“He kept us out of war.”
-Woodrow Wilson Re-election Campaign Slogan, 1916
“The world must be made safe for democracy.”
-Woodrow Wilson to a special session of Congress, requesting a Declaration of War, April 2nd, 1917
One hundred years ago public opinion in the United States was nearing the culmination of a seismic shift. When the First World War broke out in 1914, popular opinion was overwhelmingly against American involvement in “Europe’s war.” Two years later, President Woodrow Wilson successfully campaigned for re-election based on his record of achievements, especially his maintenance of American neutrality. But less than six months after the election, Wilson was the leader of a united nation, asking for Congress to declare war. What happened in those few months?
What happened was that Germany made a number of strategic decisions that made war with the United States a near certainty. The year 1916 had been a costly one for Germany: its effort to bleed France to death at Verdun had proven futile, the months-long battle on the Somme had sapped away even more blood and treasure, and there had even been setbacks on the Eastern Front with Russia going on the offensive. While Germany was still strong, some of its allies were growing shaky, and the long-term strategic outlook was bleak. As long as France and Great Britain were being sustained by American loans, food, and war materials, it seemed unlikely that the balance would swing Germany’s way. In Berlin, a return to unrestricted submarine warfare seemed worth the risk: if Germany could starve Great Britain into submission it could win the war.
So, what was ‘unrestricted submarine warfare? Simply put, it was what you probably think of when you hear the term “U-Boat:” it means submarine crews attacking merchant ships without warning. By the rules of maritime warfare, warships were supposed to warn merchant ships, and allow the crews to abandon ship, before sinking them. For a vessel as small and fragile as a submarine this was a risky proposition. If the merchant ship had a hidden deck gun, or if it could alert a nearby friendly warship, the tables would quickly turn on the German U-Boat crew. In 1915 the outrage caused by the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania had caused the Germans to suspend unrestricted warfare. In 1917, the benefit seemed to outweigh the cost. Fully aware that the United States might declare war once its ships started sinking again, the Germans tried to minimize the effect of US entry with a very clumsy diplomatic maneuver: the Zimmerman Telegram.
Knowing that Mexico still resented its loss of territory to the United States resulting from their 1848 war, German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman sent a telegram to the Mexican government offering it American territory (from California east into Colorado) if it joined the war on the side of the Central Powers. British intelligence intercepted the telegram and was only too happy to pass it along to the Wilson Administration. This telegram, coupled with the sinking of several American merchant ships in March, 1917, turned the tide of public opinion.
Many Americans had been uncomfortable with Germany’s perceived atrocities, such as its invasion of Belgium, execution of civilians, bombardment of cultural sites, espionage and sabotage in America and Canada, incitement of labor riots in the United States, introduction of weaponized poison gas, and Zeppelin raids on London. With the rapid-fire events of January to March 1917, discomfort changed to outrage. On Main Street, USA, it seemed that in spite of America’s strict policy of neutrality (a neutrality Germany would dispute) Germany was deliberately picking a fight. And, so the thinking went, if the Germans wanted a fight, then by God they were going to get it.
National World War I Museum–Learning materials on America’s Entry into the War: https://www.theworldwar.org/us-enters-war
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