home | 1901-WW2 Index


previous | next

The United States Declares War

The US against German strategy | the United States prepares for War: 1917

The US against German strategy

In his 1916 campaign for re-election Wilson complained to advisors about his campaign slogan "he kept us out of war." Mindful of the emotionalism in 1915 with the sinking of the Lusitania, he spoke of his being powerless before any tide of opinion that might sweep the nation as the result of some "damned" German submarine captain's "calculated outrage." But, during the remainder of his 1916 electioneering, Wilson went along with the campaign slogan, while his campaign continued with other slogans such as peace with honor, prosperity, preparedness, and the eight-hour day. Wilson's Republican opponent, Charles Evan Hughes, attacked Wilson for not being tough enough on the Entente powers, meaning the British – a position that appealed to the Irish. Theodore Roosevelt sided with the Republicans and attacked Wilson for using "high sounding words" and, referring to Wilson's failures in Mexico, giving the nation "shabby deeds."

President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson, 1917

In November, Wilson won 49 percent of the vote to 46 percent for Hughes. Wilson then turned his attention to urging Europe's warring nations to negotiate a compromise settlement – a peace without victory for either side. He was opposed to the kind of alliances that had accompanied Europe's going to war, and he proposed a peace in which all the warring parties and neutrals would join a League of Nations, a league that would guarantee to all nations "fundamental rights, equal sovereignty, freedom from aggression, freedom of the seas, and eventual disarmament." The League of Nations, he announced, would "ensure peace and justice throughout the world."

Wilson's call for a negotiated end to the war created a stir in Europe. Britain's response was that Germany should withdraw from the territories it occupied and pay the Entente powers for damages it had caused, and the French continued to insist that Germany withdraw from their territory. In Germany, the Social Democratic Party announced that it favored a compromise peace, a peace without annexations of territory – a reestablishment of the borders of 1914. In the United States, hostility toward Britain was at a high point because of Britain's handling of the Irish rebellion, and Wilson was fed up with Britain for its indifference to his peace proposals, its continuing violation of the rights of US and other neutral shipping on the high seas, its censoring American mail, and its blacklisting US companies that traded with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Germany's hawkish newspapers and others continued to oppose any compromise. For them there was no substitute for military victory. Some Germans believed that the United States was already in effect in the war on the side of Britain. Germany's Supreme Command assured King William that if submarine warfare brought the United States into the war, Britain would be forced to sue for peace before US troops could arrive in significant numbers. Many were inclined to accept the judgment of their nation's leading military men on military matters. And so too was Kaiser Wilhelm, who accepted their analysis.

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm. After 1916 Germany was largely in the hands of his military.

Eugene Debs

Eugene Debs (1912). In 1917 he had simplified the war to a squabble over profits.

Wilhelm was nervous and wanted peace. He was alarmed about the suffering of his subjects and disgusted by Britain's naval blockade. And he also wished for a military victory. He was determined to carry out his role as Germany's God-appointed ruler. His government notified Washington of its intentions to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. It offered American ships passage to one British port a week, at Falmouth – a ship that, to avoid being torpedoed, had to be marked by flags, painted with certain signs, and had to follow a described sea lane across the Atlantic. The Wilson administration rejected all this, and on January 31, 1917, the Germans began their new program of submarine warfare.

Wilson, under attack in the United States for being too soft, responded with a call for "armed neutrality," which meant the arming of US merchant ships to defend themselves against submarines. The British moved to influence opinion in the United States, and on February 28 it made public a telegram that Germany's new Secretary of State, Arthur Zimmermann, had sent in mid-January to the German minister in Mexico. The telegram advised the minister in Mexico that war between the United States and Germany might come with Germany's new submarine offensive. He said that Germany would offer Mexico an alliance with Germany and promised Mexico the return of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Britain's release of the telegram had an impact. A wave of indignation swept across the US, the indignation that Wilson had feared.

During the month of March, Americans debated whether to go to war. Pacifists in the United States had some stature, with roots going back to the 19th century in the abolitionist, woman's suffrage and labor movements. The socialist leader, Eugene Debs, came out of retirement and described the war as a squabble over profits for businessmen and munitions makers. Socialists accused big business of fomenting war in order to profit from arms sales, and they complained that the United States was going to war for the capitalist class at the expense of the working class. Anarchists, leftist labor leaders, pacifist Christian ministers, various editors and a few politicians held firm against the war. But millions favored war, believing that the US should stand up and fight for its rights. Theodore Roosevelt was with those favoring war. He still believed that fighting wars was spiritually uplifting. Russia had overthrown Tsar Nicholas in February, and it was argued that the US would be fighting a war against autocracy.

A majority in Congress favored war, and Wilson found his advisors unanimously in favor of war. Wilson feared that war might bring a spirit of brutality to the US and jeopardize reforms. He agonized. No evidence exists that he was influenced by a desire to serve armament manufacturers or to save the investments of those who had been lending money to the Entente powers – largely men who had opposed him in his run for office in 1916 and to whom Wilson owed nothing.

Wilson came down on the side of his advisors, and he created a rationale for his decision. He went before a joint session of Congress and announced that the United States would not choose "the path of submission." The world, he told Congress and the nation, must be "made safe for democracy." He called for a new balance of power. At the end of his speech, when he asked for a declaration of war, Congress exploded in applause.

On April 6 the House of Representatives voted 373 to 50 in favor of declaring war, and the Senate voted in favor 82 to 6. Rather than having been made somber by the weight of their decision, congressmen greeted the results of their votes by standing on their chairs, waving their American flag lapel pins and cheering.

The evangelist Billy Sunday was cheered by the decision, and his view was echoed by the Los Angeles Times, which joined Billy Sunday in claiming that the United States was on its way to fighting "Christ's war." There were religious leaders who protested that the war was a violation of Christianity. A few Americans were embittered, and some joined those who Wilson as acting on behalf of big business. But many who had opposed going to war or had harbored doubts about it now believed that it was their duty to support the war effort. War meant that young American men would die, and the patriotic thing to do was to lend a hand in the coming struggle.


Copyright © 2000-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.