Fight or Buy Bonds: Mobilizing Manpower for World War I

Many of the World War I posters included in the Weisman Art Museum exhibit focus on mobilizing manpower for the military and assuring adequate labor resources for the war effort. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the country was poorly prepared both militarily and economically. For several years there had been public debate regarding the American role in world affairs and what might be needed to defend national interests, but the federal government took little action to prepare for war until 1916.


Before World War I, the US had generally relied on voluntary enlistments in the armed forces. In March 1863, during the Civil War, the US adopted a conscription act and the registration of all males between ages 20 and 45. That measure allowed individuals to buy their way out by paying $300, however, and violent riots protesting the exemptions occurred in New York City in July 1963. After the Civil War draft, the Army and Navy returned to relying on voluntary enlistments.


In 1914, the US Army had only 100,000 men in its regular units and depended on National Guard units, which counted little more than 100,000 men. In view of the massive scale of the war in Europe and the high casualty rates, many American leaders recognized that if the US entered the war, voluntary enlistments would not produce sufficient numbers. After 1915 many influential voices, including former president Theodore Roosevelt, the US Army General Leonard Wood, and two former secretaries of war, advocated better military preparedness and universal military training. When voluntary enlistments proved disappointing in the first weeks after the US declared war, Congress approved conscription with the Selective Service Act of May 1917. By calling it selective service, the government tried to depict the draftees as a select elite; and the more than 4,600 local draft boards were intended to give a community basis to the conscription process.

Uncle Sam poster
I want you for U.S. Army, James Montgomery Flagg. 1917.

Ultimately, twenty-four million American men registered for the draft. To deter draft evasion, local newspapers published lists of those who failed to register; and the government, assisted by volunteers from the American Protective League, rounded up and jailed so-called “slackers.” Eventually, the US mobilized some 4.3 million men (4 percent of the population) to fight. This compared to nearly 7.9 million mobilized in France, 8.4 million in the British Empire, 13.2 million in Germany, and 15.8 million in the Russian Empire.


Among the most prominent American propaganda posters during the war were those supporting recruitment to the military forces. The Weisman Art Museum exhibit includes the most famous of these, James Montgomery Flagg’s I Want You for U.S. Army, which presented a top-hatted Uncle Sam with white hair and goatee [see image above], an image which Flagg first published on a popular magazine cover in July 1916 with the caption, “What are YOU doing for preparedness?” Not only did this and other American posters follow the model of European propaganda posters, but Flagg’s poster was directly inspired by the most famous British recruiting poster from the war, which pictured the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Herbert Kitchener, pointing at the viewer, with the caption, “Your country needs you” [see image below].

London Opinion propaganda poster
London Opinion: Your country needs you, Alfred Leete.
[Library of Congress WWI Poster Collection 37468u - Published - London: Victoria House Printing Co., Ltd., 1914; RIGHTS: no known restrictions-LOC.]

African Americans, Native Americans, and recent immigrants all accounted for larger fractions of those who served in uniform during World War I than their respective shares of the total population. Segregation in the American military, however, meant that African-American soldiers served in all-black units under white commanders. Southern white opposition to training African-Americans for combat resulted in the assignment of most African-American soldiers to support functions. Only two African-American combat divisions were formed, the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions. Regarding Native Americans, the US military followed federal government policies to encourage their assimilation; and as such, they served in the same units with soldiers and sailors of European origin.


Propaganda posters in all the countries at war preached national solidarity and social harmony to support the march to victory, but social divisions and economic frictions did not disappear during the war.







Christopher Capozzola, Uncle Sam Wants You:  World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

Jennifer D. Keene, The United States and the First World War (Harlow, Essex UK: Pearson Education/Longman, 2000)

Michael Neiberg. The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).