New York, with the rest of America, came late to the fighting in World War I. Following President Wilson's message to Congress and the declaration of war on April 6, 1917, New York mobilized. Once engaged, all of the State's formidable human and material resources were brought to bear, bequeathing a remarkable record of service during America's 19-month war.
Prior to the U.S. entry in the war there was a significant pacifist movement in New York and considerable support for relief efforts to Belgium and other European communities. Some New Yorkers enlisted with British or Canadian forces. Eventually over 500,000 New Yorkers were in military service, the largest contingent from any state. Led by strong government promotion, communities statewide rallied to support the troops and the Allied cause. Citizens signed on to local defense committees, joined the medical corps or the Public Service Reserve, bought Liberty Bonds, worked the farms, knitted socks, conserved food and fuel, and kept an active home vigil against subversives, saboteurs, and submarines. New York was a center for mobilization of troops and materiel. In an era that lacked an interstate highway system, convoys of supplies and equipment traveled on State roads and railways, and the Port of New York was a major point for overseas embarkation. State industries built ships and munitions; they held the largest number of defense contracts of any state during the war. In sum, public and private sectors mobilized for a shared sacrifice commensurate with an effort required by a world at war.
Coordinating the mobilization was the job of the New York State Council of Defense. Working with the Adjutant General's office, through the Resource Mobilization Bureau, the Council was responsible for the "efficient coordination and cooperation of the military, industrial, agricultural, and commercial resources of the state in time of war". Other agencies of State government responded as well, cooperating with military and federal authorities in such areas as finance, health services, fuel and food production, and the draft. The work of the Council of Defense and county home defense committees during the Great War became the model for the State's next mobilization nearly 25 years later, to be led by the Council's successor agency, the State War Council.
The Armistice came on November 11, 1918, and with repatriation of U.S. forces communities acclaimed the survivors and venerated the dead. The end of the war spurred a collective spirit of commemoration, and an attempt to formally recognize the contributions of New York to the cause. Veterans received a State bonus benefit that accrued to their service. Echoing ventures in other states, the State Education Department's Office of Archives and History accumulated a written record that captured the sweeping character of the war effort; the records are precious raw material for a chronicle that was never published. As post-war celebrations faded the State confronted the same economic, political, and social problems that the nation faced. Problems that had emerged prior to the conflict were stunted during wartime, but blossomed in post-World War I New York. Issues of immigration, nationalism, censorship, education, labor, and transportation were all colored by the war experience.
This guide describes 26 records series totaling over 440 cubic feet which reveal how the State's people and government responded to the First World War. It is divided into three sections: military service records, including records about bonus payments; an agency history and records of the State Council of Defense; and related records of other State agencies, records that document New York's public and private, individual and collective, war work.
The surviving records can be meaningful sources for a review of World War I America. The service records, for example, are the only extant documentation of New York veterans' war service. Areas in which the records offer solid foundation for study include: military history, organization of the American Expeditionary Force, and deployment of the National Guard; governmental operations and interaction during the war; citizen participation and civilian war work; the role of educational institutions and students in a wartime environment; local history; medical, sanitary, and public health practices arising from the urgent demands of war; humanitarian relief efforts; public attitudes about civic responsibility, loyalty, patriotism, work, and women and family; government policy toward immigrants, business, and other groups during wartime; and how public opinion was formed to fix support for the war.
Although the scope of this finding aid is roughly prescribed by the war years, additional records series in the holdings of the State Archives support ancillary research into the legal, social, political, and educational aspects that shaped response to the world war and its after-effects. Context is crucial to understanding outcomes and analyzing the impact of the war on policy and events in post-war New York.
For example, no study of the era would be complete without examination of gubernatorial records. Appointment Correspondence Files (series A0612), Executive Statements (series A3217), and other records series document the actions of Charles Whitman, who was governor during World War I. These materials relate directly to his decisions, among others, on governmental appointments, promotion of travel abroad, and citizenship rights during wartime. In addition, the administrations of governors Martin A. Glynn and Alfred E. Smith, which frame that of Whitman, offer valuable pre- and post-war perspectives. Series A0531, Investigation Case Files of Charges and Complaints Against Public Officials and Agencies, contains constituent appeals to Governor Glynn from across the political spectrum: supporting war relief efforts; asking for statements of solidarity with the Allies; cooperating with peace movements; requesting help in locating New Yorkers traveling in Europe; and commenting on the effect of the "European War" on U.S. business. There is even an isolated example of correspondence on early attempts (1914) to organize a "colored" regiment of the New York National Guard.
With the end of the war, economic conditions deteriorated as nationalistic feelings continued to run high. There was higher inflation and unemployment, labor strife, and a housing shortage. Bills aimed at education reform (loyalty oaths, teacher licensing, promoting immigrant education, and expanding educational facilities into the work place) were fiercely contested by governors Nathan L. Miller and Alfred E. Smith. At the beginning of his administration Smith created a Reconstruction Commission to consider post-war problems and recommend remedies, and in returning to a peacetime footing, he sponsored many legislative initiatives developed out of the State's war experience, especially in areas of public works, child labor, and literacy.
Post-war records of agencies may also shed light on the war experience. For example, series A0063, Press Clippings and Background Files Concerning the Regents Literacy Test, offers insights into voting rights, literacy requirements, immigrant education, and the struggle among State agencies over testing and administration which in some ways mirrors the friction over military training for students. Several series from the Health Department document its fight against contagious diseases (such as the influenza outbreak) during the war years and into the 1920s, which impacted public health and sanitary practices.
Other examples may be found in records of executive or legislative commissions or committees. Chief among these is the important group of records resulting from work of the Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate Seditious Activities (the Lusk Committee). Series L0035, Newspaper Clippings Files, includes information on U.S. involvement with the war in Europe; series L0036, Suspected Radical Propaganda Files, documents antimilitarism movements through the propaganda materials gathered by the committee in the post-war years.
Finally, taking a longer comparative view, records of the New York State War Council, successor agency to the State Council of Defense, reveal lessons learned by the State in mobilizing for "the war to end all wars" and their practical application nearly 25 years later.
Overall, this guide provides an important, but not exhaustive, list of records valuable for the study of the State's response to World War I. That response was shaped by events prior to the U.S. declaration of war and evolved after the Armistice to shape policy, directions, and events in post- war New York. The records of the State Archives can contribute significantly to the study of this important period in early twentieth century history. It is hoped that this guide will stimulate such research, and inspire increased use of State Archives records relating to the Great War.
The records described in this guide are part of the holdings of the New York State Archives. Descriptions of some series have been abstracted to highlight those contents relating solely to the World War I era. The level of description varies among series; container listings and/or indexes are available in most cases. Some records have been microfilmed (see Appendix B). Microfilming and extensive processing and description work on many of these series are directly supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Processing and description work on this important group of records are ongoing. Researchers may contact the Archives to learn the status of any series listed in this guide. Microfilm copies are available on inter-library loan and may be purchased.
Records in the State Archives may be used at the Archives' research room. Certain record series have been microfilmed by the State Archives, and the film may be borrowed on inter-library loan or purchased. For further information please contact Research Assistance.
This guide was prepared by Senior Archivist Christine Karpiak, who wrote the majority of the series descriptions. Senior Archivist Roger Ritzmann described the military service records. Sharon Ritzmann, chair of the foreign language department at Johnstown High School (Johnstown, New York), translated photograph captions from the French in series A2042. Associate Curator Robert Mulligan, New York State Museum, provided background information on military history and the role of New York units in the war.