Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, April 6, 2014

6 April 1917: The United States Declares War — What Next?

With Congress's approval of the war resolution, American strategy underwent a profound and sudden change. Freedom of the sea lanes and stability in the American republics could be achieved not by hemispheric defense but only by the deployment of an expeditionary force large enough to remove the hostile regime. The quick and complete defeat of Imperial Germany, heretofore believed to be of no interest to the United States, was now recognized as essential to American security. Such thinking did not immediately catch on. At one point in April 1917, for example, a U.S. senator buttoned holed an officer of the General Staff and asked with incredulity, “Good Lord! You’re not going to send soldiers over there, are you?”

It Would Be a Long Time Before American Troops
Arrived in Europe in Great Numbers

Army and Navy planners adapted no better than the Senate. While there were aspects of Plan BLACK [the plan for a naval war with Germany that did not include dealing with U-boats] which were implemented (for example, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels recounts that the seizure of German and Austrian ships interred in American ports was a provision of BLACK), existing plans were of little value for the dispatch of American forces to Europe. Under immense pressures of time, the War Department prepared estimates for the new contingency. These envisioned invading Bulgaria through Greece, and of a landing in the rear of the German armies in France through an alliance with the Netherlands.

None of these concepts was, of course, fit for anything other than the trash, and the time wasted on them actually contributed to the delay of American intervention. No realistic planning was undertaken until the designated commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General Pershing, arrived in Europe to survey the requirement. As Pershing bitterly noted:

When the Acting Chief of Staff (Gen. Tasker Bliss) went to look in the secret files where the plans to meet the situation that confronted us should have been found, the pigeon hole was empty. In other words, the War Department was face to face with the question of sending an army to Europe, and the General Staff had never considered such a thing.

American Port at Nantes, France
A Stupendous Logistical System Would Be Needed to Support the Expeditionary Force

A later comment of Pershing’s indicates the strain on Army-Navy relations the requirements of the Western Front would cause. Pershing’s estimate that the AEF would number at least 2,000,000 men and would consume over 50,000 tons of freight per day was regarded by Admiral William Sims, the commander of U.S. Naval forces in Europe, as “very much an exaggeration or else as just an army joke.”

Once planning got under way in Pershing’s headquarters, it assumed the broad outlines of the modern American deliberate planning process, that is, with the theater commander-in-chief outlining requirements, the Army Chief of Staff making provision to provide the forces required, and the Chief of Naval Operations conducting the strategic deployment of those forces. 

Source: Joint U.S. Army-Navy War Planning on the Eve of the First World War: Its Origins and Its Legacy, Colonel Adolf Carlson, 1998


  1. In 1916, President Wilson ran for reelection with the motto: "He kept us out of the war." I have read that when he learned that officers in the Navy and War Departments were making prudent assessments of what the United States would have to do IF it entered the war, Wilson wanted them cashiered.
    If true, that would explain why GEN Bliss couldn't find a plan.

  2. According to Colonel Paul Braim, Congress had limited the size of the War Department to 19 officers. This small contingent was inadequate to plan the mobilization of the Army. In 1915, the staff of the Army War College at Fort McNair had developed a concept for an army of a million men. "This was the very thin reed on which the War Department had to lean for expansion of the army!"
    -Paul Braim, "The Test of Battle - The American Expeditionary Forces in the Meuse-Argonne."

    Usage note: AEF is always plural: American Expeditionary Forces