America Entry
Home Up Allied Dreams America Entry #10 Footnotes


America’s Entry into WWI.

During the early years of what was to become known as World War I, the overwhelming number of Americans were against entry into the war and saw it as a European conflict. Of the Americans who favored a particular side, a large segment were pro-German. Eleven out of every one hundred Americans had immigrated from Germany and another sixteen considered their first nationality German. With 27%, that made the Germans the largest ethnic group (which they still are today) in the United States. The Irish, accounting for another large segment, also had no love for the Allies. In addition, a large part of the Jewish community supported the Germans since they saw the German gains in Russia as a way of freeing Jews from the tyranny of the Tsars.

On the other hand, the sale of war materials to the Allies and the purchase of bonds of Allied governments had given a small but influential northeast clique a great interest in an Allied victory. England had borrowed heavily from the United States to finance its war with Germany. J(ohn) Pierpont Morgan, the financier and son of J P Morgan, had become the chief purchasing agent for England which soon owed American banks and industrialists billions. Since "it is generally recognized as a principle of international politics that when a country has loaned money to another it is likely to come to the aid of its debtor, should a third party threaten its ability to pay,"1 the "idealism of American," was said to be "pro-British."

Though President Wilson's personal sympathies may have lay with England and France, he suspected them of "impure motives" and clung persistently to neutrality. Wilson never ceased in his attempts to end the war with a negotiated peace and he "saw politically little to choose between the warring alliances and in his public utterances spoke as if they were Tweedledum and Tweedledee."2  In his failed attempt to pressure the British to the bargaining table in the early years of the war, Wilson went so far as to tell U.S. banks they had better not lend Britain any more money. Wilson was so upset with Britain's blockading and harassment of American shipping that at one point when he was asked what he would do if Germany was willing to seek a fair peace and France and Britain weren't--Wilson answered: "If the Allies want war with us, we would not shrink from it." The British pound plummeted and many thought the Allies might lose the war.

The introduction (after the failed German peace notes) of Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare against all shipping around Britain, renewed the hopes of the Allies. American copper, cotton, wheat, and war materials had been pouring across the Atlantic. Factories in the U.S. worked overtime on British and French orders. The British alone were spending ten million dollars a day of their war budget in the United States. The American economy was booming. If the submarine stopped this trade, a lot of money would be lost. Although the Germans offered to let one ship a week pass through a prescribe route for humanitarian reasons, wealthy Americans seethed with indignation. On February 3, 1917 President Wilson was pressured to break off relations with Germany. He still hoped however, to avoid entering the war and to offer himself again as an impartial mediator. His hopes proved futile.

The British held the cable communications between America and Europe and this had far reaching results. British propagandists, along with the pro-British element in northeast America, had already convinced many that Germany's submarine policy against "unarmed ships" was a "ruthless" and "overt" act. It was never pointed out to Americans that ruthless and overt British acts had created the situation.

Long before the beginning of the war, the British Admiralty acknowledged that a merchant vessel should be treated by a submarine in exactly the same way as by a marauding cruiser. Under the "Cruiser Rules" it was a "correct practice to halt an unarmed ship by a shot across the bows, search it, and if it were neutral [and not carrying contraband] let it go. If it was a merchant ship belonging to a belligerent, then the crew and passengers became hostages, and the cargo and ship were taken as prizes."3   If it wasn't possible to take the ship to a friendly port, then the ship was expected to be sunk. Since no nation's submarines, including Britain's, were capable of carrying enough men to man captured vessels, it was expected that any merchant ship stopped by a sub would be sunk. Before the start of the war these principles regarding unarmed ships had been accepted with minor modifications by all maritime powers.

During the first few months of the war, German submarine captains were actually chivalrous in following the rules and conducted themselves like British navy blockading vessels. When a ship was sighted, the U-boat (Unterseeboot) would surface and signal the merchant to heave to. If the ship was a neutral without a contraband cargo it was let go. If the ship was found to be a belligerent, the passengers and crew were either put in boats to make to the nearest port or, if far from land, taken aboard the sub and dropped off at a friendly or neutral port. During the early period of the war, no merchant ship had been sunk without fair warning.

When the Germans gained the ascendancy in subs, however, Winston Churchill, Lord of the British Admiralty, resented the loss of British shipping. Like a bad sport, he decided to change the "rules" in the middle of the game. Churchill began arming merchant vessels, and "from October 1914 onward a steady stream of inflammatory orders were issued to the masters of British merchant ships. It was made an offense to obey a U-boats order to halt."4  Captains were to engage the enemy with any armament they had or attempt to ram the sub if they lacked arms. Any captain surrendering his ship was to be prosecuted and several were. Since a sub is but a frail vessel, any merchant ship offering resistance placed the sub in a grave position when it surfaced. German sub commanders, consequently, were often forced to fire on "unarmed" merchant ships.

By February of 1915 Churchill intensified his "ruthless policy designed to escalate and inflame the war at sea," and endorsed a policy of masquerading certain British naval ships as unarmed merchants. Crews were ordered to wear civilian clothes so as to lure German U-boats to the surface where they could be overpowered and destroyed. German "White flags" were to "be fired on with promptitude," and survivors were to "be taken prisoner or shot--whichever is the most convenient."5   Churchill's actions, consequently, stripped all British merchant ships of the right to expect warning. The Germans had "no alternative but to depart from the Cruiser rules."6

On Sept 17, 1914 the huge ocean liner, Lusitania, had her armament mounts installed and entered the Admiralty fleet registered as an "armed auxiliary cruiser." Four days later, Churchill was viewing the Lusitania towering above him when an acquaintance remarked that the navy had nothing like her. Churchill mumbled: "We have. To me she is just another 45,000 tons of live bait."  Yet, when the Lusitania lay at the bottom of the sea eight months later, in the eyes of British propagandists the Germans were committing acts of "horror." Since a number of prominent Americans died in the incident, newspapers in the United States echoed the British sentiment. The Germans were portrayed as madmen. One newspaper characterized William II as a monster drowning a woman with his own hands, while another depicted him sneering out from behind a black cloak while ghosts of children cried out, "But Why Did You Kill Us."7   It was kept from the public that the Lusitania was not only meant to appear that she was armed, but she was also carrying munitions. According to the rules of war, and because of Churchill's actions in making "live bait" out of her, she was a perfectly "legal target."8

Although a "grave crisis" developed between Germany and the United States over the Lusitania incident, more sensible minds prevailed. The Germans agreed to discontinue their "ruthless" policy and Wilson refused to be drawn into the war. British propaganda nevertheless, made the most of the incident and handed the pro-British lobby in the U.S. a great asset. Propagandists went to work and the "freedom of the seas" issue, which had been directed against Britain, was now directed against Germany.

Churchill, aware of upper class American sentiment, was more than happy with his strategy. "The first British countermove, made on my responsibility," Churchill would later write, "was to deter the Germans from surface attack. The submerged U-boat had to rely increasingly on underwater attack and thus ran the greater risk of mistaking neutral for British ships and of drowning neutral crews and thus embroiling Germany with other Great Powers."9

The only "Great Powers" not involved in W.W.I when Churchill instituted his countermoves against the U-boats was the United States. "There can be little doubt that at the back of his mind he wished to bring the United States into the war."10  Churchill's strategy was designed to goad the Germans into a confrontation with the United States, even at the cost of innocent lives.

In order to speed up the chances of German attacks on United States shipping, the British Admiralty issued instructions ordering all British ships to paint out their names and home port, and when in British waters to fly the flag of a neutral power. The order was distributed by the Admiralty to all shipping companies with the annotation: "Pass the word around that the flag to use is the American."  By such action it was expected that the German sub commanders would soon realize that an American flag did not necessarily designate an American ship and might get careless. As Churchill would later write: "The maneuver which brings an ally into the field is as serviceable as that which wins a great battle."

By the time Germany began its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, many Americans already saw the Germans as "murderers." After Wilson severed relations with Germany, and American ships began to go down in Feb 1917, the pro-British segment could hardly control their passion. As had the Europeans in the early days of war, the pro-British in the U.S. urged their leader to fight. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, former President of the US (1901-9), condemned Wilson for his "weasel words" and pledged to raise a division of volunteers and offered himself and his four sons "in case hostilities are not averted."11  Wilson nevertheless, still refused to declare war, but the events to follow in the coming month would overwhelm him.

In March the German Secretary of State, Zimmerman, pushed anti-German feelings to fever pitch in the normally sedate southwestern United States. Since all of Europe was obsessed with expanding their territorial domains, it seemed logical to Zimmerman to offer help to Mexico in winning back its "lost territories" in "New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona."  All Mexico had to do was declare war on America in the event America went to war against Germany. Mexico however, had no intention of going to war, but since Poncho Villa had been raiding across the border and making a fool out of the US Army, the threat was taken seriously by Americans who conjured up visions of hundreds of thousands of "banditos" charging across the border.

In the same month, a sensitive matter among the politically idealistic was also removed. Britain and France were allied with the Tsar of Russia and that was their one obvious "moral flaw." How was America to justify fighting alongside the Tsarist system when many of America's intellectuals, especially among the Jewish community, saw the Romanov Dynasty as an autocratic and often brutal government. This last stumbling block disappeared in March (February in the Russian Calendar) when Russia was swept by revolution.

The revolution in Russia was sparked by the terrible loses on the battlefield and wide spread food shortages. Discontent seethed among the Russian classes--land less peasants, industrial workers, the intelligentsia, religious minorities, the lesser aristocracy and a large segment of merchants--who began protesting openly against the policies of Tsar Nicholas II. Organized striking Petrograd workers seized the capital. The Russian congress defied Nicholas's order to dissolve and set up a provincial government. On March 15 Nicholas was forced to abdicate. The new liberal "middle-class" government, tempted by the possibility of great rewards if the Allies won the war, continued with the fighting on a defensive posture in order to tie up a million German soldiers on its borders.

So now the road was open for the U.S. to join the Allies. Propagandists immediately went to work and Russia was now portrayed as a struggling young nation taking the path that England, France and America had already taken. America would be fighting alongside "progressive" governments and "an Allied victory would clearly advance the cause of democracy, freedom and progress."12  Two weeks after the new Russian government installed itself, Wilson spoke to a joint session of House and Senate requesting a declaration of war. America finally had the great moral purpose it needed. "The world," Wilson said, "must be made safe for democracy."

Since the security of America was not endangered, demonstrators throughout the United States protested American's involvement on the grounds it was "England's War." How, the protesters argued, was America to make the world safe for democracy when under the heel of Britain was an empire of captured countries looking to be free. They also rejected the argument that America was fighting for "freedom of the seas" since the British had been in violation of maritime laws since the beginning of the war. Many of the protesters believed that the United States was only going to war so that "rich Americans could grow richer."13

Although Wilson had his doubts about the "morals" of his new Allies, most American leaders treated the war as a great moral crusade. Once committed, they insisted more then anyone that they were entirely right and the Germans were entirely wrong. America "became the most ruthless and intolerant. Critics and doubters [of US policy] were persecuted."14   Those outspoken against America's involvement in the "European conflict" were jailed. Those of German descent adverse to going to France and fighting against brothers, fathers, and cousins were hauled off to boot camps or sent to jail. Teaching of the German language in schools was forbidden (till 1914 German was the 2nd language of the United States). German mother's told their children not to speak German and deny they were German.15  To quell any remaining opposition, a Committee on Public Information (neither regulated or sanctioned by law) went to work. Headed by George Creel, an enormous staff of employees and volunteers directed public opinion and anti-German hysteria in a well-integrated propaganda campaign "both at home and abroad."16

Creel's summary of the Committee's work, which would later find its way into Germany to be read by anyone interested in propaganda (possibly even Hitler), contained some useful information:

Thirty odd [propaganda] booklets were printed in several languages. Seventy-five million copies were circulated in America, and many million copies were circulated abroad. Tours were arranged for the Blue Devils (French soldiers), Pershing's Veterans, and the Belgians, and mass meetings were arranged in many communities. Forty-five war conferences were held. [Special groups] commanded the volunteer services of 75,000 speakers, operating in 5200 communities, and making a total of 755,190 speeches.

With the aid of a volunteer staff of several hundred translators, the Committee supplied the foreign language Press of America with selected articles. It planned war exhibits for the state fairs of the United States, a series of inter-Allied war expositions, and secured millions of dollarsworth of free advertising space from the Press, periodical, [street & railroad] car and outdoor advertising forces of the country.

It used 1,439 drawings prepared by volunteers for the production of posters, window cards and similar material. It issued a daily newspaper with a 100,000 circulation for official use. It ran an information service and syndicated feature articles for the Press. Plate-matter for the country Press, and specialized material for the labour, religious and women's Press was supplied. Moving pictures were commercially successful in America and effective abroad, such as "Pershing's Crusaders," "America's Answer," and "Under Four Flags."

Over two hundred thousand stereopticon slides were distributed. Still photographs were prepared, and a stream of 700 pictures per day of military activities were censored. Cable, telegraph and wireless were employed by an official news service. A special mail and photograph service was also built up for the foreign Press. Reading-rooms were opened abroad, schools and libraries were fitted out, photographs were displayed prominently.

Missions were sent to the important districts of the world to look after American propaganda on the spot...."17

Though Creel's propaganda methods succeeded in stamping out all opposition, there were many who felt he did not go far enough. One Senator (Poindexter), "an atrocity hound," lashed out at Creel's Committee for denying fabrications that the Germans were crucifying captured American soldiers.18  Nonetheless, the American people found themselves involved in a European conflict and committed to a side whose motives were, as Wilson knew from the beginning, anything but pure.

(Use your "back" button to return to where you were if you interrupted main narrative to read this "footnote.")

1 Lasswell 188
2 Palmer 679
3 Simpson 32
4 Ibid 36
5 Ibid 37
6 Ibid 33
7 Hoehling 229
8 See 'Discovery' documentary series titled "Shipwreck." Episode: "The Lusitania" (writer & researcher Gary Lang).
9 Simpson 36
10 Ibid 35
11 NY Times Feb. 4, 1917
12 Palmer 683
13 Taylor 110
14 Ibid 109
15 Stated by various Americans in PA, WA and by a retired school teacher in Yuma AZ in 1996.
16 Lasswell 18
17 Ibid 211-12
18 Ibid 44