The United States before World War I

united states before world war i
A street scene from a bustling American city in the early 1900s

The United States before World War I was an economic superpower rivalling the much older empire-nations of Europe. The 1800s had been a period of division and conflict for the United States, but also one of industrialisation, expansion and prosperity. American economic growth in the second half of the century was the fastest in its history, producing rapid rises in production, wages and personal wealth. The opportunities available in America fed a resurgence in immigration in the late 1800s. Millions crossed the seas from Europe and Asia, seeking work opportunities as well as political and religious freedom. Industrial growth also transformed American society. New transport infrastructure made travel and relocation easier; and some American cities – particularly New York, Chicago and Philadelphia – swelled with newcomers. Industrial power was matched with military power, heralding the beginning of American imperialism.

All of this had seemed impossible in the middle of the century when the United States was divided and devastated by a bloody civil war (1861-65). It began with eleven southern states seceding (withdrawing) from the United States, chiefly over disputes about states’ rights and the federal government’s authority to limit the spread of slavery. The eleven dissident states formed the Confederate States of America, while the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, committed to maintaining the union through the use of military force. Its larger population and industrial base meant the northern states of the Union were better equipped for war than the Confederacy. Nevertheless, the American Civil War lasted for four painful years and resulted in more than 600,000 deaths. The decade following became known as Reconstruction, as the nation struggled to heal the wounds of the war and re-integrate the former Confederate states into the union. Slavery was formally abolished nationwide, though assimilating more than three million former slaves into American society created its own problems. Some of the more detrimental outcomes were the emergence of racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the formation of ‘Jim Crow’ laws to segregate and marginalise African-Americans.

united states before world war i
A cartoon depicting the American ‘robber-barons’ of the Gilded Age

So economically prosperous was the quarter-century beginning 1870 that Mark Twain later called it America’s ‘Gilded Age’. It is in this period that the groundwork was laid for America’s modern capitalist economy. Among the features to emerge were gigantic corporations, transportation and communications networks, the growth of heavy industries, banking and financial organisations. The amount of railroad track tripled in the 20 years before 1880, permitting the free movement of people and cargo. Coal mining and steel manufacture boomed, fuelled by new technical developments and production methods. Factories, mines and farms all benefited from mass-produced machinery, which was now cheaper and more readily available. America during this period was the creative hub of the world, with thousands of new inventions and patents, including the telegraph, the telephone, electric power and lighting. The economic boom also required investment capital, leading to the formation of stock markets and the growth of American banks. Leading all this growth – and benefitting directly from it – were a new class: the business tycoons. Among their number were men like John D. Rockefeller, John Jacob Astor, JP Morgan and Andrew Carnegie.

The Gilded Age was not without its problems. The United States endured a number of mediocre presidents and congressmen, many of whom were in the pocket of big business. The political arena was filled with frequent allegations of ‘kickbacks’ and corruption. Laws of the age protected corporate interests but overlooked social problems and the interests of workers. There was growing discontent about wage levels and the treatment of labour. Unions began to form and grow in the 1870s; they organised industrial action, like the 1877 strike that paralysed America’s railways for six weeks. Women and children endured even worse conditions in the workplace, since they could be hired for much lower wages than men. Several groups emerged to pressure for female voting rights, led by individuals like Susan B. Anthony; women’s suffrage would not be achieved until 1920. Many progressive journalists criticised government corruption and business tycoons, labelling them ‘robber barons’ whose profits were enhanced by bribery, tax evasion, law-dodging and the exploitation of workers. The common perception was that money and business had replaced democracy and justice as core American values. There were calls for the ‘purification’ of American politics, heralding the beginning of the so-called Progressive Era, starting in the 1890s.

“The United States was the unacknowledged spectre hovering over the courts and chancelleries of Europe during the fateful summer of 1914… To be sure, American diplomats and military leaders had played no role in the establishment of the alliance system that had dominated European affairs, and it was equally true that the miniscule American army 3,000 miles away could not affect the balance of military power. But it quickly became apparent that modern war was as much an economic contest as it was a diplomatic or military affair. Thus the United States, hitherto on the periphery of European diplomatic life, soon moved to the centre.”
Robert H. Zieger, historian

The United States had few foreign policy ambitions during the mid-1800s, distracted as it was by the Civil War. The government purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867, but there was otherwise little interest in expanding the United States. The competition and prosperity of the Gilded Age changed this: some Americans wondered if their country should not have its own imperial agenda. There was growing concern about the influence of Spain in America’s hemisphere. By the late 1800s, the Spanish still controlled the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Cuba, on the doorstep of Florida. American newspapers whipped up fears about Spanish intentions and atrocities, many of them exaggerated, some outright false. In 1898 an American naval vessel, the USS Maine, exploded in mysterious circumstances while harboured in Spanish-controlled Cuba. This provided a pretext for the Spanish-American War, which lasted less than four months and allowed the United States to seize control of many of Spain’s colonial possessions. Aside from its undeclared imperialism, Washington adopted an isolationist policy with regard to Europe, preferring to keep clear of the entanglement of European rivalries, alliances and tensions.

united states before world war i

1. In the 1870s the United States began reconstructing and modernising after a divisive and deadly civil war.

2. The last decades of the 1800s were marked by rapid industrial growth, the rise of tycoons and a series of mediocre politicians and governments.

3. This period was dubbed the ‘Gilded Age’, as its economic prosperity was superficial and did not apply to all Americans.

4. By the early 1900s, the US was a burgeoning superpower, one of the world’s largest economies and a military strength.

5. While American leaders sought to extend their control over areas like Cuba and the Philippines, the US generally adopted an isolationist foreign policy, remaining aloof from the disputes and tensions of Europe.


© Alpha History 2014. Content on this page may not be republished or distributed without permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The United States before World War I” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/united-states/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].

  • 1
  •  
  •  
  • 1
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •