Introduction

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“Bernard Baruch,” 1919. Bernard Baruch was a financier who made his fortune on Wall Street in large part due to an innate understanding of business and industry. His World War I service was so successful, he would be called on as an economic advisor during World War II as well. Courtesy of Belle W. Baruch Foundation via South Carolina Digital Library.

Before entering the conflict in 1917, the United States needed to prepare not only its army, but also its economy. President Wilson formed the War Industries Board (WIB), which was assigned to oversee the nation’s finances and economy. The first two men assigned to head this group resigned due to the lack of actual control over the nation’s spending and intense stress, as the Board remained powerless in its first incarnation because of Wilson’s antitrust convictions. In 1918, Wilson increased the Board’s reach and handed its leadership over to Bernard Baruch, a successful American financier.

The Board was granted full rights to allocate supplies, fix prices, and standardize goods throughout the country. About one-quarter of all goods and foodstuffs produced was sent to the frontlines in Europe. One of the largest challenges facing Baruch and the WIB was the issue of labor. The work force took a major hit during the war as America closed its doors to new immigrants and shipped able-bodied men to war. Women and African Americans were able to take advantage of these holes in the labor force by joining industries in which they had previously been denied involvement.