One Hundred Years Ago… The US in WWI Part 1

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We don’t have a dog in the fight. We have to make the world safe for democracy. We have to defeat the Hun. England deserves to lose because of what she’s done to Ireland. The US should be a model for world peace and stay out of the war. The US has a duty to defeat Imperial Germany because we owe France and  because of what the Hun have done to Belgium.

The US entry into WWI was a strange moment in history, and one that historians still wonder about.

Fighting began in Europe in the late summer of 1914. Depending on one’s family background, political inclinations, and location, Americans seem to have rolled their eyes and muttered about monarchs and dynasties and foolishness, to have cheered for the Germans and anyone else who would beat up on England, to have cheered for anyone who would beat up on Austria-Hungary, or looked at everything going on and wondered what it was going to do to the price of commodities, and what this foolishness about trying to turn the entire country Dry was really about. The official US policy became one of neutrality, although we would sell anything to anyone who paid us, from food and fiber to firearms. Our greater concern was the ongoing Mexican civil war, and Poncho Villa.

A few things began to push the US, or at least a few people in the US, to regard the Central Powers (Italy, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, the Ottomans) as being the greater of the evils. British propaganda played up the actions of German Reservists in Leuven and the burning of the great library there, as well as of other civilian deaths at the hands of German troops. The sinking of the Lusitania, with a number of Americans on board in May 7, 1915, happened less than a year after the start of hostilities, and was played up by British and American media as an atrocity committed against an innocent vessel and the unsuspecting passengers on board. As it turns out, the RMS Lusitania was indeed carrying a cargo of war materials and thus was a legitimate target for sinking under the then-current laws of war, but that information was kept quiet until many years later. A few Americans called for the US to enter the war, or to punish Germany some other way, and the US government did protest, leading to a temporary change in German U-boat warfare policy. The Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, resigned because he did not want to be part of the what seemed to be happening with the US government tilting toward war.

Americans also began learning about the Armenian Genocide. While not directly connected to the fighting in Europe, at least not in the way most people of the time considered such things, it did push Americans farther out of sympathy with the Ottoman Turks. And if the Ottomans were allies of the Germans, and the Germans had not tried to protect Christians, well obviously the Germans really were nasty people, or at least their Kaiser was.

Then, in 1916, on July 30th, the ammunition and black-powder depot in New York Harbor, Black Tom Island, exploded after several small fires were reported by the guards. The detonations shattered plate-glass windows in Manhattan and near-by boroughs, damaged the Statue of Liberty, and stopped shipping until the fires were brought under control, and the bullets stopped flying. Since there had been none of the usual things that cause spontaneous detonations of munitions dumps (lightning strike, fires in adjacent buildings) sabotage was assumed, and some years later confirmed. German agents had done the work. At the time, some Americans who knew of the event leaned toward blaming the Germans, although the FBI also considered Irish nationalists, Independence-minded South Asian groups, Communists, and several other possibilities before focusing on the Germans.

However, the US remained neutral. A third of the population were either recent immigrants or children of recent immigrants, and Woodrow Wilson and others could easily imagine the US being torn apart by nationalist loyalties if the US went to war against anyone. The Easter Uprising in Ireland had pushed more Irish-Americans into an anti-British mood, while it was assumed that everyone from Germany or the Austro-Hungarian Empire supported the Central Powers, unless they were Bohemian, Moravian, Romanian, Croatian, or Russian. Still, many Americans had decided that they did not want to be part of the war, but neither were they rooting for the Central Powers.

So things continued through the early spring of 1917. On January 31, 1917, the Imperial German government decided to return to unrestricted submarine warfare against the British and any neutrals assisting the British. On February 3, the US suspended diplomatic relations with Germany. That same day, the USS Housatonic was sunk. The US government was not pleased, to put it mildly, but still not ready to go to war.

Or were they? At the end of February, Congress appropriated several hundred million dollars to use to purchase arms and start re-building the US military. The peace party in the US protested mightily, but it was beginning to seem as if Germany were trying to goad the US into doing something. And then Feb. 24, the British passed the US State Department a decrypted telegram from German Ambassador Zimmerman to the Mexican government, offering to assist Mexico in regaining the territory lost in the Mexican-American war if Mexico would assist Germany. The Mexican government had no interest in declaring war on the US, but the telegram infuriated Pres. Wilson and a number of other people. It was made public on March 1.

The Germans continued sinking US ships, and US public opinion turned against the Germans rather firmly. Now, as several historians have recently pointed out, and others pointed out at the time, Pres. Wilson had a number of options short of war to use against the Central Powers. And while Germany had violated neutral rights, the British had also done so, as the Germans pointed out.The Russians had broken the laws of war on the Eastern Front, so the Entente Powers were not exactly pure as new fallen snow.

And so, in early April, President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against the Central Powers. Now, by this point, Italy had switched sides and was attacking Austria, and Russia had had their first revolution and the Mensheviks led by Alexander Kerensky were in the process of deposing Tsar Nikolas.

And so war came to the US, or rather, the US officially started getting ready to fight back.

For an alternate view of the first two years of the war, through Austro-Hungarian eyes, try:

The sequel, Clawing for the Crowns will be released in Nov-Dec 2017.

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14 thoughts on “One Hundred Years Ago… The US in WWI Part 1

    • So much new material has come out in the past 10 years that it’s much easier to study than it used to be. I’d recommend John Barry’s _The Great Influenza_ in addition to “pure” WWI books. He pulls a lot of stuff into what seems to be a pure medical history.

  1. I don’t know as much about WWI as I probably should, but it always seemed to me like the Germans were intentionally trying to provoke a reluctant USA into the fight. Which seems remarkably stupid of them.

  2. I can find no record of the USS Housatonic being sunk on Feb 3rd 1917. Or ever.

    There is a Civil War sloop USS Housatonic sunk by submarine, but that was by the CSS Hunley, (first submarine to ever sink a ship )

  3. All-in-all, not a bad summary, and it’s nice to see someone recognise that William Jennings Bryan resigned as a matter of principle. My only major objection to your narrative is that you don’t make it clear that Wilson favoured intervention on the Entente side from the beginning and through his crony House conspired with Grey to minimise British neutrality violations (such as the orders in council establishing the blockade that was not in accordance with then accepted international law).

    • US participation in WWI is one of my weak areas, and I’ve not taken the time to read much about US policies and internal debates/discussions about which side was favored.

  4. Italy initially sat out the war, then came in on the side of the Allied Powers, not the Central Powers. Italy fought Austro-Hungary along their border for basically the entire balance of WWI, though they did deploy some troops to other conflict zones, including the Western Front.

    • Italy was allied with the Central Powers in 1914 in a mutual defense agreement. They did not fight in support of Austria-Hungary once the war began, and then they negotiated a new agreement with the Entente and came in on the Entente side. Yes, they fought mostly against Austria-Hungary, in the so-called “White War” in the Alps.

  5. As the Zimmermann telegram itself notes, the Germans made their submarine warfare decision in full awareness that it would probably bring the USA into the war. Churchill, in “The World Crisis” (too little read now, his very best), attributes their loss of the war to three mistakes of the General Staff militarists: 1) violating Belgian neutrality, which brought Britain in against them; 2) resuming submarine warfare, which brought the US in just as Russia was falling apart, and 3) wasting their army by attacking in the West in spring 1918. Absent the first, they would have defeated France and Russia by 1915 at latest. Absent the second, the Allies would have been forced into a compromise peace amounting to a German victory. Absent the third, Germany could have formed an impregnable front in the West while exploiting her Eastern conquests to overcome the blockade.

    • Good points all. And I agree, without the US the Entente Powers would likely have agreed to a negotiated settlement, especially after the Bolsheviks pulled Russia out of the war.

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