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When we went 'Over There'

Bullock museum's WWI exhibit shows how U.S peace turned to near anarchy

Michael Barnes
"WWI America" at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum does cover the European conflict, but it focuses on the impact of World War I on America, which went from a relatively peaceful and prosperous place to a one of pronounced divisions, at times near chaos. [Contributed by the Bullock Texas State History Museum]

Wars change nations. Big wars change nations in big ways.

Few were as big as the Great War, otherwise known as World War I, which ended not much more than 100 years ago with the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918.

The United States entered the European showdown of doomed empires late but with enormous impact, especially back at home, as a densely organized and visually sharp exhibit, “WWI America,” argues at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. The exhibit runs through Aug. 11.

This exhibit, which originated with the highly regarded Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minn., includes a fair share of personal stories, such as ones about “doughboys” like Charles Whittlesey, part of a “Lost Brigade” caught behind German lines, and José de la Luz Saenz, who fought for democracy in France and against racial segregation in the U.S.

Yet pictures and numbers do the heavy lifting in this impressive show that's squeezed into the Bullock’s special exhibition space downstairs.

Meditate at the entry to the exhibit, for instance, on statistics about the U.S. in 1914, at the start of the war that the country did not join until April 2, 1917. The U.S. population stood at 103 million, less than a third of what it is today. One in seven Americans were foreign born, about the same as today. Ninety percent of Americans were considered white, as opposed to 63 percent these days. A third of American households had telephones, but only one in 10 Americans paid income tax, recently made possible by the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that was ratified in 1913.

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In 1914, just 16 teams played major league baseball, “America’s pastime,” and manufacturing jobs brought in an average of 53 cents an hour in wages. More Americans lived in rural areas than in cities and towns, and a third of the population was younger than 15 years old.

Movies had expanded onto big screens from their smaller-scale predecessors at nickelodeons, and Charlie Chaplin had made his film debut. In a symbol of optimism the next year, San Francisco staged the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which not only celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal but also the rebuilding of the city after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

In 1914, women made up only one fifth of the paid workforce and could fully vote in just 11 states; it was not until 1920 that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, prohibiting states and the federal government from denying citizens the right to vote on the basis of gender. Progressives or their putative allies in the Republican and Democratic parties had won the past three presidential elections, and President Woodrow Wilson won again in 1916 on the premise that “He kept us out of war.”

Before the U.S. entry into the war, some American volunteers had headed “Over There,” as the George M. Cohan song of that title later urged, including artists and writers such as Walt Disney, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Alan Seeger. Herbert Hoover, future president, demonstrated his organizing skills on behalf of the American Commission for Relief of Belgium (a neutral country invaded by Germany, a particular point of outrage — real or whipped up — for the Allies at the time, meaning the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Russia).

From the cumulative evidence presented in this exhibit, pre-war America seemed a relatively prosperous, peaceful and forward-looking country, self-confident about its accomplishments, while not up front about its shortcomings. Generally, Americans wanted no part in the foreign war, which was as much about old empires grabbing each other’s colonies as anything else. In fact, not much attention was paid at home to America’s own recent and far-flung acquisitions from the Spanish-American War, as detailed in Daniel Immerwahr’s provocative new book, “How to Hide an Empire: History of the Greater United States."

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Now, if you had entered this Bullock exhibit at the other end of the gallery and looked first at the post-World War I situation, you’d confront a completely different picture of our society. By 1918, America faced massive labor strife; a “Red Scare,” the embers of which never really died out; ugly repressions of basic liberties through the Alien and Espionage acts; mounting violence against ethnic minorities; renewed activism from African Americans and Latinos, especially those who had served in the war, for safety, dignity and equality; and deep divisions over Prohibition, which was billed suspiciously as a “war measure.”

That's not to mention the most deadly pandemic in modern history, the Spanish flu of 1918 and 1919. The reason for that name: The exhibit’s curators tell us that, since Spain was a neutral country with a relatively free press, it was first to report the widespread and deadly illness.

After only a year and a half into WWI, America, rather than peaceful and prosperous, looked like a country seemingly on the verge of revolution, chaos or reactionary authoritarianism.

So what changed?

Despite the patriotic songs penned by Cohan, Irving Berlin and others, WWI was never that popular in America. Long before Wilson asked Congress to declare war in 1917, Americans had fought a “war against the war.”

Some of the anti-war forces straightforwardly tried to promote peace or humanitarian aide, or they organized “anti-preparedness committees.” Others, such as industrialist Henry Ford, opposed the war in part because of his deeply held anti-Semitism, like the belief that the conflict was cooked up for the profit of Jewish bankers.

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American farmers and manufacturers sold supplies to the Allies, further tying this country to the international economy, but many German Americans were conflicted about their loyalties prior to the U.S. intervention. Immigrants from Germany’s allies among the Central Powers — the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria — were not as likely to feel an emotional tug from their less consolidated home countries.

Two well-publicized incidents excited war fever in the U.S.: the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat that killed 1,200 people including more than 100 Americans (it carried small munitions, too); and the Zimmerman Note of January 1917. The German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmerman, sent a coded telegram to the Mexican government proposing a military alliance with an eye to Mexico regaining its territories in the U.S. Southwest.

Decrypted by the British, this bit of sensational intelligence could have not come at a worse time for U.S.-Mexico border tensions, which had been aflame since the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Troops and militias crossed the border at will, and racial hatred led to the extrajudicial deaths of hundreds of ethnic Mexicans in Texas, subject of an award-winning 2016 Bullock exhibit, “Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920.”

To combat Americans’ reluctance to back the war wholeheartedly, the Committee on Public Information was formed to create propaganda in a systematic effort to convert doubters and resisters. An excellent section of this exhibit replicates in miniature a movie theater of the time, which, along with entertainment, shows propaganda films.

What really began to tear the country apart, however, was the implementation of the Selective Service Act in June 1917. Ten million American men, at first ages 21-31, then 18-45, filled out draft forms. Twenty percent of American men of draft age served.

Many of the 65,00 Americans who filled out conscientious objection were put to work, but — and this might be the most surprising aspect of the exhibit — many rural Southerners escaped the attention of the draft boards. As many as one third of them evaded the draft, calling it a “rich man’s war.” One particular half-forgotten chapter in this resistance was the Green Corn Rebellion, during which Anglo Americans, Native Americans and African Americans in Oklahoma staged an armed uprising against the draft in August 1917.

As often has been the case during modern American wars, however, some groups who were otherwise disrespected by the establishment marched front and center. Half a million immigrants served in the war, along with 12,000 Native Americans.

The military kept careful records of those who went through its physical and mental examinations, so we know that the average American male in 1917 was five feet, seven inches tall and weighed 142 pounds.

This exhibit is not big on weapons, uniforms or military paraphernalia, which are often represented in historical shows about war. Nor is there much on trench warfare, which is among the only things that Americans do recall about WWI.

Not remembered as well are some of the sober conclusions made at the close of the exhibit: America proved itself as a global power during WW I, while the conflict also transformed multiple economies and abetted the rise of the humanitarian and peace movements. Women, labor unions and African Americans made strides during the war — including the movement of millions of black people away from the rural South during what was known as the “Great Migration” — although some of these achievements were rolled back in the '20s and '30s.

For better or worse, the war fostered the rise of nation states at the expense of empires. It also introduced massive lethal technologies that led some observers to believe it would be the “war to end all wars.”

Then, two decades later, World War II proved them cataclysmically wrong.


When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 11

Where: Bullock Texas State History Museum, 1800 Congress Ave.

Cost: $9-$13 for access to all museum exhibitions

Information:, 512-936-8746