April 6, 1917, the US declared war on Germany. Like it or not, the US had made the final step to becoming a player on the world stage. After this there could be no going back.
A hundred years ago today, the United States declared war on the German Empire, entering the First World War on the side of Britain and France. It was an act that profoundly changed both the world and the country.
By 1917, the United States had been the world’s foremost industrial power for more than a quarter of a century and its lead was growing steadily. With the outbreak of the war in 1914, New York swiftly succeeded London as the center of world finance. After almost a century and a half of being a debtor nation, the U.S. had become the world’s greatest creditor nation, loaning the Allies billions of dollars and selling them war matériel in huge quantities.
But the country’s foreign policy had long been one of isolation. With militarily weak countries to the north and south and the vast Atlantic and Pacific Oceans moating the east and west, the United States was immune to attack by a foreign power. Although the United States Navy–hardly more than a coast guard in 1880–had become by 1914 the third largest in the world, after only the Royal Navy and the German Kriegsmarine, the U.S. could afford to maintain only very small military forces.
In his Farewell Address of 1797, George Washington warned against the dangers of “entangling alliances.” John Quincy Adams, perhaps the best Secretary of State in American history, said in a July 4th speech in 1821 that the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Yet, on April 6th, 1917, the United States did exactly that.
For the first time in American history, it intervened in a foreign conflict. The ostensible reason was Germany’s return to a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking vessels of whatever flag that sought to supply Britain and France. Also the publication of the “Zimmerman telegram,” which offered Mexico the return of its “lost provinces” if it were to attack the United States following the outbreak of war with Germany, had infuriated the American public.
Unquestionably, another reason was the fear that Britain and France might end up losing the war, making Germany the undisputed European hegemon and, of course, threatening their ability to repay American loans.
Germany knew that a return to unrestricted submarine warfare would likely bring about American entry into the war. But it was willing to gamble that by the time the United States could create, train, equip, and deploy an army large enough to be decisive, Britain and France would have been forced to negotiate for peace because of the disruption of their Atlantic lifelines.
Germany, of course, lost that gamble. But the United States, try as it might, could not return to its old isolation. The vindictive Versailles peace conference–badly mishandled by President Woodrow Wilson–and the withdrawal of the United States, the world’s foremost economic and financial power, from world affairs ensured a renewal of the conflict in an even more terrible war twenty years later.
The US had diddled with being a great power for some time before 1917. There was the Spanish American War and the acquisition of colonies that resulted. Along with involvement in China and of course the banana republics. See the movie The Wind And The Lion for some fictionalized Roosevelt, Teddy, that is, interventionism. Still all of that was more or less fun and games for adventurers(Teddy) and work for the Navy and Marines. When the big war came along the commitment was to keep the US out.
Until it wasn’t.
The reasons for the declaration are so murky that nobody ever seems to be able to point to one single reason. I’ve seen a lot about the run up to the war and just how, more or less the US was essentially unprepared for the war that I don’t think that the Wilson Administration had any plans to enter the war before the end of 1916. On the other hand the Germans seemed determined to escalate things at all costs, see the Zimmerman Telegram. I think, though that it was the escalation of submarine warfare that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The US, while having a continent to play with, had always depended on free travel on the seas. There was also the long term close ties with the home country, Britain.
Like so many countries, perhaps the consequences of staying out loomed larger than the possible consequences of getting in. Country after country had been pulled into the mess one way or another and perhaps between the people going over to fight for France or advocating for the Entente the pressure to actually enter the war was growing. Certainly between the people fighting in the Foreign Legion, The Lafayette Escadrille and the American Service corps there were substantial numbers of Americans “over there’ already, many of whom came from the wealthy and influential classes. Moral influence can have a large effect.
Then there were the consequences of the Entente losing the war, which was hanging on a thread. If the entente lost the war, what would happen to the bills that the Entente had run up and the debts that the Entente had incurred. The US economy had been oscillating around with greater frequency since the turn of the Century and the effects on the commercial banks if the Entente lost the war were not going to be insignificant. With the recent death of JP Morgan and the recent formation of the Federal Reserve, taking the kind of hit to the economy that the loss of the war entailed was not going to be something that the Administration would survive.
I think that what I came down to was that most of the country had come to the conclusion that Germany was going to, if not directly escalate, at least keep pushing until war was inevitable. Certainly the Germans were taking a strong and bellicose attitude toward the sensibilities of the US and sinking of American ships. If the US did not respond, it was probably seen as likely that the Germans would continue and American lives would continue to be lost. Without a German backing down from the unlimited submarine warfare, realistically the only way for the US to stay out of the war was to keep it’s merchant ships out of European waters altogether. For economic reasons that was also an untenable solution. So the US went to war. With all that has followed.
The World War 1 category with more WW1 stuff.
And my WW1 Pinterest board with a lot of pics.
The featured picture is of my Great uncle Roscoe Duthie. This kind of picture is the kind that soldiers going to France had taken before they left. In case they did not come back.
He was a flyer and he did make it back.