The United States Enters WWI

Why did the United States enter World War One.

The industrial era had many effects,
not the least of which was plunging the world into world war. One
must consider the relationship between eras and events as a student
of history. The industrial era created a perceived need in America
for raw materials and markets for goods. The United States was not
alone in this desire for expansion. All the industrial nations were
in open competition to develop vast empires that would provide them
with the fuel to run the factories of industrialism. This
imperialist competition led to tension and the creation
of vast armies. The willingness to use these armies was known as
militarism. In order to feel safe (there was a pretty
fair degree of paranoia as you can imagine) nations began to sign
secret treaties forming alliances and Europe was divided into an armed camp.
Tension was high, the subjugation (taking over) of other nations led
to feelings of nationalism that would eventually light the spark that
would explode Europe into the flames of conflict.


The causes of World War One as
discussed above can be summarized by the following acronym as a
mnemonic device:

A- Alliance: European nations signed secret
treaties that created a system of alliances pitting nation versus

N – Nationalism: There were intense feelings of
nationalism on the part of subjugated nationalities. These feelings
would eventually lead to rash acts.

I – Imperialism: Competition to develop vast
empires caused tension and conflict.

M – Militarism: Nations built huge armies to
defend themselves and help to gain these empires. It was a natural
feeling for them to want to use these militaries.

A – Anarchy: There was no international
organization to help them deal with their problems.

L – Leadership: It was poor. Just look at the
system they set up…quite poor indeed.

These were the conditions facing Europe
as a crisis emerged in the Balkans. The Archduke of Austria Hungary,
a traditional power, was touring the nation of Serbia. Meanwhile
Bosnian nationalists desiring freedom from Serbia plotted to
assassinate the Archduke. Gabriel Principe, a member of the Black
Hand, the aforementioned Bosnian nationalist group, shot and killed
Franz Ferdinand on June 28th

Austria Hungary blamed the Serbian
government for the assassination of the Archduke and issued an
ultimatum (demands). The Serbians agreed to all but two of the
demands, one of which was the placement of Austro Hungarian troops
within Serbia. The Serbians appealed to Russia for support and Russia
as the “protector of the Slavs” agreed to support Serbia. Meanwhile
the Austro Hungarians still wanting revenge and fearing Russia
secured the support of their traditional ally, Germany. In a famous
decision Germany issued what has become know as “Carte Blanche,” of
blank check, to Austria Hungary. This unqualified military support
from Germany made Austria Hungary rather confident that Russia would
not attack. At this point the Austro Hungarians declared war on
Serbia. In response to the declaration of war Russia mobilized her
military forces. Perhaps it was a bit of saber rattling, perhaps not.
Regardless Germany demanded Russia demobilize its army. When Russia
refused Germany attacked Russia. The effect of the war on the Russian
front were devastating. The Russians were ill prepared for war and
lost millions of men. In the end the Czars refusal to exit the war
cost him his throne as the Bolsheviks (Communists) revolted in 1917
overthrowing Czar Nicholas II.

When the Russians were attacked by
Germany, France was obligated to declare war on Germany as a result
of a treaty she had signed with Russia. The Germans attacked France
by marching through Belgium. The Belgians who did not give Germany
permission to do this now were in a state of war with Germany as
well. The most important byproduct of this was the fact that England
had a treaty with Belgium! Now England was obligated to declare war
on Germany as well. Italy, which had a treaty with Germany switched
sides so that she might gain territory from Austria Hungary (A gamble
that more or less worked) and the Ottoman Empire entered the war on
behalf to the Austro Hungarians (they wanted to gain territory from
the Russians and gain control in the Balkan region). Now most of
Europe was engulfed in war.

In the end the Triple Entente (England,
France and Russia later to be joined by Italy, the United States and
Japan) defeated the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria Hungary and the
Ottoman Empire). The conflict which was long and bloody was marked by
trench warfare and the use of chemical weapons. It was fought mostly
in French territory. At the conclusion of hostilities Germany was
still in French territory but it was relatively clear that the
combined industrial might of the Triple Entente would prevail. In
actuality the influence of the United States is questionable. Germany
hoped to negotiate a favorable treaty but as we shall see this was
not to be the case. The Treaty of Versailles was signed ending the
war and blaming Germany for the entire conflict. This blame and the
consequent punishment set the stage for years of resentment and
another world war, something American President Woodrow Wilson had
hoped to avoid.

So, what did all this have to do with
America and why did we enter World War One?

Most Americans favored staying out of
the conflict and President Wilson publicly and formally stated that
the United States would follow a policy of neutrality. In three short years, however, the United
States would find itself in the middle of what later became known as
the first World War.

As the war in Europe raged on America
sympathies were clearly on the side of the allies. American
posters urged citizens
to buy war bonds and support the allies. The Kaiser and Germans were
painted as the aggressors in the war. True or not Americans came to
see Germany as vicious and blood thirsty. The poster below was used
by the US Army in 1917 to recruit soldiers. Notice how the Germans
are pictured? This is a clear example of anti German

When the war began England enforced a
naval blockade of Germany in the hopes of cutting off supplies.
Germany responded by unleashing the U Boats. U Boats were submarines
capable of staying submerged for long periods of time. They would
sneak up upon their victims, often at night, an torpedo them. The
Germans did not limit their attacks to military vessels. Any ship
sailing in the war zone was considered an enemy. This became known as
unrestricted submarine
On May 7th 1915
the British cruise ship Lusitania was sunk off the coast of England.
Over 1,198 passengers including 128 Americans were killed. America
was furious at the brutality and demanded a stop to this type of
attack. In 1916, after the sinking of the passenger liner Sussex,
Germany agreed to end unrestricted submarine warfare in the

The Sussex pledge only put off the
inevitable American entry into the war. America shared a
with England and
France. Woodrow Wilson began to actively campaign for Americans to
support the allies. Besides being culturally similar England and
France were our trade partners. From 1914 to 1916
with the Allies grew
from 825 million dollars to 3.2 billion dollars. If the Allies were
to lose the war our trade would be threatened. American increasingly
saw Germany as the enemy. Germany was a dictatorship fighting against
the great democracies of the world and America as a democratic nation
felt an obligation to support them.

As America became increasingly less
neutral, the British government intercepted a message from the German
ambassador Zimmerman to the Mexican government. This message termed
the “Zimmerman
” asked Mexico to
attack the United States if war broke out between the U.S. and

Source: National Archives and
Records Administration

The note was turned over to American
government a short time later and eventually published in the
newspapers. Americans were outraged.

Then the Kaiser announced that
Germany was going to re initiate the practice of unrestricted
submarine warfare violating the Sussex Pledge. Wilson had campaigned
for office promising to protect freedom of the seas and now it seemed he had little choice. He had
to ask Congress to declare war. Many Americans still wanted to stay
out of “Europe’s war” and there was much debate in Congress. Wilson
closed his speech to Congress by saying “it is a fearful thing to lead this great
peaceful people into war… But the right is more precious then peace
and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried in our

On April 6, 1917, by a vote of 82 to
6 in the Senate and 373 to 50 in the House of Representatives, the
United States of America declared war on Germany.

Wilson strongly believed that the
American system would save the world, meaning:


1. American economic goods

2. America’s democratic political

3. America’s blend of morality and

Wilson stated:

When properly directed, there is no people in
the world not fitted for self-government.
” Note the caveat, “when properly directed.”
Wilson saw the U.S. as the rightful and natural director. He was
determined to provide that direction in a framework where morality,
democracy and economics were closely related. Wilson believed that
other nations of the world had to look to the U.S. as an example , at
the same time America was dependent on the rest of the world, mostly
for economic markets. The world market must act as the new frontier
for the American system. Wilson was determined to direct the affairs
of other nations so that they could eventually achieve
self-government, as long as this government was based on the American
model, and he was even more willing to intervene in other countries
than Roosevelt. For instance, he sent U.S. troops to Mexico to
intervene in their civil war (1913-1917). When World War I broke out
in Europe in 1914, Wilson tried to keep the U.S. neutral, but Germany
repeatedly violated America’s neutral status. When America finally
entered the war in 1917 it was because, as Wilson stated,

“The world must be made safe for

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