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World War I, Part I

WW I American troops train on French weapons
Nevada State Museum Collection I

In a photo taken by the Photographic Section of the French Army an American machine gunning team trains on a French Hotchkiss light machine gun after arriving in Europe in 1917. Because of a shortage of American rifles, machine guns and howitzers, American soldiers had to train with French or British weapons.

On April 6, 1917, Congress declared war. Woodrow Wilson said it was necessary to make the world safe for democracy. We didn’t entirely succeed at that. We also didn’t entirely fail. And Nevada was at the center of things.

The war began in Europe in the summer of 1914. A Serbian nationalist shot the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The European powers had a series of treaties and alliances, some of them secret. Within a month, the two sides squared off—England, France, and Russia, the Allies, against Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Central Powers. Italy and Japan joined the Allies, while the Ottoman Empire lined up with the Central Powers. Wilson called for Americans to be neutral.

Not that that was going to be easy, and Wilson knew it: this always has been a nation of immigrants. Many Americans had ties to their native countries on both sides. But Wilson ran for reelection in 1916 on the slogan, he kept us out of war. He barely won—if California hadn’t gone his way by fewer than 4,000 votes, he would have lost, despite carrying Nevada’s three electoral votes. But in early 1917, Germany again began submarine warfare. And its foreign minister made the mistake of trying to make a deal with Mexico: if it would help Germany fight the U.S., Germany would help Mexico get back some of the land it lost in the Mexican-American War in 1848.

Then Russian revolutionaries overthrew the czar and set up a democratic government. That government later failed. But Wilson and the rest of the U.S. now could argue that it was democratic and republican government against autocracies. The U.S. went to war.

Nevadans had tried to stay neutral, too. It wasn’t easy. Then as now, Nevada had a significant immigrant population, so divisions were to be expected. Nevada also had a substantial population of Socialists, who were anti-war. They even formed their own community, Nevada City, near Fallon in Churchill County. The Socialist candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1914 got 25 percent of the statewide vote.

But Nevadans also saw an opportunity to benefit from the war. The economy was in decline. The state was doing better than it had during the depression of the late nineteenth century, but Tonopah, Goldfield, Ely, and the copper towns were slowing down. Farming and ranching were benefiting from the Newlands Reclamation Act, which created dams and reservoirs. But agriculture, too, was hurting.

The war eased the pain. Copper production tripled between 1914 and 1916. The mining industry grew throughout the war, with production hitting 48 million dollars in 1918—more than the best year Virginia City’s Comstock Lode ever had.


Providing food to American doughboys, as well as European allies, boosted markets and prices for meat, vegetables, and fruit. You might be surprised to know that beekeeping became a more profitable industry because of the need for honey.

Nevada also served. The state met its draft quota less than three months after the U.S. entered the war. Its per capita service in the military as among the highest in the country, with more than 4,800 going to war out of a population of less than 80,000. Nevadans served in other ways, as we’ll discuss next time.