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Collection American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I

World War I

World War I, "the Great War," lasted from 1914 through 1918. More than eight million soldiers lost their lives in the struggle between the Central Powers -- Germany, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires -- and the Allies -- Britain, France, Italy, Russia and, after 1917, the United States of America. The U.S. mobilized more than 4,000,000 troops, over 2,000,000 of whom were sent to battlefields in France, under the command of Major General John J. Pershing.

The war effort inspired high patriotic fervor and vicious campaigns against pacifists, radicals, and citizens of German origin.

The addition of America's forces to the war effort ended a bloody stalemate, and the fighting came to an end with the Armistice of November 11, 1918. More than 50,000 Americans lost their lives.

John J. Pershing, Commander, American Expeditionary Forces

[Major General John J. Pershing, half-length portrait, seated at desk]. Photograph by Texas Motorist, c1917. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-36580.

A graduate of the United States Military Academy (1886), John "Black Jack" Pershing fought in the Spanish-American War (1898), and earned national recognition leading a punitive mission into Mexico in search of Pancho Villa (1916). His talents led President Woodrow Wilson to name him commander of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Under his leadership, America's raw recruits became an effective fighting force -- an accomplishment that hastened the end of World War I. In gratitude, Congress awarded him the unique rank of "General of the Armies of the United States" (1919).

General Pershing's brief statement for the Nation's Forum was recorded at American field headquarters in France on April 4, 1918, during the battle of Picardy and Flanders. Promotional statements describe it as the first recording made on a battlefield. Its novelty, combined with its patriotic message from America's military leader, made the recording an instant success.

Audio Selection: From the Battlefields of France. John Joseph Pershing (1860-1948).

James W. Gerard, Former American Ambassador to Germany

[James W. Gerard, American Ambassador to Germany, half-length portrait, seated at his desk in embassy]. Photographer unknown, c1915. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Call Number: BIOG FILE-Gerard, James Watson, 1867-1951.

A lawyer by training, James Gerard sat on the New York Supreme Court from 1908-1913. His generous financial support of the Democratic party during the presidential campaign of 1912 led President Woodrow Wilson to reward him with an ambassadorship. First given the position of Ambassador to Spain, as World War I intensified Gerard was transferred to the more significant position of Ambassador to Germany. He served in this position until 1917.

The speech featured here, an attack upon the loyalty of German-Americans, is an example of vicious war-time propaganda.

Audio Selection: Loyalty. James Watson Gerard (1867-1951).

Samuel Gompers, President, American Federation of Labor

[Samuel Gompers, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right]. Photograph by Underwood(?), ca. 1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-73364.

Born in England, Samuel Gompers came from a working-class family that settled in New York while Gompers was still a boy. In 1863 at the age of thirteen, Gompers joined the Cigarmakers' Union; by 1874, he was its president. Gompers thus began a distinguished career of organizing American labor. Unlike labor leaders in Europe, he rejected the idea that organized labor should form a separate political party. Instead, he concentrated on the improvement of wages and working conditions through collective bargaining with management. To further these goals, in 1886 he created the American Federation of Labor, serving as its president until his death.

During World War I, Gompers sought to unite labor behind the war effort, forming the War Committee on Labor. In the speech he recorded for the Nation's Forum, Gompers stresses the importance of labor to the war, commenting that "This war is a people's war, labor's war. The final outcome will be determined in the factories, the mills, the shops, the mines, the farms, the industries...".

Audio Selection: Labor's Service to Freedom. Samuel Gompers (1850-1924).