Speech by Samuel Gompers on World War I, (16 January 1918) New York, NY


Samuel Gompers was a founding member and the first president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). He served as president of the AFL for nearly 40 years, beginning December 8, 1886 and ending when he died on December 13, 1924. Gompers is often regarded as one of the most important leaders in U.S. labor history.1

Born to a Dutch-Jewish family in London, Gompers spent his early life working in his family’s cigar business and studying the Talmud. Facing economic hardships, his family immigrated to New York City when he was 13. Soon after his arrival, he became involved with a local debate club as well as labor unions representing cigar makers in the city.2

From his beginnings, Gompers would become the face of American labor activism, bargaining for higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions. Despite his support of socialist ideas early in his career, Gompers became an ardent opponent of socialism as he aged.3 In one of his final essays, he told socialists that “economically, you are unsound; socially, you are wrong; industrially, you are an impossibility.”4 The majority of his efforts were focused on economic reforms, including wage increases and shorter working hours. Gompers also willingly cooperated with state and federal governments to further labor reforms. Gompers, for example, maintained a nearly decade-long correspondence with President Woodrow Wilson, where the two discussed political leaders and public policies.5

Once the United States entered World War I in 1917, Gompers actively supported America’s war efforts. Gompers had long been critical of the autocratic militarism that dominated the governments of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Adding labor to the mix, Gompers argued in 1915 that such an autocratic system “forced a war which brings grievous wrongs, losses and misery upon the wage workers of Europe . . . and to the wage-earners of all the world.”6 Gompers was also a fierce opponent of the Bolsheviks—Russian communists and socialists who gained considerable influence in Russia following its defeat to Germany. Gompers would later call the Bolshevik successes in Russia a “plague” on the American labor movement.7

In a series of speeches and essays, Gompers promoted labor’s interest in the war, stressing the importance of Allied victory for the American worker.8 Recognizing Gompers’s ability to mobilize support for the war, President Wilson appointed him as an official advisor for the Council of National Defense. This Council was created for the explicit purpose of coordinating labor and industry for the war effort.9 This role gave Gompers the ability to involve the AFL in war mobilization efforts; the organization would grow to three million members by the end of the war.10

In his speeches, Gompers associated autocracy and militarism with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Stressing that their victory would destroy American democracy, Gompers dubbed the global conflict “labor’s war,” whose outcome would be determined by the American worker.11 Praising both the workers and the republic in which they lived, Gompers’s speeches lionized the efforts of Americans as making the world safer for democracy.

Gompers’s speech on World War I was one of many he gave in 1918 as the United States escalated its involvement in the war. Gompers celebrated this increase in U.S. involvement in his speech, where he made a case for the war’s necessity, especially in securing the expansion of “the spirit and the method of democracy” around the world.12 Gompers made the case that Allied victory was dependent on the participation of workers and labor unions in the war effort. The need for sacrifice from workers represented a major theme in his speech—sacrifices he viewed as an unquestionable duty of all Americans.13

Gompers’s speech tours and activities continued until the war’s end. Following the war, Gompers continued his work with the AFL, writing frequently about the dangers of socialism and the Industrial Workers of the World.14 In his final days, Gompers collapsed during a visit to Mexico. Reportedly expressing a desire to die on American soil, he was rushed to the border and died days later in San Antonio, Texas.15


  1. His almost 40 year run as president was interrupted by a year-long absence from the position in 1895. Melvyn Dubofsky, “Were Gompers and the AFL Radical?,” Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas 10 no. 4 (2013): 89-90, http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=5&sid=7c592c4f-d550-46a9-ab10-eb3422a7c026%40pdc-v-sessmgr04&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=93299609&db=31h.
  2. Gerald Emanuel Stearn, Samuel Gompers:Great Lives Observed (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1971), 18-20.
  3. Dubofsky, “Were Gompers and the AFL Radical?,” 89-90.
  4. U.S. Congress, Senate, Final Report and Testimony Submitted to Congress by the Commission on Industrial Relations, 64th Cong., 1st sess., S. Doc. 415, 2 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1916), 1526–1529.
  5. Woodrow Wilson, Letter to Samuel Gompers, AFL Office of the President, Samuel Gompers and Woodrow Wilson Correspondence, August 8, 1917, 0029-LBR-RG1-013, Special Collections and University Archives, George Meany Memorial AFL-CIO Archive, College Park, MD. http://hdl.handle.net/1903.1/42502.
  6. Samuel Gompers, “European War Influences upon American Industry and Labor,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 61 (1915): 4-5, www.jstor.org/stable/1012991.
  7. Stearn, Samuel Gompers, 81.
  8. Samuel Gompers, American Labor and the War (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1919), 20-23.
  9. “Title 50: Chapter 1: Council of National Defense,” U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Code, January 2, 2006, https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?path=/prelim@title50/chapter1&edition=prelim.
  10. Wendi A. Maloney, “World War I: Workers Greet Labor Day 1918 with Optimism,” Library of Congress Blog, Library of Congress, last modified August 30, 2017, https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2017/08/world-war-i-workers-greet-labor-day-1918-with-optimism/.
  11. Samuel Gompers, “Samuel Gompers on WWI,” 1918, AFL-CIO Collection, RG97-002 Audio-Visual Media, Information Department, Analog Recordings, George Meany Memorial AFL-CIO Archive, College Park, MD, Gompers-1918-Speech-AFL-CIO-RG97-002-temp-084782-0001-prod (2).
  12. Gompers, “Samuel Gompers on WWI.”
  13. Ibid.
  14. Samuel Gompers and William English Walling, Out of Their Own Mouths: A Revelation and an Indictment of Sovietism (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1921), vi-ix.
  15. “Death Of Samuel Gompers,” Times (The Times Digital Archive), December 15, 1924, p. 16, http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/CR7sw3.