The role of government during WWI and its Impact on American society

Woodrow Wilson used propaganda, censorship laws and government intervention in the marketplace to unite Americans behind an unpopular war. What was the result of Wilson’s campaign to unify Americans behind the war?

Historical Background

Wilson gave a speech in 1914 declaring the US’ neutrality in the war in Europe, now known as World War I. He ran on the slogan “He kept us out of the War” during his 1916 reelection campaign, which he then won. Soon after reelection, Wilson came to believe the US had to intervene on the side of England and France. The public was divided; suspicious of European entanglements, the US had large numbers of German, Irish, and English immigrants, many with strong sentimental ties to their country of origin. In waging the war, the Wilson administration engaged in an unprecedented campaign of persuasion, through propaganda, censorship, through sedition laws, and economic intervention in the economy, and through government takeover of key industries. These interventions dramatically altered the character of American life. This lesson will examine the nature of those changes.

Lesson Objective

Explain how the role of the US government shifted during World War I.

Analyze how the changing role of the US government during WW I affected American society and complete an exit ticket.



  1. Use warm-up to establish that a key reason for Wilson’s re-election was because he kept the US out of WW I.
  2. Review objective and agenda
  3. Discuss how Wilson suddenly has a problem: How to get Americans to support a war he was elected to not fight. Show the NY Times interactive US map from 1910 census showing where immigrants live by country of origin. Students should realize that Wilson may also have to unite immigrants that come from countries currently at war. Depending on the background of your students, you might want to stress that the Irish were actively engaged in an armed struggle for independence that would culminate in the Proclamation if Independence in 1919, and the establishment of the Republic of Ireland recognized by England in 1922.
  4. Complete the document analysis of Wilson’s 1915 speech on why the US should join the war. Students should understand Wilson’s concern for hyphenated Americans.
  5. Complete the image analyses of WW I Propaganda posters. Pay attention to the language on a poster for a movie sponsored by the CPI called “Kill the Kaiser”: it mentions how it will help drive out the spies and traitors living among you. Students should realize that the CPI was created by Wilson to unite Americans behind the war. Get students to ponder whether this propaganda united or divided Americans.
  6. Complete the document analysis of the Espionage Act and Sedition Act. Students should realize how this impacted civil liberties and its role in uniting Americans behind the war by preventing dissent toward the war.
  7. Complete the image analysis of the George Bellows political cartoon. Students should realize the author’s contention that Jesus would have been imprisoned at the time for speaking against war.
  8. Review Schenck v. US so that students realize the court ruling (which is part of the curriculum) that the government can limit rights during wartime.
  9. Complete the image analyses showing mistreatment of German-Americans (includes photo of man who was tarred and feathered, newspaper clippings as well as a pamphlet by the CPI telling business travelers to be on the lookout on trains for people with accents, etc. The purpose is for students to wonder if this mistreatment might be due to the efforts of the CPI.
  10. Review the data analysis showing economic growth for farmers and factories. Students should determine how farmers and factory workers benefitted from the US participation in the war. Note that Sedition Act makes strikes illegal, and strongly implies that complaining about hours or wages is illegal as well. Also, as far as intervention, the US entirely took over the railroads in WWI, and established standard designs for locomotive and freight cars—usually called “USRA” (
  11. Complete the image analyses of various posters promoting the contributions of workers in various industries contributing to the war effort. Have students note the name of the organizations that authored the posters. Students should realize that laissez-faire ended because the government needed to ensure that farms, factories and workers produced enough food and supplies to support the war effort.
  12. Complete the data analysis of casualties by country. Students should realize that the US faced fewer casualties and therefore was less impacted by the war than European countries
  13. Optional Review: Students list the pros and cons of US participation in WW I.
  14. Exit Ticket: see “Assessment” below.


Students might be assigned to read from the textbook and answer questions about the topic covered in the next class.


Exit ticket questions:

  • What were the goals of Committee for Public Information?
  • Which rights were restricted through the Espionage Act and Sedition Act? How did these acts help unite Americans?
  • Why were German-Americans mistreated by other US citizens during World War I?
  • How did Farmers and Factories benefit from World War I?
  • How did the US gov’ts view of laisez faire change during World War I? Why?


You may use guided notes (see above). Depending on the background of your students, you might want to give students some background on Ireland’s struggle for independence from Great Britain (see above).


“Woodrow Wilson 1916 Campaign Vehicle with, ‘Who keeps us out of war?’ slogan.”

Immigration Explorer. Interactive Map. New York Times.

Bellows, George. “Blessed are the Peacemakers.”

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