America’s Grand Entry Into the Great War

America’s Grand Entry Into the Great War
  1. America’s Grand Entry Into the Great War
    Despite the fact that the British interfered with U.S. shipping early in WWI and refused to abide by international rules of naval warfare, America sided with them against…

From the print edition of The New American

Despite the fact that the British interfered with U.S. shipping early in WWI and refused to abide by international rules of naval warfare, America sided with them against Germany.


From the outset of “The Great War” (as World War I was referred to at the time and until World War II came along), the United States faced formidable problems. As the world’s greatest producer of foodstuffs, raw textiles, iron, steel, and petroleum, it had carried on a large trade in peacetime with both the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France, and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey), so its economic interests were bound to be affected by prolonged hostilities. Furthermore, the United States had a large immigrant population with ties to the warring nations. As a result, there was an upsurge of pro-Ally (Triple Entente) feeling in the country from the moment that Germany invaded Belgium and Great Britain declared war on Germany. There was also an early upsurge of sympathy for the Central Powers among the large number of citizens of German and Austro-Hungarian descent (there were so many such citizens in Wisconsin that most of the newspapers in that state were printed in German!) and among Irish Americans, who were traditionally anti-British.

President Woodrow Wilson publicly professed an ardent desire to remain absolutely neutral in the conflict, insisting that the United States would set a salutary example for other neutral nations. Therefore, in addition to declaring formal neutrality, the president called on the public to be “impartial in thought as well as in action.” However, as we shall see, his policies and actions, far from being neutral: 1) favored Britain and the Allied powers; 2) unfairly held Germany to harsher standards; and 3) steadily pushed America closer to war.

On the other hand, Wilson’s Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, unequivocally and heroically made every effort to see that our country was not dragged into the European conflagration and to assure that America abided by the rules of neutrality. Tragically, his pleas and counsel for genuine neutrality and peaceful relations were repeatedly overridden by the pro-war, Anglophile globalists in Wilson’s inner circle, as exemplified most especially by Colonel Edward Mandell House; Wall Street insiders Bernard Baruch, Henry Morgenthau, Robert Lansing (who would replace Bryan as secretary of state); and Walter Hines Page (the U.S. ambassador to England).

The U.S. State Department asked all of the warring countries to abide by the unratified 1909 Declaration of London (which concerned itself with the rules of naval warfare). The Central Powers agreed, but the Allies put forward modifications and additions that stymied a universal accord. The president and secretary of state became concerned that the Allies not only would interfere with American commerce, but would also create disputes over neutrality rights, such as those that led to the war against Great Britain in 1812. The U.S. government’s effort to persuade the British to accept the Declaration of London as originally written failed. As a result, President Wilson fell back on a policy of simply protesting British infringements of neutrality rights as defined in traditional international law, while at the same time treating German infringements as grievous offenses.  

Controversy with Great Britain might have grown more acute if the Germans had not issued their maritime war zone decree on February 4, 1915, in which they declared that the seas surrounding Great Britain and Ireland were part of a war zone and that any ship caught within its boundaries could be sunk without warning. This German announcement was not as shocking and unreasonable as President Wilson and the pro-war establishment media made it out to be. First and foremost, the German stance was in response to the barbaric and illegal naval blockade imposed by the British navy against Germany’s North Sea ports, and was specifically designed to — in the words of Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty — “starve the whole population … into submission.” In addition, the British navy and merchant marine were under orders to violate the international rules of “cruiser warfare.” The rules required, among other things, that submarines surface and fire a warning shot in order to search or accept surrender of the opposing ship. However, after multiple cases of German U-boats being sunk (and their crews killed) as a result of adhering to the rules only to be fired upon or rammed after surfacing, Germany realized the futility of abiding by rules that were being used as a weapon against them.

On May 7, 1915, the British liner Lusitania was torpedoed off the southern coast of Ireland, and 1,198 passengers, of which 128 were Americans, went down with the ship. The American press denounced the action of the German submarine commander as an atrocity, and important leaders of American opinion viewed the incident as a justification for war. Even Secretary of State Bryan, who was almost a pacifist, agreed that some new actions were necessary. On May 13, a message was sent to Berlin calling on the German government to repudiate the submarine commander, make reparations for the lives lost, and pledge that submarines would no longer attack passenger liners. Declaring the German response unsatisfactory, President Wilson ordered that a second, stronger message be sent. Secretary Bryan could not bring himself to do so, resigned on June 8, and was replaced by Robert Lansing. In the end, there was a cessation, at least for a time, of unrestricted sinkings by German submarines in the declared maritime war zone.

However, of vital importance to the entire affair is the fact that the Lusitania was registered not as a passenger liner but as an armed auxiliary cruiser and was carrying a massive shipment of munitions for the British war effort. Hence, Germany did not violate international law in sinking the ship. More little-known facts include:

Photo: AP Images


This article appears in the June 19, 2017, issue of The New American. To download the issue and continue reading this story, or to subscribe, click here.

• The huge ship went down in record time (18 minutes) not due to the single torpedo hit, but due to the much larger secondary explosion caused by the contraband munitions;

• The Lusitania’s secret cache of explosives included 1,248 cases of artillery shrapnel shells; 5,000 cases (six million rounds) of rifle ammunition; tons of nitrocellulose, an explosive known at the time as “gun cotton”; 18 cases of artillery fuses; and over 140 tons of unrefrigerated items listed as “butter,” “lard,” and “cheese,” which were likely munitions-related materials also;

• Although successive British governments had denied that the Lusitania had carried war materiel, in 1982 the British Foreign Office warned a Lusitania salvage effort that unexploded munitions aboard the hulk could still pose serious “danger to life and limb.” This admission did not reach the British press (and the American public) until 2014, nearly a century after the sinking of the Lusitania; and

• Germany pointed out that it had attempted to run notices in more than 50 major American newspapers before the Lusitania’s departure, warning potential passengers “that travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.” Secretary Bryan, ever seeking to avoid war, assured Germany that he would assist them in getting  the warning published. However, the State Department (most likely through the efforts of House and Lansing) was able to suppress publication of the ad to such an extent that it was published in a timely manner only in the Des Moines Register. Given that the Lusitania set sail from New York, it was obvious that a warning published in an Iowa newspaper was not going to be of much use!

When the Lusitania entered the Irish Sea, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill ordered the passenger liner to sail at a reduced speed (allegedly to save fuel expense) through an area where a German submarine was known to be operating and called away its naval escort ship. If one were deliberately trying to set up a scenario to sink a passenger liner, one would have been hard-pressed to come up with a better one. But Churchill had long been seeking to take advantage of such opportunities. Adding to suspicions were the unnecessary delays in getting rescue ships to the site of the sinking. For example, the cruiser Juno, the same ship that had been recalled from its escort duties, was dispatched to pick up survivors, and then was mysteriously recalled again!

On August 19, 1915, the British liner Arabic was sunk with American passengers on board. Although Secretary of State Lansing and others advised taking a strong stand and perhaps even severing diplomatic relations, President Wilson chose to delay action in the hope that the German government would voluntarily apologize. The German ambassador in Washington did offer an apology and revealed that German submarine commanders had had orders, ever since the Lusitania incident, to avoid attacks on vessels that might be carrying passengers. On October 5, 1915, the German government officially denied responsibility for the act, but offered an indemnity and promised that submarine commanders would be given orders to follow the traditional rules of international law.

As a result, the submarine issue became less of an irritant, but German-American relations still did not become much better because the winter of 1915-16 brought to light much evidence of espionage and sabotage committed by or financed by German and Austrian agents. Throughout 1916 a number of suspicious fires and explosions broke out in the New York area. Probably the most notable example was the explosion on Black Tom Island in Jersey City, New Jersey, on July 30, 1916, which destroyed a thousand tons of small-arms and artillery ammunition that was awaiting shipment to Russia. This caused President Wilson to ask for the recall of the German military and naval attachés, the Austrian ambassador and consul general, and a German financial agent. A number of alleged German and Austrian agents were also indicted and brought to trial. But no one was ever found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and no one was ever convicted.

Early in 1916, President Wilson approved an extraordinary proposal made to him by his closest friend and advisor, Colonel Edward Mandell House: He sent House to Europe to seek a secret agreement with the Allies. The plan was to first reach a general accord with the Allies about terms for peace. Then, when the Allied governments gave the signal, the president would issue an open appeal for peace negotiations. The Allies would accept this appeal. If the Central Powers refused to negotiate or entered into negotiations and refused to accept the terms previously agreed upon by the United States and the Allies, then the U.S. government would join the Allies in the war. Colonel House was actually able to arrange a pact along those lines, and he and British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey initialed a memorandum of agreement on February 22, 1916. President Wilson approved it, adding only the word “probably” before “leave the Conference as a belligerent on the side of the Allies, if Germany was unreasonable.” But the Allies, perhaps interpreting the amendment as meaning that the United States might very well not carry out its part of the bargain, did not give the signal for the president to issue his appeal for peace negotiations, and the agreement came to nothing.

A new international crisis broke out on March 24, 1916, when the English Channel steamer Sussex was torpedoed, reportedly with casualties among the Americans who were on board. Although Secretary of State Lansing and Colonel House urged President Wilson to act swiftly and forcefully, the president chose to wait until April 18, when he sent to Berlin a message declaring, “Unless the Imperial Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government of the United States can have no other choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire altogether.” On May 4, the German government replied that it was ordering submarine commanders to suspend all operations against merchant shipping, in addition to the cessation of attacks on passenger liners. However, in attempting to avoid war with the United States, the German government was alienating important elements of Germany’s population that viewed U.S. policies and demands as unreasonable, one-sided, and warlike.

As the year 1916 drew to a close, the position of the United States was becoming ever more difficult. The Allies showed no sign of making concessions to American demands that America’s rights as a neutral be respected, and there was a serious risk that friction with them would become increasingly acute. There was even greater danger of a new crisis with Germany, as reports from Berlin told of mounting demands in military and naval circles and in the Reichstag (the German parliament) for unrestricted submarine warfare. But the presidential election campaign of 1916, in which President Wilson had succeeded in achieving reelection, had shown beyond doubt that much of the public wanted the nation to stay out of the conflict in Europe. Many observers believed that Wilson had won because his supporters used the campaign slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” As a result, there was a real possibility that the president might have to retreat from the threats of retaliation (such as banning imports and denying clearance to ships from Allied nations) that he had made in defense of international law and neutral rights.

Given this situation, President Wilson turned again to the hope that negotiations might restore peace before a crisis occurred in U.S. relations with either the Allies or the Central Powers. He and his advisors drafted a note to the warring nations, asking them to inform the president confidentially of the terms of peace that they would accept so that he might be able to investigate possibilities for a settlement of the war. The note was sent on December 18, 1916, and six days later the Central Powers bluntly replied that any discussion of terms should be among the belligerents and that they would not make any further statement until such discussions began. President Wilson responded on January 22, 1917 by calling on both sides to accept a “peace without victory.”

But German patience was wearing thin. With the passage of time, the blockade imposed by the Royal Navy on Germany’s North Sea ports at the outbreak of the war was taking an increasing toll on the German economy. The hardships that the British blockade caused led to a resurgence of left-wing opposition to the war, which the German government reacted to by hardening their war aims. What had been started as a war for national self-interest was increasingly seen by the ruling class of the German Empire as a war for national survival, in which the stakes justified the taking of higher and higher risks. With the approval of the industrial, commercial, and professional sectors of society, governing power had passed from civilian politicians to the High Command of the military. After Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff had decided to pursue a policy of total war, Admiral Henning Holzendorff, the chief of the Naval Staff, was able to persuade them at the beginning of 1917 that a return to unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant shipping was essential, as it would starve Great Britain of supplies and force the British to sue for peace before the autumn harvest, even taking into account a break with the United States. The United States had already furnished the Allies with vast quantities of war materiel, which had had a substantial effect on their ability to continue the struggle.

The decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare was formally taken by the German High Command on January 7, and a note declaring so was delivered to Secretary of State Lansing on January 31, just 24 hours before it was to be put into effect. President Wilson treated the manner in which Germany handled the matter as an insult to himself and the United States. On February 3, he announced the severing of diplomatic relations with Germany, and the staff of the American Embassy in Berlin left for home a week later. This account of the event shows the transparently anti-German spin that was so prevalent in the British media:

The train which left Berlin on the night of 10 February carried the happiest group of Americans who had been in Europe …

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