World War I

Author:Paul L. Murphy

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The United States entered World War I on a note of Wilsonian idealism, but the shattering experience of wartime

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mobilization ended the era of PROGRESSIVISM. Broad federal powers, previously used to further domestic reforms, were expanded to meet the demands of international conflict. These changes accelerated the trends toward national centralization and executive authority. Thus, ironically, WOODROW WILSON, who had been elected on a platform of firm but limited government control, brought Leviathan to the nation.

With little in the way of precedents, Congress and the President were pressed to extend national government control to a vast new range of complex subjects. The result was multitudinous delegations of power to President Wilson, designed to allow the executive branch to develop programs to meet the changing requirements of a fluid war situation. The breadth of this legislation was startling. Acts to achieve wartime economic mobilization and efficient use of natural resources were augmented by a SELECTIVE SERVICE ACT vesting the President with authority to raise an army by conscription. Espionage and sedition legislation afforded power to punish dissenting expression that might impede the war effort. The Trading with the Enemy Act gave the government power to control trade with enemy nations and to become an alien-property custodian for the duration of the war. The same measure authorized censorship of all communications by mail, cable, radio, or otherwise with foreign countries, and gave the postmaster general almost absolute censorship powers over the American foreign-language press. More sweepingly, the act empowered the chief executive to take over and operate the rail and water transportation systems of the country, along with the telegraph and telephone systems. In creating a modified executive dictatorship for the war period, these actions also raised complex constitutional questions, the answers to which reflected crisis pressures.

The LEVER FOOD AND DRUG CONTROL ACT of 1917 is a case in point. One of the most important war measures, it authorized broad federal control of the domestic economy, a sphere of regulation traditionally reserved to the states. The law gave the President virtually unlimited discretionary power to license the manufacture and distribution of food and related commodities, to take over and operate mines and factories, to regulate exchanges, and to fix commodity prices. The measures precipitated a bitter debate in Congress. Critics called it a violation of the TENTH AMENDMENT and thus of STATES ' RIGHTS, but Congress enacted it on a theory of the WAR POWERS and on the argument that the industries controlled were affected with a public interest. During the war, the act was not challenged in court. In United States v. L. Cohen Grocery Co. (1921) the Supreme Court voided the price-fixing provision, which failed to specify what constituted unjust process. By concentrating on the detailed phrasing of only one section, the Court implicitly accepted the broad grant of power. Indeed, it did not reach the issue of the government's authority to regulate prices under the war power. The Court thus recognized that the...

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