World War I, known as “The Great War,” has long been acknowledged as a major turning point in American history, as much for the social forces it unleashed at home as for the nation’s military efforts abroad. In fact, the United States’ direct involvement extended for only a year and a half, and required a minimum of sacrifice from most of its citizens. Nevertheless, the war shaped a whole generation of Americans in a very profound way. During this time the federal government expanded its power and reach, while spontaneous social and cultural movements transformed the world in which most Americans, including Louisianans, lived.
Prosperity and Patriotism
The shock of the Great War first came to Louisiana in the form of an economic panic in the late summer and fall of 1914. Because of the disruption in worldwide commodities markets, small farmers and planters in the state faced depressed prices for agricultural goods and limited access to credit. Despite this initial turmoil, it quickly became apparent that Great Britain and France would need tremendous amounts of war material in their fight against Germany, and that America would supply much of this demand. Farm prices gradually began to tick upwards throughout 1915 and 1916; they skyrocketed once the United States officially entered the conflict in April 1917. Cotton tripled in price to almost forty cents per pound in spot markets throughout 1918, while sugar doubled to seven cents or more per pound. Other Louisiana products, such as timber and petroleum, saw similar gains. America’s entry into the war signaled the beginning of one of Louisiana’s characteristic economic booms, a period of unprecedented prosperity to be followed, as was often the case, by a postwar depression that wiped out most of the monetary gains.
In 1917 and 1918, however, working men in Louisiana enjoyed a distinct advantage as the draft pulled away thousands of young, employable men for military service. In addition to the abundance of work in forest and field, the federal government employed thousands more in the expansion or creation of eleven major military installations in the state. For example, Camp Beauregard, just north of Alexandria, which had been a National Guard facility before the war, soon swelled to include more than 1,300 buildings on fifteen square miles of former timberland. At its peak enrollment in the summer and fall of 1918, more than 22,000 men received military instruction on Camp Beauregard’s ranges and training grounds. In New Orleans, the government underwrote major expansions in the maritime infrastructure: three new shipyards, a $2.5 million repair yard, and a massive warehousing terminal that could accommodate 700 railcars and more than 178,000 tons of shipping, which previously represented ten days worth of commerce on all of the city’s wharves combined. With all this available work and a yawning gap in the state’s labor pool, wages reached the unheard-of levels of $1.50 or $2 a day, and sometimes more in urban areas. Awash in cash, agricultural and industrial laborers paid off old debts, indulged in luxury items, and even put deposits down on automobiles, houses, and small farms. Banks saw their credits double and even triple.
With money in their pockets, Louisianans overwhelmingly supported the war effort, often going “over the top” with subscriptions to various fundraising campaigns. The Red Cross, YMCA, and a host of lesser-known organizations sponsored such efforts. In addition, many Louisianans participated in one or more of the five “Liberty” bond drives initiated at the national level. New Orleans raised more than $103 million for these assorted campaigns, while Shreveport alone contributed more than $15 million to the Liberty bond drives. Federally-organized Councils of Defense, including sixty-four parish councils and hundreds of community councils, facilitated many of these fundraising activities. Although limited in their authority, they circulated government edicts on production, conservation, and labor, and worked closely with the Justice Department and local draft boards to enforce selective service registration. Local women’s auxiliaries collected food and clothing for distribution and organized educational seminars on family welfare, nutrition, and health, among other pursuits. Less creditably, the councils and other “vigilant” citizens maintained social conformity by aggressively confronting dissenters and foreign-born citizens, especially German Jews, about any offhand or public comments that might be construed as supportive of anything less than “100 percent Americanism.” To the outside observer, it appeared that most Louisianans, black and white, wholeheartedly embraced the hyper-patriotism of the time.
Divisions in Society
Beneath this veneer of unity, however, deep divisions within Louisiana society found ample opportunities for expression. In particular, the so-called “great migration” of African Americans from the state evidenced a powerful dissatisfaction with the economic and social conditions of Louisiana in the era of Jim Crow. With massive war contracts piling up and the flow of European immigrants to America cut off by the fighting, northern industries looked to the South to fill their labor needs. High wages, signing bonuses, and reimbursements for travel and relocation lured many African American workers and their families to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and other northern cities.
For many, though, the major incentive to relocate proved to be simply escaping segregation itself. In a letter to the Chicago Defender, one New Orleans man explained that he was anxious to relieve himself “of the burden of the South. I indeed wish very much to come north[,] anywhere in [Illinois] will do since I am away from the Lynchman’s noose and torchman’s fire.”Another wrote that he was “now looking to the North of this benighted land for hope . . . that if once there that I may be granted the [opportunities] of peacefully working out my mission on earth[,] without fear of molestation.”
The appeal of the North proved so great, in fact, that Louisiana’s total African American population actually declined between 1910 and 1920. Incredibly, some rural plantation areas saw upwards of a third or more of local blacks abandon their homes for points North. Eventually, the cumulative effects of this exodus and the draft on the state’s labor force became so worrisome to white planters that Governor Ruffin Pleasant issued a “work or fight” order in 1918. Local authorities used this order, often unsuccessfully, to force supposedly underemployed African Americans into menial, underpaying jobs in households and businesses.
The apparent ambivalence of some groups to the call for military service also suggests the simmering social conflicts within Louisiana during the war years. The state could scarcely have been labeled unpatriotic, as it sent more than 71,000 officers and enlisted men into the armed forces. But the vast majority of these men were draftees, not volunteers. For a state only some twenty years removed from the extremely partisan, class-driven discord apparent in Populism, lingering political and economic resentments often morphed into a vague but nonetheless real rejection of what came to be seen as another “rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.”
Such feelings sometimes translated into an individual’s refusal to register for the draft or even report for induction when called. Indeed, Louisiana had more than 8,000 cases of draft desertion, putting the state’s rate at almost a full percentage point higher than the national average. State officials were quick to blame this elevated number on the large African American population, which, they claimed, was mostly ignorant or illiterate and therefore could hardly be expected to comply with the demands of service registration. Certainly, the out-migration of many blacks caused considerable confusion when it came to locating eligible men to serve. Yet, the fact that middle-class African American leaders sometimes resorted to public chastisements of antiwar sentiment in their communities belied the conviction that patriotism ran rampant in all quarters of the state, and especially among those subject to the daily humiliations of life under Jim Crow. Such antiwar feeling proved just as strong, if not stronger, among many of the state’s poor whites, a group already politicized by populist and socialist rhetoric in the preceding decades.
Some Louisianans’ resistance to serve in the armed forces hardly affected the overall mobilization efforts for America’s rather limited military involvement in the war. However, military service did remain a key social marker in Louisiana for a generation or more after the conflict ended. Indeed, Huey Long’s avoidance of wartime service (he received a deferment) and his defense of antiwar state Senator S. J. Harper of Winnfield, who was brought up on sedition charges, provided a point of attack for many of his opponents during the 1920s and 1930s.Carrie Moore Davidson, a society lady from northeast Louisiana whose only son was killed in action during the war, framed her opposition to Long thus: “When I come to total the final score, I cannot forget that when my boy was fighting in France to make it safe for the Longs they were dodging the draft over here.” Yet the fact that many of his most political bitter rivals had served as officers rather than enlisted men only validated Long’s class-infused criticisms of Louisiana’s upper crust.
In later years, these officers, many of whom were Louisiana State and Tulane University graduates, became influential members of the state’s business and political establishment, almost all in vehement opposition to Long. Many also found their way into the American Legion, a veterans’ organization created after the war that, while disavowing political aims, nonetheless drew men of a more reactionary stripe. Rising from its ranks was Sam Houston Jones, a district attorney and good-government type from DeRidder, who eventually became the figure around whom the conservative forces of the state rallied to defeat Earl Long in the 1940 gubernatorial election. Like his brother, Earl Long missed out on military service during the war. Meanwhile, Jones’s World War I record was featured prominently in his political biography, and Legion posts around the state received him enthusiastically on his campaign tour. Even some twenty years later, the conflict continued to cast its shadow across the cultural panorama of Louisiana. That influence, though, was soon to be eclipsed by another war that would demand a far greater sacrifice from the American people.
Author: Matthew Reonas
Cite this entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Reonas, Matthew "World War I." In knowlouisiana.org Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published November 16, 2011. http://www.knowlouisiana.org/entry/world-war-i.
Reonas, Matthew "World War I" knowlouisiana.org Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 16 Nov 2011. Web. 27 Feb 2017.
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