Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen

December 11, 2008

In Britain in 1914, the stern and imposing figure of Field Marshal Lord Kitchener pointed a finger at young men, telling them, peremptorily: "Your country needs YOU." In the US in 1917, Uncle Sam struck a similar pose, telling American men: "I want YOU for the US Army."

The American illustrator James Montgomery Flagg had changed the caption, "borrowed Kitchener's pose, and substituted his own face for the Brit's - then added wrinkles, whiskers and gray hair just for good measure". A commanding military image had been replaced by that of a folksy representation of America but one that was, nevertheless, authoritative. The two images point to the structural similarities and national differences of the two allies. In a total war, there is an enormous increase in the power of the state, which mobilises the economy and population for the war effort, and a commensurate decrease in the freedom of the individual citizen. Christopher Capozzola's study of the US entry into the First World War demonstrates the deep impact that the war would make on the concept of American citizenship.

Government in the US before 1917 demanded less from its citizens than any other major state. Much of the ethos of the American Revolution had been the desire to escape from intrusive government, and the American Constitution was designed as a contract with which to regulate the relations between government and the people in the interests of the people and individual liberty, while the rights of the states within the federation, and those of counties and cities, limited the powers of federal government.

The way the law was enforced - and even the law itself - was much more subject to local opinion than in European states. Voluntary bodies such as clubs, churches and pressure groups organised much of American political life, providing social services, regulating community norms, sometimes almost acting as the state. Many have seen this as a strength, and indicative of power coming upwards from the people rather than downwards from government. But neighbourhood opinion and its pressure for social conformity can limit the freedom of the individual as much as the laws made by government.

The combination of a relatively weak federal state and powerful voluntary organisations meant that America at war lacked the federal bureaucracy to implement the draft, mobilise women's labour and police the home front. New federal agencies were set up, but the state had to turn to volunteers and voluntary organisations to implement policies; the person who registered you for the draft was more likely to be the local schoolteacher than a government official.

Many voluntary organisations were selflessly dedicated to the war effort, but others reinterpreted obligations hitherto seen as outside the purview of the state to facilitate a war mobilisation that prompted state intervention in bedrooms and congregations. A bleak picture of human nature is depicted as neighbours and neighbourhood institutions turned on Americans with German backgrounds, slackers who failed to register for the draft, and even those who wasted food. Pressure groups campaigned, not just for patriotism and the duty to buy Liberty Bonds, but for the suppression of trade unions, pacifism, alcohol, sexual misconduct and ethnic differences. There was a potent but often toxic combination of coercion and voluntarism. In the end what emerged was a much more powerful state, which many saw as the lesser evil to the excesses of voluntarism.

This is a fine study of the way US society was changed by the stresses of war and how Americans debated what the state could legitimately demand of its citizens. It constitutes a valuable addition to the study of war and society as well as to the history of the US.

The book would have benefited, however, from a comparative dimension. The US experience was distinctive, not only because of its particular view of the relations between the state and the people, but also because of the difficult questions that were raised. How should the state and the citizen deal with a minority of 9.2 million Americans with German as their first language, and how should a vast number of second-class African-American citizens be utilised by the Army?

America was not, however, exceptional in terms of the main response to total war. Like other powers, it had to direct its economy to the war effort, mobilise its manpower and, to a degree, female volunteers, and place restrictions on the production and consumption of food. Along with Britain, it had to introduce that most fundamental of interferences with the liberty of the individual: conscription.

Capozzola takes little account of the considerable literature on the effects of war upon society and the many studies of the experience of other countries. The impact of the First World War was different in each country, but the broad parallels are as important as the differences.

Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen

By Christopher Capozzola. Oxford University Press 352pp, £18.99. ISBN 9780195335491. Published 24 July 2008

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