Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2016
War broke out in Europe in August, 1914 over the assassination of the heir imminent of the Austrian throne, Franz Ferdinand. The alliances created by the balance of power brought the major European powers into the war. Woodrow Wilson declared neutrality, for most Americans wanted to stay out of the war. They thought it was not a US affair. There was also a division as to which side to favor. Businessmen and some politicians realized that neutrality created the possibility of economic benefit to the US because it could sell to all sides. US leaders, especially in the East, were pro-British, however.
The US benefited economically. It sold more agricultural and manufactured goods. It provided loans. There was lots of money to be made. The war brought the US out of the depression into which it was heading in 1914. At the end of the war, the US had become a creditor nation for the first time in its history.
The issue of neutral rights brought the US into the war in April, 1917. Germany was a land power; Great Britain was a naval power. Thus, the British used their sea power to blockade the continent. The US claimed the right of neutrals to sell to anyone. It agreed not to sell contraband war goods. The British illegally extended the list and interfered with US shipping. The Germans used U-Boats (submarines) in an attempt to break the British blockade. Although there were a few subs in the US Civil War, they had no impact. The widespread use of subs as the Germans began to use them was unprecedented. The Germans had to use the subs to break the blockade but their use alienated US public opinion. British propaganda was more successful than that of Germany and was able to convince most Americans that the Germans were brutish Huns. It argued that Americans should support the liberal British government which was more akin to the US system instead of the conservative governments of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The German also erred in sending saboteurs to the US because they did little damage but the discovery of them created anti-German sentiment.
It was the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany and the sinking of ships on which US citizens were passengers that brought the US into the war.
World War I drastically changed US life. With the first massive conscription of men to serve in the army it proved that a government could and would disregard individual rights when it suited its purpose. There were no individual freedoms and rights. But conscription also brought many different people together as men were forced to the meet and deal with soldiers from different parts of the country. The war created massive supply problems with rationing of certain goods. The national government and some state governments engaged in thought control attempts. There was the massive use of federal government power to run war. Planning was necessary, something, abhorrent before 1917. The federal government took over the railroads. All of these actions, although justified as emergency war measures, set precedents. In the New Deal of the 1930s, the argument was made that government power should be used to solve the problems caused by the Great Depression.
US participation in the war was important. US troops joined late in the war and in small numbers until late 1918, but the morale factor was important because Germany, Great Britain, and France were tired. US participation tipped the balance. However, US soldiers never faced fresh, well-trained troops.
Woodrow Wilson decided that the war should be fought for more than restoration of the balance of power. Instead, it should be fought to further democratic ideals in the world. The peace should be non-punitive. He proposed the Fourteen Points including the creation of the League of Nations. The Fourteen Points tried to remedy the causes of war.
Russia pulled out of the war in 1918. The Bolsheviks had come to power after the collapse of the Tsarist government and the failure of the Provisional government to win sufficient popular support. The Bolsheviks promised peace and bread to the war-weary and often starving Russian population. Even though the Germans gave Russia a harsh peace, something that Lenin suspected it would do, it was clear to Lenin that Russia was collapsing because the war and it was best to get out. Western nations opposed the Bolshevik government and its withdrawal. After the war was over, they tried to reverse the Russian Revolution but, given the long war and US desire to withdraw into itself, the intervention failed.
Wilson and the Great Powers encouraged the Germans to overthrow the Kaiser to get better peace terms. They did, aided secretly by the German army which did not want the Imperial government to be the one to surrender. The revolt and the establishment of a democratic government at Weimar was of little help to the Germans, however. The European Allies wanted revenge.
The War changed the world. It showed the potentialities of government power. It dislocated economies. It upset the balance of power. It created revolutionary conditions. It was a psychic shock after a century of relative peace.
Wilson's negotiations in Paris in 1919 had to yield to some of the revenge motives of the European victors in order to get some of his basic peace plans adopted. Germany was given harsh peace terms in the Treaty of Versailles. Would Germany have acted differently had it won the war?
In the US, there was a fight in the Senate over the Versailles Treaty and US participation in the League of Nations. Many Americans were tired of European affairs. Henry Cabot Lodge led his Republican colleagues in challenging the Treaty. They were looking to the 1920 elections and sought to defeat Wilson's proposal; they were not going to give Wilson and the Democrats such a victory. Any treaty would have to be bipartisan. They were willing to accept a compromise but Wilson wanted the treaty ratified. He apparently refused to understand that he might not win. He did not use all the powers of the President that he could have to get it ratified. It was defeated.
Wilson suffered health problems, having a stroke which limited his ability to function. There was some question as to whether he was capable of continuing in office, whether his wife was acting in his stead. He was able to prove that he was in command, but his leadership was compromised and he could not help Democrats in 1920.
In the 1920 presidential election, Warren G. Harding, the Republican, was elected in the promise that he would return the country to "normalcy." Wilson's election in 1912 had come because the Republicans were split between President William Howard Taft and ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and the 1916 election because of the war. Once the war ended, US citizens were tired of international involvement. By electing Harding, a Republican, they returned to their usual pattern.
by Donald J. Mabry