In the election of November 1916 Woodrow Wilson stood firm behind the idea of America staying out of the war, at least in terms of physical troops on the ground. This notion was supported by much of the public and as a result he won the election of 1916. America was certainly not against helping to influence the outcome of the war but the idea of sending physical troops to the European battlefields was not one which was widely supported. Yet, less than a year later Wilson stood before Congress on the 2nd April 1917, with two minutes of unprecedented applause, even before he could speak. Wilson asked for an official declaration of war against Germany, claiming ‘nothing less than war’ already existed between the US and Germany. Four days later on April 6th 1917 the United States of America officially declared war on Germany. A decisive moment in the war which shaped the world in the twentieth century. But for what reason did the USA go from opposing the idea of physical troops in the European theatre to declaring war on Germany and ultimately becoming heavily involved in the outcome of the war?
When Wilson stood in front of Congress he cited Germany’s violation of its pledge to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmermann Telegraph. Clearly these two reasons were enough to swing the votes in favour of the declaration of war. The U.S. Senate voted 82 to 6 in favour and the House of Representatives in favour by 373 to 50. An overwhelming result which was vital in the course of the war and America itself. The German use of unrestricted submarine warfare has been covered in greater depth in my previous article. However, in May 1915 the British liner Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat killing 1,198 including 129 Americans. This placed pressure on Wilson but ultimately it did not result in any significant changes and certainly not enough to bring about a declaration of war upon Germany. Yet after an agreed pause on unrestricted submarine warfare Germany resumed such warfare on February 1st 1917. This renewed pressure on Wilson and the public began to shift in part towards further action against Germany. Wilson’s idea of armed neutrality was now being put to the test with Germany continuing to push the boundaries of American patience and understanding. After resuming the warfare, a series of sinking’s of American ships drew war ever closer. By the time the sinking of the American steamer Aztec occured, the first armed American ship to go to the bottom on April 1st Wilson had been pushed towards a declaration of war. German naval warfare in the Atlantic had caused Wilson to see armed neutrality as unworkable. He saw German actions as dividing the country and with a peaceful stance Wilson would be to able heavily influence on the post war settlement. German unrestricted warfare was important in bringing America into war, Wilson referred to it as ‘warfare against mankind’. Yet it wasn’t just unrestricted German warfare which prompted a declaration.
Perhaps an equally decisive moment in the course of US entry into World War One was the Zimmermann Telegram. On January 17th 1917 British intelligence intercepted a message from German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, who had sent a telegraph to a German ambassador in Washington. This interception was to have profound effects on the war but also beyond into the post war years. The telegram contained instructions for the German ambassador to approach the Mexican government to join the war against America and become allied with Germany. Germany would provide financial aid if Mexico would become an ally in any future US- German conflict. In reward, they would be given the territories of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Such attempts from Germany to entice Mexico, a neighbour of America would ultimately be a significant factor in directing Wilson and America to a declaration of war against Germany.
Yet the Zimmermann Telegram was not a catalyst for an instant change of mind for the American public. This is not least due to the British intelligence having to navigate cautiously the very fact they were spying on America who they wished to convince to become an ally. Avoiding this was done by asking for all telegrams sent to the German embassy in Mexico from the US. As such another copy of the telegram was received in a more legitimate way. Britain also had to convince the US that it was a genuine telegram and that it was not a ruse used to make the US enter the war breaking the stalemate in Europe. Eventually the telegram was leaked to the American press and published to a sense of amazement from the public on the 1st March 1917. Much of the American public and politicians were sceptical of the legitimacy and questioned whether any diplomat could be so stupid to send such a telegram. Yet Zimmermann eventually clarified the situation, confirming he had sent the telegram and as such any doubts quickly changed to astonishment that the telegram was genuine. This moment sparked widespread anger and helped to convince many that sending troops to European soil was a viable and ever more likely reality.
These two factors remain the most prominent in enticing American entry into World War One. Other factors include the invasion of Belgium by Germany and the subsequent atrocities committed and the economic interests and benefits the war could have for the US. Yet unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmermann Telegram combined to shift public and political opinion towards American entry into the European theatre of war. By June 26th the first American troops had put boots on the ground of Europe, 14,000 American soldiers had arrived in Paris to begin training for combat. The process of the US adapting to war was slower than imagined, American troops were given British and French equipment and uniform on arrival and the American economy took some time to adapt to war conditions. But by 1918 America was mobilised, a country dedicated to achieving decisive victory. In June and July 1918 alone America sent over 584,000 troops to the battlefields of Europe. American entry was to prove decisive in an allied victory, creating a swifter and more convincing victory compared to the stalemate of Europe prior to April 1917. Ultimately American intervention helped secure a victory over Germany. The decision for America to declare war on Germany is an extremely important moment in the moulding world affairs from 1917 onwards.
Within this piece I have only been able to scratch the surface of such an event and allude to its repercussions. However, I hope to have evidenced the profound importance of this event that occurred 100 years ago.