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

Saturday, April 1, 2017

America's Road to War: The Turn from Neutrality to Intervention, 1914–1917

This Article Launches Our Week-Long Centennial Series
America's Road to War

[One hundred years ago today,] churches across America celebrated Palm Sunday, beginning the traditional observance of Holy Week by marking Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. But many congregations seemed eager to celebrate the United States' impending entry into the Great War. In a sermon entitled "America Summoned to a Holy War," a crusading Randolph McKim in Washington proclaimed America's duty: "I have no hesitation ... in saying that the voice of a just God summons us to this War and that it is in the highest sense of the word a Holy War." That same day, in an extraordinary act, Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, the former pulpit of Henry Ward Beecher and Lyman Abbott, prepared a resolution demanding war with Germany. Beecher's own son presented the document, which rejected a mere "affirmation that a state of war exists,"  preferring rather "an out-and-out declaration." 
Professor Richard M. Gamble
The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, 
the Great War and the Rise of the Messianic Nation

America's Turn From Neutrality to Intervention, 1914–1917

by Roads to the Great War Editor/Publisher Michael 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 non-involvement in the political affairs of the Old World and by President Wilson's early, insistent declaration of American neutrality.

1914 Political Cartoon

Nevertheless, as the 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-intervention coalition.

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 Reims 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 Powers' maritime commerce, but had also severed Germany's transatlantic cable. In the U.S., 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-monopolistic 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 an insufficiently 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 people including 128 U.S. 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 toward effective intervention. Many people, 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 U.S. 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 military heritage.

The Sinking of the Lusitania Made a Deep Impression
on the American Psyche 

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 and black Americans, 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.

1916 Election Button

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 22 January he made a last plea to the combatants as an "honest broker" with his "Peace Without Victory" speech to the Senate.

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 U.S. 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 codebreakers 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, events in mid-March that shook the world removed the final impediments 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 associates, exclusively. And finally Germany provided him an indisputable casus belli when they sank unarmed American ships without warning.

Post U.S.-Entry Poster Playing on the U-boat Threat

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 ascendant. 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 2 April 1917, 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 with a cavalry escort and asked Congress to declare war on Imperial Germany. Only 56 of 531 congressmen and senators objected, and on 6 April  America was at war.

Tomorrow:  President Wilson Asks Congress to Declare War


  1. One of the beat summaries of the lead up to US involvement in WW I that I have read. Great Piece!

  2. Agree with the comments above .... excellent.

  3. ...and then there were the billions of dollars J.P. Morgan had already lent Britain and the millions in contracts for war material that kept American factories busy.

    1. Have you read Adam Tooze's _The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931_? I think it builds on that argument, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet.

  4. Great summary of a result, still debated by historians.