The sequence of events leading from peace in Europe to the outbreak of a general war occurred with stunning rapidity:
SARAJEVO, June 28, 1914: A Serbian terrorist assassinates Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand- the heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire- and his wife.
VIENNA, July 23: The Austrian government issues an ultimatum threatening war against Serbia and invades that country four days later.
BERLIN, August 1: As Austria’s ally, the German government under Kaiser Wilhelm I declares war against Russia, an ally of Serbia.
BERLIN, August 3: Germany declares war against France, an ally of Russia, and immediately begins an invasion of neutral Belgium because it offers the fastest route to Paris.
LONDON, August 4: Great Britain, as an ally of France, declares war against Germany.
In the United States, the American people were shocked that the European nations were actually at war. True, since 1898, the US had acted as a major power by intervening in the Caribbean and asserting an Open Door policy in China. Yet it strongly held to the tradition begun by Washington and Jefferson of not allying the nation with any European power or becoming involved in a war on the other side of the Atlantic. President Wilson’s first response to the outbreak of the European war was therefore predictable. He issued a declaration of US neutrality and called upon the American people to support his policy by not taking sides. In trying to steer a neutral course, however, Wilson soon found that it was difficult- if not impossible- to protect US trading rights and maintains a policy that favored neither the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, Russia) nor the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire/Turkey). During a relatively short period (1914-1919), the US and its people rapidly moved through a wide range of roles: first as a contented neutral country, next as a country waging a war for peace, then as a victorious world power, and finally, as an alienated, isolationist nation. US NEUTRALITY
In WWI (as in the War of 1812), the trouble for the US arose from the efforts of the belligerent powers to stop supplies from reaching the enemy. Having the stronger navy, Great Britain was the first to declare a naval blockade against Germany by mining the North Sea and seizing ships- including US ships- attempting to run the blockade. President Wilson protested British seizure of American ships as a violation of a neutral nation’s right to freedom of the seas. Submarine Warfare:
Germany’s one hope for challenging British power at sea lay with a new naval weapon, the submarine. In February 1915, Germany answered the British blockade by announcing a blockade of its own and warned that ships attempting to enter the “war zone” (waters near the British Isles) risked being sunk on sight by German submarines.
“LUSITANIA” CRISIS- The first major crisis challenging US neutrality and peace was the torpedoing and sinking of a British passenger liner, the Lusitania, on May 7, 1915. Most of the passengers drowned, including 128 Americans. Wilson responded by sending Germany a strongly worded diplomatic message warning that Germany would be held to “strict accountability” if it continued its policy of sinking unarmed ships. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan objected to this message as too warlike and resigned from the president’s cabinet.
OTHER SINKINGS- In August 1915, two more Americans lost their lives at sea as a result of a German submarine attack on another passenger ship, the Arabic. This time, Wilson’s note of protests prevailed upon the German government to pledge that no other unarmed passenger ships would be sunk without warning (that is, without time being allowed for passengers to get into lifeboats). Germany kept its word until March 1916 when a German torpedo struck an unarmed merchant ship, the Sussex, injuring several American passengers. Wilson threatened to cut off US diplomatic relations with Germany- a step preparatory to war. Once again, rather than risk US entry into the war on the British side, Germany backed down. Its reply to the president, known as the Sussex pledge, promised not to sink any merchant or passenger ships without giving due warning. For the remainder of 1916, Germany was true to its word.
Economic Links with Britain and France:
Even though the US was officially a neutral nation, its economy became closely tied to that of the Allied powers, Great Britain and France. In early 1914, before the war began, the US had been in a business recession. Soon after the outbreak of war, the economy rebounded in part because of orders for war supplies from the British and the French. By 1915, US businesses had never been so prosperous. In theory, US manufacturers could have shipped supplies to Germany as well, but the British blockade effectively prevented such trade. Wilson’s policy did not deliberately favor the Allied powers. Nevertheless, because the president more or less tolerated the British blockade while restricting Germany’s submarine blockade, US economic support was going to one side (Britain/France) and not the other. Between 1914 and 1917, US trade with the Allies quadrupled while its trade with Germany dwindled to the vanishing point. LOANS- In addition, when the allies found they could not fiancé the purchase of everything they needed, the US government permitted JP Morgan and other bankers to extend as much as $3 billion in secured credit to Great Britain and France. These loans maintained US prosperity, and at the same time they sustained the Allies’ war effort.
If Wilson’s policies unintentionally favored Britain, so did the attitudes of the majority of Americans. In August 1914, as Americans read in their newspapers about German armies marching ruthlessly through Belgium, they perceived Germany as a cruel bully whose armies were commanded by a mean-spirited autocrat, Kaiser Wilhelm. This view of German ruthlessness was reinforced by the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. ETHNIC INFLUENCES- In 1914, first and second generation immigrants made up over 30% of the US population. They were glad to be out of the fighting and strongly supported neutrality. Even so, their sympathies were committed to their nationality of origin. When Italy joined the Allies in 1915, Italian Americans began cheering on the Allies in their desperate struggle to fend off German assaults on the Western Front (entrenched positions in France). German Americans, on the other hand, strongly sympathized with the struggles of their “homeland.” Another large ethnic group, the Irish Americans, hated Britain because of its oppressive rule of Ireland. Their sympathies were openly committed to the Central Powers. Still, the great majority of native-born Americans wanted Britain and France to win the war. Positive US relations with France since the Revolutionary War bolstered public support for the French. Americans also tended to sympathize with Britain and France because of their democratic governments. President Wilson himself, as a person of Scotch-English descent, had long admired the British political system.
BRITISH WAR PROPAGANDA- Not only did Britain command the seas but it also commanded the war news that was cabled daily to US newspapers and magazines. Fully recognizing the importance of influencing US public opinion, the British government made sure the American press was well supplied with stories of German soldiers committing atrocities in Belgium and the German-occupied part of eastern France.
THE WAR DEBATE
After the Lusitania, a small but vocal minority of influential Republicans from the East- including Teddy Roosevelt- argued for US entry into the war against Germany. The majority of Americans, however, were thankful for a booming economy and peace. Preparedness:
Eastern Republicans like Roosevelt were the first to recognize that the US Army and Navy were hopelessly unprepared for a major war. They clamored for “preparedness” (greater defense expenditures) soon after the European war broke out. Leading the campaign was the National Security League, organized by a group of business leaders to promote preparedness and to extend direct US aid to the Allies, if needed. At first, President Wilson opposed the call for preparedness, but in late 1915, he changed his policy and urged Congress to approve an ambitious expansion of the armed forces. The president’s proposal provoked a storm of controversy, especially among Democrats who until then were largely opposed to military increases. After a nationwide speaking tour on behalf of preparedness, Wilson finally convinced Congress to pass the National Defense Act in June 1916, which increased the regular army to a force of nearly 175,000. A month later, Congress approved the construction of more than 50 warships (battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines) in just one year.
Opposition to War:
Many Americans, esp. in the Midwest/West, were adamantly opposed to preparedness, fearing that it would soon lead to US involvement in the war. The antiwar activists included Populists, Progressives, and Socialists. Leaders among the peace-minded Progressives were William Jennings Bryan, Jane Addams, and Jeanette Rankin- (1st woman elected to Congress). Woman suffragists actively campaigned against any military buildup (after the US declaration of war in 1917, they would loyally support the war effort).
The Election of 1916:
President Wilson was well aware that, as a Democrat, he had won election to the presidency in 1912 only because of the split in Republican ranks between Taft conservatives and Roosevelt Progressives. Despite his own Progressive record, Wilson’s changes for reelection did not seem strong after Theodore Roosevelt declined the Progressive party’s nomination for president in 1916 and rejoined the Republicans (Roosevelt’s decision virtually destroyed any chance of the Progressive party surviving). Charles Evans Hughes, a Supreme Court justice/former governor of NY, became the presidential candidate of a reunited Republican Party.
“HE KEPT US OUT OF WAR”- The Democrats adopted as their campaign slogan: “He kept us out of war.” The peace sentiment in the country, Wilson’s record of Progressive leadership, and Hughes’ weakness as a candidate combined to give the president the victory in an extremely close election. Democratic strength in the South/West had overcome Republican dominance in the East.
Wilson made repeated efforts to fulfill his party’s campaign promise to keep out of the war. Before the election, in 1915, he had sent his chief foreign policy advisor, Colonel Edward House of Texas, to London, Paris, and Berlin to negotiate a peace settlement. This mission, however, had been unsuccessful. Other efforts at mediation also were turned aside by both the Allies and the Central Powers. Finally, in January 1917, Wilson made a speech to the Senate declaring US commitment to the idea of “peace without victory.”
DECISION FOR WAR
In April 1917, only one month after being sworn into office a second time, President Wilson went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Germany. What had happened to change his policy from neutrality to war? Unrestricted Submarine Warfare:
Most important in the US decision for war was a sudden chance in German military strategy. The German high command had decided in early January 1917 to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. They recognized the risk of the United States entering the war but believed that, by cutting off supplies to the Allies, Germany could win the war before Americans could react. Germany communicated its decision to the US government on January 31. A few days later, Wilson broke off US diplomatic relations with Germany.
Wilson still hesitated, but a series of events in March 1917 as well as the president’s hopes for arranging a permanent peace in Europe convinced him that US participation in the war was now unavoidable.
ZIMMERMANN TELEGRAM- On March 1, US newspapers carried the shocking news of a secret offer made by Germany to Mexico. Intercepted by British intelligence, a telegram to Mexico from the German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmerman, proposed that Mexico ally itself with Germany in return for Germany’s pledge to help Mexico recover lost territories: Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The Zimmermann Telegram aroused the nationalist anger of the American people and convinced Wilson that Germany fully expected a war with the United States.
RUSSIAN REVOLUTION- Applying the principle of moral diplomacy, Wilson wanted the war to be fought for a worthy purpose: the triumph of democracy. It bothered him that one of the Allies was Russia, a nation governed by an autocratic czar. This barrier to US participation was suddenly removed on March 15, when Russian revolutionaries overthrew the czar’s government and proclaimed a republic (only later in November would the revolutionary government be taken over by Communists).
RENEWED SUBMARINE ATTACKS- In the first weeks of March, German submarines sank five unarmed US merchant ships.
Declaration of War:
On April 2, 1917, President Wilson stood before a special session of senators and representatives and solemnly asked that Congress recognize a state of war existed between Germany and the USA. His speech condemned Germany’s submarine policy as “warfare against mankind” and declared” “The world must be made safe for democracy.” On April 6, an overwhelming majority in Congress voted for a declaration of war; a few pacifists, including Robert La Follette and Jeanette Rankin, defiantly voted no.
US mobilization for war in 1917 was a race against time. It was understood that Germany was preparing to deliver a knockout blow to end the war on German terms. On land, Germany planned a major offensive against Allied lines on the Western Front; at sea, the unleashed power of German submarines could now do serious damage to British sources of supply. Could the US mobilize its vast economic resources fast enough to make a difference? That was the question Wilson and his advisers confronted in the critical early months of US involvement in war. Industry and Labor:
Since it would take many months to train US troops, the first American contribution to the Allies would be in shipping needed supplies: chiefly munitions (rifles/gunpowder) and food. For this purpose, Wilson created a number of war agencies staffed by volunteers. For example: Bernard Baruch, a Wall Street broker, volunteered to use his extensive contacts in industry to help win the war. Under his direction, the War Industries Board set production priorities and established centralized control over raw materials and prices. Herbert Hoover, a distinguished engineer, took charge of the Food Administration, which encouraged American households to eat less meat and bread so that more food could be shipped abroad for the French and British troops. The conservation drive paid off; in two years, US overseas shipment of food tripled. Harry Garfield volunteered to head the Fuel Administration, which directed efforts to save coal. Nonessential factories were closed, and daylight savings time went into effect for the first time. Former president William Howard Taft helped arbitrate disputes between workers and employers as head of the National War Labor Board. Labor won concessions during the way that had earlier been denied. Wages rose, the eight hour day became more common, and union membership increased.
Paying for something as costly as war is always a huge problem. Wilson’s war government managed to raise $33 billion in two years by a combination of loans and taxes. It conducted four massive drives to convince Americans to put their savings into federal government Liberty Bonds. Congress also increased both personal income and corporate taxes and placed an excise tax on luxury goods.
Public Opinion and Civil Liberties:
The US government used techniques of both patriotic persuasion and legal intimidation to ensure public support for the war effort. Progressive journalist George Creel took charge of a propaganda agency called the Committee on Public Information, which enlisted the voluntary services of artists, writers, vaudeville performers, and movie starts to depict the heroism of the “boys” (US soldiers) and the villainy of the Kaiser. The vast amount of war propaganda created under Creel’s direction consisted of films, posters, pamphlets, and volunteer speakers- all urging Americans to watch out for German spies and to “do your bit” for the war. War hysteria and patriotic enthusiasm too often provided an excuse for nativist groups to take out their prejudices on “disloyal” minorities. Of such group, the American Protective League, mounted “Hate the Hun” campaigns and used vigilante action in attacking all things German- from the performing of Beethoven’s music to the cooking of sauerkraut.
ESPIONAGE AND SEDITION ACTS- A number of socialists and pacifists took the risk of criticizing the government’s war policy. After the passage of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Acts in 1918, the penalty for speaking out in this way was often a stiff prison sentence. The Espionage Act provided for the imprisonment of up to 20 years for persons who either tried to incite rebellion in the armed forces or obstruct the operation of the draft. The Sedition Act went much further by prohibiting anyone from making “disloyal” or “abusive” remarks about the US government. About 2,000 people were prosecuted under these laws, half of whom were convicted and jailed. Among them was the Socialist leader, Eugene V. Debs, who was sentenced to ten years in federal prison for speaking against the war.
CASE OF “SCHENCK v. UNITED STATES”- The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Espionage acts in a case involving a man who had been imprisoned for distributing pamphlets against the draft. In 1919, Oliver Wendell Homes concluded that the right of free speech could be limited when it represented a “clear and present danger” to the public safety.
As soon as war was declared, thousands of young men voluntarily enlisted for military service. The largest number of recruits, however, were conscripted (drafted) into the army by a system requiring all men between 21 and 30 (and later between 18 and 45) to register with the government for possible induction.
SELECTIVE SERVICE ACT 1917- The system of “selective service” was devised by Secretary of War Newton D. Baker as a democratic method for ensuring that all groups in the population would be called into service. Under the Selective Service Act, passed by Congress in June 1917, about 2.8 million men were eventually called by lottery. The draftees provided over half the total of 4.7 million Americans who were issued a uniform during the war. Of these, more than 2 million were transported overseas to join the British and the French in the trenches on the Western Front.
AFRICAN AMERICANS- Racial segregation applied to the army as it did to civilian life. Almost 400,000 African Americans served in WWI in segregated units. Only a few were permitted to be officers, and all were barred from the Marine Corps. Nevertheless, WEB DuBois believed that the record of service by African Americans, fighting to “make the world safe for democracy,” would earn them equal rights at home when the war ended (his hopes, however, would be bitterly disappointed).
Effects on American Society:
All groups in American society- business and labor, women and men, immigrants and native-born- were required to adjust to the unusual demands of a wartime economy.
MORE JOBS FOR WOMEN- As men were drafted into the army, the jobs they vacated were often taken by women, thousands of whom entered the workforce for the first time. Their contributions to the war effort, both as volunteers and wage earners, finally convinced President Wilson and Congress to support the 19th Amendment.
MIGRATION OF MEXICANS AND AFRICAN AMERICANS- Job opportunities in wartime America, together with the upheavals of the revolution in Mexico, caused thousands of Mexicans to cross the border to work in agriculture and mining. Most were employed in the Southwest, but a significant number also traveled to the Midwest for factory jobs. African Americans also took advantage of job opportunities opened up by the war and migrated north.
FIGHTING THE WAR
By the time the first US troops were shipped overseas in late 1917, millions of European soldiers on both sides had already been killed by murderous artillery barrages, machine-gun fire, and poison gas attacks. A second revolution in Russia by Bolsheviks (or Communists) took that nation out of the war. With no Eastern Front to divide its forces, Germany could now concentrate on one all-out push to break through Allied lines in France. Naval Operations:
Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was having its intended effect. Merchant ships bound for Britain were being sunk at a staggering rate: 900,000 tons of shipping was lost in just one month (April 1917). US response to this Allied emergency was to undertake a record-setting program of ship construction. The US Navy also implemented a convoy system of armed escorts for groups of merchant ships. By the end of 1917, the system was working well enough to ensure that Britain and France would not be starved into submission.
American Expeditionary Force:
Unable to imaging the grim realities of trench warfare, US troops were eager for action. The idealism of both the troops and the public is reflected in the popular song of George M. Cohan that many were singing:
Over there, over there/ Send the word, send the word over there/
That the Yanks are coming, The Yanks are coming/The drums are rum-tumming ev’ry where-
The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was commanded by General John J. Pershing. The first US troops to see action were used to plug weaknesses in the French and British lines, but by the summer of 1918, as American forces arrived by the hundreds of thousands, the AEF assumed independent responsibility for one segment of the Western Front.
LAST GERMAN OFFENSIVE- Enough US troops were in place in the spring of 1918 to hold the line against the last ferocious assault by German forces. At Château-Thierry on the Marne River, Americans stopped the German advance (June 1918) and struck back with a successful counterattack at Belleau Wood.
DRIVE TO VICTORY- In August, September, and October, an Allied offensive along the Meuse River and through the Argonne Forest (the Meuse-Argonne offensive) succeeded in driving an exhausted German army backward toward the German border. US troops participated in this drive at St. Mihiel- the southern sector of the Allied line. On November 11, 1918, the Germans signed an armistice in which they agreed to surrender their arms, give up much of their navy, and evacuate occupied territory.
US CASUALTIES- After only a few months of fighting, US combat deaths totaled nearly 49,000. Many more thousands died of disease, including a flu epidemic in the training camps, bringing the total US fatalities in WWI to 112, 432.
MAKING THE PEACE
During the war, Woodrow Wilson never lost sight of his ambition to shape the peace settlement when the war ended. In January 1917 he had said that the US would insist on a “peace without victory.” A year later (January 1918), he presented Congress a detailed list of war aims, known as the Fourteen Points. The Fourteen Points:
Several of the president’s Fourteen Points related to specific territorial questions: for example, the return of Alsace and Lorraine to France and the German evacuation of Belgium in the west and Romania and Serbia in the east. Of greater significance were the following broad principles for securing the peace (the last point was the one that Wilson valued the mos. The international peace association that he envisioned would soon be named the League of Nations):
Self-determination for the various nationalities within the Austro-Hungarian empire
“A general association of nations… for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike”
The Treaty of Versailles:
The peace conference following the armistice took place in the Palace of Versailles outside Paris, beginning in January 1919. Every nation that had fought on the Allied side in the war was represented. Before this, no US president had ever traveled abroad to attend a diplomatic conference, but to defend his Fourteen Points, President Wilson decided that his personal participation at Versailles was vital. Republicans criticized him for being accompanied to Paris by several Democrats, but only one Republican, whose advice was never sought.
THE “BIG FOUR”- Other heads of state at Versailles made it clear that their nations wanted both revenge against Germany and compensation in the form of indemnities and territory. They did not share Wilson’s idea of a peace without victory. David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Vittorio Orlando of Italy met with Wilson almost daily to compromise on most of his Fourteen Points. He insisted, however, that the other delegations accept his plan for a League of Nations.
PEACE TERMS- When the peace conference adjourned in June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles including the following terms:
Germany was disarmed and stripped of its colonies in Asia and Africa. It was also forced to admit guilt for the war, accept French occupation of the Rhineland for 15 years, and pay a huge sum of money in reparations to Great Britain and France.
Applying the principle of self-determination, territories once controlled by Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia were taken by the Allies, independence was granted to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Poland, and the new nations of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were established.
Signers of the treaty would join an international peacekeeping organization, the League of Nations. Article X of the covenant (charter) of the League called on each member to stand ready to protect the independence and territorial integrity of other nations.
The Battle for Reunification:
Returning to the United States, President Wilson had to win approval of two-thirds of the Senate for all parts of the Treaty of Versailles, including the League of Nations covenant. Republican senators raised objections to the League, arguing that US membership in such a body might interfere with US sovereignty and might also cause European nations to interfere in the Western Hemisphere (a violation of the Monroe Doctrine).
INCREASED PARTISANSHIP AFTER THE WAR- Wilson was partly to blame for his trouble in winning Senate ratification. He had made the mistake in October 1918 of asking the American people to vote Democratic in the midterm elections as an act of patriotic loyalty. This political appeal had backfired badly. In the 1918 election, Republicans had won a solid majority in the House and a majority of two in the Senate. Now in 1919 Wilson needed Republican cooperation in the Senate for the Treaty of Versailles to be ratified. Instead, he faced the determined hostility of a leading Senate Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge.
OPPONENTS: IRRECONCILABLES AND RESERVATIONISTS- Senators opposed to the Treaty of Versailles were divided into two groups. The irreconcilable faction, consisting of about a dozen Republican senators, could not accept US membership in the League, no matter how the covenant was worded. The reservationist faction, a larger group led by Senator Lodge, said they could accept the League if certain reservations were added to the covenant. Wilson had the option of either accepting Lodge’s reservations or fighting for the treaty as it stood. He chose to fight.
WILSON’S WESTERN TOUR AND BREAKDOWN- Believing that his policy could prevail if he could personally rally public support, Wilson boarded a train and went on an arduous speaking tour to the West to make speeches for the League of Nations. On September 23, 1919, he collapsed after delivering a speech in Colorado. He returned to Washington and a few days later suffered a massive stroke from which he never fully recovered.
REJECTION OF THE TREATY- The Senate voted twice on the treaty questions in November 1919. The treaty was defeated both times, with and without reservations. In 1920, a number of Democrats joined the reservationists Republicans in voting for the treaty with reservations. The ailing Wilson directed his loyal supporters to reject any reservations, and they joined with the irreconcilables in defeating the treaty. Not until after Wilson left office in 1921 did the United States officially end the war and make a separate peace with Germany. It never ratified the Treaty of Versailles, nor did it ever join the League of Nations.