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Paying for the Great War

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

"Over the Top for You" by Sidney H. Riesenberg, 1918.

How do you pay for a war? Waging war is expensive and when the United States unexpectedly entered the First World War in 1917, the costs to pay for it were not included in the federal budget. To raise money to pay for something such as a war, the government had several options: create new currency (i.e., print money), increase revenue by raising taxes, or take out a loan by issuing public bonds. In 1917, the U.S. Treasury chose the latter two options – a combination of new taxes and borrowing through war bonds.

The Great War was unpopular in many parts of the country. Large populations of recent immigrants had strong ties to Axis partners Germany and Austria-Hungary; other immigrants, such as the Irish, had an unpleasant history with our ally Britain. Isolationist sentiment reigned and Woodrow Wilson had just been elected to his second term on his promise to keep the U.S. out of the war in Europe.

Once Congress declared war, the federal government needed to convince citizens that military action against the Axis powers was justified and that they needed to make sacrifices to support it. Soldiers were needed to fight in the trenches, money was needed to pay them, and home front activities (such as Victory Gardens and rationing) were critical to making sure that the soldiers had the tools that they needed to win.

All war promotional efforts, including the sale of war bonds, were under the purview of a new U.S. agency – the Committee on Public Information. Headed by journalist George Creel, the Committee was a propaganda machine tasked with molding public opinion to favor the war. The massive promotional effort was highly successful and, as it did it's work, the Committee pioneered many of the techniques which are still used in modern advertising and political speech. Using insights from the new field of psychology, language and images were used to manipulate public opinion about the war, evoking feelings of patriotism, guilt, revenge, solidarity, and fear to motivate the country.

As part of this effort, prominent illustrators were engaged to design posters that encouraged activities such as recruitment, home canning, and Liberty Loan bond sales. The Longmeadow Historical Society is fortunate to have six of the Liberty Loan bond posters in our collection. Five of our posters are from the Third Liberty Loan subscription. Most of the posters promote patriotism through positive images and ideals, such as the U.S. Flag, Abraham Lincoln, and democracy.

"Fight or Buy Bonds" by Howard Chandler Christy, 1917.

"Buy Liberty Bonds", 1917.

One poster in our collection appears to be directed towards first-generation immigrants, reminding them to unite with their new country under the symbol of liberty, the U.S. Flag.

"Remember! The Flag of Liberty Support It!", 1918.

Other posters in the collection strike a darker tone. "Halt the Hun!" demonizes the enemy by using a derogatory slur ("Hun") and by showing a German soldier preying on a woman and child. Another poster by Herbert Paus implies that the world will not be a decent place to live in until the Central Powers are defeated.

"Halt the Hun" by Henry Raleigh, 1918.

"To Make the World A Decent Place to Live" by Herbert Paus, 1917

There were five Liberty Loans bond drives. All were fully subscribed and they raised a total of $17 billion (which is roughly $38.5 billion in today's money). People who bought a Liberty Bond were literally investing in their country. Purchasing a Liberty Bond boosted one’s morale and allowed one to feel that s/he was doing their bit to help the war effort. Like many of its citizens, the Town of Longmeadow supported the war by purchasing bonds. The 1919 Annual Town Report shows that the Sinking Fund included investments from four of the bond sales.

-Contributed by Beth Hoff, Board Member of the Longmeadow Historical Society

Originally published November 10, 2022


Collections of the Longmeadow Historical Society

1919 Longmeadow Annual Town Report

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