Uncle Sam at Home: Civilian Mobilization, Wartime Federalism, and the Council of National Defense, 1917-1919

My readers will have to forgive me as I spend some time generating ideas here after reading William J. Breen’s book Uncle Sam at Home: Civilian Mobilization, Wartime Federalism, and the Council of National Defense, 1917-1919 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984). In his book Breen shifts the focus of civilian mobilization during the Great War from the Council of National Defense (a federal organization formed to coordinate resources, industry, transportation, agriculture, and public morale in support of the war) to the council’s state entities. During the war nearly every state created their own Councils of National Defense to assist federal efforts. State councils were a varied lot and usually reflected the goals and motivations of the states that created them.

Southern councils were the weakest when compared to their counterparts. The reasons for this, as Breen states, were rural populations, poverty, and the motivations of state politicians (particularly governors). Additionally, enthusiasm for the war in the South was lukewarm. The war touched deep populist nerves and many Southerners suspected “that preparedness was a scheme for the profit of munitions makers and financial interests” (pgs. 100-101).

Regardless, the very poorly funded Virginia Council of National Defense (which operated on a paltry $5,000 in 1918) largely focused on agricultural production and agricultural “preparedness.” The major concerns of the Virginia Council were increasing agricultural production, maintaining a strong base of agricultural labor, and extending credit to farmers.

Breen dedicates an entire chapter to the contributions of women to state councils. As it is nearly midnight, I don’t believe I can do that chapter justice. I also have two other texts on women’s efforts during World War I to read. So I may wait to write my thoughts upon reading one of those. Until then, I ask my readers to await patiently.

What does this lead me to? Questions, obviously:
-As an agricultural and mechanical college, what role did Virginia Tech (faculty members, administration, extension service, etc.) play in the Virginia Council of National Defense?

-Did other Virginia universities play a role in the Virginia Council?

-How did mobilization efforts by the Council of National Defense and the Virginia Council affect Virginia colleges and universities (Virginia Tech?)?

-The Council of National Defense had an educational propaganda department. What did they ask universities to do? Did universities actually do what they were asked?

Hopefully I can find some answers in my primary source explorations of the next few weeks. But this seems to relate back to a key theme that appears over and over again in the primary sources and secondary sources: mobilization. That’s a big topic but what does that mean? What does that look like? How does that affect everyday people? How does that affect students.

Readers, thanks for bearing with me. I look forward to your feedback and I apologize for any mistakes or endless rambling. Now, off to bed!


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