Editor’s Introduction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By April 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson pressed Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, the Great War, as it was known, had been raging in Europe for more than two and a half years. During that time the American people, an ocean away and, by official government policy, politically neutral, could only follow the conflict from afar through news reports, statements from U.S. officials, opinion columns, and, of course, rumor. Most Americans were nearly as confused then about the causes of the war as they are today, although at the time, at least, many knew a relative who had lived in Europe and knew something about the local terrain and the local people and their ways. As for grand alliances such as the Triple Entente (France, Russia, and Great Britain) and the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy–the latter replaced by the Ottoman Empire to form the Central Powers), and the reasons behind the fighting–such matters took time and effort to absorb. Americans could be comfortable in their neutrality because the war did not impact them directly.

By April 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson pressed Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, the Great War, as it was known, had been raging in Europe for more than two and a half years. During that time the American people, an ocean away and, by official government policy, politically neutral, could only follow the conflict from afar through news reports, statements from U.S. officials, opinion columns, and, of course, rumor. Most Americans were nearly as confused then about the causes of the war as they are today, although at the time, at least, many knew a relative who had lived in Europe and knew something about the local terrain and the local people and their ways. As for grand alliances such as the Triple Entente (France, Russia, and Great Britain) and the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy–the latter replaced by the Ottoman Empire to form the Central Powers), and the reasons behind the fighting–such matters took time and effort to absorb. Americans could be comfortable in their neutrality because the war did not impact them directly.

The Lead-Up to U.S. Participation

Central to the decision to eventually go to war were events taking place not only on the Continent but also in the Atlantic Ocean. Early on, Britain had imposed a naval blockade to cut off Germany from needed supplies, including supplies coming from the United States. This did damage to U.S.-British relations, and the Wilson administration protested the action. Britain, in turn, protested the fact that German merchant ships that reached the United States found a safe harbor there. Yet, any brewing animosity between England and America was curtailed when, in early 1915, Germany initiated a policy of submarine (U-boat) warfare against enemy vessels. In May of that year the Germans sank the British passenger ship Lusitania, on the grounds that it was carrying war supplies. Over one thousand civilians were killed, including 128 Americans. Meanwhile, reports of German brutality in Belgium and elsewhere began reaching American ears.

Further twists in the area of naval actions, and diplomatic reactions, arose when a passenger ferry in the English Channel, the Sussex, was torpedoed (March 1916) by a German U-boat, leaving four Americans dead among the eighty casualties. About that same time, German naval commanders began testing a “stop and search” policy that was in place for nonmilitary shipping: the U-boat captains attacked whenever a vessel was suspected of carrying munitions or other war contraband. In October 1916, for example, several Allied merchant ships were shot off Nantucket Island, their crews rescued by U.S. destroyers. Despite this aggression, Wilson continued to urge neutrality, running his reelection campaign on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War!” The fact that Wilson won reelection in November, albeit in a very close race, indicates that he was by no means alone in his views.

Germany seemed to do itself no favors when, in early 1917, it declared unrestricted warfare on the seas–largely in response to the blockade that had so depleted its supplies. Its leadership, moreover, was caught out in a rather crude attempt to win Mexico to Germany’s side by inviting the Mexicans to recapture territory they had lost to the United States in the previous century. The proposal, put forth in a telegram by German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmerman, was discovered by British officials and turned over to Wilson. The American public became incensed, and Wilson saw that there was now but one course of action. On April 2, 1917, he asked Congress to declare war on Germany. It was, nevertheless, a deeply troubling prospect, as indicated by his words:

There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts–for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.

War Preparations

One of the first problems the U.S. government faced in becoming a party to the war was that of securing the funds needed to raise an army, transport it overseas, and keep it well armed and provisioned. To address this, the government issued federal bonds and promoted them to the public as a long-term investment. The trade in “liberty bonds” was lively, ultimately helping to defray two-thirds of the cost of the war. The rest was made up by increases in inheritance, corporate, capital gains, and excise taxes. Some critics complained that too much of the new revenue stream was going into the pockets of the many private businesses that supplied the war matériel to the military. Initially the process was overseen by a diffuse hierarchy of boards and committees known as the Council of National Defense, but this proved unworkable and soon it was replaced by a more centralized institution, the War Industries Board (WIB). After an unpromising start, the WIB was itself reorganized (February 1918) and put under the control the financier Bernard Baruch, with salutary results. The production of ships, airplanes, tanks, guns, etc., was now on solid footing–although nearly a year had now passed since Wilson’s declaration of war.

A similar pattern was evident in the area of rail transport, a vital part of the production effort. A decentralized, voluntary system of cooperation between the railroads and the government was instituted at the outset, but within a few months shortages of rail cars and locomotives, along with problems of coordination, began to make themselves felt. In December 1917, therefore, the government took control of the U.S. rail system, creating a new agency, the U.S. Railroad Administration, headed by the secretary of the Treasury, William McAdoo. In general, the efficiency of the system, at least for the purposes of moving raw materials and equipment about, was improved.

To manage the flow of information to the public and the press, a quasi-independent Committee on Public Information (CPI) was created and put under the leadership of George Creel, a newsman who had assisted in Wilson’s reelection campaign. Creel and his organization produced a steady stream of patriotic material aimed at promoting the war and demonizing the enemy. Posters, cartoons, literature, and public-relations speakers were used to broadcast the message. It was the first time that a White House communications office had established itself and operated in a modern manner. Along with the war propaganda came new laws designed to limit dissent. The Espionage Act of 1917 was followed by the Sedition Act of 1918, both of which gave the government authority to punish “disloyal” or “abusive” speech and action. The socialist leader Eugene Debs was one of those convicted of speaking out against the Wilson administration and the war; he was sentenced to ten years in prison (later commuted).

On other fronts, a military draft was authorized (May 1918) to grow the armed forces. Between draftees and volunteers, of which there were many, the numbers skyrocketed, climbing from about 150,000 men at the start of conscription to over 4.5 million at the peak of enrollment. Some thirty-two expansive, yet somewhat ramshackle, training camps were erected in various mideastern, southern, and eastern states to prepare the troops for war. Overseeing food supplies for the nation was future president Herbert Hoover, then heading the U.S. Food Administration. Hoover instituted price guarantees for farmers and other inducements to maximize production, while calling on the public to cut back on home food consumption in order better to provision the doughboys oversees. “Food will win the war,” proclaimed Hoover. Canned food became a major industry at this time.

Battle Operations

The first Americans to engage the enemy were U.S. Navy sailors assigned to destroyers in the North Atlantic. In coordination with the Royal Navy, they helped to keep German U-boats at bay and allowed Allied supplies to get through. Navy battleship units helped to control the threat posed by German surface vessels.

The commander of the American Expeditionary Force was General John Pershing, headquartered in Chaumont, France. At the time of the first U.S. troops’ arrival in May 1918, German forces had advanced across northeastern France and were threatening Paris. The Americans, not yet a complete contingent, took up the fight in Cantigny (May 28), pushing the Germans back with the aid of the French. Two other significant successes followed, at Château-Thierry (June 3–4) and Belleau Wood (June 6–26), the latter with relatively high casualties (1,800 U.S. dead and nearly 8,000 wounded or missing). To counter a German offensive near Reims in July, American and British troops joined French forces along the Marne River, succeeding in forcing a German retreat. Then, as a continuation of the Allied counteroffensive, the Americans, along with French troops, engaged the enemy at St. Mihiel (September 12–16), where they captured 16,000 Germans and caused the rest to fall back behind the Hindenburg Line, a defensive position laid down in the early stages of the war. A final massive Allied push occurred in the Meuse-Argonne region, where 1.2 million U.S. troops, along with their French and British partners, fought in a “Hundred Day Offensive” (September 26-November 11) that concluded with the armistice. Over 26,000 American soldiers lost their lives in the Argonne Forest and surrounding area during the battle, marking it as the bloodiest ever fought by the United States.

Making the Peace

Even before the armistice, German officials had broached the idea of discussing a peace settlement based on Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” an address the president delivered in January 1918. What the German’s liked about the Wilson framework, and the Allies disliked, was that it was generally non-punitive. It emphasized self-determination, open agreements, free trade, and harmonious international relations over postwar obligations and reparations. It epitomized Wilsonian idealism, proposing, among other things, an “association of nations”–an international body–which later became the League of Nations. Wilson went to the Paris Peace Conference in early 1919 as a hero, of sorts, even though the final peace agreement, as embodied in the Treaty of Versailles and related documents, differed substantially from the goals set out in his Fourteen Points. Chief among the differences were that, under the Versailles Treaty, Germany was proclaimed the guilty party in the war and, therefore, was required to pay enormous reparations (over 100 billion gold marks, or about $25 billion) to the victim nations. In the end, all former belligerents except the United States authorized the treaty. Back home, a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate twice rejected the agreement, primarily because of opposition to the League of Nations. The main concern with the League was that it stood to weaken U.S. sovereignty and might require U.S. troops to defend it or its members. (Some of this was political obfuscation.) Wilson himself suffered a severe stroke in September 1919 and could no longer argue the case. Thus, only in 1921, under a new president (Warren G. Harding), were separate peace agreements formally concluded with Germany, Austria, and Hungary. The League of Nations did not figure in any of them.

Conclusion

World War I was modern humanity’s most horrendous experience up to that time–and, arguably, remains so to this day. Although the United States entered the war relatively late and did not suffer the destruction of its own territory and civilian population, the nation was severely tested politically and economically by the conflict. It struggled inside its borders to balance the needs of the war machine with the needs of the American people and the freedoms they had traditionally enjoyed. In terms of war casualties, the numbers pale in comparison to those for European powers but still are striking: approximately 108,000 U.S. dead, 190,000 wounded, and 4,900 missing. (In contrast, France, Germany, and Russia suffered ten times the number of dead.) The war produced a great trauma in the national consciousness of the peoples who had taken part in it, a trauma made all the more unfortunate in light of the widespread confusion over why the war had been fought in the first place and why so much blood and treasure had been expended in its prosecution.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Doenecke, Justus D. Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 2011. Print.
  • Greenblatt, Miriam, and John S. Bowman. World War I (America at War series), rev. ed. New York: Chelsea House, 2010. Print.
  • KCET/BBC. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. PBS, 1996. Television Documentary. Web 28 June 2014.
  • Keene, Jennifer D. Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003. Print.
  • Wilson, Woodrow. “War Message,” 2 April 1917. World War I Document Archive, Brigham Young University Library, 1996. Web. 26 June 2014.
  • Zieger, Robert H. America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. Print.
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