A century ago, the United States was approaching the first anniversary of its declaration of war against Germany in what was then called “the World War” or “the Great War.” President Woodrow Wilson and the 65th Congress had taken a remarkable set of steps to put the nation on a war footing. By December of 1917, America had created its largest Army since the Civil War, relying heavily on men conscripted (drafted) into military service. Congress had approved massive fundraising through increased taxes – most notably the income tax – and the sale of government bonds in several Liberty Loan campaigns.

Other laws had authorized the federal government to regulate prices and the use and distribution of food, fuel (primarily coal) and transportation (primarily the railroads). Still other laws allowed government control over espionage activities, measures that included criminal sanctions for speech contrary to the war effort. These efforts of the first six months of American participation in the war were generally supported by the American people.

Then the news turned less promising. One factor was beyond government control – the weather. The winter of 1917-18 contended for the title of the most horrific in modern history, especially in the Northeast and Midwest.

Heavy snow, bitter cold and interrupted services were the story of much of December, January and February. Rail transport was slowed or stopped. Fuel was in short supply. Harbors were frozen. Not only were American citizens short on essentials of daily life, but needed shipments of war materials, food and other essentials to European Allies also were slowed.

Government regulatory programs attempted to mitigate the harms with mandates or strong suggestions of ways to control scarce supplies. Food distribution was directed by Food Administrator Herbert Hoover, who encouraged “Wheatless Wednesdays” and “Meatless Mondays,” minimum servings of food and similar restraints. Fuel administrators at both the federal and state levels directed the priorities for shipments of coal and uses of electricity. A Fuel Administration order in January closed most businesses in the Northeast to conserve fuel and channel it toward the uses considered most essential.

Broadway theaters were closed. Elevators on Wall Street were stopped. Saloons were allowed to operate only without lights and heat. Railroad service was ordered to concentrate on essential shipments of food and fuel. Interstate passenger service was limited or ceased. Few Americans were not directly affected by the federal regulations.

Discussions in Congress and between Congress and the president turned contentious. The early winter months were filled with legislative hearings that were critical of the lack of progress on fighting the war. Congressional leaders from both parties questioned whether we were doing enough and whether the right people were in charge. Secretary of War Newton Baker was a particular target. Lawmakers proposed the creation of joint committees to meet with the president to direct the war effort. President Wilson countered with proposals to allow him, in the interest of greater efficiency, to reorganize federal agencies that had been created by acts of Congress. Both parties recognized that the November 1918 election could affect the Democratic control of both houses of Congress.

And, were that not enough, reports from Europe were troubling. Russia, which had gone through two changes of government in 1917, dropped out of the war and surrendered to a harsh peace with Germany in January. Another ally, Romania, also surrendered to German forces. German and Austria-Hungary were within 20 miles of Venice on the Italian front. Suddenly, Germany was freed of the major burdens of a two-front war and could concentrate its forces on the Western Front.

American troops were arriving in Europe, but their numbers were still small and most soldiers needed further training to be useful on the front lines. News of mutinies by exhausted French troops were kept from the general public, but efforts to change governments in France and Great Britain were not. That was the winter of 1917-18.

A century from today, Americans may look back at the winter of 2018 as a time of harsh weather, governmental chaos and international troubles. But these days look peaceful and prosperous when compared to those of 1918, when conscripted military service, shortages of food, fuel and transport and sharply increased taxation directly affected large portions of the American population.


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