Mobilizing for Total War

Painting of General John J. Pershing atop a horse. The horse is not seen. Only Pershing from the waist up.
Army General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing oversaw the creation of the American Expeditionary Force as the U.S. entered WWI. (Image courtesy United States Army)

Transforming a Society

The "total war" of World War I dwarfed the scope of the mobilization needed for previous foreign wars, such as the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War. While these conflicts elicited great interest in the general population, they did not require the sustained level of commitment or trigger the profound economic and societal changes of World War I. Whole industries such as shipbuilding and automobile manufacturing had to be transformed to produce the weapons of war. Military draft, rationing, civil rights infringements, and other sacrifices became the norm. Few Americans escaped the hardships required to defeat the enemy.

A Dormant Military

In the years before World War I, the U.S. military was small, underpaid, and poorly trained and equipped. Morale was generally low, as was esteem for the military in the general population. On the eve of war, military supplies and manpower had fallen to their lowest levels since the Civil War. The United States wasn't just a second-rate military power. Comparatively, it ranked 17th in the world. This was despite the passage of the National Defense Act of 1916, which provided for a gradual increase in the regular army and reserves. American military leaders such as General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing faced tremendous logistical and societal challenges in rapidly mobilizing the nation for war. In stark contrast, many of the European nations had been building their armies and navies for years before the outbreak of war in 1914. Germany, in particular, fell sway to the militaristic Prussian outlook that placed a premium on war as a way to strengthen a nation. Meanwhile, Great Britain, anxious to maintain its dominance of the seas, had poured enormous sums into its navy. Without the luxury of a deliberate buildup, by early summer of 1917, Pershing was in France coordinating the buildup and training of American forces.

The Inevitable Problems of Organization

The Portland harbor 1906
The Portland Harbor in circa 1906. Shipyard production in the Portland area expanded rapidly during World War I to meet the demand for war and cargo ships. (OSA, Accession 88A-057)
To gear up for war, a system of district and local draft boards had to be set up throughout the country. Once volunteers and draftees were inducted into service, they had to be trained and equipped. Supplies needed to be in the right place at the right time. Shortages were common. Soldiers sometimes trained with wooden replicas of rifles because real ones were not available. Troop exercises and war game maneuvers were often chaotic. Politicians asked sober and pointed questions about the ability of the government to prosecute a large scale war.

But in spite of the confusion, lessons were learned and adjustments were made. The federal War Industries Board, led by many of the nation's captains of industry, began to control the production of vital materials. The civilian workforce adapted to new demands, factories geared up to produce the needed supplies and weapons, and transportation systems became more efficient. In the military, command structures stiffened, modern strategies and tactics developed, and the skills of the new soldiers, sailors, and marines grew to match their fighting spirit.

State defense councils across the U.S. were born from this organizational imperative as the nation entered World War I. While the work of the State Council of Defense for Oregon was in many ways unique, it shared fundamental goals and methods with councils in other states as Americans everywhere responded to the threats of war. Soon after the Council of National Defense issued instructions in April 1917, all 48 states had organized state councils of defense. Most of them had legislative authority with significant power and appropriations. Oregon's council formed in May 1917.