The United States and World War I (1914–1921) for AP U.S. History (page 2)

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Updated on Mar 3, 2011

The American Response to the Outbreak of War

The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian nationalists on June 28, 1914, set off the series of events that would lead to World War I. Tensions between European powers had been building, with almost all of the major powers undergoing rapid military buildup in the years immediately prior to 1914. These conflicts were caused by increasing nationalism throughout Europe, the competition of imperialism, and the complicated system of alliances that wove together the fates of most European nations. When the war actually began in earnest in August 1914, France, Russia, and Great Britain were the major Allied powers, while Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy made up the Central powers.

Many Americans felt deeply connected to the events of World War I, as over one-third of the American population was a first- or second-generation immigrant. However, not every American supported Great Britain and France. A large number of German immigrants lived throughout the United States. President Wilson and others personally supported the cause of the Allied powers, especially when reports of the alleged barbarism of the German soldiers in the battles of 1914 appeared in American newspapers.

On August 4, 1914, President Wilson issued an official proclamation of American neutrality in the war. Even though most Americans were sympathetic to the cause of the Allied powers, economic common sense dictated that America remain neutral; America in 1914 desired to continue to trade with both sides. After English ships interfered with American trade with Germany and German submarines interfered with American trade with England, America issued a series of diplomatic protests.

Increasing American Support for the Allied Powers

American sympathies and practical considerations dictated that American trade with the Allies increase as the war progressed. By 1916, American trade with the Central powers was down to near zero, whereas trade with the Allied powers had increased nearly 400 percent. Many who traded with Great Britain urged Washington to begin to prepare the United States for eventual war against Germany. A private National Security League was founded in late 1914 to instill patriotism in Americans and to psychologically prepare Americans for war. By the summer of 1915, Congress was taking the first steps to prepare the American army for actual combat in Europe. It should also be noted that peace movements existed in many major American cities, with women making up a large part of the membership of these organizations.

It was the actions of German U-boats that angered many Americans and caused them to favor entering the war against the "Hun." According to existing international law, if one ship were to sink another, it first had to board the ship and offer all on board "safe passage" before sinking it. The advantage a U-boat had was that it glided underwater undetected and fired at other ships without warning.

Americans were outraged when a German U-boat sank a British passenger ship, the Lusitania, in the Atlantic Ocean on May 7, 1915; all 128 Americans on board perished. President Wilson issued a strong protest, but it should be noted that the ship was carrying weapons meant to help the Allied cause (which made it technically legal for the Germans to sink the ship). In addition, Germany had placed advertisements in major American newspapers warning Americans not to travel on the ship that day.

In August, the Arabic, another passenger liner, was sunk by the Germans. President Wilson again forcefully protested; in response, the Germans issued the "Arabic pledge," in which they promised to stop sinking passenger ships without warning as long as the crews of the ships allowed the Germans to search the ships.

Official American concern about the actions of the U-boats continued. On March 24, 1916, a French ship called the Sussex was attacked by a U-boat; seven Americans on board were badly injured. The United States threatened to entirely cut diplomatic ties with Germany over this incident. In the Sussex Pledge, the Germans promised to sink no more ships without prior warning. The actions described above all caused public opinion in the United States to increasingly favor military support of the Allied powers.

America Moves Toward War

Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 presidential election over his Republican opponent Charles Evans Hughes by stating that the Republicans were the party of war. "He kept us out of war" was the popular slogan of Wilson's supporters. This was a promise, however, that Wilson could not keep for long. On January 31, 1917, Germany announced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, stating that any ship from any country attempting to enter the ports of Allied nations would be sunk. Historians believe that the Germans knew that eventually the United States would enter the war; by beginning this policy at this time, the Germans were gambling that they could win the war before the United States was truly involved. On February 3, Wilson officially broke off American diplomatic relations and suggested to Congress that American merchant ships be armed.

American public opinion became increasingly enraged when they heard about the Zimmermann Telegram (also called the Zimmermann Note in some textbooks). This was an intercepted message between Arthur Zimmermann, the German foreign minister, and German officials in Mexico, suggesting that when Germany went to war with the United States, the Mexicans should be persuaded to attack the United States as well. As a reward, the Mexicans would receive Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona after the United States was defeated.

Between March 16 and March 18, three more American ships were sunk by German vessels. On April 2, President Wilson formally asked Congress for a declaration of war; this declaration was enthusiastically passed the following day. Wilson was motivated to declare war by the legitimate danger to American shipping that existed and by his belief that American entry into the war would help shorten it. Some critics claim that American arms makers exerted pressure to persuade Wilson to get involved in the war.

America Enters the War

By the time the Americans entered the war in April of 1917, the English and the French were desperate for American assistance. The Russian army had suffered crushing defeats since 1916, and the removal of the tsar from power in March of 1917 threw into doubt the entire Russian commitment to the war effort. Without Russia in the war, the Germans could place virtually their entire army in the western front.

The initial American Expeditionary Force that landed in France in June 1917 under the command of General John J. Pershing consisted of 14,500 men; its main psychological effect was to help boost the morale of the Allies. Volunteers were recruited to serve in the army, but a Selective Service Act was passed in May 1917. The ages of those originally drafted were between 21 and 30; this was later extended to between 17 and 46.

Both women and blacks were in the armed forces during the war. Some 11,500 women served, primarily as nurses and clerks, and over 400,000 blacks served. Black units were kept segregated and almost always had white officers.

American shipping to Europe became increasingly disrupted by German U-boats after the formal American declaration of war. Starting in May 1917, all American shipping to Europe traveled in a convoy system. The navy developed special torpedo boats that were able to destroy submarines. These techniques drastically decreased the damage done by German U-boats and other ships; only two troop transports were sunk from this point onward, and losses suffered by the merchant marine were much fewer.

The Impact of the American Expeditionary Force

The size of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) expanded to over 2 million by November of 1918, and they were definitely needed. Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over in Russia in November of 1917 and pulled the Russians out of the war. With only one front to worry about, by March of 1918, the Germans had almost all of their troops on the western front, and were less than 50 miles from Paris in early June.

American soldiers played a major role in preventing the Germans from taking Paris. The Americans held firm at the Battle of Chateau-Thierry, preventing the Germans from crossing the Marne and advancing toward Paris. Americans were also involved in a major offensive against the Germans in July and decisively defeated the Germans at the Battle of St. Mihiel. Over 1 million AEF forces took part in the final Meuse-Argonne Offensive of late September 1918, which cut the supply lines of the German army and convinced the German general staff that victory was impossible.

The armistice ending the war was signed on November 11, 1918. Nearly 115,000 Americans died in this war, a mere pittance compared to the nearly 8 million European soldiers who died in battle. American military heroes from World War I included fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and Corporal Alvin York, who single-handedly shot 32 German soldiers and captured another 132.

The Home Front During World War I

Despite the fact that America was far removed from the physical fighting of World War I, much had to be done to prepare America for the war effort. Americans were encouraged to buy Liberty Bonds to support the war; movie stars of the era such as Charlie Chaplin made speeches and short films extolling the virtues of Liberty Bonds.

Poor harvests in 1916 and 1917 made it necessary to regulate food production and consumption during the war years. In August 1917, Congress passed the Lever Food and Fuel Control Act; almost immediately, the government began to regulate food consumption. The Food Administration was headed by future president Herbert Hoover, who attempted to increase production and decrease consumption. Hoover's approach to problems was centered around voluntary cooperation, as "Wheatless Mondays" and "Meatless Tuesdays" became commonplace. Harvests greatly improved in 1918 and 1919 as well. The introduction of daylight saving time allowed farmers more time in the evenings to work in the fields and also served to save electricity.

Industry was also regulated by the War Industries Board, headed by Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch. This board attempted to stimulate production for the war effort by strictly allocating raw materials and by instituting strict production controls. A Fuel Administration also acted to preserve coal and gasoline; "Fuelless Mondays" and "Gasless Sundays" also existed in 1917 and 1918.

Some historians make the point that World War I was actually the high point of progressivism. The government regulated the economy in positive ways that could have only been dreamed about in the days of Theodore Roosevelt. Business leaders loudly claimed they were supporting the war effort (many of them were). As a result, the Sherman Antitrust Laws were largely forgotten during World War I.

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