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

Friday, April 15, 2022

Is America's 1914-1917 Neutrality a Myth?

Wilson's First Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan,
Who Broke with the President Over Neutrality Issues

In a provocative  and what appears to me to be a thoroughly researched 2012 article I recently discovered, Canadian historian Russell Freure argues that  [Yes] American neutrality during the First World ended in the first months of hostilities and is something of a historical "myth".

Most studies of the Wilson administration’s policy seek to determine how and why the country found itself at war in April 1917, after two and a half years of non-belligerence. The common factor in these discussions is the acceptance by historians of American neutrality from August 1914 through April 1917. The present paper challenges the assumption that the United States non-belligerence was in fact neutral, indeed American intervention in favor of the Entente powers effectively began in the first months of the war. 

Here's his summation from the end of the article  However, I'd recommend downloading and reading the full article, found HERE

[The 1930s economic historian Harry Elmer] Barnes has suggested that the United States had “one type of international law for England and the Allies, but quite another for Germany.” It would seem, then, that the Americans viewed the British blockade and unrestricted submarine warfare differently, not just because the former took property and the latter took lives, but because the former was British and the latter German. This is a critical point.

There existed an overwhelmingly pro-Entente and anti-German attitude in Washington. In August [1915] Wilson privately predicted ominous consequences if Germany was victorious. In early September, he told the British ambassador that a quarrel with Britain “would be the crowning calamity.” Wilson was not willing to risk a German victory, despite his public calls for impartiality, and so he ultimately “surrendered.” American neutrality to preserve relations with Britain. 

Understanding Wilson is crucial to understanding the decisions made in Washington during the first six months of the war. The president had a religious upbringing, being the son of a Presbyterian minister. With this background came an unquestioning faith in God, and a strict sense of right and wrong. He had an affinity for British culture, law and commitment to human rights, as well as a strong mistrust of autocratic and militaristic Germany. As president, Wilson had great authority over foreign policy and he exerted that authority perhaps more than any other president before him. The policy of the United States was Wilson’s. He consulted and accepted advice, but his nature led him to make his own decisions. 

Bryan's Successor, Robert Lansing, Depicted
Advising President Wilson

Winston Churchill said of Wilson: “It seems no exaggeration to pronounce that the action of the United States with its repercussions on the history of the world depended, during the awful period of Armageddon, upon the workings of this man’s mind and spirit to the exclusion of almost every other factor; and that he played in the fate of nations incomparably more direct and personal than any other man.”  While it is true that Wilson was responsible for fashioning American policy in ways that benefited the Entente, there appears to be no evidence to suggest that he appreciated his actions were in any way un-neutral. The president was surrounded by advisors sympathetic to the Entente cause, who represented British actions “in the best possible light,” only serving to reinforce Wilson’s beliefs. Confident in his own “moral superiority,” Wilson appears to have maintained a resolute conviction in his ability to “define true neutrality” better than the legal experts. 

What Wilson ideally wanted was peace between the belligerents, although one favouring Britain and France. The president maintained his peace efforts throughout the duration of American “neutrality.”  There can be no question, however, that American interests lay in an Entente victory, and Wilson had no desire to place obstacles in the path of Britain’s economic campaign. Loss of commerce and even neutral rights was a price he was willing to pay. 

Scholars, too, have refused to acknowledge that American policy was un-neutral. They have interpreted most British violations of law, and Wilson’s reaction to them, as justifiable. Moreover, much like Wilson, these writers have made the mistake of viewing the submarine issue in moral terms when the law did not make such a distinction. As a consequence the general public has, for the most part, accepted these accounts. There exists a collective memory with regards to the United States and their role in the Great War. It is manifest in the traditional narrative – the United States was forced into war by German actions, in defense of neutral rights, American honor and fundamental morality. This account provides a convenient and positive explanation for why the United States departed from a long standing tradition of isolation from European affairs. The truth was more complex and American actions much less altruistic.

The reality is that American interests were tied up with those of Britain.  The prewar maritime policies London and Washington, developed on the basis of a liberal view of freedom of the sea and indomitable neutral rights, proved incompatible with the exigencies of modern war. To make blockade of the Central Powers effective, Britain had to adopt policies that were illegal. Wilson accommodated resulting British violations of U.S. neutral rights in the conviction that Entente success served larger American interests. 

Emotions and individual proprieties, however, are not a part of international law. They are, though, an integral component of the human personality. The traditional narrative coincides with the notion that the First World War was a “good” war—a struggle between peaceful Western democracies and militaristic German autocracy.  

This is, perhaps, why the “myth” of American neutrality endures. The general public may be excused for their part in this perpetuation, the scholar may not.

Source: "When Memory and Reality Clash: The First World War and the Myth of American Neutrality," Russell Freure, The Northern Mariner/le marin du nord, XXII No. 2, (April 2012).


  1. Interesting.
    1) Did Wilson think primarily of Britain, or did his pro-Entente vision encompass Russia?
    2) How important was the American financial sector's support of the west?

  2. Re 1). I don't have a good opinion on that, but it seems that yes, Britain and France were more on Wilson's mind than Russia
    Re 2) American financial support was critical to the west based on all that I've read. Because of all the money the US financial sector ended up loaning Britain and France, at some point this tipped the feelings of the US towards an Entente victory,if for no other reason than they wanted to be repaid. A German victory might have meant no loan repayments.

    1. Randy, your 1) sounds right to me. (Although Wilson did help invade the USSR, just down the road.)
      2) sounds like a powerful argument in favor of this article's thesis! The US was waging financial war against Germany.

  3. I'm not sure of the timeline, but while this is a powerful argument, it went on for quite a while. The Zimmerman telegram seems to be the tipping agent.

  4. Follow the money. The munitions in the Lusitania tells how neutral we were NOT

  5. In the movie Casablanca, Captain Renault, when shutting down Rick's establishment at the demands of the Germans explained his actions by saying, "I am shocked, there is gambling going on here!" The working of US neutrality of course worked in favor of the Allies. The British blockade, growing ever more restrictive as the war progressed, cost American exporters lost profits and litigation. The German blockade, carried out by submarines sinking ships, sometimes cost lives, in some cases, the lives of civilian men, women and children. It was much easier to become irate over the latter than the former. In addition, the American economy was increasingly leveraged to the Allied war effort though private loans extended to the Allies. It was one way neutrality. It allowed access to American resources by the Allies and accepted the severing of trade with the Central Powers. One way - you bet.

  6. I recommend Philip Zelikow's The Road Less Traveled - The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916-1917. Excellent account of how close the parties came to ending the slaughter a year earlier. Not Wilson's finest hour. American neutrality is an interesting idea when you consider the US banking interests involved.