The American Home Front Before World War II: World War I, The Great Depression, and The New Deal

Black and white photo postcard overlooking a busy rail yard. There are several tracks, switches, and small buildings. Lines of rail cars sit on the tracks. In the distance are low mountains.
Wheeling and Lake Erie Rail Yard, Brewster, Ohio. Postcard, ca. 1910.


Several changes that took place leading up to and because of World War I influenced America in the Second World War. People, products, ideas, and information moved faster and on a more global scale than any time before. And an increasingly small number of individuals controlled increasingly large methods of production – and wealth. [1] Before World War I, economies of scale and Ford’s invention of the assembly line increased production and lowered costs. The Wright brothers proved that heavier-than-air flight was possible. Improved steel rails meant longer trains could carry more goods, and the rail network expanded. Larger and faster ships, including the first modern battleships, plied the oceans. Telegraph cables crisscrossed the country and the sea floor, connecting people around the world almost in real-time. When World War I broke out, countries adapted these technologies to military use. This sped up their development and introduced them to expanded markets. [2]

To meet the demand, American industries expanded their production. Unemployment dropped, and money flowed into the pockets of many Americans. [3] Black Americans moving from the agricultural South to Northern industrial cities filled the growing demands for labor. This was the First Great Migration. As well as the promise of good paying jobs, African Americans left the South to escape Jim Crow segregation. Although better, things were still hard in the North. [4] The frequency and intensity of racial violence against African Americans increased during World War I. This included thousands of lynchings and the founding and rise in power of the revived Ku Klux Klan. In 1917 alone, deadly race riots erupted in East St. Louis, Illinois and in Houston, Texas. Rarely were the white perpetrators punished. [5]
Framed fabric service flag. A wide border of red frames a collection of 2 gold and 8 blue stars on a white background.
Service flag. While many indicated family members serving, businesses and organizations also created them. This one honors staff of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library who served in the military during World War II. While this one was made in 1945, the symbolism was established during World War I.

Collection of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (MO 1969.51).

World War I

The US remained neutral until April 6, 1917 when Congress declared war on Germany. [6] Just as they would 25 years later in World War II, civilian industry shifted to military production. Elsewhere on the home front, children collected scrap and people planted War Gardens. In the fall, gardeners canned and otherwise preserved their produce. Many people voluntarily limited their meat consumption. And the federal government sold Liberty Bonds and Thrift Stamps to raise money. Twenty-four million men registered for the draft and almost 2.1 million Americans went to war either in the uniformed service or as spies. [7]

Households with members serving in the military hung service flags in their windows. Each blue star represented someone serving; a gold star replaced the blue for each of those lost in the war. These service flags became popular again in World War II, and their use continues. [8] In the media, the federal government’s Committee on Public Information “advertised” the war. They promoted support via patriotic posters, records, silent films, sheet music, and newspaper articles. There were also people who opposed the war, including thousands who declared themselves conscientious objectors. The government cracked down on dissenters, arresting them and looking the other way when they were murdered. Some conscientious objectors worked in noncombatant roles; others worked on farms. Several went to prison or were forced into conscientious objector camps. [9]

Like in World War II, Americans on the home front faced the threat of direct enemy attack. Focused on the war in Europe and underestimating German technology, the United States was caught off guard when four German Unterseeboots (U-Boats) began sinking American ships along the East Coast. Between April 1917 and November 1918, the U-Boats sank 200 merchant and naval vessels. U-Boats also hit land targets, including shelling Nauset Beach on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and a gas attack of a coast guard station at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, North Carolina. Only minor injuries were reported.[10] Elsewhere, German agents bombed the US Capitol; blew up a munitions depot in New Jersey; worked to incite a war between the US and Mexico; and used germ warfare by infecting horses and mules heading to the front lines with anthrax and other diseases.[11]
Black and white photo of a Black family (two men, five women, and a young boy) dressed in suits and dresses, all wearing hats. In front of them are two suitcases.
The Arthur family arrives in Chicago on August 30, 1920. Two months earlier, a mob burned two of their sons alive in a lynching in Paris, Texas.[31]

Originally published in The Chicago Defender, September 4, 1920.

In the Pacific, the stage for World War II was being set. During the conflict, Japan captured Germany’s Pacific territories. These included the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, the Caroline Islands, and the Marshall Islands. After the War, the League of Nations placed many of these islands under Japanese administration. [12] As part of the peace settlement, Japan agreed to demilitarize the islands and to not further expand their reach and influence in the Pacific. The United States also agreed to these terms. Both sides would violate the agreement in the buildup to World War II.[13]

By the end of World War I on November 11, 1918, almost 117,000 Americans had died and another 204,000 wounded. Many more came home with shell shock and other war-related psychological and neurological conditions, including what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. [14] While the official American casualty count was much lower than in other countries, the impact on the American people was significant. [15]

Black soldiers returning home expected social change. They had served their country, many giving the ultimate sacrifice. They anticipated that they had earned the respect of the government and their fellow citizens. They did not get the welcome home they had hoped for. Quite the opposite. Many white citizens worked to keep society segregated, and to keep African Americans in second-class status. Anti-Black violence and lynching increased so much that the summer of 1919 became known as the Red Summer. [16]
Black and white photo pf four white women and a white man wearing 1920s bathing suits and eating ice cream cones. A box with knobs and a trumpet-shaped amplifier (the radio) sits on the beach in front of them.
1920s actors Zena Keefe, Alice Mills, Sara Mullen, Lucy Fox, and Eddie Buzzell eat ice cream and dance at the beach to the music of an early radio, August 1923.

Wireless Age August 1923, p. 26.

Along with these losses and hardships, the United States emerged from World War I as a true military power and the largest economy in the world. It also gained a new appreciation for technology, and more of an awareness of global events. [17] With this, came serious debate about the role of the United States in international affairs. On one hand, there was a general disinterest in becoming involved in another war overseas. But there was also a boom in post-war commerce as American factories and farms sold goods to help rebuild Europe. [18]

Optimistic about the future and with money in their pockets, Americans spent money. A lot of money. They bought products they had gone without during the war and the new products that were available because of the war. Automobiles hit a growing road network in record numbers, and restaurants and gas stations popped up to serve travelers. Those able to drive to work in the cities moved to the new suburbs springing up across the country. Hollywood became the center of the global film industry, and radios carried jazz, news, and other entertainment into Americans’ living rooms. In Harlem and other places where African Americans had moved during the war, Black arts, communities, and thought flowered. The unregulated stock market soared, increasing to six times its value between 1921 and 1929, enticing people to invest. Historians refer to this period as the “Roaring 20s.” In the media, this era is represented by iconic flapper fashion, speakeasies, and rum-runners. It was also the peak era of the Ku Klux Klan, who, with up to five million members, operated openly across the country. Black communities and those of non-white and non-Protestant Americans were targets of violence – including the Tulsa Massacre.[19]
Men stand in a bread line for food
A long line of people stands in a breadline at a soup kitchen in New York City. Without enough government programs, private organizations took on some of the relief efforts. People received a piece of bread and a bowl of soup. Photo ca. 1932.

Collection National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 195524).

The Great Depression

The Roaring 20s did not last. In late October 1929, the US stock market crashed, wiping out billions of dollars of Americans’ wealth and investment. With international economies already unstable, the crash plunged the United States and other countries into crisis. In the US, we know it as the Great Depression. By June of 1933, American stocks had lost as much as 89% of their value. The impact extended to financial institutions, and by the same time, almost a third of US banks (about 7,000 of them) had failed. The American spending (and investing) spree of the Roaring 20s was over. [20]

Despite federal attempts to right it, the economy continued to worsen. By 1933, in the face of increasing numbers of business failures, unemployment in the US reached almost 25%. Worker wages and business profits were also down. [21]

At the same time, a serious drought known as the Dust Bowl hit the continental US beginning in 1930. It devastated agriculture particularly in the Midwest. [22] Unable to find work and with farms buried under dust, farmers, businesses, and families defaulted on loans. Hundreds of thousands of Americans became homeless, and millions of people moved around the country looking for relief. Many lived in shantytowns built of cardboard and abandoned cars called “Hoovervilles” (President Hoover was in office at the time). Others hitched rides on trains and crisscrossed the country looking for work. In Washington DC, thousands of veterans of World War I gathered, demanding payment of a promised bonus for serving. In cities, people begged for food on the streets and went to soup kitchens, often waiting in long breadlines. Malnutrition spread, particularly among children, and many families separated to try to survive. Americans felt helpless, and had little confidence in the future. [23] President Hoover tried to fix the economy, but it continued to worsen. Hoover lost the election in 1932 to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR).
A brightly colored painting. A blond, muscular white man is using a large saw to cut a log that is as wide as he is tall. He is wearing a white shirt, jeans, and boots. Lush foliage surrounds him.
The Timber Bucker by Ernest Ralph Norling, 1934. Norling was part of the New Deal Public Works of Art Project. This painting is part of a series documenting the work of the CCC, another New Deal program.[33]

Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (1965.18.35).

FDR and the New Deal

FDR won the 1932 presidential election – his first of an unprecedented four. He campaigned on the promise of a New Deal that would transform America, bringing relief from the devastation of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. He took office on March 4, 1933 and in his first inaugural address, acknowledged the challenges facing the country, and pledged honesty and candor with the American public.[24] One way he did this was over the radio. His conversational Fireside Chats let the President speak directly to the public, bypassing the press. Radio broadcasters carried his first Fireside Chat into American homes just a few days after he took office. [25]

Under President Roosevelt’s administration, the federal government poured money into the economy, passed laws, and developed programs to pull the nation out of the Depression. Together, these reforms make up the New Deal. They actively shaped America in the years leading up to and into World War II. Many of them continue today, including a federal minimum wage, the right to unionize, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Social Security, unemployment insurance, overtime pay, and supplemental food programs (SNAP, food stamps). [26]

New Deal programs were largely successful in righting the American economy and improving the situations of all Americans – though white Americans benefitted more than Black Americans and other Americans of color.[27] Programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provided over 10 million jobs and transformed America. Participants built hundreds of thousands of miles of roads and bridges and installed thousands of miles of water systems and electrical grids. [28] These improved life for Americans in general, but also boosted national security. By 1936, the economy was pretty much back to where it had been in the late 1920s. Millions of Americans were working, and unemployment had dropped from 25% to 11%. Despite an economic downturn fueled by the government cutting spending and increasing taxes in 1937, by 1938, the economy was pretty much on solid footing. [29]

World War II was not the only reason that the Great Depression ended. But the War did speed recovery as Americans found work and businesses found profits in supplying the Allies (and later the US military) with food and weapons. It also led to the end of many New Deal programs as participants found wartime jobs and entered military service. [30]
This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.

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Last updated: November 16, 2023