From Volume One, Issue Two, Spring 1992:
America's Turn From Neutrality to Intervention, 1914-1917
by Michael E. Hanlon
As the first rumble of the Great War's cannon fire reached the
New World, there had already formed a decisive bloc opposing American
belligerency. It included ethnic groups, such as Irish and Eastern
European immigrants who had grievances against some of the Allied
powers; gatherings like the Progressives, suffragettes and
prohibitionists who were more interested in pursuing their causes than
waging war; and Westerners and farmers who did not feel any
affiliation to Europe. These anti-interventionists were buttressed by
the long American tradition of noninvolvement in the political affairs
of the Old World and by President Wilson's early, insistent
declaration of American neutrality.
Nevertheless, as the World War unfolded, these "doves" had to
face novel and confounding events that forced them to reevaluate their
positions. Remarkably, almost every major incident that followed the
war's early days had the effect of pushing, pulling and even seducing
some segment of America into joining the originally minimal pro-
The German Army, embodiment of "Prussian militarism," quickly
acquired a "beastly" reputation by administering occupied territories
ruthlessly, executing nurses and bombarding medieval Louvain library
and Rheims cathedral. Their actual misdeeds were magnified by Allied
propaganda, and by Germany's inability to make their case directly to
the American public. The Royal Navy had not only blockaded the
Central Power's maritime commerce, but had also severed Germany's
transatlantic cable. In the US, these factors contributed to the
early "demonizing" of Germany, its legions and Kaiser Wilhelm.
Liberals in particular began to see their dreams of a world of justice
based on peace, democracy and non-monpolistic markets threatened by
the existence of the kaiser's regime. Thousands of them felt so
strongly that they enlisted in Allied armies and ambulance services.
Pacifists, in their turn, evolved the paradoxical position that true
peace could be found only after German militarism was eradicated.
By 1915, Allied contracts for weapons and food triggered a boom
in the United States. Then, as the Allies hard currency reserves ran
out, huge loans were floated to finance their purchases. Many
Americans, from factory workers to farmers to investors, came to have
a not-fully-recognized, economic stake in an Allied victory. Because
of the naval blockade's success, similar economic links never
developed with the Central Powers. The ultimate role of economics in
American intervention is still hotly debated, but it is an issue whose
importance cannot be ignored.
The sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania in the
spring of 1915 resulted in the deaths of 1,195 persons including 128
US citizens. The ensuing diplomatic hullabaloo was one of the major
landmarks of America's journey to the Great War's battlefields. Some
lesser-known side effects -- probably underestimated later by the
German General Staff -- edged the country further towards effective
intervention. Many persons, including some still opposed to
intervening, came to realize they were willing to fight for their
country if German actions compelled America to enter the war. A war
preparedness movement was triggered that succeeded in boosting US
military capability, training a larger officer cadre and improving
mobilization planning. Later problems along the Mexican border both
heightened awareness of impending hostilities and showed the
shortcomings of existing logistical systems. Most importantly, all of
this re-awoke the nation's dormant martial spirit and esteem for its
As its years of bloody carnage dragged on, the war started to
exercise a gravitational pull on US domestic politics. Many activists
began to see benefits from participating in the war since a nation on
a war footing may undertake, out of urgency, social and political
changes that it normally would not. Anti-capitalist elements, for
instance, recognized possibilities for more government controls over
industry. Advocates of redistributing wealth saw in any war's
undoubtedly great expenditures a necessity for imposing an
increasingly progressive income tax. Wartime rationing might offer
prohibitionists a chance to impose their favorite method of human
betterment on the citizenry. Unions saw that a war meant jobs for
their members, just as it meant more contracts for the corporations.
No one was brazen enough to call for war to satisfy private ambitions,
but some Americans became aware that if the country was drawn into
war, they might advance their interests.
Concurrently, the anticipated opposition of immigrant groups to
participating in the war seemed to dissolve. In the early twentieth
century, America was in the midst of the greatest wave of immigration
any nation has ever absorbed. Fearing political instability,
politicians like Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt felt it necessary to
speak-out with disapproval against "hyphenated Americanism" such as
Polish-Americanism or Italian-Americanism. But the newcomers all
proved uniformly loyal to their adopted nation and its causes. Except
perhaps for German-Americans, who hoped to avoid fighting their
cousins and lobbied likewise, ethnic-centered opposition to entering
the war never became a major factor. People of every heritage,
including those of German ancestry, rushed to serve under US colors
when war finally came.
Public opinion in the United States was dramatically shifting
towards intervention throughout 1916. But there was another,
Constitutionally empowered, player yet to commit his hand. The
President, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has to support
wholeheartedly any war that America plans to fight. No country can
expect to succeed in battle with an irresolute, reluctant captain.
For most of the Great War, Woodrow Wilson had seemed to be the
most unwilling of war lords. But he had also come to see that his
nation's only opportunity to influence the postwar international
realignment might be at the peace conference after hostilities ended.
And Wilson's multiple unsuccessful efforts at playing peacemaker had
educated him to the fact that a seat at the conference table first
required some sacrifice on the battlefield.
But he also shared his countrymen's customary reluctance to join
a European conflict -- a tendency reinforced by his political
instinct not to get too far ahead of his constituents. During the
1916 presidential campaign, and even into early 1917, he did not feel
that the nation was ready to go to war. Still of two minds about
American involvement, himself, the President required more direct
provocations before taking advantage of the growing support for
participation. On January 22nd, he made a last plea to the combatants
as an 'honest broker' with his "Peace Without Victory" speech to the
Germany announced resumed unrestricted submarine warfare at the
end of January 1917. Most Americans considered this an unacceptable
limitation on freedom of the seas. Diplomatic relations were severed.
As US flagged vessels were sunk, emotions heightened.
Then came German Foreign Minister Zimmerman's notorious
"Telegram" to his ambassador in Mexico. This message, intercepted by
British code-breakers and released at an opportune moment for the
Allies, suggested a Mexican, German and even Japanese alliance against
America. If successful, it was suggested, this could have resulted in
the return of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Mexico. The Zimmerman
Telegram caused another uproar, particularly in the western states.
Yet even as calls for war from Congress grew louder, the President
kept his own counsel.
Finally, an event in mid-March that shook the world removed the
final impediment to Wilson's opting for war. Revolution in Russia
forced the ineffectual autocrat, Tsar Nicholas II, to abdicate. When
the Provisional Government assumed authority, America and Mr. Wilson
could profess to be crusading with apparently democratically-inclined
Every major social and political obstacle to American involvement
in the war had vanished. A national belief that it was in America's
own interest to vanquish Germany and save civilization was ascendent.
Germany's heavy-handedness and the tsar's overthrow had allowed Wilson
to place his remaining qualms aside and pursue a "world safe for
democracy". He had only to ask Congress to declare war and the nation
would be ready to march.
On April 2nd, Woodrow Wilson -- who five months earlier had
been reelected with the help of supporters cheering, "He kept us out
of war!" -- rode to the Capitol and asked Congress to declare war on
Imperial Germany. Only 56 of 531 congressmen and senators objected
and on April 6, 1917 America was at war.
(Revised May 24, 1996)