(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.