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US involvement in World War I

The most devastating war of unprecedented proportions, at that time, was the First World War from 1914 to 1918. The war started with the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, by a Serbian Gavrilo Princip. It is unfortunate that the war happened, although the circumstances leading to the development of the war could have been prevented at any point of its development. The war focusing on the Western front of Europe saw many countries participating in the fight.

The Central Powers including Germany, Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were the original combatants against the Allied Powers, which included France, Britain and Russia. The United States tried to keep away from getting involved in the war, which however had to change, given the development of the events. President Wilson, in an attempt to gather facts concerning Europe on war, sent his personal friend and advisor, Colonel Edward M. House to Europe in May 1914. Wilson learned of the escalating tensions between the crucial European powers.

There were serious disagreements in several issues in Europe particularly with boundaries and territories. The Archduke’s assassination only seemed to hasten the process. It was then that President Wilson declared America’s neutrality. President Wilson’s declaration of neutrality was delivered before the US Senate on August 19, 1914. The President emphasized that all people who truly love America, would be in favor of neutrality. The opinion of the people would be reflected from their street talk and public meetings, and from the views of the media.

The report says “The people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war. It is natural and inevitable US involvement in World War I 3 that there should be the utmost variety of sympathy and desire among them with regard to the issues and circumstances of the conflict”. President’s Wilson’s unyielding stand on neutrality is seen from his views, “I venture, therefore, my fellow countrymen, to speak a solemn word of warning to you against that deepest, most subtle, most essential breach of neutrality which may spring out of partisanship, out of passionately taking sides.

The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men’s souls. We must be impartial in thought, as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments, as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another”(PBS, 2001). Offering to mediate between both sides, Wilson protested both, the British and German acts. In 1916, Wilson was reelected the President, on the campaign “He kept us out of war”. However, a reconsideration of his neutrality stand was forced upon Wilson in 1917, when the issue relating to sea freedom was effected.

Britain and Germany tried to halt trade of each other through several tactics. Both brought and enforced a policy of not allowing neutral nations from supplying non-military goods to the warring countries. The United States felt it unfair and its stand was that, when dealing with non-military goods, a neutral country should be allowed to supply to any country. Britain and Germany tried to end American trade with each other. With the power of a superior navy, Britain almost ended US trade with Germany. The United States strongly protested against this and public opinion in US favored Germany.

However, the public US involvement in World War I 4 opinion turned away from Germany, when it started to use submarines or U-boats to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare. Due to fear of the enemy being supplied with goods, the Germans sunk many ships supplying goods to the British. The British Ocean liner Lusitania, which left New York for England was attacked and sunk by the Germans. The ship was carrying a considerable number of Americans, of which about 128 Americans lost their lives, in the torpedo attack.

Although the attack was seen as targeting America, the United States remained neutral, only demanding the Germans to apologize, pay damages and refrain from future attacks. With more attacks and sinking of American passenger ships, the Americans increasingly debated the neutrality policy. The warfare policy of Germany, prohibited all attacks on passenger ships, but allowed torpedo attacks without warnings, on armed merchant ships. However on March 24, 1916, the French cross-channel passenger ship Sussex, was severally damaged by torpedo attack.

Although there was no loss of American lives, public opinion led to diplomatic strains between the US and Germany. The incident even prompted President Wilson to threaten Germany that the United States would be drawn into the war if the practice persists. In an effort to play down the incident and to calm the US, Germany put forth its Sussex pledge on May 14, 1916, of not targeting passenger ships. It also put forth the conditions under which it would attack of merchant ships. US involvement in World War I 5 Wilson tried to end the war, by attempting peace negotiations.

However at around this time on February 25, 1917, the German Foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann’s telegram was intercepted and decoded by British authorities. Zimmermann proposed an understanding between Mexico and Germany, in case of a war between Germany and the United States (Hardgrove, 2007). The support of Mexico was sought on the ground that Germany would help Mexico to reclaim New Mexico, Texas and Arizona. Direct threats on the sovereignty of the United States was thus evident, justifying its participation in war. On April 2, Wilson requested the Congress to authorize a declaration of war (Nobel Foundation, 2008).

And eventually on April 6, 1917, the United States under the command of Major General John J. Pershing joined the allies. Over two million US soldiers fought on the battlefields in France. Although the US had maintained a neutral role on the war for a long time, the Americans generally sympathized with the British. The historic and cultural relations between the two countries were too strong, given their common heritage. Britain and US also shared common economic priorities and trade. The British propaganda on the war had also considerable influence on the Americans.

The trade blockades set by Germany and Britain had affected United States’ trade and economy. But President Wilson is said to be of the opinion that loss of innocent lives was more paramount than the loss of materials and goods. Germany had caused a great loss of American lives, and had kept fueled the topic of US entry into war. Thus it is evident that the US had tried to remain neutral, throughout the war. This neutrality was patiently extended and accommodative US involvement in World War I 6 of many provocations. It was only after the Zimmermann telegram and the Lusitania sinking that public opinion went in favor of war.

Although the US entered the war with divided opinions, there is no doubt that all options were well debated and extreme patience was exercised. Even the integration of US soldiers under allied forces commanders was a reluctant one. In May 1917, The Secret Services Act was passed which increased the population of the US army from 200,000 to almost 4 million at the end of the war. The entry of US into the war tilted the war in favor of Allied forces. The war not only revealed the mobilization capability of the US, but also highlighted the country as an emerging power.


Hardgrove K (2007) United States involvement in WWI [Electronic Version] Downloaded on 6th April 2008 from http://www. socyberty. com/History/United-States-Involvement-in-WWI. 57905 Nobel Foundation (2008) Woodrow Wilson Biography [Electronic Version] Downloaded on 6th April 2008 from http://nobelprize. org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1919/wilson-bio. html Public Broadcasting Service (2001) Declaration of neutrality August 19, 1914 [Electronic Version] Downloaded on 6th April 2008 from http://www. pbs. org/wgbh/amex/wilson/filmmore/fm_neutrality. html

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