President Woodrow Wilson, 1917
Kaiser Wilhelm. After 1916 Germany
was largely in the hands of his military.
Eugene Debs (1912). In 1917 he described
the war as a squabble over profits
In 1912, after having captured the mantel of reform from the Republicans, Woodrow Wilson was elected President of the United States. His victory was helped by the Democrat Party's traditional hold on the south and by a split among the Republicans, with William Taft as the candidate of the Republican Party and Theodore Roosevelt running on the "Bull Moose" ticket.
Wilson was one of the nation's more talkative presidents. He was the first president to hold press conferences and the first since Jefferson to speak before the Senate or the House of Representatives. In trying to influence public opinion he made more public addresses than his predecessors.
For the sake of American consumers, Wilson had tariffs reduced. He signed the Federal Reserve Act in order to make banking more stable, to free smaller banks from control by bigger firms, and to create easier credit for people. He signed anti-trust legislation that included the prohibition of injunctions by federal courts against striking unions. To curb unfair business practices, he helped create the Federal Trade Commission. In 1916, to help farmers, he signed the Rural Credits Act. He initiated a bill that gave railroad workers the eight-hour workday. Also in 1916, Wilson supported the passage of tax reform designed to make the wealthy pay a larger share in taxes. Some supported this increase in taxes on the grounds that manufacturers were making huge profits on armament production and ought to help more in paying for the recent rise in government spending on arms.
The possibility of the United States entering the war had increased, and 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" submarine captain's "calculated outrage." But, during the remainder of his 1916 electioneering, Wilson went along with the campaign slogan, while his campaign rode also on 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."
Wilson in 1916 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. Opposing the kind of alliances that had accompanied Europe's going to war, Wilson 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 "insure 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 U.S. and other neutral shipping on the high seas, its censoring American mail, and its blacklisting U.S. companies that traded with Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Germany missed another opportunity. It took no advantage of opinion in the United States. The opinions of Germany's Social Democratic Party did not prevail while the nation's hawkish newspapers and others continued to oppose any compromise. For them there was no substitute for military victory. Again Germany was erring on the side of toughness. 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 U.S. 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.
Wilhelm was nervous and wanted peace, but he also wished for a military victory, and 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, always under attack in the United States for being too soft, responded with a call for "armed neutrality," which meant the arming of U.S. 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 and that the minister was to offer Mexico an alliance with Germany and promise Mexico the return of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. In learning of the telegram, the U.S. public was aroused. It was the wave of indignation that Wilson had feared.
A filibuster in the U.S. Senate killed the bill for arming merchant ships. And during the month of March, Americans debated whether to go to war. Pacifists in the United States had some stature, with roots going back into 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. In the U.S., millions were against going to war in Europe, but millions favored war, believing that Americans should stand up and fight for America's rights. Theodore Roosevelt was with those favoring war. Roosevelt still believed that fighting wars was spiritually uplifting. And now that Russia had overthrown its monarchy and transformed itself into a democracy, it was argued that the United States 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 U.S. 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 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. And at the end of his speech, when he asked for a declaration of war, the 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 by 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.
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." Some pacifistic ministers protested that the war was a violation of Christianity. A few Americans were embittered, and some saw Wilson as acting on behalf of big business. But many who had opposed going to war or had had 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 © 2000-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.