[A series of never-before-published photos from the National Archives]
It’s difficult to imagine today, but at the dawn of the 20th Century the United States had a tiny military, and its foreign policy was steered by the majority pacifist inclination of its people. Leaders of the ‘no war/no military’ camp included the Church (especially Protestants), the women’s movement, the large farming lobby, and scholars/left-leaning thinkers who feared the USA becoming a militarized state. World War 1 (as it became known after WW2) dramatically changed American politics, priorities, infrastructure, and economy in the ways we see today, with most Protestant sects identified with military boosterism and conservative political activism, and over half the federal budget dedicated to military spending. While the US was ‘only’ involved in the European war for 20 months, it proved the hinge that pivoted America in a totally new, militarized direction, and boosted the fortunes of motorcycle companies able to secure government contracts to supply military equipment.The USA did its best to stay out of the European conflict of 1914, remaining technically independent as war raged. America was a growing economic force in the early 20th Century, but its military was very small: in 1915 the US Army included 100,000 men, and the National Guard another 100,000, but combined this was less than 20% of Germany’s military, and smaller than the militaries of all 14 combatants of the war. The American Navy was tiny, and ‘modern’ military ideas like airplanes, tanks, trench warfare, and poison gas simply weren’t discussed. Even Henry Ford (ironically to become a supporter of Hitler in the 1930s) financed a ‘peace ship’ that sailed to Europe to negotiate an end to the war, without success.America’s vision of itself was very different in 1914 than today, and its politics were far less homogenous (regardless of our current, apparently at-odds moment), with the Church playing an important role in shaping public opinion towards pacifism, along with large groups of socialists, anarchists, labor unionists, and syndicalists, as well as the very large agricultural population, which leaned socialist, and distrusted Eastern industrialists. The majority of the country was deeply suspicious of the ulterior motives of pro-war industrialists who stood to benefit handsomely from war, such as the DuPonts (the largest gunpowder supplier), the Carnegies (who supplied steel for ships and armor), and the Morgans (who loaned European combatants huge sums, and would likely finance a revamp of the American military).Regardless that thousands of German-Americans had tried to enlist in the German military at the outbreak of the war in 1914, by 1916 most Americans were still against the war, and President Woodrow Wilson offered a military budget that kept the status quo, arguing that disarmament was the key to lasting peace. Germany had stoked resentment after a U-boat sank the passenger ship Lusitania in May 1915, (with 128 Americans on board), and took Wilson’s unwillingness to bolster the US military as a license to sink any ships supplying Britain and France by 1917. Germany calculated it could sink as many American ships as it wanted, as it would take the US several years to build up its military, by which time Germany would have won, or so it thought. America tilted further towards war in January 1917 after British intelligence intercepted the ‘Zimmerman telegram,‘ in which Germany offered Mexico to return the territories it lost in the Mexican-American War – Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona – for joining its side against the USA!When U-boats sank 7 American merchant ships in April 1917, the US declared war on Germany, which initiated a massive restructuring of the American economy. The Selective Service Act drafted 4 Million men, and by the summer of 1918 2 Million American troops were in France, with 10,000 fresh soldiers arriving daily. The effect of this on the German military was demoralizing, as they were unable to resupply their manpower, and after losing several key battles and the final, ‘Hundred Days’ Allied offensive, Germany surrendered on Nov. 11, 1918.Entry into the war brought a rapid change to the American military; suddenly they were forward-facing, and investing heavily in modern tools for warfare, including aircraft, tanks, and – of course – motorcycles. The largest motorcycle company in the world in 1917 was Indian, so naturally they pursued contracts to supply the military, as did Harley-Davidson and Excelsior; the Big 3. The American motorcycle industry shrank dramatically in the ‘Teens, a combined effect of the inexpensive Ford Model T with rapidly rising wage and raw materials prices, mostly due to the war in Europe, but the Big 3 were in a position to gear up for war production, and each made their bid to supply military machines. Keen-eyed observers of WW1 photographs will note Harley-Davidsons, Indians, and Excelsior-Henderson v-twins and fours among US military motorcycles. Ex-military Henderson fours were coveted by the officer class, and tended to survive – George Orwell (‘1984’, ‘Animal Farm’) even rode an ex-WW1 Henderson in Burma!As part of US government oversight of military motorcycle contracts and production, teams of investigators and photographers visited the factories of the Big 3 to document their production methods and capabilities. It wasn’t known how long the war would last, nor if it would continue even if Germany surrendered (the US didn’t declare war on the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire, and other Central Powers enemies), so the ramp-up in production was considered open-ended.Something as vital as the military supply chain needed documentation, and these photographs of the Indian production line in 1918 are part of the National Archives. They represent a rare look into the working methods of the largest and most modern motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Indian Motocycle Company founder George Hendee had expanded Indian’s production facilities in Springfield with a modern, pre-stressed concrete factory of enormous size, which used mostly natural light from very large industrial windows. A few electric lights are visible in work areas, but for most tasks natural light was sufficient, as the windows were 20′ tall and ran across the entire length of the building.The Indian factory had not yet adopted Henry Ford’s assembly-line techniques, and relied on the old piecework system, in which workers machined parts or bolted-up sub-assemblies (gearbox, frame, sidecar body, engine), which were then moved along to other areas of the factory, where further work would be done or the parts kept in stores, until the whole machine was assembled. Then the finished bikes were tested and inspected on a series of individual ramps, and taken to the shipping department to be packed in crates. From there, they were loaded from a railroad siding at the factory into boxcars, each headed to a distribution center for various parts of the US, or to the docks for international markets. The work ranged from the hellishly hot and noisy forging hammers to the watchmaker’s quiet of the gearbox assembly and pinstriping benches, no doubt with the nastiest work on the lower floors, and the clean work up top.Enjoy this remarkable record of the American motorcycle industry at its first flush of strength! We’ll be posting more on the subject, with photos of the Harley-Davidson and Excelsior-Henderson factories in 1918.