Primary Documents - D F Houston on U.S. War Readiness, 1917

D F Houston Reproduced below is an account of America's readiness for war in 1917 written by President Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, D F Houston.

Written while the war was still underway in 1917 Houston's account summarised not just America's preparations for conflict prior to April 1917 but also rapid moves to galvanise both civil and military production to satisfactorily service the nation's war machine.

Houston concluded that while work remained yet to be done the nation had nonetheless risen to the task admirably well, and certainly more promptly and efficiently than had nations in Europe in 1914.

D. F. Houston, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on U.S. Readiness for War

The first great step toward winning this war was taken when the President of the United States, on April 2nd, in advising Congress to declare the existence of a state of war with Germany, pointed out what war would involve and demand.

The striking thing about that historic address was not so much the advice it contained, momentous as that was, but rather the clear perception it revealed of the magnitude of the task before the nation.

The response of Congress was prompt and adequate.  It authorized and directed the President to employ the entire military and naval forces of the Union and pledged to the government all the resources of the nation to bring the conflict to a successful termination.

The task of making good this pledge was entered upon and discharged in such manner as to startle many at home and to amaze even foreigners who had become habituated to prodigious operations.

I well remember some characteristic remarks of Lord Northcliffe during his visit to Washington.  Suddenly stopping and turning to me, he said, "Am I dreaming?"

I asserted that he did not look like a dreamer.

He continued: "I am told that Congress declared war on the sixth of April, authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to borrow approximately eleven and a half billion dollars, enacted a new tax law designed to raise two and a half billions in addition to ordinary revenues, appropriated or authorized nine billions for the army and navy, over a billion for ships, with a maximum authorization of nearly two billions, six hundred and forty millions for aeroplanes, credits to the Allies of seven billions, a total of actual appropriations and authorizations of twenty-one billions, gave power to commandeer plants, ships and materials, provided for conscription, which England had not fully resorted to and Canada had not then adopted, that there had been registered or enlisted nearly ten and a half million men, that Pershing was in France and naval vessels were in Europe, that the food-production and food-control measures had been passed, and that authority had been given for the control of exports and imports and of priorities."

He repeated: "Am I dreaming or is it true?"

I replied that unless I was dreaming it was true.

He said: "I can't believe it."

I told him I could believe it but that I could not comprehend it.  It is difficult now to do so.  The figures even for particular items are beyond comprehension.

Think of them.  For ships an authorization of a billion nine hundred millions, nearly double our former federal budget; for aviation, six hundred and forty millions; for torpedo-boat destroyers, three hundred and fifty millions; for army subsistence and regular quartermaster supplies, eight hundred and sixty millions; for clothing and camp and garrison equipment, five hundred and eighty-one millions; for transportation, five hundred and ninety-seven millions; for medicine, one hundred millions; for mobile artillery, one hundred and fifty-eight millions; for ordnance stores and supplies, seven hundred and seventeen millions; for heavy guns, eight hundred and fifty millions; and for ammunition for the same, one billion eight hundred and seven millions.

Clearly Congress for the time being had taken the necessary steps to make good its pledge of placing the resources of the country at the disposal of the government.  At the same time, it created or authorized the creation of essential administrative agencies.

In respect to administrative agencies important developments had already taken place.  Most striking and significant of all was the enactment of the federal reserve law and the creation of the reserve board and banks.

This action obviously was taken without suspicion that the world was on the verge of war and that we should soon be involved.  It was taken to insure better banking conditions in time of peace, and especially to enable us to weather financial storms.

Before the reserve act was passed the nation, as you well know, had no adequate banking system.  Its financial arrangements had never been able to withstand strain either in peace or in war.  In each of our considerable struggles we had promptly suspended specie payments, with all the attendant disabilities and burdens.

But now, after four years of world financial strain such as no financier dreamed it possible for the world to bear - I might say six years, because there was a worldwide financial chill for at least two years before 1914, due to apprehension of war and to the undoubted financial preparations made by the Central Powers - after this long strain and the shock of the last six months, our finances are sound and we are proceeding in orderly fashion.

For this reason and because of our obligation to extend liberal credits, it is not extravagant to say that no greater contribution to the winning of this war has been or will be made than through the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913 and the successful establishment of the system well in advance of trouble.

Steps toward preparedness in respect to other highly essential interests were taken much before war was declared.  Their significance was not grasped by the public at the time.  For the most part they have been overlooked.

Pursuant to an Act of Congress of March 3, 1915, two years before the war, the President appointed the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, composed of the most eminent students of the subject.  In connection with the work of this committee and in part through its labours has been developed our enormous aviation program and expansion.

Likewise, during the summer of 1915, the secretary of the navy organized the admirable Naval Consulting Board with Edison as chairman and two representatives elected by each of eleven great engineering and scientific societies.

Furthermore, on September 7, 1916, after a long and unfortunate delay caused by unintelligent opposition, the Shipping Act was passed, creating a board with large powers, and appropriating fifty million dollars for the construction, purchase, charter, and operation of merchant vessels suitable for naval auxiliaries in time of war.  This was the beginning of the present huge shipbuilding program whose speedy execution is of paramount importance.

But that is not all in the way of early preparedness.  On August 29, 1916, the Council of National Defense, consisting of six heads of departments and an advisory commission of seven, nominated by the council and appointed by the President, was created.

The council was charged with the duty of mobilizing military and naval resources, studying the location, utilization and coordination of railroads, waterways and highways, increase of domestic production for civil arid military purposes, the furnishing of requisite information to manufacturers, and the creation of relations which would render possible the immediate concentration of national resources.

The creation of the Council of National Defense was not the result of sudden inspiration.  It was directly suggested by the activities of two very important groups of individuals.

In March, 1916, a committee from the five great medical and surgical associations, having an aggregate membership of from 70,000 to 100,000, was formed.  It met in Chicago on April 14, 1916, and tendered to the President the services of the medical men of the nation.

In March, also, representatives of five engineering organizations with a membership of 35,000 met in New York and formulated a plan to make an inventory of the country's production and manufacturing resources.

The thought and purposes of these two bodies were brought to the attention of the President, and their consideration resulted in recommendations for the creation of the Council of National Defense.

Thus, a number of months before war was declared, agencies had been created covering at least in outline many of the essential new activities.  Seven of these of peculiar importance had begun to find themselves and to chart their course.  I refer to the shipping board, the aviation, the medical, the manufacturing, the transportation, the munitions, and the labour committees.

When war came these bodies greatly speeded up their work.  Others were created - among them, the Food Administration, the Fuel Administration, the War Trade Council, the War Trade Board, and the War Industries Board.

The last is of unique importance, and yet its work is little understood.

 Its members are the direct representatives of the government and of the public interest.  The tasks of the board are stupendous.  It acts as a clearing-house for the needs of the government, determines the most effective ways of meeting them, the best means of increasing production (including the creation of new facilities), the priority of public needs and also of transportation.

It considers price factors, the labour aspects of industrial operations, and large purchases of commodities where market values are greatly affected, and makes appropriate recommendations to the secretaries of war and the navy.

Judge Lovett is in immediate charge of priorities, Mr. Baruch of raw materials, and Mr. Brookings of finished products.  These three constitute a commission for the approval of purchases by the Allies in this country from credits made through the secretary of the treasury.

I need only remind you of the items of the appropriations for supplies, ordnance and other things, to impress you with the magnitude of the board's task.  Its machinery is not yet perfect but it is working, and I am sure that no step will be omitted to make it as nearly adequate as possible.

If a better scheme can be devised, it should be promptly adopted.  It is obviously of the highest importance that the resources of the nation, made available by Congress, should be administered with the utmost skill and effectiveness.

No machinery is of great value unless it is properly manned.  The right sort of men is the first requisite of any kind of successful enterprise.  I believe this requisite has been satisfied and that the nation is mobilizing for this emergency additional men of as high character and fine talent as it possesses.

Where so many are involved special mention is invidious, and I cite the names of the following merely as samples: Willard, Gompers, Baruch, Rosenwald, Coffin, Martin, and Godfrey; Hoover, Garfield, Vanderlip, Davison, Vauclain; McCormick, Thos. D. Jones, Lovett, Brookings, and Frayne; Dr. Anna Shaw, Mrs. Phillip Moore, Mrs. Cowles, Mrs. Catt, Miss Wetmore, Mrs. Lamar, Mrs. Funk, Mrs. McCormick, and Miss Nestor; and Drs. Simpson, Crile, Janeway, Flexner, Vaughn, Mayo, and Welch - all fine types of American citizenship, only a few of the hundreds working in their respective spheres in the nation and in the states, having no selfish end to serve, working with an eye single to the public interest and to the winning of this war, giving freely their services in as fine spirit as the nation ever witnessed, revealing the real strength of democracy.

So much, and perhaps more than enough, as to the congressional pledge of resources and the creation of machinery.  Let us turn to other matters which I am sure you have in mind.  I know you are asking what is being accomplished.

What are the results?  Obviously, some of them it would be inadvisable to indicate.  Others I can only hint at.  For the most part they have been detailed to the public through one agency or another from time to time.  I shall try to summarize.

The nation has today in all branches of its military services under arms and in training over 1,800,000 men, some in France, some on the ocean, and others in camps or at their posts of duty at home.

Approximately ten and a half millions of men have been enlisted in the regular army, incorporated in the national guard, or registered under the draft act.  Those registered but not yet called out are being classified on the basis of national need.

Rapid headway has been made in training subordinate officers, and the gigantic undertaking of providing suitable quarters or camps for the men in training has practically been finished.  The nation now has thirty-five army cantonments, sixteen for the National Army, sixteen for the National Guard, two at points of embarkation and one for the quartermaster's training school, all complete in respect to buildings or tents, lighting, sanitary arrangements, and temporary roads.

The National Army cantonments were completed within the time set by the General Staff.  What this involved can not easily be set forth.  It entailed the selection of sites, the planning of buildings, the securing of responsible contractors, the mobilization of labour, the assembling of materials, and the construction of modern hospitals and roads.

These camps alone cover 150,000 acres and called for the use of 75,000 carloads of materials, including 500,000,000 feet of lumber.  Their cost was approximately one hundred and twenty-eight millions of dollars.  The work was begun June 15th and the finishing touches were put on by December 1st.

In addition sixteen canvas camps for the National Guard were completed at a cost of approximately forty-eight millions of dollars.  Thus local habitations were quickly provided for the new army, superior in respect to ventilation and conveniences to the best practice of Europe.

Five instrumentalities or factors highly necessary for victory, it may be asserted without hesitation, are destroyers, the enemies of the submarine, airplanes, ships, medical service, and food.  What of these?

Of the first, the torpedo-boat destroyers, all I may say is that the construction program of the navy contemplates 787 ships of all types at an estimated cost of $1,150,000,000, including additional destroyers costing $350,000,000.

The latter are to be of uniform standard model, large and fast.  Some are to be built within nine months, and all within eighteen months.  This vast and urgent undertaking required a great extension of building facilities, and, as private capital was unable or unwilling to make the extensions, the government had to do so.

When completed these plants belong to the nation.  I may add that these destroyers will require thousands of men to man them.  The men are being trained and when the vessels are completed the crews will be ready.

The work for the control of the air grows apace.  Of the great aviation training fields, seventeen in number, two are old, one is rebuilding, seven were practically completed by September 1st, and seven others will be finished within two weeks.

In addition, there are in operation today at leading universities ten ground schools giving preparatory instruction in flying.  Finishing courses are being given to our students in most of the Allied countries and more than thirty experienced foreign air veterans have been loaned to us for duty in Washington and elsewhere.

The building program calls for twenty thousand machines.  It will be expedited by reason of a great and interesting achievement, that of a standardized engine, something which no European nation has developed even after three and a half years of war.

This accomplishment is in line with the best American traditions, and was made with unique speed.  What standardization of the engine and of its parts means in respect to speed and quantitative production, in repairs and economy of materials, need not be dwelt upon.

It has been estimated that the service when in full strength will require a full force of 110,000 officers and enlisted men, an army greater than our regular military force of a few months ago.

All agree that the enemy submarine must be destroyed.  In the meantime shipping sunk by them must be replaced.  England must not be starved.  Supplies to all the Allies must go forward without interruption.

Our own troops must be transported and provided with everything essential for effectiveness and comfort, and domestic transportation of men and commodities must be maintained and greatly increased.

Furthermore, commodities must be brought here from many distant places.  Therefore we must have ships, more ships, at once.  Nothing more urgent!

How is this matter proceeding?  In the first place, the Shipping Board on August 3rd commandeered 426 vessels either in course of construction for domestic or foreign account or contracted for, with a tonnage of over 3,000,000.

Thirty-three of these ships, with a tonnage of 257,000, have been completed and released.  German and Austrian ships with a capacity of 750,000 tons have been taken over for government use.

The Fleet Corporation has contracted for 948 vessels with a total tonnage of 5,056,000, of which 375, with a tonnage of one and a third million, are wooden; 58, with a tonnage of 270,000, are composite; and 515, with a capacity of 3,500,000, are steel.

All these ships have an aggregate tonnage of 8,835,000, or nearly a million and a half tons more than the regular merchant marine of the nation in 1916.  Contracts for 610,000 tons additional are pending.

The total building program calls for over 10,000,000 tons, and it is proposed that a considerable part of it shall be executed by the end of 1918.  The nature of this task may be more easily appreciated when it is remembered that the construction in the United States for 1916 did not exceed 400,000 tons and that the average for the five years preceding was 350,000 tons.

At present there are one hundred yards building ships, exclusive of twenty building the commandeered vessels, and of these one hundred, seventy are new.  The policy of standardization has been pursued and five classes of ships have been adopted.

I have already referred to the preliminary steps toward medical organization.  Further action was promptly taken.  An inventory was made of the medical resources of the nation, of doctors, nurses, and others who could be called by the surgeon general, and of hospitals and supplies.

Courses in modern military medicine and surgery for third and fourth-year students were formulated and adopted by seventy-five of the ninety-five medical schools in January, 1917.

It was known that eighty per cent of the instruments used in this country were made in Germany.  It was necessary to develop their production here, and to facilitate this the first essential step was to introduce standardization, to resort to staple articles.

More liberal standards were authorized and the variety of types was greatly reduced.  Instead of scores of kinds of scissors a dozen were agreed upon.  Instead of many sorts of needles, forceps and retractors, two, three, or four types were adopted.

Manufacturers were given priority of materials and consequently full military orders will be delivered in less than eight months.  It is illuminating that one concern, taking its chances, had manufactured according to specifications, by the time it was awarded a contract, enough material to require ten carloads of lumber for packing.  This was the result of the efforts of seventy-five of the most eminent medical specialists of the nation, working with the military staff in contact with two hundred and fifty leading manufacturers.

The peace strength of the medical forces of the army was 531 and of the navy 480.  Now the surgeon general of the army has in his regular force and in the new enrolment of physicians actually accepting commissions 16,432, a number sufficient for an army of two and one-third millions, and a dental force of 3,441, adequate for an army of 3,400,000.

The navy now has 1,795 medical officers, a number in excess of present needs.  The Red Cross has enrolled 15,000 trained nurses, organized forty-eight base hospitals with 9,600 doctors, nurses and enlisted men, sixteen hospital units with smaller staffs to supplement the work of the base hospitals, is furnishing supplies to thirty-five hospitals of all sorts in France, and since May has raised over $100,000,000.

What shall I say about the organization of agriculture for the production of food, clothing and other materials?  It is unnecessary to dwell upon the need of an adequate supply of food for the civilians and soldiers of this nation and also for those of the nations with whom we are associated.

When we entered the war, this country was and had been facing an unsatisfactory situation in respect to its supply of foods and feedstuffs.  The production in 1916 of the leading cereals was comparatively low, aggregating 4.8 billions of bushels as against 6 for 1915, 5 for 1914, and 4.9 for the five-year average.

The wheat crop had been strikingly small, and it was certain that on account of adverse weather conditions the output for 1917 would be greatly curtailed.  The situation was no better in respect to other conspicuously important commodities such as potatoes and meats.

The need of action was urgent and the appeal for direction insistent.  The nation looked for guidance primarily to the federal department and to the state agencies which it had so liberally supported for many years.

It was a matter of great good fortune that the nation had had the foresight, generations before, in another time of national stress, in 1862, to lay soundly the foundations of agriculture.  In respect to agencies working for the improvement of rural life the nation was prepared.

In point of efficiency, personnel and support, it had establishments excelling those of any other three nations combined, and a great body of alert farmers who were capable of producing two or three times as much per unit of labour and capital as the farmers of Europe.

Steps were quickly taken to speed up production.  In a two-day session at St. Louis, the trained agricultural officers of the country conceived and devised a program of legislation and organization, the essential features of which have not been successfully questioned, and the substantial part of which has been enacted into law and set in operation.

Initiative was not wanting in any section of the Union.  Effective organizations quickly sprang up in all the states, and the services of experts everywhere immediately were made available.  The response of the farmers was prompt and energetic.

Weather conditions for the spring season were favourable and the results are that crop yields have been large and that the nation is able not only to feed itself but in considerable measure to supply the needs of those with whom we are cooperating.

It is no time for any class to hug to its bosom the delusion that it possesses a monopoly of patriotism.  Human nature is pretty evenly distributed, and no little selfishness manifests itself in every direction.

Unfortunately there are self-seekers in every group.  I have heard manufacturers solemnly assert that, if the government wished them to speed up their operations, to extend their plants, or to take additional trouble in any direction, it must guarantee to them an abnormally large profit in addition to the requisite allowance for amortization.

One of them recently suggested to me that he was getting weary of the burdens he had assumed and that, if the government wished him to continue or to undertake new tasks, it would have to induce him to do so by permitting him greatly to increase his profits.

What would he or others say of a soldier, of a man drafted into the army, who protested that for so much he would go to the seaboard, but, if the government wished him to go abroad, it must stimulate him with a twenty-five-per cent increase in his pay, or, if he went to the front trenches, with fifty per cent?

In the words of the President:

Patriotism has nothing to do with profits in a case like this.

Patriotism and profits ought never in the present circumstances to be mentioned together.  It is perfectly proper to discuss profits as a matter of business, but it would be absurd to discuss them as a motive for helping to serve and save our country.

In these days of our supreme trial, when we are sending hundreds of thousands of our young men across the seas to serve a great cause, no true man who stays behind to work for them and sustain them by his labour will ask himself what he is personally going to make out of that labour.

No true patriot will permit himself to take toll of their heroism in money or seek to grow rich by the shedding of their blood.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

At the Battle of Sarikamish the Turks suffered a disastrously high 81% casualty rate.

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