The U.S. Chamber During World War I
This week marked the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. This post was adapted from the booklet, The U.S. Chamber of Commerce: The Early Years. Learn more about the history of the U.S. Chamber by clicking on this interactive timeline.
Provoked by Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and the sinking of seven American merchant ships—and incensed by Germany’s secret invitation for Mexico to enter the war on Germany’s side—President Wilson had had enough. On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Imperial Germany and her allies. For the first time in the history of the nation, the federal government would take control of the railroads, shipping, food, and fuel production, resource allocations, and industrial production.
In May, the Chamber’s board of directors met in St. Louis. The board was overwhelmed with requests from members for information, coordination, and assistance. The Executive Committee was asked “to continue in session as long as necessary to formulate a program.” The committee renamed itself the War Service Executive Committee of the U.S. Chamber and held 24 meetings between May 9 and June 14. Soon, a series of War Bulletins were issued to all Chamber members outlining ways the business community could contribute effectively to the war effort.
The Chamber worked closely with the federal Council on National Defense in establishing a joint Committee on Cooperation. A sex-part plan was proposed, detailing how the Chamber could improve the war effort on the domestic front. A trade conference on buying problems and government demands was also suggested, which led to an unprecedented four-day War Convention of American Business in Atlantic City. More than 1,800 businessmen from across the nation attended.
The Chamber approved a set of resolutions at the conference: an acceptance of price controls; a request to Congress to pass any laws necessary to give the president power to concentrate the industrial strength of the country toward winning the war; endorsement of the then-budding, but ill-fated and short-lived democracy that barely existed in Russia; support for the Liberty Loan drive; support for daylight saving time and universal military training; condemnation of profiteering; and, finally a call to all industrial organization to appoint a War Service Committee, independent of any government committee, to be made up of representative members in each particular industry.
The Chamber offered extraordinary assistance in mobilizing the resources of the nation for victory in war. When Congress approved the Selective Service Act requiring all American males ages 21-30 to register for military service by June 5, the Chamber promoted registration during the month preceding Registration Day. Showing strong support for Liberty Bond sales, the organization bought $25,000 worth of bonds in the first drive and more in the second drive.
In April 1918, at the Chamber’s 6th annual meeting, delegates discussed war issues, including the production of more ships and central control of government procurement. The War Service committees were helping keep a steady stream of supplies moving to the armed forces. The board surprised many by reelecting Harry Wheeler as president for a one-year term.
On November 11, 1918, Armistice Day was declared, bringing an end to the fighting in World War I. On June 28, 1919, the treaty of Versailles was formally signed. In total, more than 16 million soldiers and 7 million civilians had died, including 117,465 U.S. dead and 205,690 U.S. wounded.