It was the Great War, the war that changed the face of Europe and caused centuries-old dynasties and empires to fall.

And at home in the United States, the impact of World War I was no less transformative, according to “WW1 America,” a new exhibit that opens Saturday at the Minnesota History Center.

From the migration northward of blacks to women’s suffrage, from labor strife to Prohibition, the years from 1914 to 1919 sparked incredible change in America, said Brian Horrigan, exhibit developer.

“It’s not an exhibit about the war. It’s an exhibit about the effects of the war on the American experience,” Horrigan said. “Labor movements, Prohibition, women’s suffrage, the Great Migration — it’s arguable that none of those things would have happened without the war.”

One hundred years ago, in April 1917, the United States entered a war that already had been raging on the European continent for nearly three years. During that prewar period, people in the U.S. were divided between staying out of the war and preparing to get into it. In the meantime, the nation provided support — food, weapons, munitions and equipment — for war-torn Europe.

It was during this time, Horrigan said, that the need for industrial workers for war production along with oppressive conditions in the South led millions of blacks to move north for factory work.

“It was a push-pull phenomenon,” Horrigan said. “Jim Crow laws and lynching and the loss of agricultural jobs was the push. The pull was from the north, of jobs and industry.”

Women, too, used the growing unrest of those years to improve their lives. The suffrage movement had been going on for decades, Horrigan said, and women had won the right to vote in 11 states before the war. But it was during the war years that the more radical National Women’s Party took to the streets and, for the first time ever, picketed the White House. The 19th Amendment giving women the vote was passed in 1919 and ratified in 1920.

Prohibition, too, gathered steam during the war as arguments swirled about how U.S. grain was better-suited to feed a hungry world than for brewing beer and distilling spirits.

The exhibit examines the war itself and the factors that finally drove many of those who had wanted to stay out of the conflict to change their minds, including President Woodrow Wilson.

Those factors included the sinking of the Lusitania, continued threats to U.S. commercial shipping by German U-boats and the infamous Zimmerman telegram, in which Germany tried to coax Mexico to join it in war against the U.S.

In the end, more than 2 million American “doughboys” joined the effort, including 400,000 blacks and 12,000 American Indians.

In words and deeds, Americans at the time foreshadowed today’s immigration debates, as many looked with suspicion at “dark-skinned” people from Eastern Europe — Jews, Lithuanians, Hungarians and Italians.

And after the war, violence and upheaval came at home, including race riots, fears of Bolshevism, anarchists’ bombings and labor strife — there were 4,000 strikes waged in 1919 alone — that were fed by joblessness, inflation and a terrible postwar economy, Horrigan said.

“It was really kind of a powder keg waiting to happen,” he said.

Other, less gravitational legacies of World War I also are included in the exhibit: Sunglasses, cigarettes, safety razors, wristwatches, brassieres and passports.

While the exhibit has a decidedly Minnesota flavor, with details about Minnesotans in the war and the voice talents of 21 Twin Cities actors used in film and audio clips, it is national in scope. After the exhibit closes here Sept. 4, it will hit the road for more than three years, going on display at museums in Virginia, Nebraska, Texas and Washington state.

 

jim.walsh@startribune.com 651-925-5041