A Flashback To A World On The Precipice Of War

On the eve of World War I, the United States was a vastly different place than it is today. NPR's Arun Rath talks with UC Davis history professor Eric Rauchway about life in the U.S. 100 years ago.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

One hundred years ago tomorrow, on July 28, 1914, Austrian troops invaded Serbia. It was the start of the First World War. The conflict would last four long years - taking down empires, creating new nations and killing millions by the time it was over. Here in America, the war would not become a reality until U.S. troops joined the Allies in 1917. To mark this anniversary, we thought we'd take a look back at what life was like in the then 48 states of the union. Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California Davis and joins us from the campus there. Hi, Eric.

ERIC RAUCHWAY: Hi.

RATH: So give us a snapshot of America 100 years ago in 1914. What was it like politically, economically, militarily?

RAUCHWAY: On the eve of the First World War, the United States was a nation of about 100 million people who were evenly split between those who lived on farms and those who lived in cities. It was a rich country on both a total and per capita basis ranking at the top of the world. It wasn't particularly a military power. The United States Army was about the 11th largest in the world, below Ethiopia and just above Spain. So we're not looking at sort of a superpower in the modern sense, but we're looking at a country with a great deal of capacity because of its economic strengths.

RATH: And was this - by this time, the very much postwar, segregated South had kind of solidified.

RAUCHWAY: Yeah, that's right. This was the end of the period during which the South became the Jim Crow South, became the solid South. Beginning around 1889, 1890 Southern states began to disfranchise African Americans by a variety of legal and constitutional means. They rewrote their constitutions in order to prevent black voters from having any influence. This was both a racist measure and a partisan measure. And because the Democratic Party wanted to get the Republicans out and blacks were reliably Republican voters. And that was followed very closely by a process of segregation. So African Americans were removed by law and custom from public spaces, as well as from the voting booths. And that ended up at around 1910.

RATH: To get a sense of the time, we've gone back through some issues of the New York Times because, you know, at that point, mass media was pretty much newspapers. There's a piece about the opposition of a woman's group to the idea of women's suffrage. How strong - how prominent was the women's movement at that point?

RAUCHWAY: At this point in 1914, the Women Suffrage Campaign was picking up steam. It had succeeded at the state level, particularly throughout the further part of the American West. I think a dozen states at this point had full suffrage for women and a great many more had partial suffrage - allowed women to vote on schools issues or tax issues and in that sort of thing. But at the same time, though, there were concerns that, of course, that giving women the vote would rob them of their femininity. That they would be dragged into the public sphere where there was a great deal of corruption and where there was competition and all kinds of virtues or vices that were associated with masculinity rather than femininity.

RATH: And also gathering steam then was the Temperance Movement. There's an item about West Virginia as an acting prohibition, putting the number of states who have banned alcohol up to nine.

RAUCHWAY: Yeah. There were an increasing number of states that were going to ban alcohol. You're moving sort of out of 19th-century style temperance into 20th-century style prohibition. I mean, the difference is sort of temperance is about self-control - the idea that I know that I should not drink, where prohibition is more about regulation - the idea that I know that you should not drink, particularly if you happen to be Irish Catholic. So prohibition, as I indicate there, was to some degree a stalking horse for anti- immigrant sentiment.

RATH: Turning to the advertisements in the paper, there are ads for tobacco, tuxedos, apartments for rent in Manhattan that are $50 a month. A whole slew of ads for dance schools teaching the waltz, the foxtrot, other styles, passages in ocean liners. You know, am I my missing something or, you know, providing you're not a black or a woman, does life seem pretty good in the first part of the 20th century?

RAUCHWAY: (Laughing). You know, the British economist John Maynard Keynes famously wrote just after the war that the world before the war was a kind of economic utopia - that the average middle-class person could sit at his breakfast table and could enjoy produce fresh from all over the country, if not all over the world, the tea from distant parts of the empire, the sugar, likewise, the news that came instantaneously over electric telegraph wires. It was a world that was characterized by what we would now call globalization - the relatively rapid movement of information, goods and even people across international borders.

RATH: Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at UC Davis. If you'd like to explore some of the New York Times issues we talked about, you can view them at the TimesMachine section of their website. Professor Rauchway, thanks for joining us.

RAUCHWAY: It's my pleasure.

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