The Cultural Impact of World War I on America

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The final of three presentations in our “Grappling with the Great War” lecture series about the First World War was yesterday afternoon and Chapman University history professor Dr. Jennifer D. Keene was on hand to present a fascinating lecture on the cultural impact of the conflict on America.

Dr. Keene, who is president of the Society of Military History, author of three books on the war and lead author of a textbook on U.S. History, provided several notable examples of that impact.

One was the use of standardized intelligence tests, which helped determine where to place inductees in the military or to defer on their mustering in to the service in order to have their value in a civilian role enhanced.  Yet, showing examples of these tests, Dr. Keene pointed out that there were distinct cultural biases, an issue which is still hotly debated a century later.  But, IQ tests really were popularized in America with their use during the war.

Dr. Jennifer D. Keene of Chapman University in Orange presented a fascinating and engaging lecture on the cultural impacts of World War I on America for about forty visitors yesterday afternoon.  Here she discussed the change in language due to the use of terms like “shell-shocked,” “dud,” and “aced.”

Another significant element was the use of a draft, but officially known then (and now) as Selective Service.  As Dr. Keene asked the audience, “isn’t it better to be selected, than drafted?”  By choosing two dates for registration, including 5 June 2017, the government used the concept of community events and pressure to encourage “selected” eligible males to register and demonstrate their commitment and patriotism for the war effort.

One of the more interesting components of the talk was Dr. Keene’s illustration of how words and terms were added to the English language.  Because of the prevalence of trench warfare on the western front, where the U.S. was involved, and the fact that soldiers had to clamber over the top of the trenches to advance on the enemy (Germany), the term “over the top” came into vogue.  Another was “in the trenches.”  Words like “shell-shocked,” “dud,” and “aced,” the first two having to do with bombs that worked and those that didn’t, and the third concerning the new use of aviation and famed flying “aces” who scored victories in the air, were other examples.

The war also had much to do with important social movements.  One was civil rights for black Americans, an issue that took on great significance given the number of African American service personnel who were used as laborers.  Their contributions, even if not on the battlefield (Dr. Keene pointed out that only 40% of enlisted soldiers fought in battle, less than half those who did so in the Civil War), led many black veterans to question their role in American society.  The obvious question for them was whether the fight for democracy in Europe could lead to their fuller participation in democratic institutions at home.

Dr. Keene highlighted the concept of “the engineering of consent” to create patriotism and enthusiasm for the war effort, highlighting the use of media and celebrity.  On the left are film legends Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Mary Pickford at a Liberty bond rally drawing thousands because of the star value.

For the women’s suffrage movement, the war provided a final push and catalyst for the right to vote in federal elections (states gradually enacted laws to allow for women to vote from 1869 onward).  Women took the opportunity to note that their role in support for the war effort raised the same fundamental question that blacks asked.  In 1920, a constitutional amendment provided for the right to vote in federal contests and Dr. Keene noted, as our staff has been discussing, that the centennial of that vital right is coming in just three years.

The “engineering of consent” was a concept in which planning, propaganda and social pressure were used to foment patriotic support for the war.  Just one of many ways was the use of media, in the form of posters, newspaper articles, advertisements and others.  Additionally, the emergence of the Hollywood film industry, which was less than a decade old by the beginning of the war, provided a level of celebrity involvement not used before, such as with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Mary Pickford, among others, selling Liberty bonds at huge rallies.

Not only was the content excellent, but Dr. Keene engaged the audience, including a couple of younger people who really seemed interesting in what she was presenting, and she asked questions to encourage participation.  The fact that she had so many questions after the talk and during the reception (held during a beautiful afternoon in our picnic area) are testaments to her very successful talk.

Here is another slide from Dr. Keene’s talk highlighting Uncle Sam and the promotion of the Liberty bond to raise funds for the war effort.

It was also gratifying for our staff that she expressed her appreciation for our ongoing exhibit about the war in the Gallery, including an interactive “secret codes” component and the fact that we had a newspaper from 5 June 1917 that discussed the registration for selective service that she discussed.

As was mentioned a few times, World War I, for many reasons, is one of those conflicts that is underappreciated and little discussed in America and not much has been done locally to commemorate the war.  The Homestead will continue to do so in exhibits and programs next year, as well, so look for more on that front.

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