United States of America and the First World War

When the European war began in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson announced that the United States would remain neutral. Aware that the nation’s population included many first- and second-generation immigrants from both the Central Powers and the Allied nations, Wilson worried that bitter divisions over the war might rip the country apart. Not all Americans heeded the president’s request. Thousands of Americans either volunteered to fight in foreign armies or travelled overseas to work in humanitarian relief campaigns. Americans donated widely to help civilians caught up in the maelstrom of war, while banks lent freely to the Allies so they could purchase food, raw materials and munitions in the United States. The evolving naval war also impacted the United States, most famously when 128 Americans perished after a German submarine torpedoed the British passenger ship Lusitania in 1915.

By 1917 most Americans favoured the Allied side. Yet opposition to entering the war remained strong in rural areas where traditional distrust of Wall Street created suspicions of a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” German Americans and Irish Americans also opposed entering the war, believing an Allied victory would only strengthen the British Empire. Therefore, when Wilson decided on April 2, 1917 to ask Congress for a declaration of war, a significant segment of the population still needed convincing. Without a clear attack against the United States to galvanize the public, Wilson argued that the nation had to defend itself from increasing German aggression. The crimes laid at Germany’s footstep included sabotage and spying within the United States, resumed unrestricted submarine warfare that put American shipping and lives at risk and the Zimmermann Telegram (a half-hearted German attempt to entice Mexico into attacking America’s southwest border).

Wilson also urged Americans to have faith that victory would usher in a more peaceful and just world. America, he declared, had “no quarrel with the German people,” only with their autocratic government. He framed the war as an altruistic campaign to spread the American way of life by making the world “safe for democracy.” In January 1918 Wilson took his ideas one step further in the Fourteen Points, a document that championed disarmament, self-determination, free trade and a League of Nations to handle international disputes. Wilson did not create the Fourteen Points in a vacuum, he was responding to the alternative vision that the 1917 Bolshevik Russian Revolution had offered. Rather than replacing monarchies with communism, Wilson envisioned a post-war world where capitalism and democracy thrived. 

In resuming unrestricted submarine warfare, Germany wagered that the United States could not mobilise its economy or military in time to make a decisive difference along the Western Front. This gamble failed. During the war, the federal government successfully mobilised the nation’s manufacturing and agricultural sectors, inducted millions of men into the army, crafted an effective propaganda campaign to win over public opinion and implemented a convoy system to transport troops and goods relatively safely across the Atlantic. Americans paid a cost for this speed. Fearing that any dissent represented delay, the government engineered a significant curtailment of civil liberties. The 1917 Espionage Act criminalized aiding the enemy and speech that obstructed military recruitment. The 1918 Sedition Act went even further by outlawing “any abusive or disloyal language” concerning the flag, constitution, government or armed forces. An accompanying wave of extra-legal vigilante violence against German Americans, pacifists and socialists effectively silenced most criticism of the war or the government’s war goals.

The other cost came in lives lost. In eighteen months, the American Army grew from roughly 300,000 men to nearly 4.2 million. These soldiers trained in stateside camps where overcrowding and record-breaking cold allowed diseases (especially the Spanish flu) to flourish. By the fall of 1918, half of the 2 million American troops overseas were deployed to the front lines. The Americans’ high combat casualty rates reflected fierce fighting, but American commanders also knew that they had sent many poorly trained men into battle. Overall, the American military engaged in six months of heavy combat operations that left nearly 53,000 men dead. Another 63,000 died, mostly from influenza, over the course of the war. Over 200,000 men were wounded.

What had the American Army accomplished in compensation for these losses? The American Expeditionary Forces, commanded by General John J. Pershing, joined the fighting in the spring of 1918, just as German forces were bearing down on Paris. Important American battles fought at Cantigny, Belleau Wood, and Château-Thierry helped stop the German drive toward Paris in the spring of 1918. The Americans subsequently joined with the French in the incremental summer attacks that slowly pushed the Germans back toward their own border. In the fall of 1918 the Americans took over their own sector and contributed to the multipronged, final Allied assault along the entire Western Front with the American-commanded St. Mihiel (September 12-15) and Meuse-Argonne (September 26–November 11) offensives. American soldiers fought and died until the very last minute of the war.

Fighting along the Western Front ended with the Armistice on November 11, 1918, but it took seven more months to negotiate the Versailles Peace Treaty. The Americans took pride in helping to defeat Germany, but many soon became disillusioned when the peace settlement failed to meet the high expectations that Wilson had articulated in his wartime messages. The final treaty included a League of Nations, but questions arose over whether America should join. Wilson contended that League mediation of international disputes would make wars unnecessary. Congressional critics feared that the League might take control of U.S. foreign policy, either forcing Americans to curtail involvement in Central America or requiring the United States to fight to protect member nations if they were attacked. The impasse resulted in the Senate rejecting the treaty and the United States never joined the League.

Participating  World War I altered American society in several ways. The Wilsonian ideals of disarmament, free trade and spreading democracy animated American foreign policy for decades to come. In the interwar period, Americans became convinced that their participation in the war had been a mistake. Consequently, in the 1930s several neutrality laws restricted loans and arms sales to belligerent nations. Yet after Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt resurrected Wilson’s ideals as the main reasons America fought. Echoes of Wilson persisted throughout the Cold War and, more recently, the Iraq War.

The president’s rhetoric likewise proved inspiring for domestic civil rights movements seeking gender and racial equality. Moderate suffragists highlighted women’s crucial contributions on the home front to build public support for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. More radical suffragists called Wilson a hypocrite and pioneered a new protest tactic by setting up pickets outside the White House gates. As a result of these combined strategies, the female suffrage campaign succeeded in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The quest for racial equality did not experience the same level of success, but the war was nonetheless an important turning point. Faced with increased European demand for American goods and a shortage of immigrant labour, northern factories began recruiting African American workers from southern states. The Great Migration strengthened the political and economic clout of northern black communities and fuelled an outpouring of African American literature, art and music during the Harlem Renaissance. The return of African American soldiers from overseas, where they had encountered a welcoming white French population, also energized the civil rights movement.

Of course, not all soldiers returned home. The government erected eight overseas cemeteries in Belgium and France whose vastness belied that fact that only 30 percent of American war dead lay there. Families requested the return of the remaining 70 percent to the United States for burial in private cemeteries. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, erected in 1921 in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, DC, contained the remains of one unidentified soldier and served initially as the symbolic gravesite for the 4,500 troops missing in action during World War I. It now also houses the remains of unidentified soldiers from World War II and the Korean War.

The human cost of war extended to living veterans as well. Some health problems, especially gas-related tuberculosis and post-traumatic stress syndrome, took several years to appear while more visibly wounded veterans such as the blind and amputees struggled with their disabilities. After several missteps, the government created a new veterans’ hospital system to manage their care. Even able-bodied veterans found readjusting to civilian life difficult. Many veterans returned home with high expectations that military service would serve as a stepping stone into better jobs and greater economic security. When the reality proved quite different, the new American Legion lobbied successfully for veterans to receive a government bond (averaging $1,200) that was redeemable in twenty years. In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, veterans staged a mass protest in Washington, DC, demanding that the government pay the bonus early. In 1944 lingering memories of World War I veterans’ post-war difficulties and the desire to avoid another Bonus March prompted the creation of the GI Bill of Rights, a comprehensive set of benefits for returning World War II veterans. Overall, the American experience in World War I shaped how the government buried and honoured the war dead and treated living veterans for the rest of the century.

Jennifer D. Keene, Chapman University