(This essay was originally published as “April 6, 1917: The US Goes ‘Over There'”, in the Newport Daily News on April 6, 2017.)
One hundred years ago today, the United States declared war on Germany, joining the war almost three years after its inception.
The war had begun in August 1914, when Austria-Hungary, following the assassination of its heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, declared war on Serbia. Within two weeks the two major alliance systems of Europe were at war. The Triple Alliance consisting of Germany and Austria-Hungary (without Italy) was arrayed against the Triple Entente, consisting of Great Britain, France, and Russia. The former had been joined by the Ottoman Empire and were called the “Central Powers.” The latter, eventually joined by Italy, were called the “Allies.” Many other lesser states, such as Japan, had joined the war, making it a truly global conflict.
From the beginning, the United States, under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson, was committed to a policy of neutrality. The son of a Protestant minister, Wilson was driven by such high ideals as justice, democracy, and freedom of the seas and favored diplomacy and cooperation over war. He attempted to use the war to change the norms of international relations. Old-style power politics and selfish nationalism would give way to diplomacy and collective security. Good will would triumph over animosity and ill-will.
While personally inclined toward Great Britain, he proclaimed: Americans must remain “impartial in thought as well as action.” Attempting to protect the US’s lucrative commercial ties with the warring states, Wilson demanded that all warring states respect the rights of neutrals.
Within the US, public opinion was mixed. German-Americans were either neutral or, with Irish-Americans, supporters of the Central Powers. The financial and commercial sectors favored the Allies. Trade with them between 1914 and 1916 had blossomed from $800 million to $3 billion. Groups like the suffragettes and the prohibitionists were preoccupied with their own domestic agendas.
In early 1915, Germany, under blockade by the powerful British Navy, turned to a powerful new weapon in its arsenal, the Unterseeboot (submarine). On February 4, 1915, Germany declared the seas around the British Isles a war zone. Allied ships in the area would be sunk without warning.
On May 7, 1915, the British passenger liner Lusitania was sunk by German submarine U-20 off the coast of Ireland, killing 1198, including 128 Americans. Survivors totaled 764. The sub’s commander, Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger would tell his friend: “The ship was sinking with unbelievable rapidity. There was a terrific panic on her deck. … It was the most terrible sight I have ever seen.”
Upon learning of the event, Wilson controlled his emotions. He kept to his normal routines, playing golf the next day (Saturday), taking a drive, and going to church on Sunday morning. He told his secretary, Joe Tumulty that he realized his calm response would irritate some people. However, “I dare not act unjustly and cannot indulge my own passionate feelings.” Under pressure from the United States, Germany in September 1915, promised not to attack passenger ships and to allow evacuation of neutral merchant ships.
Two key factors led the US to enter the war: first, the decision by Germany to resume unrestricted submarine warfare and second, the Zimmermann telegram.
In early 1917, Germany decided to make submarine warfare the heart of its naval strategy. German Admiral Henning von Holtzendorf proposed allowing submarine commanders to sink all vessels entering the “war zone” around its enemies. This, he maintained, would end the war in six months. The probable US entry into the war was irrelevant. He boasted: “I guarantee upon my word as a naval officer that no American will set foot on the Continent!”
While the US broke diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3, Wilson stopped short of demanding a declaration of war. Disbelieving the new Germany policy, he said: “Only actual overt acts on their part can make me believe it even now.”
The final event which brought the US to war was a telegram from the German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German ambassador in Mexico. Decoded by British intelligence, it instructed the ambassador to propose to the Mexican president an alliance between Germany and Mexico, to take effect if the US entered the war against Germany. It stated that, in return for Mexico’s support, Germany would help Mexico seize its “lost territory” in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. On February 24, 1917, Great Britain presented the fully translated telegram to the US.
Woodrow Wilson (WW1centennial.org)
After several US ships were sunk in the succeeding weeks, President Wilson addressed the Congress on April 2. Using high, moral language, he said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” He warned of “many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead” and proclaimed that this war was on behalf of all nations. “To such a task we dedicate our lives and our fortunes.”
Congress responded with rousing emotion and applause, and on April 6, passed a joint resolution declaring war on Germany.
A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist.
Wonderful article Fred! Enjoyed every word…
Just wish President Trump controlled his emotions and not bombed Syria. Assad is a butcher but he is our butcher. I think a joint effort from Russia and USA could help defeat ISIS and rebels. In many cases we know that the rebels and ISIS are one in the same. Our National Interest like Europe is to stop flow of refugees…5 million so far..This could be achieved if Trump and Putin pushed a miltary solution..
Regime change could then come in an orderly fashion or not…but at least Assad was a stabilizing influence in his country like Gadaft in Libya. If Assad is taken out now Iran will fill the vacuum with a worst tyrant!
Wilson probably should have stayed neutral in my opinion..and just ramped up material support. Germany certainly wanted to end the war. After concluding a Treaty with their arch enemies the Communists. As they rushed troops from Eastern to western front. Hoping to defeat Allies before USA entered War.
sorry about typos …writing to fast…arch enemies, “But at least Assad is a stabilizing influence…”
Thanks for your responses. In writing the essay, I was impressed by how circumstances changed to such a degree that Wilson, who won reelection preaching neutrality, altered his view and led the US into intervention.
Wilson’s swing from isolationist to Globalist…?
How about his rigid 14 points…another philosopher King.
Fred, i always re-learn something when i read your entries. I didn’t recall the Zimmerman telegram.
Glad you enjoyed it.
This was written by Rosemary LaBonte to the editors of a California newspaper in response to an article written by Ernie Lujan who suggests we should tear down the Statue of Liberty because the immigrants of today aren’t being treated the same as those who passed through Ellis Island and other ports of entry. The paper never printed this response, so her husband sent it out via internet.
Maybe we should turn to our history books and point out to people like Mr. Lujan why today’s American is not willing to accept this new kind of immigrant any longer. Back in 1900 when there was a rush from all areas of Europe to come to the United States, people had to get off a ship and stand in a long line in New York and be documented.
Some would even get down on their hands and knees and kiss the ground. They made a pledge to uphold the laws and support their new country in good and bad times. They made learning English a primary rule in their new American households and some even changed their names to blend in with their new home.
They had waved goodbye to their birth place to give their children a new life and did everything in their power to help their children assimilate into one culture. Nothing was handed to them. No free lunches, no welfare, no labor laws to protect them. All they had were the skills and craftsmanship they had brought with them to trade for a future of prosperity.
Most of their children came of age when World War II broke out. My father fought alongside men whose parents had come straight over from Poland, Germany , Italy , France and Japan. None of these 1st generation Americans ever gave any thought about what country their parents had come from. They were Americans fighting Hitler, Mussolini, and the Emperor of Japan . They were defending the United States of America as one people.
When we liberated France , no one in those villages were looking for the Polish American, French American, the German American or the Irish American. The people of France saw only Americans. And we carried one flag that represented one country. Not one of those immigrant sons would have thought about picking up another country’s flag and waving it to represent who they were. It would have been a disgrace to their parents who had sacrificed so much to be here. These immigrants truly knew what it meant to be an American. They stirred the melting pot into one red, white and blue bowl.
And here we are with a new kind of immigrant who wants the same rights and privileges. Only they want to achieve it by playing with a different set of rules, one that includes the entitlement card and a guarantee of being faithful to their mother country.
I’m sorry, that’s not what being an American is all about. I believe that the immigrants who landed on Ellis Island in the early 1900’s deserve better than that for all the toil, hard work, and sacrifice in raising future generations to create a land that has become a beacon for those legally searching for a better life. I think they would be appalled that they are being used as an example by those waving foreign country flags.
And for that suggestion about taking down the Statue of Liberty, it happens to mean a lot to the citizens who are voting on the immigration bill.
I wouldn’t start talking about dismantling the United States just yet.
Dan, A great comment here. You are talking my language and also my own personal experience. Thanks, Fred