While Americans were venturing abroad, they were also taking a fresh look at social problems at home. Although the economy was booming and prosperity was spreading, up to half of all industrial workers still lived in poverty—and many of those workers were women and children. New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco could now boast impressive museums, universities, public libraries—and crowded slums. Before 1900, the prevailing economic dogma had been laissez-faire—the idea that government should interfere with business as little as possible. After 1900, the fashionable ideology was "Progressivism"—a movement to reform society and individuals through government action.
Social workers now went into the slums to set up settlement houses, which provided health services and recreational facilities for the poor. Prohibitionists demanded an end to the sale of liquor— partly to prevent the suffering that alcoholic workers could inflict on their spouses and children. In the cities, reform politicians fought corruption, regulated public transportation, built municipally owned utilities and reduced taxes through more efficient government. Many states passed laws restricting child labor, protecting women workers, limiting work hours and providing workmen's compensation. Women agitated for the right to vote, and by 1914 several states had granted that right.
Popular magazines published sensational articles by "muckrakers"— investigative journalists who exposed shady business practices, corruption in government and poverty in the cities. In 1906, Upton Sinclair attacked the meatpacking industry in his novel The Jungle. Middle-class readers were appalled to learn what went into their breakfast sausages, and a federal meat-inspection statute was soon enacted. The Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) curbed the sale of adulterated food and fraudulent patent medicines; and the Harrison Act (1914) imposed the first effective federal controls on narcotics.
President Theodore Roosevelt strengthened federal regulation of the railroads and enforced the Sherman Antitrust Act against several large corporations, including the Standard Oil Company. In 1902, Roosevelt ended a coal strike by threatening to send in troops—not against the workers, but against uncooperative mine owners. This was a turning point in American industrial policy: No longer would the government automatically side with management in labor disputes. The Roosevelt administration also promoted conservation. Vast reserves of forest land, coal, oil, minerals and water were saved for future generations. The Progressive Movement was primarily a movement of economists, sociologists, technicians and civil servants—social engineers who believed that scientific and cost-efficient solutions could be found to all political problems.
Some Americans favored more radical ideologies. The Socialist party, under Eugene V. Debs, advocated a peaceful, gradual, democratic transition to a state-run economy. The Industrial Workers of the World (or "Wobblies") called for a general strike to overthrow the capitalist system. The IWW never gained a very large following, however, and virtually ceased to exist by 1920. Some Socialists were elected to local offices, but their party could not win more than six percent of the vote in any presidential race. Socialism has never had much appeal in the United States, where economic debates have generally concentrated on the question of whether, and to what extent, the government should regulate private enterprise.
Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat elected president in 1912, believed that the federal government had a responsibility to protect small businesses against large corporations. As part of his "New Freedom" program, Wilson enacted a personal income tax, toughened antitrust laws against huge corporate mergers and created the Federal Trade Commission to police unfair business competition. The 1913 Federal Reserve Act created a government- controlled system of 12 regional reserve banks, which strengthened public regulation of the nation's credit. Wilson also passed laws restricting child labor, granting low-cost loans to farmers and setting a maximum eight-hour working day for railroad workers.
WAR AND PEACE
When the First World War erupted in Europe in August 1914, Wilson urged a foreign policy of strict neutrality. But many Americans were outraged by Germany's invasion of Belgium, and the press published reports (often exaggerated) of German atrocities against Belgian civilians. Americans were also incensed when, in May 1915, a German submarine sank the British liner Lusitania, killing 128 American passengers. In January 1917, Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare against all ships bound for Allied ports, including neutral merchant vessels. In February, Wilson learned that if Germany and America went to war, the German foreign minister planned to offer an alliance to Mexico and Japan, with the promise that Mexico would recover the lands it had lost to the United States in 1848. By now, America had sold thousands of millions of dollars in munitions and other goods to the Allies, largely on credit.
In April 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war—not just to defeat Germany or to end submarine warfare, but to secure "the rights and liberties...of free people everywhere." For Wilson, the war would be a great crusade for world peace and national self-determination. "The world must be made safe for democracy," Wilson proclaimed as America entered "the war to end all wars."
As in Britain and Germany, the necessities of war forced the United States to expand temporarily the authority of the federal government, which was empowered to coordinate railroad administration, war industries, labor relations and food production.
When war was declared, the American army was a small force of 200,000 soldiers. Millions of men had to be drafted, trained, equipped and shipped across a submarine- infested ocean to Europe. A full year passed before the United States Army was ready to make a major contribution to the Allied war effort
In the spring of 1918, the Germans launched a last desperate offensive, in the hope of reaching Paris before the American army was prepared to fight. But a few American divisions were available to assist the French and the British in repelling this attack. By fall, Germany's position was hopeless: Its armies were retreating in the face of a relentless American buildup.
The previous January, Wilson had outlined his war aims—the Fourteen Points. These called for, among other things, open diplomacy, freedom of the seas, free international trade, disarmament and a just settlement of colonial disputes. The map of Europe would be redrawn to establish independent states for every national group, and a world association of nations would be organized to protect the peace. Wilson hoped that, by offering lenient peace terms, he could persuade Germany to cease fighting. In October, the German government asked for peace, and an armistice was declared on November 11.
In 1919, Wilson went to Europe to draft the peace treaty. He was greeted by cheering crowds in the Allied capitals, but the welcome turned sour when negotiations began at Versailles. Despite Wilson's protests, the Allies imposed crushing reparations on Germany and divided its colonies among themselves. Wilson did succeed in establishing the League of Nations, but many Americans feared that such a world organization might drag the United States into another foreign war. A group of Republican senators attached reservations to the Versailles Treaty: They would accept the League of Nations only on the understanding that Congress, not the League, retained control over American armed forces. Britain and France did not object to that reservation, but Wilson stubbornly refused to modify the treaty. The president and the Congress deadlocked over this issue. The United States never ratified the Versailles Treaty and never joined the League of Nations.