Last updated: February 16, 2019
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The First World War began in 1914, following a series of events starting with the assassinations in Sarajevo. In 1917 the war was in its fourth year with the troops from both sides locked in trench warfare, neither side capable of a decisive victory. President Woodrow Wilson was very aware that the causes of war were rarely clear and that the modern European scenario was a complicated one.

For this reason, he maintained America’s neutrality, as he did not believe that any of America’s interests should be threatened by a European war announcing on August 4th 1914, that America would be neutral in WW1. That neutrality was also extended to American bankers who could then lend money to both sides in the war. However with the mounting probability of a British defeat and of Europe being under control by the militarist government of Germany, America had to intervene for a number of reasons which will be explored in this essay.

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In the United States at this time hostility toward Britain was at a high point because of their handling of the Irish rebellion, indifference to peace proposals, continuing violation of the rights of US and other neutral shipping on the high seas, and its blacklisting of US companies that traded with Germany and Austria-Hungary. A major part of the British strategy was to impose a blockade on Germany. The results of the blockade were severe. While the United States was willing to trade with any European power, British warships guaranteed that, in actuality, US vessels could only trade with the allied powers.

Wilson and his advisors created a justification for the decision to enter the war. 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. ” On April 6 the House of Representatives voted 373 to 50 in favour of declaring war, and the Senate voted in favour by 82 to 6. Four main factors eventually persuaded America to join and will be discussed in turn, Anglophile sentiment, propaganda, US interests and the economy.

The first aspect to be analysed is the Anglophile sentiment. Anglo-Saxon was the dominant culture amongst the ruling classes who were generally all from British descendants including intellectuals, church leaders, bankers, and capitalists and some key characters that were pro English and pro active about going to war. Thus there was sympathy for Britain as a democracy as opposed to the militaristic and unelected leader of Germany. Theodore Roosevelt in the 19th century along with others was foremost in promoting the idea of an Anglo Saxon culture which had grown amongst the US ruling class.

Although Wilson’s sympathies lay with the British he had to back the US view of neutrality and arbitration, he once said, ‘England is fighting our fight’ and Influenced by the Anglophile members of his Administration. William Bryan gave way to Robert Lansing as Secretary of State in 1915. Lansing was an campaigner for support for Britain, using loans, support aid and morale, and eventually for involvement on the side of Britain. The attacks on merchant shipping in which there was a loss of American life were used by Lansing as justification for entering war against Germany making it America’s struggle too.

He stressed the long term negative effect a German victory would have upon American interests and national security. The US Ambassador in London, Walter Hines Page, took Wilson’s instructions amended them and presented them in a pro-British light. Like Lansing, he believed in the eventually negative effect of a British loss on American security and interests, and the features and ideals of the Anglo-American culture. Page however opposed rules about challenging and disrupting all ships during wartime, a undertaking in which Britain was involved.

Consequently, Wilson warned: “If German bureaucratic brute force could conquer Europe presently it would try to conquer the United States. ” Another name that promoted the British cause and interpreted the President’s policies in this way was Edward ‘Colonel’ House, Wilson’s chief advisor. As Wilson’s negotiator in Europe, in his efforts to broker a peace, he presented Germany as the unreasonable party. He urged preference towards Britain, in the form of benevolent neutrality and generally favourable trade decisions before 1917.

Other leading members of the financial and business community, including banker JP Morgan, also had influence upon The President. Turning to the next cause of America’s intervention propaganda played on the hearts and minds of the general population. Each of the nations which participated in World War One from 1914-18 used propaganda especially posters not only as a means of justifying involvement to their own population, but also as a means of obtaining men, money and resources to maintain the military campaign.

Headed by George Creel, a Committee on Public Information went to work, an enormous staff of employees and volunteers directed public opinion and anti-German hysteria in a well-integrated propaganda campaign. Over thirty booklets were printed in several languages. Seventy-five million copies were circulated in America, and many million copies circulated abroad. Tours were arranged for the Blue Devils (French soldiers), Pershing’s Veterans, and mass meetings were arranged in many communities. Forty-five war conferences were held, utilising volunteer services of 75,000 speakers.

The campaign used 1,439 drawings prepared by volunteers for the production of posters, window cards and similar material. It issued a daily newspaper with a 100,000 circulation for official use. Moving pictures were commercially successful in America and effective abroad, such as “Pershing’s Crusaders,” “America’s Answer,” and “Under Four Flags. ” Cable, telegraph and wireless were employed by an official news service. A special mail and photograph service was also built up for the foreign Press. The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, established the Department of Information to undertake the propaganda programme required.

One section dealt with ‘white propaganda’ specifically designed to rally America to enter the war on humanitarian grounds, backed up in the media and another dealt with “black” propaganda designed to be used against their enemies. The support of British propaganda was aided by the enthusiastic support of the American communication companies, and leading personnel running these companies who promoted the British cause. A widely circulated magazine “Life” supported Britain’s position about Belgium, the country being described as ‘a martyr to civilisation, sister to all who love liberty and law’.

If British propaganda had to promote the campaign by itself it would not have had the same results if unassisted by the American elite who as mentioned elsewhere were strong Anglophiles. Senator George W. Norris summed it up April 4th 1917. “…a large number of the great newspapers and news agencies of the country have been controlled and enlisted in the greatest propaganda that the world has ever known to manufacture sentiment in favour of war. ” British propaganda was cleverly delivered, so that Americans did not feel they were being told what to think, but were simply making up their own minds.

The German occupation in Belgium gave the British material for their propaganda. The violation of neutral Belgium, and atrocities committed there by the German armies, formed a platform of the campaign. A sustained campaign was directed at America and its citizens, emphasising such things as democracy and human rights, presented as virtues shared by the two nations, but threatened by Germany. At the outbreak of the war in 1914, Wilson counted on America’s neutrality to guarantee it freedom to trade with all nations.

However, the British had other ideas and they blockaded Germany’s ports to all shipping, neutrals included. America’s policy of insisting on this neutrality while also trying to negotiate a peace resulted in tensions in both capital cities, Berlin and London. In January 1917 the German military decided that unrestricted submarine warfare was the best gamble to stop British supplies before the American troops could arrive in large numbers. German submarine warfare, in which US ships and lives were lost, underlined the menace a triumphant Germany would pose to free trade, as well as the security of America.

In 1915, Germans sank several ships, including the Cunard Lusitania resulting in 1195 people dying, including 128 Americans. However, some argue that there was a conspiracy theory that the British allowed the Germans to sink the Lusitania in order to involve the US in the war. The loss was highlighted in a huge propaganda campaign on both sides of the Atlantic. The sinking was symbolic with the loss of innocent life. It is said the ship had insufficient naval protection in a dangerous area, off Southern Ireland; and that it was carrying military material, and that fact was made known to the Germans.

The submarine campaign provided an ideal rallying cry for war, because it brought together a practical threat to neutral America and an ideological cause against ‘barbarism’. The third factor was the pressure of US interests both at home and abroad. Britain controlled the trans-Atlantic cable links to America. The Germans used these cables to send telegram messages to their diplomatic missions in America. The Germans sent messages, assuming the British could not read them. German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman sent a message to the German Ambassador in Mexico, von Eckhardt on January 16th 1917.

It instructed him to inform the Mexican Government that Germany would soon resume unrestricted submarine warfare which in a few months would knock Britain out of the War. The Germans assumed this would cause America to declare war. Zimmerman offered Mexico Arizona, New Mexico and Texas if Mexico would join Germany in the war. Mexico was already in the midst of revolution and political instability and General Pershing had been chasing Pancho Villa across the border for months. Mexico therefore could not make war on the US even though Germany romised all the guns and money required, but the British blockades would stop any possibility of success. On February 24th, details of the Zimmermann Telegram were passed on to the US by Britain. The telegram was leaked to the press on the 1st March with predictable anti German resentment. Events in Russia, who had been in the war since August 1914, fighting both Germany and Austria also helped the American decision. The Russian army was poorly-trained and equipped, but had an almost limitless supply of men. However, by 1917, The Tsar had taken personal control of the war, and had suffered some bad defeats.

The first revolution in Russia was sparked by the terrible losses on the battlefield and widespread food shortages. Discontent among all the Russian social classes allowed organised striking Petrograd workers to seize the capital. The Russian congress defied Tsar Nicholas’s order to dissolve and set up a provincial government. On March 15th Nicholas was forced to abdicate. The new liberal “middle-class” government, tempted by the possibility of great rewards if the Allies won the war, continued with the fighting in a defensive stance to tie up a million German soldiers on its borders.

In November the collapse of the hard-pressed Russian Army forced the Russians out of the War. On August 6th Alexander Kerensky was appointed Prime Minister of Russia and honoured the commitment to the Allies of no separate peace. The Bolsheviks ousted Kerensky and installed Lenin under the slogan, ‘Peace, Land and Bread’ in November 1917 and asked the Germans for an armistice. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on the 22nd. December. The Russian collapse enabled the Germans to transfer powerful forces to the Western Front to prepare for a massive 1918 offensive.

The seemingly infinite supply of fresh American soldiers countered this potential advantage and was demoralising to the Germans. As described previously propagandists immediately went to work and Russia was now portrayed as a struggling young nation taking the path that England, France and America had already taken. Elsewhere on March 24th 1916 a German submarine in the English Channel attacked what it thought was a mine laying ship. It was actually a French passenger steamer called “The Sussex” and, although it didn’t sink, fifty were killed. Several Americans were injured and, on April 19th, Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress on the issue.

He gave an ultimatum that Germany should end attacks on passenger vessels, or face America ‘breaking off’ diplomatic relations. Germany didn’t want America to enter the war on the side of her enemies, and the ‘breaking off’ of diplomatic relations was a step in this direction. Germany thus responded on May 4th with a pledge, named after the steamer Sussex, promising a change in policy. As the war raged on in 1916, the German High Command became convinced that, not only could they break Britain using a full policy of unrestricted submarine warfare; they could do it before America was in a position to fully join the war.

Consequently, on February 1st 1917, Germany broke the Sussex Pledge and returned to sinking all ships. These actions contributed heavily to America’s declaration of war on Germany. Lastly the US economy and finance are considered the main reason why US entered the conflict. The war began for corporate America long before it started for the common man. Within two months of the conflict’s beginning, Charles Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel, one of the world’s largest arms merchants, took a trip to London. There, he secured orders from the British government for millions of artillery shells, as well as ten submarines.

Though the construction of such foreign vessels broke the law, Bethlehem proceeded with it and the Wilson administration did not stop them. The company earned $61 million in 1916, more than its combined gross revenues for the previous eight years. Iron and steel exports increased fivefold from 1914 to 1917, and the average profit rose from 7. 4% in 1915 to 28. 7% in 1917. Explosives exports to the Allies rose over ten-fold during 1915 alone. Overall, from 1915 to 1917, the export department of J. P. Morgan and Co. negotiated more than $3 billion of contracts to Britain and France.

By early 1915, Secretary McAdoo was writing to Wilson hailing the “great prosperity” being brought by war exports to the Allies, and a prominent business writer wrote the following year that “War, for Europe, means devastation and death; for America a bumper crop of new millionaires and a hectic hastening of prosperity revival. ” As Morgan put it: “We agreed that we should do all that was lawfully in our power to help the Allies win the war as soon as possible”. France and England were financing their war with US loans.

If they were to lose, then they would not be able to pay the U. S. debt back which amounted to about two billion dollars while Germany had borrowed a mere 27 million. They were still buying massive amounts of arms from the US on credit and if Allies could not pay back all the loans made to them by the American bankers, the US’s economy could collapse. It is a fact that the US investment for the British was always greater than its investment for Germany. In 1914 annual trade with Britain ; France was $825M, but with Germany ; Austria only $170M.

Included in the trade were war materials and weapons, but general supplies were equally essential for Britain, without which she could not have sustained her war effort. Despite initial Government efforts to forbid loans, Wilson had to abandon this when in 1915 Britain became dependent on credit from the USA to continue fighting. Loans equalled $500M in 1915, rising to $1800M by 1917. British control of the seas meant that the Allies had access to the bountiful produce of American farms as well as raw materials such as metals and oil. Thus the Germans were understandably frustrated with American neutrality.

This was especially true because the effectiveness of the Royal Navy blockade had cut Germany off from America and other neutral nations. In conclusion, all these diverse reasons, when put together, allowed America to totally justify the entry into war, both to the world and it’s own citizens. The defeat of Britain would remove America’s one major democratic ally, endangering the survival of democracy itself. There is a view, however, that Wilson abandoned neutrality as the result of a ‘conspiracy’ between British propagandists, US merchants, bankers and arms dealers and members of the Anglophile elite around the President.

Although few historians would now accept the idea of a conspiracy, there is certainly a case for arguing that the close links that had emerged between Britain and the USA, especially since the Theodore Roosevelt era, made eventual American intervention likely. The prospect of a world divided between democratic America and dictatorial Europe flew in the face of the ideology of the Anglo-Saxon civilising mission, which was crucial to US world authority.

Bibliography

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