100 Years after entering World War I, the U.S. reflects on effects of the fighting
Barely four months into Woodrow Wilson’s second term as president, the man who campaigned under the slogan, “He kept us out of the war,” asked Congress to declare war against Germany.
Today, April 6, marks the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. entering World War I, three years after the rest of Europe was engulfed.
“It’s seen by many as tipping the balance (of the war) toward Britain and France and away from Germany,” said Jason Maloy, Ph.D., political science professor specializing in international relations at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
At first, the U.S. attempted to remain neutral in the European conflict. Eventually, however, unrestricted German submarine warfare and the threat of the Zimmerman telegram pushed Wilson into “The Great War.”
“He was never pro-war,” explained Susan Laser, museum educator at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in Staunton, Virginia. “He looked at war as the loss of life.”
Tensions between the U.S. and Germany began in February 1915 when Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare in waters surrounding Great Britain, which was a major U.S. trade partner at the time. The Germans began sinking any ship in their territory, armed or not.
This led to the May 7, 1915, sinking of the Lusitania, a British ocean liner, which killing 1,193 people, 128 of whom were Americans. U.S. officials upbraided the German government, which then apologized and agreed to consider the safety of passengers before firing at unarmed vessels.
In January 1917, however, the Germans resumed their former unrestricted practices in a final effort to secure victory in Europe.
Suddenly, Wilson had to confront the quandary of keeping the U.S. neutral or entering the “war to end all wars.”
“For Wilson, it’s really the unrestricted submarine warfare,” said Chad Parker, Ph.D., history professor at UL Lafayette specializing in U.S. foreign relations in the 20th century, of why Wilson decided to enter the war. “You need to be able to protect American trade.”
Parker acknowledged the Zimmerman telegram as another factor in Wilson’s decision to enter. This subterfuge was Germany’s attempt to draw Mexico into the war, promising its lost U.S. territory if it joined the Central Powers. The message was intercepted in Great Britain and leaked to the U.S.
“He felt like his back was against the wall,” Laser commented on Wilson’s decision to finally ask Congress to enter the war.
“It is a fearful thing to lead this great, peaceful people into war,” Wilson said in his address to Congress, “into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace . . . .”
The declaration passed easily, though, with an 82-6 vote in the Senate and 373-50 in the House of Representatives.
“You cannot be part of the peace, Wilson believed, if you’re not part of the war,” Parker said.
“It’s the beginning of America’s rise, retreat and rise in the 20th century,” said Bryan-Paul Frost, Ph.D., political science professor specializing in political philosophy at UL Lafayette.
Frost said though millions of Americans were on Britain’s side “in thought,” anti-war sentiments were ubiquitous in the U.S.
“The thing that is a challenge for people today to understand about 100 years ago,” Maloy said, “(is) militarily, the U.S. was not a feared and respected power on the world stage.”
Maloy pointed out the only foreign war since the Mexican War the U.S. had participated in at that point was the Spanish-American War.
The Civil War had also left a bad taste in most Americans’ mouths, which led to the country’s strong opposition to World War I, despite what Laser described as German “atrocities.”
To combat rampant public dissent, Congress passed the Espionage Act in April 1917 and the Sedition Act in May 1918. The Espionage Act made it illegal for citizens to disperse information that could be harmful to the U.S.’ war effort. The Sedition Act placed limits on free speech, outlawing any speech against the U.S. government, Congress or the military.
“There was a fear that dissent would create problems in the United States,” Parker observed.
Even with these measures to protect the war effort, Wilson still had his eyes set on peace.
Parker noted Wilson started promoting peace initiatives after his narrow re-election in 1916. He discussed the concept of “peace without victory.”
“He came up with the League of Nations, or his Fourteen Points, with the idea of creating boundaries or rules so we would never enter another war again,” Laser said.
She added his “peace without victory” suggestion came from his experience with the Civil War, when the North descended on the Confederate states and “took everything.” Wilson was 7 when Gen. Philip Sheridan’s army burned out much of the Shenandoah valley. She said he didn’t want a “winner-take-all” situation.
“The League of Nations was too much too fast for many Americans at that point,” Maloy declared.
The League was an idea similar to today’s United Nations: an organization of countries working to avoid another global war. Congress, however, wasn’t on board. Parker said, along with most U.S. citizens, Congress did not like the idea of a foreign organization having authority to mobilize U.S. troops.
“This idea of collective security, they saw as a giving away of some of our sovereignty,” he remarked.
Although the Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920 for his peace efforts.
“Wilson is really kind of a visionary,” Parker opined. “He’s maybe ahead of his time. He sees the war as an opportunity to bring about a different kind of world order.”
This new world order was one of nation states, instead of empires.
“Everything is shaped through World War I,” Frost said. “It is simply the most important event that students don’t know about. It is the key to understanding everything in the 20th century.”