World War I Artifacts and Memories: The Preparedness Movement

21, September 2015
Parade in downtown St. Louis in support of the Preparedness Movement on June 3, 1916Parade in downtown St. Louis in support of the Preparedness Movement on June 3, 1916. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

As war broke out across Europe in August 1914, America was a country split. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, a leader of the Progressive Movement, adopted a stance of strict neutrality for the United States, stating to Congress on August 19, 1914:

“The people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war…. Some will wish one nation, others another, to succeed in the momentous struggle…. Such division amongst us would be fatal to our peace of mind and might seriously stand in the way of the proper performance of our duty as the one great nation at peace…. The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men’s souls. We must be impartial in thought, as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments, as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one part to the struggle before another.”

However, Wilson had his detractors, especially those in the military and those who had fought during the Spanish-American War over a decade before. Former president Teddy Roosevelt and General Leonard Wood, organizers of the famous “Rough Riders,” were among the leaders of what became known as the Preparedness Movement. This movement developed in August 1914 as it became apparent to many that the United States was not prepared for the type of war sweeping across Europe. The Preparedness Movement pushed an agenda that included an expanded navy and army for defensive purposes, universal military service for a period of 6 months for all men turning 18, and an expanded standing reserve force in lieu of the National Guard.

The movement began to gain significant support after the May 7, 1915, sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine, in which 128 Americans lost their lives, and then again after the March 6, 1916, raid by Pancho Villa on Columbus, New Mexico, that incited fears of incursion by foreign forces into the United States. Despite a stance of strict neutrality observed by the U.S. government, it was becoming obvious that there was a real need to protect its borders because the war was continuing to expand beyond European shores.

Flyer promoting National Preparedness Day on June 3, 1916Flyer promoting National Preparedness Day on June 3, 1916. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

In 1915 and 1916, Theodore Roosevelt toured the country speaking on preparedness. On May 31, 1916, he spoke at St. Louis on universal military service. Three days later a parade was held in St. Louis supporting preparedness. Mayor Kiel and other city officials, along with employees of local companies and National Guardsmen, paraded from Market Street to Vandeventer Avenue, along 12th Street to Locust and Channing, then west on Lindell. The parade was held to “demonstrate in a successful manner the overwhelming sentiment of the citizens of St. Louis in favor of Preparedness.”

With pressures bearing down on the Wilson administration, and the growing sense that neutrality may not be in the best interests of the country, Wilson enacted the National Defense Act of 1916 on June 3, coincidentally on the same day as the parade in St. Louis. The act provided for modernization of the army and navy, expansion of the standing Federal Army and National Guard, and establishment of an air service branch of the U.S. Signal Corps. It also gave the president the ability to federalize the National Guard for overseas service for an unlimited duration and prevented the army from recruiting volunteer units to expand the organization until after the National Guard had been called up; this was done to prevent the raising of units such as Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” during the Spanish-American War.

The National Defense Act of 1916 would prove to be crucial when the United States entered the war in April 1917. The expansion of the National Guard and regular army allowed the United States to put an army of nearly 2 million into France by November of 1918 and contributed significantly to the winning of the war.

—Patrick Allie, World War I Curator