Reluctant Warriors: The United States in World War I

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Reluctant Warriors: The United States in World War I

For the United States, World War I was a short war. The United States did not join the Allies in their war against the Central Powers until April 6, 1917, thirty-two months after the war began, and U.S. troops did not see action until well into 1918. Then, just a few months after America's active entry into the war, the war was over. Though U.S. participation in the war was brief, it was vitally important. The United States tipped the balance of the war in the Allies' favor and brought the long struggle to an end. The agony of committing to a European war, the difficulties of managing mobilization and shaping public opinion, and the anguished debate about signing the Treaty of Versailles (the document that officially ended the war and re-established peace in Europe) were crucial moments in American history.

Watching the War from Afar

When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, Americans watched with a combination of dismay and relief. Many Americans had deep cultural ties with the major combatant nations, and it was difficult to watch those nations enter into a costly and terribly bloody war. Like the rest of the world, the United States had been enjoying a time of great peace and prosperity, and the war upset these tranquil times. Yet because of its great distance from the conflict and its history of noninterference in European affairs, the United States did not feel compelled to get involved in this war. The U.S. government was content to let Europeans fight among themselves. President Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to remain neutral in thought and deed.

Americans noted with pride the national characteristics that helped them avoid war. America's politicians congratulated themselves on avoiding the kinds of secret treaties and dangerous alliances that had drawn European nations into war. They boasted that U.S. interests lay in maintaining the strength of the domestic economy and not in bullying neighbors or fighting for distant colonies. Moreover, they blamed the European conflict on the combatants' inadequate commitment to democracy. Democratic countries responded to the will of their people, boasted the United States, and the people did not want war. Though some of these claims aroused skepticism both at home and abroad, many people firmly believed them.

The Difficulties of Neutrality

Strict neutrality would prove a difficult course to follow in the years to come. Officially, the United States remained neutral; it was willing to trade with the Allies and with the Central Powers, and it did not commit armed forces to either side. U.S. politicians carefully maintained their neutral stance up until the point of declaring war. Unofficially, however, the United States favored the Allies. The United States had close cultural and economic ties to the Allies, especially Great Britain. Both the flow of trade and the tide of public opinion strongly favored the Allies as the war went on. Thus, in the years between the beginning of the war and the U.S. entrance into it, the United States was neutral in policy but not always in practice.

The most direct and pressing link between the United States and the Allies was trade. American policy stated that the

United States would trade equally with all combatant countries, but the combatant countries certainly did not have equal access to American markets. With its tight blockade over German ports, Britain established virtually complete control of the seas early in the war. Thus only the Allies, with their highly developed shipping industries, had access to the American market. German ships simply could not escape the British blockade. But Germany soon discovered a weapon that could.

Submarines: Early Menace to Neutrality

The Germans were not willing to sit idly by while the Allies traded freely with the United States. Defying international agreements about how warships were to treat unarmed merchant ships (those that carried nonmilitary supplies), Germany launched submarine attacks on Allied shipping beginning in 1915. Such attacks were legal as long as the submarines surfaced, announced their intention to sink the ships, and provided for the survival of the ships' occupants. The German subs obeyed no such rules. Instead they engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare: Hidden under the sea, they launched torpedoes that sank ships and often killed all aboard. On March 28, 1915, a U.S. citizen was killed when the British liner Falaba was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Six weeks later, on May 7, 1915, 128 Americans were among the 1,200 people killed when a German sub sank the British liner Lusitania. To American politicians, German submarine warfare had become a crisis.

The United States protested the sinking of the Lusitania, and some in President Wilson's administration feared that the U.S. protests would lead the nation into war against Germany. After an exchange of diplomatic notes—interrupted by the killing of two more Americans by German subs—Germany slowed down its attacks. After further American pressure, the Germans issued the Sussex pledge on May 4, 1916. They promised not to sink merchant ships without warning and safety provisions. This pledge pleased German political leaders, who did not want America to join the war on the Allies' side, but it angered German military leaders, who hated to give up one of their most powerful weapons. Before too long, however, the Germans would return to unrestricted submarine warfare in a desperate bid to win the war.

Reluctant Warriors: The United States Enters the War

One thing was clear about American policy before 1917: The United States did not want to join the war. President Woodrow Wilson was strongly opposed to war as a means to solving international problems. He believed in diplomacy and thought that war was tremendously disruptive to the smooth flow of trade that would most benefit all nations. The American economy was running smoothly, not least because it had become a major supplier of goods and capital for the Allied war effort. Though Americans tended to sympathize with Allied war claims, the majority of the American people did not want war either. To them, the war was a European issue. Wilson was reelected to the presidency in 1916 partly because he campaigned on a platform of keeping the United States out of the war. But events soon led the nation into the war it had hoped to avoid.

In keeping with his reelection mandate, Wilson tried to get the warring sides to talk of peace in the winter of 1916–17. The Allies, however, refused to consider anything less than total victory. Realizing that they must fight to the finish, the Germans vowed to starve the British out of the war by again attacking any merchant ships that tried to bring food or other supplies to the Allies. The Germans announced this momentous decision on January 31, 1917, knowing that it would bring America into the war. Wilson, however, did not leap to declare war. He still wanted peace. In February, however, he learned of the so-called Zimmermann telegram, an offer from the Germans to the Mexican government that promised German support if Mexico would declare war on the

United States. Then in March German U-boats sank three American ships, the City of Memphis, Illinois, and Vigilencia. Pushed into a corner, Wilson appeared before Congress on April 2 to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. Four days later, he officially took his country into a war that he said would "make the world safe for democracy." At last the Americans were in the war.

Preparing the Country for War

For nearly three years the government had counseled the American people to remain neutral. Suddenly, with the declaration of war on April 6, 1917, the American government placed its full weight behind a campaign to discredit the Central Powers, especially the Germans, and to prepare American industry and American soldiers to take their place in the war effort. Gone were neutrality and evenhandedness. With all the energy and determination for which it was known, America prepared itself for war. The results were not always pretty: Some wartime policies led to discrimination and repression, but they were seen as a necessary part of the war effort.

Among the first tasks facing the Wilson administration was the job of getting the American people solidly behind the war effort. In some ways this was not hard, for the American people responded with enthusiasm to Wilson's calls to crush the Central Powers. Yet there were many Americans who clung to their hope for peace or, because of their German heritage, sympathized with the Central Powers. For those who opposed the war effort, Woodrow Wilson had these words, as quoted in David Kennedy's Over Here: The First World War and American Society: "Woe be to the man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way."

The government launched a multifaceted effort to promote its war aims and crush domestic opposition. Even before the war, Wilson had spoken out about the dangers of so-called hyphenated Americans, Americans with close ties to their European countries of origin. Such people, Wilson told Congress in 1917, "have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life… . Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out… . [T]he handof our power should close over them at once," as quoted in Kennedy. Because of this official stance of hostility, Americans of German, Austro-Hungarian, or Turkish descent soon found themselves subject to suspicion and open harassment. And that was just the beginning.

Repression and Propaganda

The Espionage Act, passed in June 1917, gave the U.S. government the power to suppress any opposition to the war. Under the authority of this law, Postmaster General Albert Burleson suspended the mailing privileges of prominent labor and socialist groups who promoted peace or threatened to go on strike in important war industries. Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory also was aggressive in hunting down anyone who publicly questioned the government's war efforts. He encouraged government attorneys to silence all dissent and openly praised mob actions against supposed anti-Americans. Gregory offered his praise to a band of civilian vigilantes known as the American Protective League. This group was 250,000 members strong, and according to Kennedy, its members "spied on neighbors, fellow workers, office-mates, and suspicious characters of any type… . Its 'agents' bugged, burglarized, slandered, and illegally arrested other Americans. They opened mail, intercepted telegrams … and were the chief commandos in a series of extralegal and often violent 'slacker raids' against supposed draft evaders in 1918."

Those treated worst by American "patriots" were German Americans. Once one of the most prosperous and well-liked immigrant groups in the United States, German Americans became the most despised. German Americans faced all varieties of hostility and discrimination, from slight social snubs to outright violence. In the worst case of anti-immigrant bias, a German American named Robert Prager was bound in an American flag and then brutally lynched (killed by a mob) in front of a cheering crowd of five hundred Americans in St. Louis, Missouri. His murderers were found not guilty by a jury; on returning the verdict, one jury member called out "Well, I guess nobody can say we aren't loyal now," according to Kennedy in Over Here. When the war began, a rumor circulated that the Germans were hatching a plot to have African Americans rise up throughout the South. This attempt to cast blacks as anti-American did not work, however, for most blacks came out solidly in support of the war (see sidebar).

Other efforts to encourage Americans to support the war were not quite so heavy-handed. More in tune with Wilson's progressive political views was the government war information agency, called the Committee on Public Information, or CPI. Headed by reformer and journalist George Creel, the CPI devoted itself to educating the American people about the correct attitudes to bear toward the war. Creel organized a small army of seventy-five thousand "Four-Minute Men" to travel throughout the country giving speeches to stir up enthusiasm for the war. The CPI encouraged the formation of "Loyalty Leagues" in ethnic communities and provided a wealth of information to teachers at every level of the American education system. However, according to Kennedy, the CPI soon transformed from a pure information agency to a "crude propaganda mill. The Committee began to place illustrated advertisements in mass magazines like the SaturdayEvening Post, exhorting readers to report to the Justice Department 'the man who spreads pessimistic stories … , cries for peace, or belittles our efforts to win the war.'" The CPI also resorted to spreading inaccurate stories of German atrocities and actively tried to stir up hatred of Germans.

American Industry

The war in Europe had been good for American industry and banking. American companies sold guns, shells, and other war materials; American farmers shipped massive amounts of food overseas; and American bankers were happy to loan money to grateful foreign governments. As soon as the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies, American industry joined with the government in gearing up for war. But it did so in ways quite unlike those of the other warring countries. In Germany, France, and to a lesser extent Great Britain, governments had taken charge of the nation's industries and openly directed how they would operate. In the United States, where businessmen's rights to independence were nearly sacred, the government acted more as a coordinator, encouraging cooperation and standardization in an effort to make industry work most efficiently. This cooperative relationship between business and government proved efficient and long-lasting.

Future president Herbert Hoover's management of the Food Administration offers a good example of how the U.S. government worked with American business. Hoover did not want to dictate to American farmers or food distributors what they should grow or what price they should ask for their products. But he did want to make sure that farmers would contribute the farm goods that were most needed, and that distributors would not charge excessively high prices. To reach his goals Hoover had the government offer high prices to encourage production, and he appealed to distributors' patriotism to encourage them to avoid excessive profits. Hoover believed that the government should serve industry in such a way as to make industry profitable and efficient, and he developed many ways to encourage such efficiency. Under his able guidance, American agriculture thrived during the war, and Americans never had to endure the rationing of food that most European countries suffered through. Many other American industries worked with the government in a similar way and continued to do so after the war as well. The war taught America important lessons about how American business and government could work together.

Preparing the Soldiers

When Great Britain and France heard that the Americans were joining the war effort on their side, a great cheer went up in both countries. People there were happy that American

soldiers would soon be joining them in the front lines. No such cheer arose in America. Few Americans had considered the idea of creating a large American army, much less the idea of sending it to fight overseas. They expected that perhaps the American navy would help the Allies, or that American economic aid to the Allies would simply grow more substantial. Over the objections of many in the U.S. Senate and contrary to the long-standing American tradition of maintaining a small, volunteer army, Wilson asked for and received a large military budget and an army raised by conscription, another word for a draft of able-bodied male citizens.

In May 1917, the Selective Service Administration began registering for the draft all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty. The first men were selected on July 20 and began appearing in training camps in September. They trained throughout the fall and began to cross the Atlantic toward France late in 1917. By the end of 1917, however, only 175,000 American soldiers had reached Europe, hardly enough to turn the tide for the Allies. The draft picked up speed early in 1918. All told, nearly a million American troops arrived in France in May, June, and July of 1918. It was clear that they were sorely needed. The Italians had experienced a disaster in the fall of 1917, the Russians had left the war, and the Germans had mounted a last, desperate offensive in March of 1918.

Americans in Action

In 1918, as the Germans' spring offensive pushed French and British troops backward all across the Western Front, Allied commander General Ferdinand Foch of France begged American general John "Black Jack" Pershing to allow American soldiers to serve in support of the French and British. Pershing, however, would not be budged. He was determined to retain control of American troops, even if that meant setbacks for his allies. The French and British withstood the German advance, and by August of 1918 the Americans, now thoroughly trained and at full strength, were ready to join in a concentrated attack.

Pershing favored aggressive assaults with masses of soldiers, techniques he had learned at the United States Military Academy (West Point). He quickly learned that that was not the way war was waged on the Western Front. In hard-fought and brutal battles in Saint-Mihiel, Belleau Wood, and the Meuse-Argonne Forest, American soldiers experienced intense machine-gun fire, artillery bombardments, poison gas—all the horrors of trench warfare. Fighting bravely they achieved success almost everywhere they fought, though they never broke into the open to gain the huge chunks of land Pershing desired. (For a more complete account of the battles the American soldiers participated in, see Chapter 4.)

Just a few months after American troops went into action, the war was over. The Germans had been reeling before the American troops arrived, but American input on the battlefield bowled them over. It wasn't just that the Americans fought well. What proved even more dispiriting to the German soldiers was how well supplied the Americans were. Near starvation and running out of bullets, the Germans knew that they could not continue to fight against an enemy so well fed and well armed. In the end, then, it was the presence of American soldiers as much as their fighting prowess that helped drive the Germans to surrender on November 11, 1918.

Failed Peace and America's Place in the Postwar World

In the years leading up to the war, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson had been the world's leading voice for peace. Even after the United States entered the war, Wilson sought ways to keep the Allies open to making peace. Early in 1918, Wilson gave a speech in which he outlined his hopes for a resolution of the conflict. In this address Wilson laid out the Fourteen Points, a blueprint for peace talks. When the Allies met to consider peace terms after the German surrender, the Fourteen Points provided the basis for their discussion. (For a complete discussion of peacemaking, see Chapter 11: The Failed Peace.) Key to Wilson's vision of peace was the creation of the League of Nations, an international decision-making body that would help avoid future armed conflicts between nations.

Wilson's support of the League of Nations raised a political issue that had been buried when America united to fight the war: the problem of America's relationship with the rest of the world. Wilson and his political allies—called internationalists—believed that America's future prosperity would lie in global trade. They thought that America should protect its economic interests overseas by cooperating with other countries to avoid warfare and other disruptions of trade. Wilson's political foes—who dominated the Senate—were known as isolationists. They believed that the United States was better

off avoiding entanglements with foreign countries and that America should concentrate on building up its domestic economy. The disagreement between these two groups over U.S. participation in the League of Nations was nothing less than a fight for the future of America.

American participation in the League of Nations was part of the Treaty of Versailles, the treaty that made peace between the Allies and Germany. Like all treaties affecting the United States, the Treaty of Versailles had to be approved by the Senate. Unluckily for Wilson and other internationalists, the leader of the isolationists in the Senate was Wilson's bitter political enemy, Republican senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge phrased his objection to the treaty simply: Participation in the League of Nations would diminish American sovereignty by allowing other countries in the League to dictate foreign policy to the United States. In a speech to the Senate on August 12, 1919, quoted in Daniel M. Smith's The Great Departure, Lodge said, "I object in the strongest possible way to having the United States agree, directly or indirectly, to be controlled by a league which may at any time … be drawn in to deal with internal conflicts in other countries, no matter what those conflicts may be… . It must be made perfectly clear thatno American soldiers … can ever be engaged in war or ordered anywhere except by the constitutional authorities of the United States." Lodge and the isolationists eventually defeated the treaty in a political battle that left Wilson's health and political future broken.

The United States did not join the League of Nations. In fact, following its brief involvement in international affairs during the war, it largely retreated from foreign involvement throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Under Republican presidents the domestic economy grew dramatically in the 1920s, thanks in large part to the boost that had just been provided by the war. Although the United States had developed the strongest economy in the world, its strength proved no match for the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s. As a result, America was virtually powerless to keep Europe from plunging headlong into the Second World War in 1939. Could American involvement in the League of Nations and in the international economy have prevented either the Great Depression or World War II? Historians have been arguing over this question for years. One thing is clear: The isolationism that America returned to after the end of World War I was killed forever by World War II. Today, America is intimately involved in international politics and trade, and it presides over a sustained peace between the major world nations. Many historians now believe that Woodrow Wilson was ahead of his time in predicting how America would interact with the world.

For More Information

Friedel, Frank. Over There: The Story of America's First Great Overseas Crusade. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990.

Gay, Kathlyn, and Martin Gay. World War I. New York: Twenty-First Century Books, 1995.

Heyman, Neil M. World War I. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Little, Arthur W. From Harlem to the Rhine: The Story of New York's Colored Volunteers. New York: Haskell House, 1974.


Barbeau, Arthur E., and Florette Henri. The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in World War I. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.

Cooper, Michael L. Hell Fighters: African American Soldiers in World War I. New York: Lodestar Books, 1997.

Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Smith, Daniel M. The Great Departure: The United States and World War I, 1914–1920. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965.

Liberty Bonds

One of the biggest problems facing the American government when it entered the war was how to raise the massive amounts of money it would need to build and supply the U.S. Army, not to mention the funds for direct aid to the Allies. Some politicians wanted to raise taxes, but the Wilson administration did not want to force Americans to bear the costs of the war so directly. Wilson wanted Americans to support the war voluntarily, and Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo proposed an incredibly effective plan: Liberty Bonds. Liberty Bonds were government-backed bonds that paid 3.5 percent interest (later raised to 4 percent). By purchasing these bonds people loaned the government their money, knowing that it would be repaid after the war was over. Because the bonds were sold in small denominations, even people with small incomes could purchase them.

Liberty Bonds were presented to the American people as an important way of supporting their country and showing their patriotism. McAdoo launched a massive publicity campaign to promote the bonds: Posters promoting bond sales appeared throughout the country; movie stars and popular writers gave speeches in support of the bonds; and Boy Scouts were authorized to sell them door-to-door. McAdoo made the importance of bond buying clear in a speech quoted by David M. Kennedy, author of Over Here: "Every person who refuses to subscribe or who takes the attitude of let the other fellow do it, is a friend of Germany and I would like nothing better than to tell it to him to his face. A man who can't lend his government $1.25 per week at the rate of 4% interest is not entitled to be an American citizen." It is not surprising that the government raised all the money it wanted with such propaganda campaigns.

African American Soldiers

African Americans were as eager as their white fellow citizens to support their country and help defeat the Central Powers. However, their involvement in the war effort was plagued by the same racial hatred and segregation that shaped civilian life. Military officials worried that white soldiers would not want to serve alongside blacks, so they agreed that black soldiers would serve in segregated regiments under white commanders. Blacks were first drafted in September of 1917 and were trained alongside white soldiers. By war's end, nearly 400,000 black soldiers joined the war effort.

White military leaders generally did not trust black soldiers in combat and assigned most of the black regiments to serve as laborers. Black troops were some of the first to arrive in France in the fall of 1917, and they set to work preparing the way for the troops still to come. They built docks, railways, and warehouses, and they unloaded the millions of pounds of war materials that the United States sent to France. It was not glamorous work, but it was essential to the success of the American war effort.

Two divisions of African American soldiers did see combat action in France. The Ninety-second Division, consisting entirely of draftees, served under American command. One regiment in the division performed poorly in its first battle, and the whole division was removed from combat duty in shame. The Ninety-third Division, however, was a great success. Consisting of more-seasoned soldiers as well as some draftees, the Ninety-third served under French command. The French did not distrust blacks the way most American commanders did, and their commanders placed the black regiments in key positions during their battles. According to Michael L. Cooper, author of Hell Fighters: African American Soldiers in World War I, "The 370th [regiment] … captured nineteen hundred German prisoners in a single day. And both the 369th and the 372nd were awarded the Croix de Guerre [a French medal] for their effective fighting during the Meuse-Argonne offensive." The Ninety-third Division proved that black soldiers could fight as well as any white man.

Black leaders in the United States had hoped that blacks' participation in the war would lead to greater freedoms at home, but their hopes were cruelly dashed. Soldiers returned from France—where they had experienced real equality with the race-blind French citizens—to the same poor prospects they had left behind. Many of them could no longer endure life in the segregated South and joined in a great migration to plentiful factory jobs in the North. These black soldiers received little thanks at the time, but they are now >recognized for their great contributions to the successful American war effort in France.