The United States Enters World War I
The United States Enters the War
Although the United States maintained an official policy of strict neutrality, few individual Americans felt neutral about the war. Millions of them were recent European immigrants, or children or grandchildren of European immigrants. They still had emotional ties to those nations; many of them still had family in Europe. The majority of Americans who had an opinion supported the Allied or Entente side. In spite of partisan feelings, however, the vast majority of Americans believed that the United States should not send troops to Europe.
It clearly would not be possible for the United States to remain detached for long; international alliances demanded that it would have to commit itself to one side or the other. Both Britain and Germany violated American neutrality on the seas.
The British navy blockaded Germany and set mines in the North Sea. The British insisted on searching all ships entering the North Sea and intercepting any goods that appeared to be bound for Germany. This included American ships. Wilson registered official protests with the British government, but the practice continued.
Germany had built an impressive fleet of U-boats (Unterseeboots, or sub- marines). U-boats were a highly effective weapon because they could not be detected. They could sail quietly underwater and then suddenly blow up a ship on the surface that had had no warning of their approach. Part of the Germans’ war plan from the beginning had been to use the U-boats to cripple the British navy. The Germans had openly announced that any ship entering the naval war zone around Britain might be subject to attack—that Germany did not recog- nize any nation’s neutrality in the war zone. The German embassy published this notice in American newspapers:
Travelers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies. . . . travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Warnings like this did not stop Americans from traveling. Wilson stated that any injury to Americans or American property would be considered a violation of neutrality, and that the United States would not let it pass.
On May 7, 1915, German U-boats sank the Lusitania, a British passenger liner. The ship had been carrying more than a hundred American passengers, as well as a shipment of American arms destined for Britain. Americans were furious. Wilson demanded that Germany halt submarine warfare on civilian merchant ships. By 1916, the United States could no longer claim neutrality; it had provided millions of dollars in cash and weapons to the Entente powers.
In 1916, Wilson took several steps to prepare the United States for war, although he still hoped to avoid it. He signed the National Defense Act, which doubled the size of the armed forces. He built up the size of the National Guard. He signed a bill that gave millions of dollars to the navy. Most Americans shared Wilson’s earnest hope that these preparations would prove unnecessary. In the presidential election of 1916, Wilson campaigned as the candidate who would keep the United States out of the war. Theodore Roosevelt publicly stated that he considered it America’s duty to send troops to Europe without delay; he failed to win his party’s nomination for president. Wilson won the election over Charles Evans Hughes, whom Roosevelt reluctantly supported. Voters associated Hughes with Roosevelt’s eagerness for war and backed away from supporting him. A political advertisement that appeared in the papers on Election Day accurately captured voters’ sentiments:
You Are Working—Not Fighting!
Alive and Happy;—Not cannon Fodder!
Wilson and Peace with Honor?
Hughes with Roosevelt and War?
Europeans interpreted Wilson’s victory as a clear indication that the United States would stay out of the war. However, Germany provoked the United States again and again by resuming its U-boat attacks on all ships, including merchant ships. In March of 1917, U.S. newspapers published the Zimmer- mann Telegram, sent by German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann to the German minister in Mexico, suggesting an alliance between Germany and Mexico against the United States. The telegram stated that in the event of a German victory, Mexico would be given back a large portion of the south- western United States. Americans regarded this telegram as a clear threat, and Wilson decided that he had no choice left but to ask Congress to declare war. It did so on April 6, 1917.
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