A Survey of American War Readiness Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Agriculture Secretary D. F. Houston wrote his account of the US preparations for war in December 1917. He described, in detail, the systems in place to encourage both civil and military production and came to the conclusion that the United States was better prepared to wage war than the primary belligerents in Europe had been, and they were certainly more efficient. Houston addressed not only industrial production, but agriculture and medical preparations. He also described the governing bodies of these efforts, and how impressed Europeans were at the speed and efficiency of the US mobilization, during which there was a rapid expansion of bureaucracy in the United States as thousands of new agencies were established.

Summary Overview

Agriculture Secretary D. F. Houston wrote his account of the US preparations for war in December 1917. He described, in detail, the systems in place to encourage both civil and military production and came to the conclusion that the United States was better prepared to wage war than the primary belligerents in Europe had been, and they were certainly more efficient. Houston addressed not only industrial production, but agriculture and medical preparations. He also described the governing bodies of these efforts, and how impressed Europeans were at the speed and efficiency of the US mobilization, during which there was a rapid expansion of bureaucracy in the United States as thousands of new agencies were established.

Defining Moment

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson requested that Congress approve a declaration of war against Germany. Relations had soured in the first months of 1917, with Germany openly violating its pledge to halt unrestricted submarine warfare and secretly attempting to bring Mexico into the war on the German side. Within the week, war was declared by both houses of Congress.

The United States was publicly committed to the principle of neutrality from 1914 to 1917, but had come very close to war with Germany several times. In his report, Houston pointed to several changes made before the war that allowed for greater stability and readiness when it was finally declared. First, the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 established a central bank to promote economic stability. In addition, committees were set up to manage advances in shipping, aviation, manufacturing, transportation, munitions, and labor before the declaration of war.

Despite contemplating war for years, the actual mobilization project was a daunting one. The war came during the Progressive Era, at a time when social progress and the efficiency of political systems were idealized. One of the first acts of Congress after the declaration of war was the establishment of over five thousand new bureaucratic agencies, which were estimated to bring jobs to over half a million people.

The government also decided to enact a draft, or conscription law, rather than rely on an all-volunteer army. The Selective Service Act of 1917 was carefully crafted to deal with many of the negative aspects of the Civil War draft, still in the memory of many Americans. The Selective Service Act allowed exemptions for dependency, essential occupations, and religious reasons, and established a “liability for military service of all male citizens”; from twenty-one to thirty years of age (later, it was expanded to include ages eighteen to forty-five). The act also prohibited substitutions, one of the most contentious elements of the Civil War draft, as well as bounties or the purchase of exemptions. Numbers were drawn in a national lottery, and local boards administered how exemptions were handled. During the two years of American involvement in the war, twenty-four million men were registered for military service, and nearly 2.8 million served.

On August 10, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson created the US Food Administration. This administration, headed by Herbert Hoover, would be responsible for the supply, distribution, and conservation of food during the war and would oversee food transportation systems and enforce government control of food supplies. Hoover’s plan was to encourage food production and fair distribution through primarily voluntary methods–to this end, he did not accept pay while in the post, as he felt it gave him the moral authority to ask the American people to sacrifice as well. The administration declared that “food would win the war.” Homeowners pledged to conserve food, and Americans embraced national conservation efforts, experimenting with novel foods not considered crucial to the war effort. They grew “victory gardens” and pledged not to eat between meals. Even President Wilson grazed sheep on the White House lawn. In addition to voluntary conservation, Hoover also set wheat prices and organized wheat distribution. As production grew, exports rose, and by 1918, the United States exported grain products, meat, and sugar at around three times the prewar rate.

Despite a willing public and deep investment by the government, there were serious delays in some aspects of mobilization. The coal crisis of 1917 was a failure of transportation and distribution, as coal was being mined in sufficient quantities, but could not get to its destination. There were national coal shortages. The government finally took steps to nationalize the railway system and enforce priority coal access.

Author Biography

David Franklin Houston was born in North Carolina in 1866. He received a master’s degree in political science from Harvard University in 1892 and began a career as a university professor and administrator. After a decade of successive university teaching and administrative posts, Houston was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to the position of US secretary of agriculture from 1913 to 1920. Houston also served as the US treasury secretary from 1920 to 1921. He died in 1940.

Document Analysis

Houston’s report was a glowing review of the changes made both before and after the US entry into the war and painted a very flattering, but fairly accurate, picture of war preparations and readiness. Houston used the opinion of an outsider, in this case Britain’s Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, to highlight the speed and scale of US war preparations. The British had, of course, already been at war for years, so the flabbergasted Lord Northcliffe’s reaction, “Am I dreaming?” proved the supremacy of the American war effort. Houston himself found the statistics associated with war preparations “beyond comprehension” and laid out the money that had been allocated for weapons, men, and supplies. He concluded that Congress had made “good its pledge of placing the resources of the country at the disposal of the government” and had also created “essential administrative agencies.”

Houston was eager to report on the changes that had been made previous to American involvement in the war. This highlighted how stable and forward-thinking the US government, of which he was a part, had been since even before war broke out. Most important, in his opinion, was the Federal Reserve Act and the creation of a central banking system prior to the start of the war. This, he argued, had allowed the nation’s finances to remain sound. Houston described various committees and planning groups that had been at work before the war, including the Council of National Defense, set up on August 29, 1916, which was charged with studying the best ways to mobilize military and industrial resources. In addition, the creation of a shipping board, an aviation board, and medical, manufacturing, transportation, and labor committees in the months before the war led to a smooth transition when war was declared.

Houston was particularly impressed with the work of the War Industries Board, which he described as being of “unique importance,” although he also acknowledged that “its machinery is not yet perfect.” Houston’s report then turned to a catalog of the results of all of this planning, with particular attention paid to the type and tonnage of shipping being manufactured or refitted for war, and the number of military personnel and the provisions made for them. Houston also pointed out that manufacturing standardization had resulted in cost savings and efficiency. He was uniquely positioned to comment on the state of agriculture, and he credited “a great body of alert farmers” with the ability to produce food much more efficiently than their counterparts in Europe.

In closing, Houston made a plea for self-sacrifice and volunteerism, a common theme in speeches of that time. This was not a time to look for profit, he argued. It was a time to work for the good of the country, and it was clear that he felt the country was well positioned to successfully wage war.

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this report is the enormous undertaking that was involved in the preparations for America’s entry into World War I. Houston’s description of the mobilization effort highlighted the vast scale of the endeavor, and he was particularly impressed with the number of agencies and planning bodies set up to administer the effort.

Houston also emphasized that those who were in a position to benefit financially from the war should act selflessly and with a spirit of volunteerism and patriotism. At a time when the considerable force of American industry was being turned to war production, the possibility for hoarding and profiteering was real. These were anti-patriotic impulses, and Houston stressed that they should be resisted.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Breen, William J. Uncle Sam at Home: Civilian Mobilization, Wartime Federalism, and the Council of National Defense, 1917–1919. Westport: Greenwood, 1984. Print.
  • Coffman, Edward M. The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I. 1968. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1998. Print.
  • “Teaching With Documents: Sow the Seeds of Victory! Posters from the Food Administration During World War I” National Archives. US National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2014.
  • Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. New York: Ballantine, New York, 1962. Print.
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