The United States and World War I (1914–1921) for AP U.S. History (page 3)
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Summary: The United States was officially neutral in the first two years of World War I; in 1916, one of President Woodrow Wilson's campaign slogans was "he kept us out of war." However, America was soon drawn into this conflict on the side of the British and French against the Germans (and the Austro-Hungarians). The 1915 sinking of the British passenger ship the Lusitania infuriated many Americans, as did the publication of the Zimmerman Note, in which Germany tried to entice Mexico to go to war against the United States. In January of 1917 Germany announced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, and several American ships were sunk. These events caused President Wilson to call for a declaration of war against Germany. American entry into the war was a tremendous psychological lift for the British and the French. On the American home front, the government imposed unprecedented controls on the economy and on the spreading of news. The war ended with an armistice in November 1918. At the subsequent Paris Peace Conference, Wilson attempted to convince the Allies to accept his peace plan, called the "Fourteen Points." Britain and France were generally not enthusiastic about Wilson's proposals, but they did support the creation of a League of Nations. However, the League was opposed by isolationist members of the U.S. Senate, and the United States never became a member of the League. Instead, U.S. foreign policy became isolationist and remained largely so through the 1930s.
American Expeditionary Force: American force of 14,500 men that landed in France in June 1917 under the command of General John J. Pershing. Both women and blacks served in the American army during the war, although black units were segregated and usually had white officers.
War Industries Board: board that regulated American industry during World War I; it attempted to stimulate war production by allocating raw materials to factories that aided the war effort.
Committee on Public Information: agency created during the war whose mission was to spread pro-Allied propaganda through the press and through newsreels; newspapers were asked to print only articles that were helpful to the war effort.
Fourteen Points: plan for the postwar world that Woodrow Wilson brought to the Paris Peace Conference; Wilson's plan proposed open peace treaties, freedom of the seas, arms reductions, and a League of Nations. Britain and France were openly suspicious of these plans, but they supported the creation of a League of Nations.
League of Nations: The world body proposed by Woodrow Wilson as part of his 14-point peace plan. The League was created but without the participation of Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States (isolationists in the Senate ensured that the treaty creating the League was never signed). As a result, the League remained a relatively ineffective body throughout its existence.
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.
Keeping America Patriotic
Another new agency created in 1917 was the Committee on Public Information, headed by George Creel. The job of this agency was to spread anti-German and pro-Allied propaganda through newsreels and lectures, and through the cooperation of the press. Germans were portrayed as beastlike Huns wherever possible. Liberty Leagues were established in communities across America; members of these organizations were encouraged to report suspicious actions by anyone (especially foreigners) to their local authorities. George Creel asked newspapers to voluntarily censor themselves and to print only articles that would be helpful to the war effort.
A fine line between patriotism and oppression existed during much of World War I. The National Security League convinced Congress to insist on a literacy test for all new immigrants. German language instruction, German music, and even pretzels were banned in some cities. In April 1918, a German-born American citizen was lynched outside of St. Louis; ironically, an investigation found that he had recently attempted to enlist in the American navy.
Most Americans felt they were fighting the war to help the spread of democracy, yet many critics lamented some of the actions taken by the government during the war era. The 1917 Espionage Act made it illegal to obstruct the draft process in any way and stated that any material that was sent through the mail that was said to incite treason could be seized. The Sedition Act of 1918 stated that it was illegal to criticize the government, the Constitution, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Navy. Prominent socialist Eugene Debs received a 3-year prison term for speaking against militarism; movie producer Robert Goldstein was even sentenced to 3 years in prison for showing the Americans fighting the British in a Revolutionary War film. Radical labor unions such as the IWW were also harassed during the war years. Over 1000 Americans were found guilty of violations of either the Espionage Act or the Sedition Act.
The war did provide a measure of social mobility for blacks and women. With large numbers of men fighting in Europe and no immigrants entering the country, northern factories needed workers, and encouraged blacks to move north to take factory jobs. This move north was called the Great Migration; during the war, nearly 600,000 blacks moved north. Many women were able to find jobs on farms or in factories for the very first time during the war. After the war, men would replace them in the labor market and force them to return to the "women's sphere."
Woodrow Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles
The Paris Peace Conference began on January 12, 1919, and had the very difficult task of creating lasting European peace. The conference was dominated by the "Big Four": the representatives of England, France, Italy (which had switched sides in the middle of the war), and the United States.
Woodrow Wilson was treated as a hero when he arrived in Paris, yet it was obvious in the initial sessions of the peace conference that the leaders of the victorious countries had very different goals. The suffering of England and especially France during the war was horrific; the goal of the French delegation was clearly to punish Germany as much as possible. Woodrow Wilson, on the other hand, came to France supporting his Fourteen Points, which called for open peace treaties, freedom of the seas, free trade, arms reduction, a gradual reduction of colonial claims, and some sort of a world organization to ensure peace. Wilson's plan was coolly received in France; the French, as stated previously, were mainly interested in what they could get out of the Germans. It was also coolly received in the United States by those who were opposed to continued American involvement in European affairs.
Wilson's Fourteen Points were largely opposed by the other members of the Big Four. Wilson called for a reduction of colonial claims: England and France had every intention of taking Germany's colonies after the war. When the treaty was finally signed, Wilson got only a fraction of what he initially wanted. Germany was held responsible for the war and was made to pay reparations. The League of Nations was created, although initially without Germany and the Bolshevik-led Soviet Union. Wilson believed that this was the most important of the Fourteen Points, so he did not leave Paris totally discouraged.
The United States and the Middle East
During the initial two decades of the twentieth century, the United States became increasingly interested in Middle Eastern affairs. Theodore Roosevelt brokered a settlement to the Moroccan crisis between France and Germany in 1905–1906 (both countries desired to be dominant in the region: the conference eventually supported French claims in the region). It was World War I, however, that drew the attention of many in the United States, including President Woodrow Wilson, to the region.
Turkey joined the war on the side of the Central powers (Germany and Austria- Hungary) in late 1914, thus causing the war to spread to the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of what we call the "Middle East" today, had been gradually collapsing for over a century. World War I completed this collapse. Residents of the Ottoman Empire, including Jews, suffered from disease and famine during the war. To support the Jews in the region, many Jews in the United States gave moral and financial backing to various factions of the Zionist movement, which was dedicated to creating a homeland in Palestine for Jews from around the world (the Zionist movement had its origins in Europe in the nineteenth century). In 1917, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, which supported, at least in principle, the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. President Wilson announced his support of this policy.
The tragedy of the Armenian Massacre also caused many in the United States to become more interested in Middle Eastern affairs. Caught up in the war between the Turks and the Russians, the Armenians revolted in 1915 against the Turks, who had occupied their homeland. The Turks brutally suppressed this uprising, with thousands of Armenians being executed (to this day, the Turks have failed to take responsibility for this event). American missionaries and aid workers were already present in Armenia (Armenians were Christians), and some of these Americans witnessed the slaughter.
In 1916 and 1917, there were countless rallies organized by Armenian immigrants and church organizations in the United States to protest the killing of the Armenians and to raise money for Armenian relief efforts.
At the end of the war, Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points called for the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires and stated that residents of these areas should be encouraged to move towards "autonomous political development." At the same time, in the immediate aftermath of World War I, the British and the French sought to increase their colonial holdings in the region. The Paris Peace Conference authorized the United States to establish the King-Crane Commission, whose members went into areas that the Europeans were trying to control to determine what political structure the residents of these areas desired.
The King-Crane Commission found that many in the region wanted independence; if that could not be attained, almost all were opposed to French or British control. If anyone was going to have a mandate over the region, public opinion said it should be the Americans, who were seen as having no desire to exploit the people or the lands of the region. The commission recommended against the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, since vast numbers of non-Jews already living in Palestine would have to be displaced to establish this state. The commission supported the creation of a single state in the region that would be under the control of the Americans. Predictably, the British and the French saw to it that this report was never formally presented at the Paris Peace Conference, as it was directly against their interests. In the end, the Balfour Declaration was issued, the British received mandates over Palestine, Iraq, and Transjordan, France received mandates over Syria and Lebanon, and the only country to experience "self-determination" was Saudi Arabia, which was given independence.
The Treaty of Versailles and the United States Senate
Woodrow Wilson had not appointed a Republican member of the Senate in the United States delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. This proved to be a huge political mistake. Wilson returned from Paris, needing Senate confirmation of the Treaty of Versailles. Many Republicans in the Senate had huge reservations about the treaty; all of them centered around American commitment to the League of Nations. A dozen senators were "irreconcilables," opposed to American membership in the League under any circumstances. Another large group, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, were called "reservationists" and wanted restrictions on American membership in the League. Lodge, for example, wanted it stated that the Congress would have to approve any American action on behalf of the League, and that provisions of the Monroe Doctrine remain in place even if the League of Nations opposed them.
To win national support for the Versailles Treaty, Wilson began a national speaking tour on September 3, 1919. On October 2, he suffered a severe stroke and never totally recovered. Lodge stated that he would support passage of the Versailles Treaty with certain reservations; Wilson rejected the reservations, and the treaty never got the two-thirds majority necessary for its passage. Many politicians both at home and abroad urged Wilson to compromise with congressional leaders and to get America into the League of Nations. Wilson was never willing to do this; his chief biographer maintains that his stroke impeded his judgment during this era. In 1921, the United States formally ended the war with Germany, but the United States never entered the League of Nations.