The United States' entry into World War I came in April 1917, after two and a half years of efforts by President Woodrow Wilson to keep the United States neutral. Americans had no idea that war was imminent in Europe in the summer of 1914, and tens of thousands of tourists were caught by surprise. The U.S. government, under Wilson's firm control, called for neutrality "in thought and deed". Apart from an Anglophile element supporting the British, American public opinion went along with neutrality at first. The sentiment for neutrality was strong among Irish Americans, German Americans and Swedish Americans, as well as among church leaders and women. However, the citizenry increasingly came to see the German Empire as the villain after news of atrocities in Belgium in 1914, and the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania in 1915 in defiance of international law. Wilson made all the key decisions and kept the economy on a peacetime basis, while allowing large-scale loans to the United Kingdom and France. To preclude making any military threat Wilson made no preparations for war and kept the army on its small peacetime basis despite increasing demands for preparedness.
At the beginning of 1917 Germany decided to resume all-out submarine warfare on all commercial ships headed toward Britain, realizing that this decision would almost certainly mean war with the United States. Germany also offered a military alliance to Mexico, as intercepted and decoded by the British in the Zimmerman Telegram, and publication of that offer outraged Americans just as German U-boats (submarines) started sinking American ships in the North Atlantic. Wilson asked Congress for "a war to end all wars" that would "make the world safe for democracy", and Congress voted to declare war on April 6, 1917.
- 1 Submarines and Blockades
- 2 Elites
- 3 Business considerations
- 4 Public opinion
- 5 Preparedness movement
- 6 Decision for war
- 7 Public opinion, moralism, and national interest
- 8 Declaration of war
- 9 See also
- 10 Footnotes
- 11 Bibliography
- 12 Primary sources
- 13 External links
Submarines and Blockades
A critical indirect strategy used by both sides was the blockade. The British Royal Navy successfully stopped the shipment of most war supplies and food to Germany. Neutral American ships that tried to trade with Germany were seized or turned back. The strangulation came about very slowly, because Germany and the Central Powers (its allies) controlled extensive farmlands and raw materials. However, it was eventually successful because Germany and Austria-Hungary had taken so many farmers into their armies. By 1918, German cities were on the verge of starvation; the front-line soldiers were on short rations and were running out of essential supplies.
Germany also considered a blockade. "England wants to starve us", said Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the man who built the German fleet and who remained a key advisor to the Kaiser Wilhelm II. "We can play the same game. We can bottle her up and destroy every ship that endeavors to break the blockade". Unable to challenge the more powerful Royal Navy on the surface, Tirpitz wanted to scare off merchant and passenger ships en route to Britain. He reasoned that since the island of Britain depended on imports of food, raw materials, and manufactured goods, scaring off a substantial number of the ships would effectively undercut its long-term ability to maintain an army on the Western Front. While Germany had only nine long-range U-boats at the start of the war, it had ample shipyard capacity to build the hundreds needed. However, the United States demanded that Germany respect international law, which protected neutral American ships on the high seas from seizure or sinking by either belligerent. Furthermore, Americans insisted that the drowning of innocent civilians was barbaric and grounds for a declaration of war. The British frequently violated America's neutral rights by seizing ships. Wilson's top advisor, Colonel Edward M. House commented that, "The British have gone as far as they possibly could in violating neutral rights, though they have done it in the most courteous way". When Wilson protested British violations of American neutrality, the British backed down. German submarines, however, torpedoed ships without warning, and some sailors and passengers drowned. Berlin explained that submarines were so vulnerable that they dared not surface near merchant ships that might be carrying guns and which were too small to rescue submarine crews. Britain armed most of its merchant ships with medium calibre guns that could sink a submarine, making above-water attacks too risky. In February 1915, the United States warned Germany about misuse of submarines; but on May 7, Germany torpedoed the British passenger liner RMS Lusitania, sinking her. This act of aggression caused the loss of 1,198 civilian lives, including 128 Americans. The sinking of a large, unarmed passenger ship, combined with the previous atrocity stories from Belgium, shocked Americans and turned public opinion hostile to Germany, although not yet to the point of war. Wilson issued a warning to Germany that it would face "strict accountability" if it sank more neutral U.S. passenger ships. Berlin acquiesced, ordering its submarines to avoid passenger ships.
By January 1917, however, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff decided that an unrestricted submarine blockade was the only way to break the stalemate on the Western Front. They demanded that Kaiser Wilhelm order unrestricted submarine warfare be resumed. Germany knew this decision meant war with the United States, but they gambled that they could win before America's potential strength could be mobilized. However, they overestimated how many ships they could sink and thus the extent Britain would be weakened. Finally, they did not foresee that convoys could and would be used to defeat their efforts. They believed that the United States was so weak militarily that it could not be a factor on the Western Front for more than a year – a mistake that would ultimately prove to be fatal to the German Empire. The civilian government in Berlin objected, but the Kaiser sided with his military.
National elites split into three distinct groups. First were the anti-war people ("pacifists" loosely defined), who wanted to keep America out at all costs, and rejected as equally immoral the British and German Empires. The leaders included Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan (a three-time Democratic nominee for president), Republican Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr., woman's leader Jane Addams (a Progressive) and industrialist Henry Ford (a Democrat). Secondly, the "liberal internationalists" reluctantly supported armed force to create a collective security system. They included President Woodrow Wilson and former president William Howard Taft. Finally, the "Atlanticists" sought a security relationship with Britain; they were led by former President Theodore Roosevelt, Major General Leonard Wood, and Republican Senators Elihu Root and Henry Cabot Lodge.
The beginning of World War I in Europe coincided with the end of the Recession of 1913–1914 in America. Exports to belligerent nations rose rapidly over the first four years of the War from $824.8 million in 1913 to $2.25 billion in 1917. Loans from American financial institutions to the Allied nations in Europe also increased dramatically over the same period. Economic activity towards the end of this period boomed as government resources aided the production of the private sector. Between 1914 and 1917, industrial production increased 32% and GNP increased by almost 20%. The improvements to industrial production in the United States outlasted the war. The capital build-up that had allowed American companies to supply belligerents and the American army resulted in a greater long-run rate of production even after the war had ended in 1917.
In 1913, J.P. Morgan, Jr. took over the House of Morgan, an American-based investment bank consisting of separate banking operations in New York, London, and Paris, after the death of his father, J. Pierpont Morgan. The House of Morgan offered assistance in the wartime financing of England and France from the earliest stages of the war in 1914 through America’s entrance in 1917. J.P. Morgan & Co., the House of Morgan’s bank in New York, was designated as the primary financial agent to the British government in 1914. The same bank would later take a similar role in France and would offer extensive financial assistance to both warring nations. J.P. Morgan &Co. became the primary issuer of loans to the French government by raising money from American investors. Morgan, Harjes, the House of Morgan’s French affiliated bank, controlled the majority of the wartime financial dealings between the House of Morgan and the French government after primary issuances of debt in American markets. Relations between the House of Morgan and the French government became tense as the War raged on with no end in sight. France’s ability to borrow from other sources diminished, leading to greater lending rates and a depressing of the value of the Franc. After the War, in 1918, J.P. Morgan & Co. continued to aid the French government financially through monetary stabilization and debt relief.
Because America was still a declared neutral state, the financial dealings of American banks in Europe caused a great deal of contention between Wall Street and the U.S. government. William Jennings Bryan, the Secretary of State at the time, strictly opposed financial support of warring nations and officially banned loans to the belligerents in August 1914. In a letter to President Wilson dated August 10, 1914, Secretary Bryan recognized that “refusal to loan to any belligerent would natural tend to hasten a conclusion of the war” 
J.P. Morgan managed to avoid the ban and issued loans to France including one in March 1915 and another in October 1915, the latter amounting to US$500,000,000. Although the stance of the U.S. government was that ending such aid could hasten the end of the war and save millions of lives, little else was done to insure the adherence to the ban on loans.
The American steel industry had faced difficulties and declining profits during the Recession of 1913–1914. As war began in Europe, however, the increased demand for tools of war began a period of heightened productivity that alleviated many U.S. industrial companies from the low-growth environment of the recession. Bethlehem Steel took particular advantage of the increased demand for armaments abroad. Prior to American entrance into the War, these companies benefitted from unrestricted commerce with sovereign customers abroad. After President Wilson issued his declaration of war, the companies were subjected to price controls created by the U.S. Trade Commission in order to insure that the U.S. military would have access to the necessary armaments.
By the end of the War in 1918, Bethlehem Steel had produced 65,000 pounds of forged military products and 70 million pounds of armor plate, 1.1 billion pounds of steel for shells, and 20.1 million rounds of artillery ammunition for Britain and France. Bethlehem Steel took advantage of the domestic armaments market and produced 60% of the American weaponry and 40% of the artillery shells used in the War. Even with price controls and a lower profit margin on manufactured goods, the profits resulting from wartime sales expanded the company into the third largest manufacturing company in the country. Bethlehem Steel became the primary arms supplier for the United States and other allied powers again in 1939.
A cosmopolitan group of upper and upper-middle class businessmen based in the largest cities took the lead in promoting military preparedness and in defining how far America could be pushed around before it would fight back. Many public figures hated war—Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was the most prominent, and he resigned when he thought Wilson had become too bellicose. Grassroots opposition to American entry came especially from German and Irish elements.
A surprising factor in the development of American public opinion was how little the political parties became involved. Wilson and the Democrats in 1916 campaigned on the slogan "He kept us out of war!", saying a Republican victory would mean war with both Mexico and Germany. His position probably was critical in winning the Western states. Charles Evans Hughes, the GOP candidate, insisted on downplaying the war issue.
The Socialist party talked peace. It won 2% of the 1916 vote for Eugene V. Debs, blamed the war on capitalism and pledged total opposition. "A bayonet", its propaganda said, "was a weapon with a worker at each end". When war began however, about half the Socialists, typified by Congressman Meyer London, supported the decision; the rest, led by Debs, remained ideological and die-hard opponents.
Workers, farmers, and African Americans
The working class was relatively quiet, and tended to divide along ethnic lines. Samuel Gompers, head of the AFL, denounced the war in 1914 as "unnatural, unjustified, and unholy", but by 1916 he was supporting Wilson's limited preparedness program, against the objections of Socialist union activists. In 1916 the labor unions supported Wilson on domestic issues and ignored the war question.
The war at first disrupted the cotton market; Britain blockaded shipments to Germany, and prices fell from 11 cents a pound to only 4 cents. By 1916, however, the British decided to bolster the price to 10 cents to avoid losing Southern support. The cotton growers seem to have moved from neutrality to intervention at about the same pace as the rest of the nation. Midwestern farmers generally opposed the war, especially those of German and Scandinavian descent. The Midwest became the stronghold of isolationism; other remote rural areas also saw no need for war.
The African-American community, which lived mostly in the pro-war South, did not take a strong position one way or the other. But once war began and black men were drafted, they worked to achieve equality.
Nationwide at all times the dominant voice was held by old-stock white Americans. The largest old-stock Protestant denominations (Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, Congregational, and some Lutheran groups) loudly denounced the war at first: it was God's punishment for sin. Their moralism was aggressively focused on banishing evils (like saloons) from the face of the earth through Prohibition, and if they could be shown that German militarism was a similar evil, they would throw enormous weight. Wilson, the intensely religious son of a prominent theologian, knew exactly how to harness that moralism in his attacks on the "Huns" who threatened civilization, and his calls for an almost religious crusade on behalf of peace.
Upwards of four-fifths of America's social, political, and economic leaders were of English or Scottish descent (usually Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian). Apart from clergymen, most wanted Britain to win, though at first not to the point of American entry. Magazine editors, newspaper reporters, book publishers, college professors, intellectuals, artists, and writers were overwhelmingly pro-British.
German Americans by this time usually had only weak ties to Germany; however, they were fearful of negative treatment they might receive if the United States entered the war (such mistreatment was already happening to German-descent citizens in Canada and Australia). Almost none called for intervening on Germany's side, instead calling for neutrality and speaking of the superiority of German culture. They were increasingly marginalized, however, and by 1917 had been excluded almost entirely from national discourse on the subject. Most Scandinavian-Americans also favored American neutrality.
Churches and women
Leaders of most religious groups (except the Episcopalians) tended to pacifism, as did leaders of the woman's movement. A concerted effort was made by anti-war leaders, including Jane Addams, Oswald Garrison Villard, David Starr Jordan, Henry Ford, Lillian Wald, and Carrie Chapman Catt. Their goal was to convince Wilson to mediate an end of the war by bringing the belligerents to the conference table. Wilson indeed made an energetic, sustained and serious effort to do so, and kept his administration neutral, but he was repeatedly rebuffed by Britain and Germany. Finally in 1917 Wilson convinced some of them that to be truly anti-war they needed to support what Wilson promised would be "a war to end all wars".
Once war was declared, the more liberal denominations, which had endorsed the Social Gospel, called for a war for righteousness that would help uplift all mankind. The theme—an aspect of American exceptionalism—was that God had chosen America as his tool to bring redemption to the world.
American bishops of the Roman Catholic Church maintained a general silence toward the issue of intervention. Millions of Catholics lived in both warring camps, and Catholic Americans tended to split on ethnic lines in their opinions toward American involvement in the war. At the time, heavily Catholic towns and cities in the East and Midwest often contained multiple parishes, each serving a single ethnic group, such as Irish, German, Italian, Polish, or English. American Catholics of Irish and German descent opposed intervention most strongly. Pope Benedict XV made several attempts to negotiate a peace. All of his efforts were rebutted by both the Allies and the Germans, and throughout the war the Holy See maintained a policy of strict neutrality.
Jewish American sympathies likewise broke along ethnic lines, though at the turn of the century, Germany and Austria were considered among the most tolerant of continental European countries, while the tsarist regime in Russia was notorious for its anti-Semitic policies. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British government promised to help establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, as well as Wilson's promise of self-determination, helped swing Jewish-Americans into the pro-Allied camp.
The most effective domestic opponents of the war were Irish-American Catholics. They had little interest in the continent, but were adamant against helping the British Empire because it refused to allow independence for Ireland. The Easter Rising in Dublin in April 1916 was crushed within a week and its leaders executed by firing squad. Irish-Americans dominated the Democratic party in many large cities so Wilson had to take account of their views. They did not prevent him from being hostile to Germany, but they did force him to keep his distance from Britain. Indeed, Irish-American pressure influenced the United States into not accepting Britain's war aims as its own and define its own objectives, primarily self-determination. The Irish-American community thought they had Wilson's promise to promote Irish independence in exchange for their support of his war policies, but after the war they were bitterly disappointed by his refusal to support them in 1919.
Some British immigrants worked actively for intervention. London-born Samuel Insull, Chicago's leading industrialist, for example, enthusiastically provided money, propaganda, and means for volunteers to enter the British or Canadian armies. After the United States' entry, Insull directed the Illinois State Council of Defense, with responsibility for organizing the state's mobilization.
Immigrants from eastern Europe usually cared more about politics in their homeland than politics in the U.S. Spokesmen for Slavic immigrants hoped that an Allied victory would bring independence for their homelands. Large numbers of Hungarian immigrants who were liberal and nationalist in sentiment, and sought an independent Hungary, separate from the Austro-Hungarian Empire lobbied in favor of the war and allied themselves with the Atlanticist or Anglophile portion of the population. This community was largely pro-British and anti-German in sentiment. Albanian and Czech immigrants were enthusiastically pro-war and arguably pro-British. This brought them into line with the so-called "Anglophiles" or Pro-British Americans who themselves were primarily "old stock Americans", whose ancestry went back to the original thirteen colonies and was primarily British in origin.
By 1915, Americans were paying much more attention to the war. The sinking of the Lusitania had a strong effect on public opinion because of the deaths of American civilians. That year, a strong "Preparedness" movement emerged. It argued that the United States needed to immediately build up strong naval and land forces for defensive purposes; an unspoken assumption was that America would fight sooner or later. General Leonard Wood (still on active duty after serving a term as Chief of Staff of the Army), former president Theodore Roosevelt, and former secretaries of war Elihu Root and Henry Stimson were the driving forces behind Preparedness, along with many of the nation's most prominent bankers, industrialists, lawyers and scions of prominent families. Indeed there emerged an "Atlanticist" foreign policy establishment, a group of influential Americans drawn primarily from upper-class lawyers, bankers, academics, and politicians of the Northeast, committed to a strand of Anglophile internationalism. Representative was Paul D. Cravath, one of New York's foremost corporation lawyers. For Cravath, in his mid-fifties when the war began, the conflict served as an epiphany, sparking an interest in international affairs that dominated his remaining career. Fiercely Anglophile, he strongly supported American intervention in the war and hoped that close Anglo-American cooperation would be the guiding principle of postwar international organization.
The Preparedness movement had a "realistic" philosophy of world affairs—they believed that economic strength and military muscle were more decisive than idealistic crusades focused on causes like democracy and national self-determination. Emphasizing over and over the weak state of national defenses, they showed that America's 100,000-man Army even augmented by the 112,000 National Guardsmen, was outnumbered 20 to one by Germany's army, which was drawn from a smaller population. Reform to them meant UMT or "universal military training". They proposed a national service program under which the 600,000 men who turned 18 every year would be required to spend six months in military training, and afterwards be assigned to reserve units. The small regular army would primarily be a training agency.
Antimilitarists complained the plan would make America resemble Germany (which required two years' active duty). Advocates retorted that military "service" was an essential duty of citizenship, and that without the commonality provided by such service the nation would splinter into antagonistic ethnic groups. One spokesman promised that UMT would become "a real melting pot, under which the fire is hot enough to fuse the elements into one common mass of Americanism". Furthermore, they promised, the discipline and training would make for a better paid work force. The hostility to military service was so strong at the time it is difficult to imagine such a program winning approval; indeed, even in World War II, when Stimson as Secretary of War proposed a similar program of universal peacetime service, he was defeated.
Underscoring its commitment, the Preparedness movement set up and funded its own summer training camps at Plattsburgh, New York, and other sites, where 40,000 college alumni became physically fit, learned to march and shoot, and ultimately provided the cadre of a wartime officer corps. Suggestions by labor unions that talented working-class youth be invited to Plattsburgh were ignored. The Preparedness movement was distant not only from the working classes but also from the middle-class leadership of most of small-town America. It had had little use for the National Guard, which it saw as politicized, localistic, poorly armed, ill trained, too inclined to idealistic crusading (as against Spain in 1898), and too lacking in understanding of world affairs. The National Guard on the other hand was securely rooted in state and local politics, with representation from a very broad cross section of American society. The Guard was one of the nation's few institutions that (in some northern states) accepted blacks on an equal footing.
The Democratic party saw the Preparedness movement as a threat. Roosevelt, Root and Wood were prospective Republican presidential candidates. More subtly, the Democrats were rooted in localism that appreciated the National Guard, and the voters were hostile to the rich and powerful in the first place. Working with the Democrats who controlled Congress, Wilson was able to sidetrack the Preparedness forces. Army and Navy leaders were forced to testify before Congress to the effect that the nation's military was in excellent shape.
In fact neither the Army nor Navy was in shape for war. The Navy had fine ships but Wilson had been using them to threaten Mexico, and the fleet's readiness had suffered. The crews of the Texas and the New York, the two newest and largest battleships, had never fired a gun, and the morale of the sailors was low. The Army and Navy air forces were tiny in size. Despite the flood of new weapons systems unveiled in the war in Europe, the Army was paying scant attention. For example, it was making no studies of trench warfare, poison gas or tanks, and was unfamiliar with the rapid evolution of air tactics. The Democrats in Congress tried to cut the military budget in 1915. The Preparedness movement effectively exploited the surge of outrage over the Lusitania in May 1915, forcing the Democrats to promise some improvements to the military and naval forces. Wilson, less fearful of the Navy. embraced a long-term building program designed to make the fleet the equal of the Royal Navy by the mid-1920s. "Realism" was at work here; the admirals were Mahanians and they therefore wanted a surface fleet of heavy battleships second to none—that is, equal to Britain. The facts of submarine warfare (which necessitated destroyers, not battleships) and the possibilities of imminent war with Germany (or with Britain, for that matter), were simply ignored.
Wilson's program for the army touched off a firestorm. Secretary of War Lindley Garrison adopted many of the proposals of the Preparedness leaders, especially their emphasis on a large federal reserves and abandonment of the National Guard. Garrison's proposals not only outraged the localistic politicians of both parties, they also offended a strongly held belief shared by the liberal wing of the Progressive movement. They felt that warfare always had a hidden economic motivation. Specifically, they warned the chief warmongers were New York bankers (like J. P. Morgan) with millions at risk, profiteering munition makers (like Bethlehem Steel, which made armor, and DuPont, which made powder) and unspecified industrialists searching for global markets to control. Antiwar critics blasted them. These special interests were too powerful, especially, Senator LaFollette noted, in the conservative wing of the Republican Party. The only road to peace was disarmament, reiterated Bryan.
Garrison's plan unleashed the fiercest battle in peacetime history over the relationship of military planning to national goals. In peacetime, War Department arsenals and Navy yards manufactured nearly all munitions that lacked civilian uses, including warships, artillery, naval guns, and shells. Items available on the civilian market, such as food, horses, saddles, wagons, and uniforms were always purchased from civilian contractors. Armor plate (and after 1918, airplanes) were exceptions that have caused unremitting controversy for a century. After World War II, the arsenals and Navy yards were much less important than giant civilian aircraft and electronic firms, which became the second half of the "military-industrial complex" Peace leaders like Jane Addams of Hull House and David Starr Jordan of Stanford redoubled their efforts, and now turned their voices against the President because he was "sowing the seeds of militarism, raising up a military and naval caste". Many ministers, professors, farm spokesmen and labor union leaders joined in, with powerful support from a band of four dozen southern Democrats in Congress who took control of the House Military Affairs Committee. Wilson, in deep trouble, took his cause to the people in a major speaking tour in early 1916, a warmup for his reelection campaign that fall. Wilson seems to have won over the middle classes, but had little impact on the largely ethnic working classes and the deeply isolationist farmers. Congress still refused to budge, so Wilson replaced Garrison as Secretary of War with Newton Baker, the Democratic mayor of Cleveland and an outspoken opponent of preparedness. (Garrison's kept quiet, but felt Wilson was "a man of high ideals but no principles".) The upshot was a compromise passed in May 1916, as the war raged on and Berlin was debating whether America was so weak it could be ignored. The Army was to double in size to 11,300 officers and 208,000 men, with no reserves, and a National Guard that would be enlarged in five years to 440,000 men. Summer camps on the Plattsburg model were authorized for new officers, and the government was given $20 million to build a nitrate plant of its own. Preparedness supporters were downcast, the antiwar people were jubilant. America would now be too weak to go to war. Colonel Robert L. Bullard privately complained that "Both sides [Britain and Germany] treat us with scorn and contempt; our fool, smug conceit of superiority has been exploded in our faces and deservedly." The House gutted the naval plans as well, defeating a "big navy" plan by 189 to 183, and scuttling the battleships. The battle of Jutland (May 31/June 1, 1916) was used by the navalists to argue for the primacy of seapower; they then took control in the Senate, broke the House coalition, and authorized a rapid three-year buildup of all classes of warships. A new weapons system, naval aviation, received $3.5 million, and the government was authorized to build its own armor-plate factory. The very weakness of American military power encouraged Berlin to start its unrestricted submarine attacks in 1917. It knew this meant war with America, but it could discount the immediate risk because the U.S. Army was negligible and the new warships would not be at sea until 1919 by which time the war would be over, with Germany victorious. The notion that armaments led to war was turned on its head: refusal to arm in 1916 led to war in 1917.
Decision for war
By 1916 a new factor was emerging—a sense of national self-interest and nationalism. The unbelievable casualty figures were sobering—two vast battles caused over one million casualties each. Clearly this war would be a decisive episode in the history of the world. Every American effort to find a peaceful solution was frustrated.
Henry Ford managed to make pacifism look ridiculous by sponsoring a private peace mission that accomplished nothing. German agents added a comic opera touch. The agent in charge of propaganda left his briefcase on the train, where an alert Secret Service agent snatched it up. Wilson let the newspapers publish the contents, which indicated a systematic effort by Berlin to subsidize friendly newspapers and block British purchases of war materials. Berlin's top espionage agent, debonnaire Franz Rintelen von Kleist was spending millions to finance sabotage in Canada, stir up trouble between the United States and Mexico and to incite labor strikes. The British were engaged in propaganda too, though not illegal espionage. But they did not get caught; Germany took the blame as Americans grew ever more worried about the vulnerability of a free society to subversion. Indeed, one of the main fears Americans of all stations had in 1916–1919 was that spies and saboteurs were everywhere. This sentiment played a major role in arousing fear of Germany, and suspicions regarding everyone of German descent who could not "prove" 100% loyalty.
Americans felt an increasing need for a military that could command respect; as one editor put it, "The best thing about a large army and a strong navy is that they make it so much easier to say just what we want to say in our diplomatic correspondence." Berlin thus far had backed down and apologized when Washington was angry, thus boosting American self-confidence. America's rights and America's honor increasingly came into focus. The slogan "Peace" gave way to "Peace with Honor". The Army remained unpopular, however. A recruiter in Indianapolis noted that, "The people here do not take the right attitude towards army life as a career, and if a man joins from here he often tries to go out on the quiet". The Preparedness movement used its easy access to the mass media to demonstrate that the War Department had no plans, no equipment, little training, no reserves, a laughable National Guard, and a wholly inadequate organization for war. Motion pictures like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Battle Cry of Peace (1915) depicted invasions of the American homeland that demanded action.
The press at the time reported that the only thing the military was ready for was an enemy fleet attempting to seize New York harbor—at a time when the German battle fleet was penned up by the Royal Navy. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, a journalist with pacifist leanings, had built up the educational resources of the Navy and made its War College in Newport an essential experience for would-be admirals. However, he alienated the officer corps with his moralistic reforms, including no wine in the officers' mess, no hazing at Annapolis, and more chaplains and YMCAs. Ignoring the nation's strategic needs, and disdaining the advice of its experts, Daniels suspended meetings of the Joint Army and Navy Board for two years because it was giving unwelcome advice, chopped in half the General Board's recommendations for new ships, reduced the authority of officers in the Navy yards where ships were built and repaired, and ignored the administrative chaos in his department. Bradley Fiske, one the most innovative admirals in American naval history, in 1914 was Daniels' top aide; he recommended a reorganization that would prepare for war, but Daniels refused. Instead he replaced Fiske in 1915 and brought in for the new post of Chief of Naval Operations an unknown captain, William Benson. Chosen for his compliance, Benson proved a wily bureaucrat who was more interested in preparing for an eventual showdown with Britain than an immediate one with Germany. Benson told Sims he "would as soon fight the British as the Germans". Proposals to send observers to Europe were blocked, leaving the Navy in the dark about the success of the German submarine campaign. Admiral William Sims charged after the war that in April 1917, only ten percent of the Navy's warships were fully manned; the rest lacked 43% of their seamen. Light antisubmarine ships were few in number, as if Daniels had been unaware of the German submarine menace that had been the focus of foreign policy for two years. The Navy's only warfighting plan, the "Black Plan" assumed the Royal Navy did not exist and that German battleships were moving freely about the Atlantic and the Caribbean and threatening the Panama Canal. Daniels' tenure would have been even less successful save for the energetic efforts of Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt, who effectively ran the Department.
In early 1917 Berlin forced the issue. The decision to try to sink every ship on the high seas was the immediate cause of American entry into the war. Five American merchant ships went down in March. If further evidence were needed, the German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, approached Mexico for an alliance; Mexico would join Germany in a war and be rewarded with the return of lost territories in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona (but not California). The Zimmermann Telegram was intercepted and decoded by British cryptographers. Outraged public opinion now overwhelmingly supported Wilson when he asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917. The United States had a moral responsibility to enter the war, he proclaimed, to make the world safe for democracy. The future of the world was being determined on the battlefield, and American national interest demanded a voice. Wilson's definition of the situation won wide acclaim, and, indeed, has shaped America's role in world and military affairs ever since. Wilson saw that if Germany would win, the consequences would be bad for the United States. Germany would have dominated the continent and perhaps would gain control of the seas as well. Latin America could well have fallen under Berlin's control. The dream of spreading democracy, liberalism, and independence would have been shattered. On the other hand, if the Allies had won without help, there was a danger they would carve up the world without regard to American commercial interests. They were already planning to use government subsidies, tariff walls, and controlled markets to counter the competition posed by American businessmen. The solution was a third route, a "peace without victory", according to Wilson.
Public opinion, moralism, and national interest
Historians such as Ernest R. May have approached the process of American entry into the war as a study in how public opinion changed radically in three years' time. In 1914 most Americans called for neutrality, seeing the war a dreadful mistake and were determined to stay out. By 1917 the same public felt just as strongly that going to war was both necessary and wise. Military leaders had little to say during this debate, and military considerations were seldom raised. The decisive questions dealt with morality and visions of the future. The prevailing attitude was that America possessed a superior moral position as the only great nation devoted to the principles of freedom and democracy. By staying aloof from the squabbles of reactionary empires, it could preserve those ideals—sooner or later the rest of the world would come to appreciate and adopt them. In 1917 this very long-run program faced the severe danger that in the short run powerful forces adverse to democracy and freedom would triumph. Strong support for moralism came from religious leaders, women (led by Jane Addams), and from public figures like long-time Democratic leader William Jennings Bryan, the Secretary of State from 1913 to 1916. The most important moralist of all was President Woodrow Wilson—the man who dominated decision making so totally that the war has been labelled "Wilson's War".
In 1917 Wilson won the support of most of the moralists by proclaiming "a war to make the world safe for democracy." If they truly believed in their ideals, he explained, now was the time to fight. The question then became whether Americans would fight for what they deeply believed in, and the answer turned out to be a resounding "Yes".
Antiwar activists at the time and in the 1930s, alleged that beneath the veneer of moralism and idealism there surely must have been some sordid forces at work. Some suggested a conspiracy on the part of New York City bankers holding $3 billion of war loans to the Allies, or steel and chemical firms selling munitions to the Allies. This conspiracy interpretation was based not on evidence but on a prior theory that wars are always caused by greedy businessmen. However, the interpretation was popular among left-wing Progressives (led by Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin) and among the "agrarian" wing of the Democratic party—including the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee of the House. He strenuously opposed war, but when it came he rewrote the tax laws to make sure the rich paid the most. (In the 1930s neutrality laws were passed to prevent financial entanglements from dragging the nation into a war.) In the 1930s some journalists pointed to the British propaganda that played on exaggerated tales of German barbarism and appealed to the basically British cultural roots of most Americans. In 1915, Bryan thought that Wilson's pro-British sentiments had distorted his policies, so he became the first Secretary of State ever to resign in protest. He did not, however, blame the bankers.
The problem with these explanations is that business supported neutrality. The pro-war element was animated not by profit but by disgust with what Germany actually did, especially in Belgium, and the threat it represented to American ideals. Americans set a standard for German behavior in terms of human decency, political philosophy, international law, and American national interest. Antiwar spokesmen did not claim that Germany was innocent, and pro-German scripts were poorly received. Belgium kept the public's sympathy as the Germans executed civilians, and English nurse Edith Cavell. American engineer Herbert Hoover led a private relief effort that won wide support. Compounding the Belgium atrocities were new weapons that Americans found repugnant, like poison gas and the aerial bombardment of innocent civilians as Zeppelins dropped bombs on London.
Above all, American attitudes towards Germany focused on the U-boats (submarines) which sank the Lusitania in 1915 and other passenger ships "without warning",,. That appeared to Americans as an unacceptable challenge to America's rights as a neutral country, and as an unforgivable affront to humanity. After repeated diplomatic protests, Germany agreed to stop. But in 1917 the Germany military leadership decided that "military necessity" (i.e., a chance to win) dictated the unrestricted use of their submarines. The Kaiser gave the order knowing full well it meant war with the United States—a country that his advisors felt was enormously powerful economically but too weak militarily to make a difference. The political philosophy Americans believed in was a combination of democracy and individualized freedom of the sort exemplified in Britain and France. The alternative to their entry into the war was a world dominated by German political values, including imperialism, militarism, and the suppression of minorities—a guaranteed formula for more wars in the future. Americans wanted a world of peace and democracy; in 1917 they realized that they must fight Germany to achieve it. One stumbling block was that Czarist Russia—almost as politically repugnant as Germany—was one of the Allies. When a liberal revolution overthrew the Czar in March 1917, this obstacle suddenly vanished, as war increasingly became the only choice left.
Declaration of war
On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked a special joint session of Congress to declare war on the German Empire, stating, "We have no selfish ends to serve". To make the conflict seem like a better idea, he painted the conflict idealistically, stating that the war would "make the world safe for democracy" and later that it would be a "war to end war". On April 6, 1917, Congress declared war. In the Senate, the resolution passed 82 to 6, with Senators Harry Lane, William J. Stone, James Vardaman, Asle Gronna, Robert M. La Follette, Sr., and George W. Norris voting against it. In the House, the declaration passed 373 to 50, with Claude Kitchin, a senior Democrat, notably opposing it. Another opponent was Jeannette Rankin, who alone voted against entry into both World War I and World War II. "Almost all" of the opposition came from the West and the Midwest.
- Causes of World War I
- United States in World War I
- United States declaration of war on Germany (1917)
- United States home front during World War I
- Woodrow Wilson
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- This article incorporates material from the Citizendium article "American entry into World War I", which is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License but not under the GFDL.
- NY Times main headline, April 2, 1917, President Calls for War Declaration, Stronger Navy, New Army of 500,000 Men, Full Cooperation With Germany's Foes
- Extensive essay on Woodrow Wilson and shorter essays on each member of his cabinet and First Lady from the Miller Center of Public Affairs
- President Wilson's War Address
- Map of Europe at the time of the US declaration of war on Germany at omniatlas.com
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