Good Morning (Afternoon or Evening)! This is the fifth and final post in the series “Demystifying WWI.” In case you want to review or are joining us for the first time, here are some links to the previous posts this month: Alliances, Plan for War, How It Started, and New Weapons.
You may have noticed that the United States was rarely mentioned in the last four posts. So, where on earth was America during WWI? (Umm…on a big continent called North America, between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans…) Okay, okay- it is a valid questions and we’ll be answering it today.
Now, before going any further, I want to make it clear that I am not advocating isolationism, international aggression, or any other policies. I’m simply stating the facts of what happened. I would encourage you to read the history carefully, consider our political and military situation today, and form your own opinions.
The short answer to the question is: America did not become officially involved in WWI until 1917. Here’s what happened:
1. Neutrality As Europe went to war, American president, Woodrow Wilson, issued a declaration of neutrality. What’s that mean? Imagine you’re at a sporting event and you sit without any expression of pleasure or dislike on your face, never jump and shout when one team scores, and refrain doing anything, excepting eating your own hot dog, chips, and soda. That’s a simplified example of neutrality. America would simply watch.
2. Sympathy Oh, but it’s so hard to sit passively while the team (side) that you secret support is struggling. America may have proclaimed neutrality, but the majority of leaders and citizens sympathized with the Allies (Britain, France, Russia). There were three main factors in the foundation of this sympathy: support of political freedom, economic profits (selling lots of weapons to the Allies), and disagreement with Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare. The latter factor was key in the minds of the American citizens. The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 was the first widely publicized act; the luxury ship was sunk by torpedo off the coast of Ireland and 100 Americans were among the casualties. Then in 1916 after a French steamer, the Sussex, was sunk without warning, President Wilson declared that if German sunk anymore merchant or civilian ships, the United States would break diplomatic ties with that country.
3. Preparation The National Defense Act was passed by Congress in 1916 and increased the American military. It also authorized the spending of $500,000,000 for a new and modernized navy fleet
4. The President’s Plan Woodrow Wilson was an educator and he had good intentions, but utopian ideas. In January 1917 he spoke to Congress and presented his idea for “peace without victory” which would be a “peace between equals” in Europe’s war. In other words he wanted no conquered nations, but rather peace and a gathering of nations in mutual respect for discussion of international affairs. He also advocated that each nation’s people choose their own government, limitation of military armaments, freedom of the seas, and an international organization to ensure world peace.
5. Good-bye, Germany Well, President Wilson’s ideas for peace and prosperity didn’t impress Germany. They wanted to win the war and issued a proclamation, enforcing their policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and declaring that they would sink any vessel found in a designated war zone. (The Germans hoped to cut the US supply line to Britain and defeat that nation before America had time to join the war.) On February 3, 1917, the German ambassador was sent home and America broke diplomatic ties with Germany.
6. Zimmerman Note The British managed to intercept a German secret message sent from Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman to the German ambassador in Mexico. Basically, it offered that if Mexico and Germany formed an alliance, Germany would help Mexico invade the United States and re-claim New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. On March 1, 1917, the message was published in American newspapers and the citizens were horrified and angered.
7. Declaration of War On April 6, 1917, after Germany sank 4 American merchant ships, the United States declared war and officially entered the conflict.
America mobilized quickly and the war effort was supported by the majority of citizens. Registering for the draft, purchasing war bonds, increasing industrial output, planting victory gardens, attending patriotic events were some of the ways that Americans volunteered to support their nation and the Allies. By the end of the war 2,000,000 American soldiers would have served in Europe.
US infantry unit near Verdun in WWI (Public Domain; source Wikimedia)
So what happened next?
The entrance of America into the war tipped the scales in the Allies favor. The American Navy ensured that troops and supplies could safely reach Britain. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) commanded by General John Pershing fought alongside the British and French troops, providing a morale boost. Also food, sent from America, fed hungry Allied civilians.
Germany made an offensive attack in the summer of 1917. Russia had signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty and pulled out of the war to handle a Communist Revolution within their own borders. Germany hoped that one more offensive would break the remaining Allies. Fierce battles – Cantigny, Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry – might have made Germany victorious, but American reinforcements were with the Allies. Then the Allies launched a counter-offensive which included the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Campaigns. The Germans were pushed back and when their communications lines were destroyed, they agreed to sign an armistice.
In the armistice treaty the Allies forced Germany to admit sole guilt for causing the war, allow occupation of the country, and surrender most weapons, along with other harsh measures. The Germans had little choice and signed. November 11, 1918, was Armistice Day. (In America we now celebrate Veterans’ Day on this date).
Well, with the war over, the victorious countries sent leaders to negogiate a treaty at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. President Wilson (America), Prime Minister George (Britain), Premier Clemenceau (France), and Prime Minister Orlando (Italy) were called “the Big Four” and made most of the decisions. In summary The Treaty of Versailles required Germany to give up territory, demilitarize, admit guilt of causing war, and pay reparation. Oh, and the League of Nations (think of it as a pre-UN organization) was founded. America did not join the League of Nations, much to President Wilson’s dismay.
I encourage you to form your own opinions about America’s road into WWI. However, I’m going to share my thoughts on the outcome. 1) America was now emerging as a key player in international politics 2) America was a nation that could mobilize and army and civilian support rapidly 3) America had great economic interests throughout the world 4) America learned the importance of moving into the “modern era” of technology and military preparation
WWI ended in 1918 and, in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, the seeds of WWII were planted. They truly believed they had fought “a war to end all wars,” but in reality they had set the stage for an even larger conflict – one where America would join more quickly and officially move to world-power status.
I believe that this often over-looked conflict called World War I ushered in the modern era of international politics and warfare, which continues to unfold today.
P.S. So what did you think? Should America have entered WWI sooner or not at all? Just your thoughts…
Did we remove some of the mystery surrounding WWI in the last five weeks? I wish I had a little more time to cover more of WWI, but we’ve come to the end of August and will be moving on to a new topic next month. If I completely missed something or if you have a question, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer it briefly or at least post a helpful resource.