Republican candidate for the 1884 presidential race. The Democratic party, meanwhile, restored its pre-Civil War prominence by taking a more conservative, pro-constitutional position. Their candidate, New York governor Grover Cleveland, had been so successful in cleaning corruption from his home state, a number of conservative Republicans switched party affiliations to support him. Branded “mugwumps,” these dissenting Republicans were instrumental in securing Cleveland’s election victory. Shortly after his inauguration, Vice President Thomas Hendricks died, prompting Congress to pass the Presidential Succession Act of 1886, arranging an order of succession among presidential cabinet members behind the vice president. The system would endure for the next sixty-one years.
Having entered office as a bachelor, Grover Cleveland became the first president to be married while in office. In 1886, forty-nine year-old Cleveland wed twenty-one year-old Frances Folsom, daughter of a friend. The new Mrs. Cleveland became the youngest first lady in the nation’s history, and despite the age difference between bride and groom, most Americans found Frances Cleveland charming. The wedding added a romantic spark to the generally positive national mood. America, however, was about to enter a new period of social unrest.
In 1886, a new symbol of American freedom appeared in New York harbor. Designed by Frederic Bartholdi, the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France, and it would thereafter greet new arrivals to American shores. It was also in 1886 that the city of Chicago celebrated the completion of what was then considered the nation’s first “skyscraper”, a building surpassing ten-stories in height. Countering this achievement were the Chicago riots that same year. When Marxist agitators—many of whom were Europeans—attempted to convince workers at Cyrus McCormick’s harvester works to unionize, McCormick closed his factory, later re-opening it to non-union workers. Union strikers surrounded the new employees, forcing the police to intervene. Six strikers were killed in the melee. Vowing revenge, the strikers regrouped the following night at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, drawing the police into an ambush. Seven policemen were killed, with another sixty wounded. Four civilians also lost their lives in senseless acts of violence.
Labor unions had originally been formed to protect workers from unsafe and inhumane working conditions. Over time, however, anti-capitalist infiltrators attempted to turn unions into weapons against the American free enterprise system. Though Cyrus McCormick was one of the earliest employers to adopt an eight-hour work day, he was nonetheless a symbol of American ingenuity so loathed by Marxists. Other successful businessmen received equal scorn, despite the fact that many had risen from poverty themselves, achieving positions that allowed them to provide job opportunities to countless others.
Not only did America’s “captains of industry” provide livelihoods for the people; they also used their earnings to make positive contributions to society. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie donated hundreds of millions of dollars for the construction of nearly three thousand public libraries nationwide. He also donated close to seven thousand pipe organs to churches, and built Carnegie Hall for the performing arts. Similarly, oil merchant John D. Rockefeller continually rendered aid to the needy and provided seed money for new colleges and universities. Financier John Pierpont Morgan donated great portions of his wealth for the construction of hospitals, schools and museums. He also assisted countless others in launching their own businesses. These and many other successful industrialists started with very little money; some were first generation immigrants. In a land of opportunity for all, they applied themselves with steely determination. Despite their enormous charitable contributions, many of America’s captains of industry were branded “robber barons” by opponents of the free enterprise system.
To remove the Marxist influence from labor unions and restore their original purpose of promoting worker safety and equitable wages, Samuel Gompers organized the American Federation of Labor in 1886, drawing in a number of local trade unions.
Following the lead of industrial workers, American farmers organized alliances to protect their livelihoods. The growth of railway lines made farm produce more accessible to the cities, lowering agricultural prices. Thus, farm profits decreased; but because the railroads charged higher rates for service to rural areas than to cities, farm expenses increased. Suffering substantial monetary losses, farmers’ alliances pressured state legislators to enact Granger laws, regulating freight rates. However, in the 1886 Wabash case, the Supreme Court ruled that only the United States Congress had the authority to regulate interstate commerce.
Having the issue thrust in their hands, members of Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887, establishing a five-member commission to oversee the activities of the railroads. The Interstate Commerce Commission was America’s first federal regulatory agency.
The federal government was faced with reassessing “laissez faire,” a French term reflecting the traditional policy of noninterference toward American business enterprises. Despite growing anti-capitalist sentiment among elitists, American businesses had brought about the nation’s rapid post-Civil War economic recovery, launching the new era of technological innovation. As the 1880s progressed, a growing number of bicycles appeared across the nation. Families and friends enjoyed such outdoor games as tennis, while baseball continued to grow in popularity. Vaudeville stage shows, presenting variety acts, were commonplace in the major cities.
By 1886, hostilities with American Indian tribes continued to draw to a close, as the Apaches of New Mexico and Arizona made peace U.S. authorities, following the capture of their leader, Geronimo. Within a few years, Geronimo would prosper as a celebrity, selling handcrafts and touring the country in various expositions. The 1880s became a time of sympathy and remorse over broken relations between whites and American Indians, and Congress took the initiative to provide reparations for wrongs committed, passing the Dawes Act in 1887, granting individual Indian families 160-acre tracts of land, free of charge, which could be sold for full profit after twenty-five years. Additionally, American Indians who agreed to recognize the sovereignty of the U.S. government were given full citizenship status.
In this era of humanitarian outreach, Christian missionaries traveled from the U.S. to Asia, the Pacific Islands, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, bringing education, medical assistance, and new technological aids to enhance the lives of formerly isolated cultures. Participating in these foreign missions were college students inspired by D.L. Moody’s 1886 call to outreach at the Mount Hermon Conference near Northfield, Massachusetts. This began the nation’s first student volunteer movement.
Americans became acquainted with the Hawaiian islands in the Pacific, as the U.S. government's earlier trade agreement was expanded to include the right to establish a U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.
By the 1888 presidential election, there was little ideological distinction between the Democratic and Republican parties. Though President Grover Cleveland received the highest number of popular votes, these ballots were cast in less populated states with fewer electoral points. This Democratic incumbent was defeated in the electoral vote by Benjamin Harrison, a Republican Senator and former Civil War general whose grandfather, William Henry Harrison, had been America’s ninth president. The Republican party—now dominated by the big-government, Stalwart faction—won majorities in both houses of Congress.
The federal government noted that although the Oklahoma territory had been set aside for Indian tribes, the region remained sparsely populated. Thus, thousands of square miles of uninhabited land were opened for settlement on April 22, 1889, and approximately fifty-thousand settlers, called “Boomers,” rushed into the territory to stake their claims. Towns were constructed within a single day. Also during the years 1889 and ’90, six new states—North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming—were admitted to the Union.
One of the economic principles responsible for the nation’s growth in this period was the setting of prices based on market demand. However, several of the nation’s large corporations attempted to circumvent this system by forming trusts to artificially control prices. In response, Senator John Sherman spearheaded the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, signed into law in 1890. Though the bill was designed to prohibit the restraint of trade or competition, its wording lacked clarity, leaving the measure subject to a wide range of interpretations. Fears of big business would eventually be supplanted by fears of big government.
On the heels of his antitrust bill, Senator Sherman presented his Silver Purchase Act of 1890, authorizing Congress to issue bonds for the purchase of 4.5 million ounces of silver each month at market value. The scheme was designed to make U.S. currency redeemable in both gold and silver, as opposed to gold alone. However, in passing the measure, Congress unintentionally triggered monetary inflation. The economic boom Americans had enjoyed in the previous decade came to an abrupt end.
On December 29, 1890, U.S. army troops advanced upon Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota to intercept a band of renegade Sioux warriors. In a ruthless frenzy, the soldiers killed Indians indiscriminately, leaving 146 dead, including 44 women and 16 children. The horror of the incident prompted both remorseful government leaders and traumatized Indian tribes to agree never again to engage in battle. Peace had finally come to the American plains, just as turmoil erupted in the nation’s larger cities
In the Homestead Strike of 1892, people willing to replace strikers at the Carnegie steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania were threatened by union agitators. Three hundred guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency were dispatched to protect the voluntary workers, only to be ambushed by strikers upon their arrival. After killing several Pinkerton guards, the union ruffians overtook the steel plant, holding surviving guards hostage. Soon thereafter, seven thousand army troops arrived, regaining control of the steel plant.
Economic downturns and the reemergence of union violence left American voters dissatisfied with the intrusive, big-government policies of the Stalwart Republicans. Vindicated by the tide of history, the previous president, Grover Cleveland, soundly defeated incumbent Benjamin Harrison in the presidential election of 1892. Cleveland would be the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms, and he was the last pro-business Democrat to occupy the office.
Though Democrats regained majorities in Congress, most did not share Cleveland’s enthusiasm for the free enterprise system. From the onset, these legislators engaged in deficit spending, triggering monetary instability that prompted British investors to withdraw from the American market. Panicked domestic investors followed, and without ample investment capital, thousands of businesses shut their doors. The Depression of 1893 would last four years and displace roughly twenty percent of the nation’s workforce. To redeem government bonds for the ill-conceived Sherman Silver Purchase Act, the nation’s gold reserves were drastically reduced. In essence, the more valuable precious metal had been sacrificed to obtain vast quantities of a lesser metal. Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893.
Noting the increased public dissatisfaction over economic conditions, followers of Karl Marx seized the opportunity to present their vision of a socialist America. The Populist Party had been organized for the 1892 election, but did not garner national attention until March of 1894, after party leader Jacob Coxey escorted a throng of unemployed workers to the nation’s capital, demanding a socialist work relief program. That same year, Eugene Debs, a devout Marxist and leader of the American Railway Union, ordered a railway workers’ boycott of Pullman cars on the trains they serviced, simply because the depression had forced layoffs and wage cuts at the Pullman Palace Car Company. Outraged by the lack of reasoning behind the Pullman Strike, President Cleveland dispatched federal troops to Chicago to restore order.
“A SPLENDID LITTLE WAR”
Despite the nation’s troubling domestic issues, technological and cultural advancements continued. The 1892 transmission of voices over the airwaves advanced the field of wireless communication, while the 1893 invention of the kinetoscope, another master work of Thomas Edison, brought motion pictures to small parlor viewers, then later to large theatres. In literature, Stephen Crane released The Red Badge of Courage in 1895, continuing in the style of realism. In 1896, Utah became the nation’s forty-fifth state after the Mormon church, which had settled the region, agreed to outlaw polygamy.
Meanwhile, south of Florida, on the Caribbean island of Cuba, revolt erupted against Spanish rule. The Cuban people sought independence, and Spanish authorities reacted harshly. U.S. businesses that had invested in the island’s economy faced substantial losses. To arouse American sympathy for the Cubans, newspaper publishers William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World employed tactics of “yellow journalism,” presenting sensationalized, exaggerated, and—in some cases—fabricated accounts of the conflict.
Coinciding with the Cuban insurrection was America’s presidential election of 1896. Shifting away from the conservatism of incumbent president Grover Cleveland, Democrats endorsed William Jennings Bryan, a Nebraska Senator favored by farmers and laborers. Bryan was also favored by the Populist Party. The Republicans, having learned from the errors of their Stalwart faction, offered Ohio Governor William McKinley, who favored a return of the nation's currency to the gold standard, and advocated U.S. intervention in the Cuban crisis. McKinley soundly won the election, while Republicans solidified their majorities in both houses of Congress. The first challenge of the new government was to restore the nation’s economy. Congress passed the Dingley Tariff in 1897, protecting American commodities, while ensuring a favorable balance of trade for the United States. This was followed by the Federal Bankruptcy Act of 1898, establishing the specific responsibilities of debtors and collectors.
The McKinley administration pressured Spain to reconsider its harsh policies against Cuban dissidents, drawing the ire of the Spanish Minister to the U.S., who—in a private letter—derided the president as a weak popularity-seeker. The correspondence, however, was intercepted between Washington and Havana, then forwarded to William Randolph Hearst, who published the inflammatory comments his New York Journal on February 9, 1898. Incensed Americans denounced the Spanish government. Six days later, the naval vessel U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana harbor, killing more than 250 Americans. Though the Spanish government proclaimed innocence—suggesting that a powder magazine in the Maine’s coal bunker had spontaneously ignited—the evidence supported assertions by American naval authorities that the ship had been destroyed by a mine. “Remember the Maine” became the rally cry of an angry nation.
On March 27, 1898, William McKinley delivered an ultimatum to Spain to call an armistice with the Cubans, accept U.S. mediation, and dismantle their concentration camps. The Spanish government initially ignored the challenge, only to offer compliance when it became apparent that America would go to war. President McKinley, on April 11th, asked Congress to approve his call for forceful intervention to restore peace in Cuba. On April 20th, Congress passed the war resolution against Spain, with the stated intent of securing independence for Cuba, while facilitating a full withdrawal of Spanish forces from the island. The president was granted full use military force in the endeavor. The declaration also contained the Teller Amendment, stating that the United States would not take Cuba as a possession, but would fully support its independence. The state of war went into effect on April 21, 1898.
From the onset of the McKinley presidency, Assistant Naval Secretary Theodore Roosevelt had prepared for the possibility of war with Spain, keeping the U.S. Pacific naval fleet under Commodore George Dewey abreast of the situation. By the time war was declared, Dewey’s vessels were armed and ready to move upon Spanish naval forces in the Philippines, a Pacific island cluster that had been under Spanish rule for nearly five centuries. Aware that Dewey’s fleet was nearby, Spanish authorities prepared for battle, awaiting the sound of guns at fortress island of Corregidor; strategically located at the mouth of Manila Bay. But in the early morning darkness of May 1, 1898, Dewey’s fleet slowly passed Corregidor undetected. By the time Spanish defenders discovered the American fleet, it was too late. Though Commodore Dewey’s vessels were outnumbered, they possessed superior fire power. Eleven of the twelve Spanish warships were destroyed by noon that day. When the American vessels advanced to bombard the garrison outside Manila, Spanish forces surrendered. For his swift and effective actions, George Dewey was promoted to Rear Admiral.
The Americans had swiftly accomplished that which the Filipino rebels could not achieve after two years of fighting. Insurgent leader Emilio Aguinaldo met with Rear Admiral Dewey to discuss the creation of a Filipino-American alliance, but the talks broke down when Dewey presented the idea of the Philippines becoming a U.S. commonwealth, as opposed to an independent nation.
The Pacific victory occurred just as the American campaign in Cuba was launched. On May 29, 1898, a section of the North Atlantic Squadron, under the command of Commodore Winfield Schley, arrived at Santiago Harbor to form a blockade. The Americans sunk the dilapidated Civil War vessel Merrimac in a narrow channel leading out of the harbor, impeding the escape of Spanish ships. On June 22nd, seventeen-thousand American ground forces, under the command of General William Shafter, landed on the southern coast of Cuba, east of Santiago. Army food provisions came from a Civil War stockpile, and the volunteer soldiers were issued winter uniforms far too heavy and stifling for the tropics. Old rifles with black gunpowder cartridges produced excessive bursts of smoke, providing targets for the enemy. Nevertheless, more American troops died from food poisoning and disease than from combat.
The War Department mobilized to rectify the bureaucratic ineptitude that had damaged the army, so that subsequent groups of volunteers would be better equipped. Assistant Secretary to the Navy Theodore Roosevelt resigned his government post to serve as Lieutenant Colonel of the Rough Riders, joining Colonel Leonard Wood for service under the command of General Joseph Wheeler. On July 1st, while General Shafter’s forces invaded El Caney, Roosevelt and the Rough Riders—comprised of cowboys, American Indians, and athletes—overtook San Juan Hill, a strategic Spanish stronghold. The elevated position enabled U.S. forces to launch artillery assaults on Spanish vessels trapped in Santiago Harbor. In two days time, that fleet was destroyed.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific, American forces took possession of Wake Island on July 4th. Enthusiasm for America’s increased presence in the Pacific prompted Congress to approve the longtime request of the Hawaiian people for annexation of their island chain. Hawaii officially became a U.S. possession on July 7, 1898.
Back in Cuba, the Spanish garrison at Santiago surrendered on July 17th. Eight days later, American forces advanced, with little resistance, on the neighboring island of Puerto Rico (also a Spanish possession).
Simultaneously, in the Philippines, rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo issued a June 12th declaration of Filipino independence. At that time, overseas communications were slow, and none of the warring factions in the Philippines were aware that the government in Spain had requested peace terms with the United States. The armistice was formally signed on August 12, 1898, unbeknownst to the eleven thousand American troops entering the Filipino capital of Manila that same day. Within twenty-four hours, Spanish forces in Manila surrendered. As part of the Treaty of Paris, signed the first day of October, 1898, Spain transferred control of the Philippines to the United States in exchange for twenty million dollars. The American people received the news with mixed emotions. For approximately 120 years, independence-minded Americans had disdained the idea of colonizing other lands. All the same, they could not help but be pleased to gain the tight cluster of more than seven thousand islands, as the acquisition provided a long-desired base for U.S. naval operations in the southwest Pacific.
Ratification of the Treaty of Paris was scheduled for February 6, 1900, and in addition to the Philippines, the United States acquired the Pacific island of Guam and the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. Cuba, meanwhile, was recognized as an independent nation. An interim American government, under General Leonard Wood, remained in Cuba just long enough to oversee the construction of schools, roads, hospitals, and sewage systems. Additionally, a medical program was established to deal with the yellow fever epidemic plaguing the island. The Americans also assisted the Cubans in convening a constitutional convention.
Secretary of State John Hay called the Spanish-American conflict “a splendid little war;” but while the United States had made peace with Spain, a new struggle erupted when independence-minded Filipino rebels turned their guns on the Americans in February of 1899. The Philippines had endured nearly five centuries of slavery under the Spanish, and the insurgents assumed U.S. presence would be equally oppressive. Though generally sympathetic with the Filipinos, the Americans were in no position to simply withdraw, as mounting unrest in nearby China made the Philippines vulnerable to Asian aggressors. Despite sporadic resistance from General Aguinaldo’s guerrillas, most Filipinos embraced the Americans. The United States government dispatched aid workers to construct schools, clinics, roads, and sanitation systems, as had been done in Cuba and Puerto Rico. In places where Spanish authorities had kept native islanders illiterate, American missionaries and soldier volunteers became school teachers.
THE TUMULTUOUS TURN OF THE CENTURY
On the domestic front, President William McKinley fulfilled a campaign promise, persuading Congress to pass the Currency Act of 1900, standardizing the exact measure of gold for each U.S. dollar. Congress also passed the Foraker Act, making the island of Puerto Rico an unorganized territory of the United States. Amidst the exciting period of economic rebirth and global expansion, the nation experienced its most deadly natural disaster, as some eight-to-twelve thousand people lost their lives in a hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in September of 1900. The devastation, however, was isolated to one region of the country, and despite the enormity of the tragedy, the momentum of American progress continued unabated.
In the autumn of 1900, the American people prepared for the election to choose the first president of the twentieth century. Republicans overwhelmingly endorsed President William McKinley for a second term, while Democrats once again supported William Jennings Bryan, who accused the president of imperialism. The 1899 death of Vice President Garrett Hobart left McKinley in need of a new running mate, and after a contentious selection process, the position fell to the famed Rough Rider, Theodore Roosevelt, who had returned from his Cuban adventures to serve as governor of New York. With the well-admired San Juan Hill fighter on the ticket, the already-popular William McKinley was reelected in a landslide.
With the election out of the way, Congress passed an army appropriations bill with a provision called the Platt Amendment, granting independence to Cuba. As part of the 1901 bill, the U.S. agreed to protect Cuba from invasion, and was permitted to lease a naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Congress also passed the Spooner Amendment, replacing military rule with a civilian government in the Philippines. The president appointed William Howard Taft governor of the commonwealth, presiding over a commission of four Americans and three Filipinos. Though resistance leader Emilio Aguinaldo was captured on March 23, 1901, nationalist guerrillas continued to threaten the peace. A brutal series of rebel ambushes and American reprisals eventually left both sides sick of fighting.
On September 6, 1901, a mere six months into his second term, President William McKinley was touring the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, when he was shot by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. The president lingered two weeks before dying from his wounds. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, at age 42, was the youngest man to ascend to the presidency. He would be an energetic figure, confronting both foreign and domestic issues from the onset.
In 1902, remaining clusters of Filipino insurgents surrendered their arms to the civilian government in Manila. Americans had brought so many improvements to the region that the rebel extremists were opposed by their own countrymen. Slavery—long practiced under Spanish rule—was outlawed, while education—long denied Filipinos by Spanish overlords—was made available for all. Quality of life rapidly improved under an American civilian government that was anything but oppressive.
With peace secured abroad, the new president actively immersed himself in domestic issues. The Justice Department was instructed to investigate large corporations that appeared to be employing unethical tactics to crush their competition. In the most prominent case, Attorney General Philander Knox filed an antitrust suit against Northern Securities, a railroad holding company owned by J. P. Morgan. The federal court ruled against Northern Securities, garnering Theodore Roosevelt a reputation as a “trust-buster.” The young president also intervened in a United Mine Workers strike in 1902. Hazardous conditions and paltry wages had prompted anthracite mine workers to abandon the job in the autumn, and with the prospect of a winter coal shortage, Roosevelt mediated between the union and mine operators to bring about a resolution.
The president then turned to the issue of a Central American canal, which had been the goal of the industrial nations since the mid-1800s. Ships from one U.S. coast were forced to journey more than fourteen thousand miles around the southernmost point of South America, simply to reach the opposite coast, and the creation of a route through Central America held the promise of making ocean travel far more efficient. The ideal site for the canal was the isthmus of Panama, a possession of Columbia at the time. The U.S. entered negotiations with Columbia, but in 1903, the Panamanian people declared independence. Theodore Roosevelt dispatched the American war vessel Nashville to protect Panama, and when the Columbians relented, the United States government quickly proclaimed its recognition of the new Republic of Panama. The grateful Panamanian government entered the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with the U.S., granting a canal zone to America for an initial payment of ten million dollars, plus an annual fee of two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars, beginning nine years after the treaty’s ratification. Construction on the Panama Canal would commence in 1904, taking ten years to complete.
In the meantime, the year 1903 drew to a close with another significant event that would forever revolutionize transportation. On December 17th, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, owners of a bicycle shop, made the first successful airplane flight. The Dayton, Ohio natives flew the motorized aircraft four times that day; the longest flight lasting roughly a minute, at a distance of eight-hundred and fifty feet. The age of flight had begun, and the technological advancement was but one of many abounding changes characterizing the twentieth century.
A resurgence of excitement and national pride swept through the country. Personifying the spirit of progress was America’s energetic young president, whom the people affectionately called “Teddy.” In the 1904 presidential election, Republican Roosevelt easily defeated Democratic challenger Alton B. Parker, a New York judge. For his second term, the president focused on the nation’s resplendent natural resources, persuading Congress to pass a series of conservation laws to protect forests and establish national parks. Additionally, federal irrigation and hydro-power projects were created, and commissions for public lands, inland waterways, and national conservation were developed. All of these accomplishments were made without the need for an income tax.
In foreign affairs, Roosevelt employed Monroe Doctrine policy to confront European nations that had dispatched military troops to retrieve debts from Latin American countries. The U.S. intervened on behalf of Venezuela, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Simultaneously, across the Pacific, Japan and Russia entered war for control of the northeastern Chinese province of Manchuria. Though the Japanese dealt severe blows to Russian forces at the onset of the conflict in 1904, their military resources were severely limited. When supplies ran out, Japan appealed to President Roosevelt to mediate in negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War. The president agreed, hosting the 1905 a peace conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The terms of the subsequent Portsmouth Treaty permitted Japan to colonize Manchuria and the Korean peninsula. For his role in ending the Russo-Japanese War, President Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906.
Though the national mood in America was generally upbeat, an unexpected disaster served as a sobering reminder of the fragility of life. On April 17, 1906, approximately one thousand people were killed when a devastating earthquake struck San Francisco, California. As had happened after the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the resilient American people rebounded and pressed onward.
In this era of uninterrupted growth, Oklahoma became the nation’s forty-sixth state in 1907. Theodore Roosevelt, meanwhile, maintained a watchful eye on the Pacific. Concerned that Japan had designs on the Philippines, the president dispatched a large naval convoy on a world cruise to demonstrate American military strength to the nations of the world—especially Japan. It was called the Great White Fleet, as its sixteen battleships and dozen accompanying vessels were painted white. The tour was launched in 1907, visiting South America, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, and Japan. Theodore Roosevelt’s philosophy on diplomacy was: “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The show of American resolve and military strength persuaded Japanese authorities to enter the Root-Takahira Agreement with the United States. In the 1908 treaty, Japan formally recognized American protectorate status over the Philippines, while the U.S. recognized Japanese control over Korea.
Despite his Republican affiliation, the president grew increasingly convinced that the solution to most social and economic challenges was a more regulatory government. Deviating from his predecessor’s adherence to the gold standard, Roosevelt and congressional Republicans responded to a brief 1907 bank panic by passing the Aldrich-Vreeland Act of 1908, allowing extra currency to be printed in emergency situations. The measure permitted national banks to issue the same business notes and bonds that individual states, counties, and cities issued.
THE “PROGRESSIVE” ERA
Theodore Roosevelt held the nation’s utmost confidence and affections. By the end of his second term, he came to regret an earlier promise not to run for a third. Holding to his word, Roosevelt reluctantly stepped aside for the election of 1908.
Secretary of War William Howard Taft, having previously served as the first U.S. civilian governor of the Philippines, was endorsed by Roosevelt and the Republican Party for the 1908 presidential race. Taft, like his predecessor, soundly defeated William Jennings Bryan, the third time Democratic candidate. Although Socialist candidate Eugene Debs was largely ignored by the voting public, Marxist radicals endeavored to impact the American economic arena by organizing a communist labor union called the Industrial Workers of the World.
Marxists also endeavored to gain followers by attaching communist doctrine to popular moral issues, such as racial equality. In 1909, socialist W.E.B. Du Bois founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—better known as the NAACP—a political organization that demanded the government enforcement of social and material equality for Americans of African descent. Du Bois’ ideology clashed with Booker T. Washington’s assertion that people of minority races should advance themselves through hard work, education, and integrity of character, instead of mass protest or government coercion.
Meanwhile, in the halls of government, the Republican president found himself at odds with members of his own party. In the Senate, Robert La Follette of Wisconson organized a Republican splinter group called the Insurgents, supporting increased government intrusion in all factions of commerce and private enterprise. Calling their new philosophy “Progressivism,” this group endorsed a government-managed economy, as well as a graduated income tax. Because the Supreme Court had declared earlier income tax policies unconstitutional, a proposal was submitted in Congress to add a constitutional amendment permitting such a tax. However, the Corporate Excise Tax Act was also passed in 1909 to define income as a corporate profit. At that time, the definition of income did not include workers’ wages, since the involuntary seizure of such earnings violated other constitutional rights.
William Howard Taft opposed congressional measures that hindered free enterprise. In addition to opposing the income tax, the president called for a special session in Congress to lower tariffs on foreign imports. Though 1909’s Payne-Aldrich Tariff was drafted for that purpose, 847 protective amendments were attached to it, rendering the opposite effect. The debate over the tariff split the Republican party into two distinct factions: the Progressives and the Old Guard Republicans. The rift between them widened further over a controversy involving U.S. Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot, a Roosevelt appointee, and Taft’s new Interior Secretary, Richard Ballinger. Pinchot had accused Ballinger of acting unethically when he made a large tract of Alaskan coal land accessible to an American business cooperative. Though an investigation cleared Ballinger, Pinchot persisted, requesting the intervention of Congress. President Taft then fired Pinchot for going over his head, enraging Progressive Republicans. The controversy also resulted in a rift between Taft and Roosevelt, as Gifford Pinchot was a close friend of the former president.
Progressives in Congress continued to enact measures that increased the government’s regulatory powers over business, passing the Mann-Elkins Act in 1910. The authority of the Interstate Commerce Commission was extended to encompass cable and wireless communications companies, as well as telephone and telegraph services. This commission was also granted the power to conduct its own court proceedings.
In foreign affairs, President Taft dispensed with Teddy Roosevelt’s “big stick” policy, adopting a new approach called “dollar diplomacy.” Instead of using military intervention to quell volatile Latin American disputes, he called upon U.S. businesses to invest in Latin American economies. Similar investments were requested to alleviate power struggles in China. The split between Old Guard and Progressive factions of the Republican Party enabled Democrats to regain a majority in the House of Representatives in the 1910 congressional elections.
William Howard Taft’s “dollar diplomacy” policy was short-lived. When Mexican leader Porfirio Diaz was ousted in 1911, the President agreed to recognize Mexico’s new government; though as a precautionary measure, ten-thousand U.S. troops were dispatched to southern border of Texas. Meanwhile, military intervention was resumed in Latin American affairs, as Taft ordered U.S. troops to maintain their presence in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, while additional forces were sent to prevent a revolt in Nicaragua. U.S. investors, having lost money in Latin American projects, backed out of similar “dollar diplomacy” programs in China, including the withdrawal from a Manchurian railroad project. As a result, Japanese and Russian investment partners in the railroad were left to fend for themselves. Complicating matters was the overthrow of China’s Manchu Dynasty in October of 1911.
The foreign affairs policies of the Taft administration were deemed failures. Nevertheless, the United States remained a prosperous nation. New skyscrapers appeared on the horizons of New York and other major cities. City streets were filling with automobiles, most of which were manufactured by Henry Ford, who had perfected the process of assembly line production, generating a high volume of cars with interchangeable parts. The same combustion engine technology that ran automobiles was applied in the submersible water vessel called the submarine. At the same time, motion picture entertainment spread across the country, as some thirteen thousand movie theaters were opened by 1912.
With technological advancements came the occasional tragedy, as exemplified by the sinking of the Titanic, at that time the world’s largest passenger ship. Nearly sixteen hundred of the Titanic’s twenty-three hundred passengers perished when the vessel struck an iceberg in the frigid waters off the coast of Newfoundland during the night of April 14, 1912.
It was in this setting that former president Theodore Roosevelt, bolstered by the Progressive faction of Republicans, opposed incumbent president William Howard Taft for their party’s nomination. Well remembered by the American people, Roosevelt won the majority of the Republican primaries. At the party’s convention, however, his newfound big-government ideology, combined with the betrayal of his successor, offended Old Guard delegates, and Taft emerged with the Republican nomination.
Refusing to step aside, the Progressives broke away from the Republicans and formed their own political party, endorsing Theodore Roosevelt as their candidate. After Roosevelt announced that he was “fit as a bull moose,” the Progressives were informally referred to as the Bull Moose Party.
The fracturing of the Republican party provided an opportunity for Democrats to regain power. Though William Jennings Bryan remained a sentimental favorite, his losses in the 1896, 1900, and 1908 presidential elections left party delegates in doubt. After a tenuous selection process, influential political operative Edward Mandell House secured the nomination of New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson as the Democratic contender. With Republicans divided between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson won the 1912 election with only forty-two percent of the vote.
The new president was enormously grateful to Edward Mandell House, the political kingmaker from Texas who was frequently called Colonel House; an honorary, non-military title.. Initially offered a cabinet post in the new administration, House held out for the more discreet and influential position of personal advisor to the president. Woodrow Wilson consented, and would eventually delegate a number of executive decisions to this unelected, unaccountable soul-mate. About his alter ego, Wilson stated: “Mr. House is my second personality. He is my independent self. His thoughts and mine are one.”
At the time, the American people were unaware of the fact that just prior to the election, House anonymously authored a novel entitled, Philip Dru, Administrator, which mapped out a political insider’s plot to transform a democratic government to a system described by House as “socialism as dreamed of by Karl Marx.” During the course of the Woodrow Wilson presidency, several of the Communist Manifesto’s ten steps for transforming a society to communism were enacted. The first was the establishment of a graduated income tax.
Previous attempts to impose temporary income taxes had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court; but since 1909, Progressives in Congress had united with Democrats to draft a constitutional amendment granting Congress the power to lay and collect taxes on incomes. On February 3, 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment was declared ratified, though it had not received the approval of the required three quarters of the states. The amendment as written failed to clarify what the word “income” specifically encompassed. The inclusion of workers’ wages posed a constitutional conflict, as the Thirteenth Amendment, banning slavery and involuntary servitude, denied the federal government ownership rights over human toil. Furthermore, the seizure of earnings without due process of law was prohibited by the Fifth Amendment.
Ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment followed on April 8, 1913, eliminating the long-held powers of state governments to appoint senators to the United States Congress. From this point on, U.S. senators were elected by the general voting populations of each state.
On April 8, 1913, the same day of the Seventeenth Amendment’s ratification, Woodrow Wilson became the first president since John Adams to appear before Congress. Three special sessions were held, in which president promoted the social programs he had developed with Edward Mandell House. Packaging his policies under the “New Freedom” banner, Wilson persuaded Congress to alter import tariffs, reform the nation’s banking and currency laws, and extend the government’s power to regulate free enterprise. Congress responded with the passage of the Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act in 1913. Though the bill touted a decrease in tariff rates, it also included a provision for a graduated income tax to compensate for the revenues lost through in tariff reductions. Because its earliest implementation applied only to the wealthiest two percent of the population, the income tax received little public opposition. Few at that time considered the fact that the new law granted the federal government unimpeded dominion over private incomes. Congress held the discretionary power to raise income tax rates at will, as well as restore the higher tariff rates, if so desired.
In adapting yet another proposal listed in The Communist Manifesto, Marxist presidential advisor Edward Mandell House outlined a plan to seize gold reserves and hard earned credit rankings from individual banks, then centralize the nation’s monetary system under a single, private monopoly of unelected—and largely anonymous—power brokers. In December of 1913, this plan was executed through the passage of the Federal Reserve Act, dividing the nation into twelve banking regions, all under the direct control of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. Gold reserves were confiscated from independent banks across the nation, then stored in Federal Reserve branches in exchange for low interest loans of paper currency. Farmers and businessmen receiving local bank loans were ordered to offer their properties as collateral, and, in turn, the lending banks passed their collateral agreements on to the Federal Reserve. Prior to the Federal Reserve Act, the United States was a nation free of debt. By the end of the 20th Century, however, America would owe approximately five trillion dollars to the shadowy banking consortium known as the Federal Reserve Board. This elite and largely unaccountable group was empowered to amass wealth and property through interest paid for currency they printed at will. Those who controlled the money supply likewise controlled the political destiny of the nation.
In a further measure to restrain the free enterprise system, Congress passed the Clayton Antitrust Act in 1914, stripping businesses of discretionary competitive pricing powers, while denying business owners any recourse for labor union sabotage. This was accompanied by the Federal Trade Commission Act, placing authority over U.S. interstate commerce in the hands of a five-member commission of presidential appointees. This panel held the power to issue cease-and-desist orders to corporations, and sue any businesses that did not comply with their directives.
Ever since the Civil War era, Old Guard Republicans had enacted policies to promote racial equality and civil rights. These measures were largely reversed by Progressives and Democrats during the Wilson presidency, and a new era of racial discrimination was launched. Wilson’s brother-in-law, Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo, energetically defended a new postal system policy to segregate civil service employees according to race, drawing the ire of racial activist W.E.B. DuBois, a former Wilson supporter. Nevertheless, presidential doctrine remained under the influence of William Mandell House, whose vision called for a one-world government under Anglo-Saxon rule. Dark-skinned Americans had no place in the power centers of “Colonel” House’s New Order.
Responding to the revived atmosphere of racial prejudice, Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914, promoting the establishment of separate, self-sufficient communities for Americans of African descent, as well as a “back to Africa” movement for those preferring to return to ancestral lands.
Adding to tensions over domestic issues, the Wilson administration created a foreign affairs controversy with the interim Mexican government under General Victoriano Huerta, who had risen to power after the 1913 assassination of Francisco Madero. While sending a friendly message urging General Heurta to hold democratic elections, Woodrow Wilson secretly shipped arms to Heurta’s opponent, Venustiano Carranza. After American naval forces were discovered by Huerta’s operatives in Tampico during April of 1914, Wilson dispatched additional troops to occupy the port at Veracruz. By July, Huerta relinquished power, enabling Venustiano Carranza to ascend to power. The new Mexican president would thereafter find his own authority challenged by his former general, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, who had befriended U.S. troops. American forces withdrew from Mexico at the request of the Pan American Union, a coalition of Western Hemisphere nations.
A cooperative spirit between neighboring nations was essential, as the Panama Canal, a project of the Theodore Roosevelt presidency, was completed and opened to all nations in 1914. The canal drastically reduced the distance involved in voyages between eastern and western coasts of the American continents. The canal’s completion coincided with the unfolding dramatic global events.
THE CLASH OF EMPIRES
In Europe, long-simmering territorial disputes triggered an arms race between rival nations. Ever since Germany’s 1871 seizure of France’s Alsace-Lorraine region, the French had vowed to retake the land. Simultaneously, the empire of Austria-Hungary defended itself against internal revolts within its own borders, launched by various independence-minded ethnic groups that were neither Austrian nor Hungarian. Austria-Hungary also competed with Russia and Germany for the annexation of land in the Balkan states, threatening the destinies of Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, and the European part of Turkey.
It was in this volatile setting that Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated on June 28, 1914, while touring the city of Sarajevo in the Austrian-ruled province of Bosnia. Believing that the Serbians were behind the assassinations, the Austro-Hungarian government declared war on the Balkan state of Serbia one month later. In response, Russian forces mobilized to defend their ally, Serbia, prompting Austria-Hungary’s ally, Germany, to issue a declaration of war against Russia on August 1, 1914. Two days later, the Germans likewise declared war on Russia’s ally, France. German motives had less to do with Austro-Hungarian interests, than with capturing territory from the rival nations at its eastern and western borders. When the Germans mobilized for war on France, the British empire to declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914. That same day, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed America’s position of neutrality in the conflict, though the nation’s sentiment fell on the side of Great Britain and France.
The attention of the American public was quickly diverted away from the European crisis when First Lady Ellen Wilson died of kidney failure on August 6, 1914. A mere nine months later, the president married Edith Galt, a widowed Virginia socialite.
The American government continued its efforts to avoid entanglements in overseas hostilities. Battle lines were well defined, as Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey formed a coalition called the Central Powers; while the Allied nations consisted of Great Britain, France, Russia, Serbia, Belgium, Romania, Portugal, Montenegro, Greece, Italy, and Japan. Blood relations had little bearing in the matter, since Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II waged war against his own cousins, the King George V of England, and Czar Nicholas II of Russia.
In little time, European warfare impacted U.S. foreign trade. Though British naval blockades reduced German purchases to less than one percent of their prewar levels, trade losses were offset by a threefold increase of orders for American goods by Great Britain, France, and Italy. To impede U.S. trade with its enemies, Germany enforced its own naval blockade of the British Isles, employing newly-developed war submarines called U-boats. President Wilson reminded the German government that neutral parties held the right to travel safely, and that international law required a warship to remove civilian passengers before attacking their vessels. The Germans ignored Wilson and proceeded to sink a number of ships approaching British ports.
On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat, without warning, torpedoed the British passenger liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing approximately twelve-hundred civilians, including 128 Americans. Despite calls in the U.S. for a declaration of war, President Wilson merely dispatched letters of protest to the German government. For the pacifist secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, the wording of Wilson’s protest to the Germans was too stern for his comfort. Bryan resigned his cabinet post and was replaced by Robert Lansing, an international law consultant.
On August 19, 1915, two Americans were killed when the Germans—once again, without warning—attacked the British steamer, Arabic. Afterward, German officials decided that war with the U.S. was not their best interest, since European foes were draining their military resources. In a gesture of cooperation, Germany issued the Arabic pledge, assuring the U.S. that no further passenger ships would be attacked without first providing for the safe removal of civilian travelers.
President Wilson sought peaceful terms with Germany, as America lacked the manpower and resources to fight a major war. U.S. armed forces could do little else than intervene in small skirmishes limited to the Western Hemisphere. In July of 1915, American marines were deployed to the militarily weak island of Haiti, taking control of its government after anarchists revolted. Haiti would be a U.S. protectorate for the nineteen years that followed.
America’s limited military resources were again put to the challenge by a resurgence of hostilities in Mexico. In January of 1916, Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s marauders raided a passenger train in northern Mexico, killing sixteen Americans. The following March, Villa’s gang crossed the border into the U.S., torching the town of Columbus, New Mexico. Seventeen townspeople were killed in the raid. Woodrow Wilson procured the permission of Mexican president Venustiano Carranza to allow U.S. troops to enter his country and pursue Pancho Villa. Carranza, however, did not expect the massive, six-thousand-man U.S. army that crossed the Rio Grande River on March 18, 1916. Under the leadership of General John J. Pershing, American troops advanced more than three hundred miles into Mexico, refusing to leave until Pancho Villa was captured. The Carranza government reversed its decision, declaring Pershing’s forces an army of occupation. Though Mexican troops attempted to drive the Americans out, Pershing’s men held their ground. Woodrow Wilson left the matter unresolved, as 1916 was an election year, and any further action held the potential of bringing negative publicity to his reelection campaign.
Hoping for a peaceful, positive national mood in the months approaching the election, the president avoided international controversies. Though Germany refrained from attacking U.S. and British passenger liners, French vessels remained active targets. On March 24, 1916, a German U-boat torpedoed the French merchant ship Sussex, killing a number of passengers. Because seven Americans were among those injured, President Wilson threatened to sever diplomatic relations with Germany, unless surprise attacks on all non-military vessels, regardless of nationality, stopped. The German government agreed in its Sussex Pledge, though insisting that the U.S. place the same restrictions on Great Britain and France. Wilson, however, refused to be held accountable for the actions of other nations. Nevertheless, U-boat attacks on civilian vessels ceased for the remainder of the year.
In June of 1916, Congress passed the National Defense Act, increasing the army from 90-thousand to 220-thousand. Additionally, a national guard was authorized, and 500 million dollars were allocated for naval construction. Though the bill was a necessary measure to address America’s lagging national defense, Congress slipped in a provision to elevate income tax rates.
The Wilson administration grew increasingly concerned that Denmark might be annexed by Germany. Such an act would give the Germans possession of the Danish West Indies, a chain of Caribbean islands. Fearing the prospect of German military installations in the Western Hemisphere, the federal government purchased the island chain from Denmark for 25 million dollars. The Danish West Indies became the U.S. Virgin Islands on August 4, 1916.
In September, Congress authorized the creation of the United States Shipping Board to monitor the shipping activities of the nation. The board assisted the newly established Council of National Defense, comprised of union officials, business leaders, and presidential cabinet members. The council’s mission was to coordinate, and, if necessary, take control of private industry for the duration of the European war.
Though Woodrow Wilson quietly made preparations for military conflict, he ran for reelection on the promise of keeping America out of the war. Disturbed that Progressive and Democratic programs were undermining fundamental constitutional freedoms, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes resigned his seat to run as the Republican presidential candidate. Hughes, however, refused to make a dishonest pledge of keeping the nation out of the war. Seventeen million Americans voted in the election; Wilson won by six-hundred thousand votes. Before taking his second oath of office, the president withdrew General Pershing’s troops from Mexico, though Pancho Villa had not been captured. Woodrow Wilson required the use of all available military resources for the war he knew was imminent.
The new presidential term would mark the beginning of a three decade period of economic upheaval and global warfare. A single generation would face the extremes of prosperity and poverty, as well as war and peace.
© Copyright 2006 Bryan Hardesty. All rights reserved.