Ever since George Washington’s Farewell Address, the US had maintained a policy of mostly keeping out of European affairs, so long as they remained in Europe. So, when the Great War broke out in 1914, it wasn’t too surprising that the United States remained on the sidelines. For the most part. Some Americans, feeling the call of duty, joined the Canadian armed forces and in 1916 the French deployed a fighter squadron called the Lafayette Escadrille that was composed of mostly American pilots. But the official position of the American government was one of neutrality. President Woodrow Wilson was an idealistic man and offered to mediate between the two sides, but neither took him up on his offer. They had their heads full of visions of conquest and glory.
Looking back to WWI through the lens of 2007, it would appear to us a foregone conclusion that the US would eventually enter the war on the side of the Allies. However, that is not exactly the case. Though the earliest European settlers of America had been British, and many more British emigrated after the Revolution, the country had had a huge influx of German and Irish immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century. The Irish have never been what you would call buddy-buddy with their British cousins, less so in the early 20th century. Americans of German decent at that time were likely not so far removed from the Old World that they wouldn’t still have friends and relatives fighting for the Central Powers. So, early on public opinion was not so solidly pro-British or Allies. However, the Germans made three major mistakes that would change that.
The first was unrestricted submarine warfare. At the outbreak of the war, Wilson was counting on America’s neutrality to guarantee it freedom to trade with all belligerents. The Atlantic would be an open business. However, the British had other plans. With their superior navy they blockaded Germany’s ports to all traffic, neutrals included. This put quite a crimp in the free flow of trade Wilson was hoping for. He protested to London, but there was practically very little he could do short of declaring war, which he absolutely wouldn’t. The British and their allies, never missing a beat, were now in a position to be the near exclusive trading partners with the US. Obviously this stuck in Germany’s craw. They responded with unrestricted submarine attacks on merchant shipping. In the early days of the war, submarine warfare was quite civil. A merchant ship would be stopped, the crew removed, and then the ship sunk. For obvious reasons, this was not having the desired affect on the British, of cutting off their food supply, as it were. Unrestricted submarine warfare can best be described like this: see boat, sink boat, celebrate to the swinging sounds of David Hasselhof (Germans love David Hasselhof). OK, I made that last part up. After a cruise liner, the Lusitania, was sunk by a German torpedo in 1915, killing 128 Americans, the British were sure Wilson would declare war. However, he instead protested vehemently to Germany on the illegality of unrestricted submarine warfare, and the Germans ceased the practice…until 1917. By that time, Germany was in dire straits. With the free flow of munitions from America to Britain the Bosch were in danger of being out gunned. It wasn’t so much that the American munitions peddlers didn’t want to sell their wares to Germany, they simply couldn’t due to the British blockade. With the resumption of their harsh submarine tactics the Germans realized that America would stand idly by for only so long before declaring war, however they grossly miscalculated the time it would take to get enough doughboys across the pond to have an impact on the Western Front.
A second mistake Germany made was the use of sabotage. As we’ve noted, Germany was fairly perturbed that though the US was technically neutral and free trade with both sides, most, if not all, of its trade was with the Allies. Another way they attempted to stifle this was through sabotage in the US itself. Probably the largest act was on a munitions dump in New Jersey known as Black Tom. There were about 200 incidents of German sabotage in the US during the war and the real-life spectre of German agents running around in picklehaubs along the Eastern seaboard blowing things up was enough to start to sway public opinion.
The third mistake the Germans made occurred south of the the border, our border. British intelligence had intercepted a communique from the German Foreign Secretary Artur Zimmerman to his ambassador to Mexico in Mexico City. Known as the Zimmerman Telegram, the note instructed the ambassador to approach the Mexican government on the possibility of a Mexican-German military alliance should the US declare war on Germany. Germany would assist Mexico with arms and funds if they would stage an invasion of the American southwest. Germany would also assist Mexico in reclaiming the land lost in the Mexican-American war. Small places like Texas and California. Tensions between Mexico and the US were already high. The neighbor to the South was already in the midst of revolution and political instability and General John “Black Jack” Pershing had been chasing Poncho Villa back and forth across the border for months. Despite the tension, the plan was infeasible and quixotic. Mexico was in no position, as per the aforementioned revolutionary activity, to make war on the US and Germany could promise all the guns and money it wanted, but how were they going to get them to Mexico? The British blockades weren’t letting anything in, and they certainly weren’t going to let anything out. The Huns were most definitely desperately grasping at straws.
The Zimmerman Note was the last straw. The British turned it over to the US in February of 1917 and by April Wilson had asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany to make “the world safe for democracy.” War could no longer be avoided. Also playing a part in Wilson’s decision was the fact that Imperial Russia was now out of the Allied camp, and indeed no longer existed. The Bolsheviks had taken over and made peace with Germany. Even if the Tsar still had been in power, its unlikely this would have been a sticking point for Wilson as public opinion would likely have forced him to the same conclusion.
By June of 1917 there were 14,000 US troops in Europe under the command of Pershing. In eleven months there would be over a million. Six months after that, on November 11th, 1918, the War to End All Wars, that began with the assassination of an Austrian nobleman (who was commissioning a symphony in C) that claimed more than 9,000,000 lives, that redrew the maps of Europe and the Middle East, that would send echos nearly 100 years into the future was over. The document that was supposed to mark a new era for mankind, the Treaty of Versailles, would leave a devastating legacy that would lead, a mere 21 years hence, to an even greater conflict. But that is a post for another day.
(P.S. Bonus points to whoever can pick out the obscure song reference in that last paragraph.)