The United States before World War I was a powerful economic player on the geopolitical map. Although the 19th century was a period of conflict and division in the country, it was also one of the swift economic development, prosperity, and industrialization. Mark Twain later called this period of American history the Gilded Age (Pierce, 2010). The fast growth resulted in a significant increase of production, wages, and wealth. Machines replaced hand labor quickly, thus increasing the production capacity while the network of new businesses and companies created a sufficient number of workplaces to ensure further economic development. This progress was especially noticeable in the northern part of the country, while the rural South lagged behind in terms of industrial growth (Pillsbury, 2014).
Full-scale industrialization in the USA started with the introduction of mechanized textile manufacturing. In the late 18th and early 19th century, Samuel Slater and Francis Cabot Lowell brought new technologies from Britain to the United States, thus promoting the fast development of the cotton industry (Tucker, 2014). The establishment of cotton mills, in turn, encouraged the construction of a wider network of railroads and other transportation systems, which, in turn, promoted further commercial growth. The introduction of a steamboat service, telegraph, and sewing machine were other significant achievements of the pre-Civil War period (Garstecki, 2015).
After the Civil War, in the period from 1870 to 1914 called the Second Industrial Revolution, the main industries including steel, manufacturing, oil, and railroads gained their power (Jones, 2014). All these industries were closely interconnected, and innovation in one sphere automatically spurred growth in all others. Thus, steel was widely used in railroad construction, while the growing network of railroads enabled the fast transportation of manufactured goods. Men who controlled these key industries managed to generate immense wealth and obtained both political and economic influence. For example, Andrew Carnegie owned large steel companies, which, due to his successful management and innovative vision, brought him millions of dollars. Similarly, John D. Rockefeller owned large oil firms and eventually took control over a majority of the country’s oil industry (Parmar, 2012).
Immigrants played an essential role in American industrialization, but on a different level. Drawn by immense economic opportunities, people came to the United States to become its main workforce and the driver of change. Between 1860 and 1900, approximately fourteen million immigrants came to America, providing workers for an array of fast-developing industries. These were mainly young, healthy people who were hard-working and ready to invest their time and efforts to support the growing businesses (LeMay, 2012). These people also provided an increased demand for cheap, mass-produced goods, thus inducing factories to invest in innovative manufacturing technologies.
During the period of industrial revolution, the United States paid little attention to foreign affairs. However, as it increased its economic potential, it gradually gained more influence in politics, so the end of the 19th century is characterized as the period when American imperialism was born. Annexation of Hawaii in 1898 was one of the main examples of this imperialism – the massive economic, military, and cultural influence. By the 1900s, the United States has become one of the leading states, along with the Great Britain, Germany, and France, which dictated international relations (Afflerbach & Stevenson, 2012). It is not surprising, therefore, that as a leading international power, it was eventually drawn into the World War I with Germany following the tragic sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania and the threatening Zimmerman telegram. It turned out that the cost of economic growth and increased influence on the international stage due to the industrial revolution was high for thousands of American soldiers who died in Europe defending the interests of their country.
- Afflerbach, H., & Stevenson, D. (2012). An improbable war?: The outbreak of World War I and European political culture before 1914. New York: Berghahn Books.
- Garstecki, J. (2015). Life during the industrial revolution. North Mankato: ABDO.
- Jones, C. F. (2014). Routes of power. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- LeMay, M. C. (2012). Transforming America: Perspectives on U.S. immigration. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
- Parmar, I. (2012). Foundations of the American century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller foundations in the rise of American power. New York: Columbia University Press.