American Attitudes to Involvement

The historical background to America’s declaration of war on Germany on April 6, 1917 is a complex subject involving many tangled issues. The natural desire of America to isolate itself from the European war is understandable, particularly in view of the manifest scale of the blood-letting on the Western Front. The Democrat President Woodrow Wilson certainly wanted America to remain at peace. German and Irish communities of recent immigrants to America were not inclined to be pro-British but the country as a whole supported the Allies, particularly republican France, and disliked the militarism and overweening attitudes of Imperial Germany. As in the Second World War, America quickly became the arsenal of democracy. America’s flagging economy revived as Wall Street raised giant financial loans for the Allies and the Allied orders for military equipment poured in. The value of munition exports to the Allies increased from $40 million in 1914 to $1,290 million in 1916. The consuming fires of war in Europe gave a great boost right across American industry and in political and financial circles many held the view that it was possibly better to prosper on these terms than to thrust young Americans into the conflict. There was also an uneasy awareness that direct participation in a war which had already cost the lives of millions would have long-term socially-disruptive effects in America.12

Prior to April 1917, neutrality and neutral rights were important yet tricky subjects for American politicians, whether they concerned financial loans to the Allies, the invasion of ‘gallant little Belgium’ in 1914, the tight British blockade of Germany on the high seas or the sinking without warning of unarmed commercial vessels by German submarines. This unrestricted offensive by U-boats on Allied and neutral shipping began in 1915. Its threat extended to the waters around Britain and several hundred miles west into the Atlantic Ocean. The sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in May that year with the loss of 1,198 lives, including American adults and children, led to public outcry in America and caused Germany to hold back the U-boats temporarily. However, in February 1917 the ruthless policy was resumed by Germany in a gamble that this tightening stranglehold on supply routes would bring about the rapid collapse of Britain before America could join the fray. Although American opinion was outraged when it was revealed in March 1917 that Germany had made a crass attempt to enlist Mexico as a future ally against America13, it is generally acknowledged that the prime reason for America’s entry into the war was unrestricted submarine warfare.

Many thousands of Americans were not prepared to wait for the maturation of political processes and, by 1917, had already crossed the Atlantic to serve on the Western Front with the French forces as ambulance crews, aviators (Escadrille Lafayette) and in the famed Foreign Legion (La Légion étrangère). Other American volunteers joined the Canadian and British armies.

  1. David M. Kennedy, Over Here: the First World War and American Society. (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980) ISBN 0 19 502729 9. Includes a critical summary of the battle achievements, strengths and weaknesses of the AEF. []
  2. In the ‘Zimmermann note’, intercepted by British Admiralty Intelligence in January 1917, Germany proposed that Mexico should become an offensive ally if America declared war: in return, Mexico would ultimately acquire Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. []