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Why did the United States enter World War One.

The industrial era had many effects, not the least of which was plunging the world into world war. One must consider the relationship between eras and events as a student of history. The industrial era created a perceived need in America for raw materials and markets for goods. The United States was not alone in this desire for expansion. All the industrial nations were in open competition to develop vast empires that would provide them with the fuel to run the factories of industrialism. This imperialist competition led to tension and the creation of vast armies. The willingness to use these armies was known as militarism. In order to feel safe (there was a pretty fair degree of paranoia as you can imagine) nations began to sign secret treaties forming alliances and Europe was divided into an armed camp. Tension was high, the subjugation (taking over) of other nations led to feelings of nationalism that would eventually light the spark that would explode Europe into the flames of conflict.


The causes of World War One as discussed above can be summarized by the following acronym as a mnemonic device:

A- Alliance: European nations signed secret treaties that created a system of alliances pitting nation versus nation.

N - Nationalism: There were intense feelings of nationalism on the part of subjugated nationalities. These feelings would eventually lead to rash acts.

I - Imperialism: Competition to develop vast empires caused tension and conflict.

M - Militarism: Nations built huge armies to defend themselves and help to gain these empires. It was a natural feeling for them to want to use these militaries.

A - Anarchy: There was no international organization to help them deal with their problems.

L - Leadership: It was poor. Just look at the system they set up...quite poor indeed.

These were the conditions facing Europe as a crisis emerged in the Balkans. The Archduke of Austria Hungary, a traditional power, was touring the nation of Serbia. Meanwhile Bosnian nationalists desiring freedom from Serbia plotted to assassinate the Archduke. Gabriel Principe, a member of the Black Hand, the aforementioned Bosnian nationalist group, shot and killed Franz Ferdinand on June 28th 1914.

Austria Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the assassination of the Archduke and issued an ultimatum (demands). The Serbians agreed to all but two of the demands, one of which was the placement of Austro Hungarian troops within Serbia. The Serbians appealed to Russia for support and Russia as the "protector of the Slavs" agreed to support Serbia. Meanwhile the Austro Hungarians still wanting revenge and fearing Russia secured the support of their traditional ally, Germany. In a famous decision Germany issued what has become know as "Carte Blanche," of blank check, to Austria Hungary. This unqualified military support from Germany made Austria Hungary rather confident that Russia would not attack. At this point the Austro Hungarians declared war on Serbia. In response to the declaration of war Russia mobilized her military forces. Perhaps it was a bit of saber rattling, perhaps not. Regardless Germany demanded Russia demobilize its army. When Russia refused Germany attacked Russia. The effect of the war on the Russian front were devastating. The Russians were ill prepared for war and lost millions of men. In the end the Czars refusal to exit the war cost him his throne as the Bolsheviks (Communists) revolted in 1917 overthrowing Czar Nicholas II.

When the Russians were attacked by Germany, France was obligated to declare war on Germany as a result of a treaty she had signed with Russia. The Germans attacked France by marching through Belgium. The Belgians who did not give Germany permission to do this now were in a state of war with Germany as well. The most important byproduct of this was the fact that England had a treaty with Belgium! Now England was obligated to declare war on Germany as well. Italy, which had a treaty with Germany switched sides so that she might gain territory from Austria Hungary (A gamble that more or less worked) and the Ottoman Empire entered the war on behalf to the Austro Hungarians (they wanted to gain territory from the Russians and gain control in the Balkan region). Now most of Europe was engulfed in war.

In the end the Triple Entente (England, France and Russia later to be joined by Italy, the United States and Japan) defeated the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria Hungary and the Ottoman Empire). The conflict which was long and bloody was marked by trench warfare and the use of chemical weapons. It was fought mostly in French territory. At the conclusion of hostilities Germany was still in French territory but it was relatively clear that the combined industrial might of the Triple Entente would prevail. In actuality the influence of the United States is questionable. Germany hoped to negotiate a favorable treaty but as we shall see this was not to be the case. The Treaty of Versailles was signed ending the war and blaming Germany for the entire conflict. This blame and the consequent punishment set the stage for years of resentment and another world war, something American President Woodrow Wilson had hoped to avoid.

So, what did all this have to do with America and why did we enter World War One?

Most Americans favored staying out of the conflict and President Wilson publicly and formally stated that the United States would follow a policy of neutrality. In three short years, however, the United States would find itself in the middle of what later became known as the first World War.

As the war in Europe raged on America sympathies were clearly on the side of the allies. American propaganda posters urged citizens to buy war bonds and support the allies. The Kaiser and Germans were painted as the aggressors in the war. True or not Americans came to see Germany as vicious and blood thirsty. The poster below was used by the US Army in 1917 to recruit soldiers. Notice how the Germans are pictured? This is a clear example of anti German propaganda.

When the war began England enforced a naval blockade of Germany in the hopes of cutting off supplies. Germany responded by unleashing the U Boats. U Boats were submarines capable of staying submerged for long periods of time. They would sneak up upon their victims, often at night, an torpedo them. The Germans did not limit their attacks to military vessels. Any ship sailing in the war zone was considered an enemy. This became known as unrestricted submarine warfare. On May 7th 1915 the British cruise ship Lusitania was sunk off the coast of England. Over 1,198 passengers including 128 Americans were killed. America was furious at the brutality and demanded a stop to this type of attack. In 1916, after the sinking of the passenger liner Sussex, Germany agreed to end unrestricted submarine warfare in the "Sussex pledge."

The Sussex pledge only put off the inevitable American entry into the war. America shared a cultural bond with England and France. Woodrow Wilson began to actively campaign for Americans to support the allies. Besides being culturally similar England and France were our trade partners. From 1914 to 1916 trade with the Allies grew from 825 million dollars to 3.2 billion dollars. If the Allies were to lose the war our trade would be threatened. American increasingly saw Germany as the enemy. Germany was a dictatorship fighting against the great democracies of the world and America as a democratic nation felt an obligation to support them.

As America became increasingly less neutral, the British government intercepted a message from the German ambassador Zimmerman to the Mexican government. This message termed the "Zimmerman Note" asked Mexico to attack the United States if war broke out between the U.S. and Germany.

Source: National Archives and Records Administration

The note was turned over to American government a short time later and eventually published in the newspapers. Americans were outraged.

Then the Kaiser announced that Germany was going to re initiate the practice of unrestricted submarine warfare violating the Sussex Pledge. Wilson had campaigned for office promising to protect freedom of the seas and now it seemed he had little choice. He had to ask Congress to declare war. Many Americans still wanted to stay out of "Europe's war" and there was much debate in Congress. Wilson closed his speech to Congress by saying "it is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war... But the right is more precious then peace and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried in our hearts."

On April 6, 1917, by a vote of 82 to 6 in the Senate and 373 to 50 in the House of Representatives, the United States of America declared war on Germany.

Wilson strongly believed that the American system would save the world, meaning:


1. American economic goods

2. America's democratic political structure

3. America's blend of morality and Christianity

Wilson stated:

"When properly directed, there is no people in the world not fitted for self-government." Note the caveat, "when properly directed." Wilson saw the U.S. as the rightful and natural director. He was determined to provide that direction in a framework where morality, democracy and economics were closely related. Wilson believed that other nations of the world had to look to the U.S. as an example , at the same time America was dependent on the rest of the world, mostly for economic markets. The world market must act as the new frontier for the American system. Wilson was determined to direct the affairs of other nations so that they could eventually achieve self-government, as long as this government was based on the American model, and he was even more willing to intervene in other countries than Roosevelt. For instance, he sent U.S. troops to Mexico to intervene in their civil war (1913-1917). When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, Wilson tried to keep the U.S. neutral, but Germany repeatedly violated America's neutral status. When America finally entered the war in 1917 it was because, as Wilson stated,

"The world must be made safe for democracy."

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