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The United States was a formal participant in World War I from April 6, 1917 until the war's end on November 11, 1918. Before entering the war, the US had remained neutral, though the US had been an important supplier to Britain and other Allied powers. During the war, the US mobilized over 4,000,000 military personnel and suffered 110,000 deaths, including 43,000 due to the influenza pandemic. The war saw a dramatic expansion of the US government in an effort to harness the war effort and a significant increase in the size of the US military. After a slow start in mobilizing the American economy and manpower, by spring 1918 the U.S. was poised to play a decisive role in the conflict. Under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson the war represented the climax of the Progressive Movement as it claimed to bring reform and democracy to the world.
When the war began the United States proclaimed a policy of strict neutrality—"in thought and deed", as President Woodrow Wilson put it. His goal was to broker a peace and he sent his top aide Colonel House on repeated missions to the belligerents, but they were so confident of victory that the peace was ignored.
When a German U-boat sank the British liner Lusitania in 1915, with 128 Americans aboard, Wilson said, "America is too proud to fight," and demanded an end to attacks on passenger ships. Germany complied. Wilson repeatedly warned the U.S. would not tolerate unrestricted submarine warfare, in violation of international law and U.S. ideas of human rights. Wilson was under pressure from former president Theodore Roosevelt, who denounced German acts as "piracy". Wilson's desire to have a seat at negotiations at war's end to advance the League of Nations also played a role. Wilson's Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, whose pacifist goals were ignored by Wilson, resigned in frustration. Public opinion was outraged at suspected German sabotage of Black Tom in Jersey City, New Jersey, and the Kingsland Explosion in what is now Lyndhurst, New Jersey.
American public opinion was strongly divided, with most Americans until early 1917 strongly of the opinion that the United States should stay out of the war. Opinion changed gradually, partly in response to German atrocities in Belgium and the Lusitania, partly as German-Americans lost influence, and partly in response to Wilson's position that America had to play a role to make the world safe for democracy.
In the general public, there was virtually no support for entering the war on the side of Germany. The great majority of German Americans, as well as Scandinavian Americans, wanted the United States to remain neutral. The Irish Catholic community, based in the large cities and often in control of the Democratic Party apparatus, was strongly hostile to helping Britain in any way, especially after the Easter uprising of 1916 in Ireland. Most of the Protestant church leaders in the United States, regardless of their theology, favored pacifistic solutions whereby the United States would broker a peace. Most of the leaders of the women's movement, typified by Jane Addams, likewise sought pacifistic solutions. The most prominent opponent of war was industrialist Henry Ford, who personally financed and led a peace ship to Europe to try to negotiate among the belligerents; it went nowhere.
Britain had significant support among intellectuals, Yankees, and families with close ties to Britain. The most prominent leader was Samuel Insull of Chicago, a leading industrialist who had emigrated from England. Insull funded many propaganda efforts, and financed young Americans who wished to fight by joining the Canadian military.
By 1915, Americans were paying much more attention to the war. The sinking of the Lusitania aroused furious denunciations of German brutality. By 1915 in Eastern cities a new "Preparedness" movement emerged. It argued that the United States needed to immediately build up strong naval and land forces for defensive purposes; an unspoken assumption was that America would fight sooner or later. The driving forces behind Preparedness were all Republicans, notably General Leonard Wood, ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, and former secretaries of war Elihu Root and Henry Stimson; they enlisted many of the nation's most prominent bankers, industrialists, lawyers and scions of prominent families. Indeed there emerged an "Atlanticist" foreign policy establishment, a group of influential Americans drawn primarily from upper-class lawyers, bankers, academics, and politicians of the Northeast, committed to a strand of Anglophile internationalism.
The Preparedness movement had what political scientists call a "realism" philosophy of world affairs—they believed that economic strength and military muscle were more decisive than idealistic crusades focused on causes like democracy and national self-determination. Emphasizing over and over the weak state of national defenses, they showed that America's 100,000-man Army even augmented by the 112,000 National Guardsmen, was outnumbered 20 to one by Germany's army. They called for UMT or "universal military service" under which the 600,000 men who turned 18 every year would be required to spend six months in military training, and then be assigned to reserve units. The small regular army would primarily be a training agency. Public opinion, however, was not willing to go that far.
Both the regular army and the Preparedness leaders had a low opinion of the National Guard, which it saw as politicized, provincial, poorly armed, ill trained, too inclined to idealistic crusading (as against Spain in 1898), and too lacking in understanding of world affairs. The National Guard on the other hand was securely rooted in state and local politics, with representation from a very broad cross section of American society. The Guard was one of the nation's few institutions that (in some northern states) accepted blacks on an equal footing.
The Democratic party saw the Preparedness movement as a threat. Roosevelt, Root and Wood were prospective Republican presidential candidates. More subtly, the Democrats were rooted in localism that appreciated the National Guard, and the voters were hostile to the rich and powerful in the first place. Working with the Democrats who controlled Congress, Wilson was able to sidetrack the Preparedness forces. Army and Navy leaders were forced to testify before Congress to the effect that the nation's military was in excellent shape.
In fact neither the Army nor Navy was in shape for war. The Navy had fine ships but Wilson had been using them to threaten Mexico, and the fleet's readiness had suffered. The crews of the Texas and the New Mexico, the two newest and largest battleships, had never fired a gun, and the morale of the sailors was low. The Army and Navy air forces were tiny in size. Despite the flood of new weapons systems unveiled in the war in Europe, the Army was paying scant attention. For example, it was making no studies of trench warfare, poison gas or tanks, and was unfamiliar with the rapid evolution of air tactics. The Democrats in Congress tried to cut the military budget in 1915. The Preparedness movement effectively exploited the surge of outrage over the "Lusitania" in May 1915, forcing the Democrats to promise some improvements to the military and naval forces. Wilson, less fearful of the Navy, embraced a long-term building program designed to make the fleet the equal of the Royal Navy by the mid-1920s. "Realism" was at work here; the admirals were Mahanians and they therefore wanted a surface fleet of heavy battleships second to none—that is, equal to Britain. The facts of submarine warfare (which necessitated destroyers, not battleships) and the possibilities of imminent war with Germany (or with Britain, for that matter), were simply ignored.
Wilson's decision touched off a firestorm. Secretary of War Lindley Garrison adopted many of the proposals of the Preparedness leaders, especially their emphasis on a large federal reserves and abandonment of the National Guard. Garrison's proposals not only outraged the provincial politicians of both parties, they also offended a strongly held belief shared by the liberal wing of the Progressive movement. They felt that warfare always had a hidden economic motivation. Specifically, they warned the chief warmongers were New York bankers (such as J. P. Morgan) with millions at risk, profiteering munition makers (such as Bethlehem Steel, which made armor, and DuPont, which made powder) and unspecified industrialists searching for global markets to control. Antiwar critics blasted them. These selfish special interests were too powerful, especially, Senator La Follette noted, in the conservative wing of the Republican Party. The only road to peace was disarmament in the eyes of many.
Garrison's plan unleashed the fiercest battle in peacetime history over the relationship of military planning to national goals. In peacetime, War Department arsenals and Navy yards manufactured nearly all munitions that lacked civilian uses, including warships, artillery, naval guns, and shells. Items available on the civilian market, such as food, horses, saddles, wagons, and uniforms were always purchased from civilian contractors.
Peace leaders like Jane Addams of Hull House and David Starr Jordan of Stanford University redoubled their efforts, and now turned their voices against the President because he was "sowing the seeds of militarism, raising up a military and naval caste." Many ministers, professors, farm spokesmen and labor union leaders joined in, with powerful support from a band of four dozen southern Democrats in Congress who took control of the House Military Affairs Committee. Wilson, in deep trouble, took his cause to the people in a major speaking tour in early 1916, a warm-up for his reelection campaign that fall.
Wilson seemed to have won over the middle classes, but had little impact on the largely ethnic working classes and the deeply isolationist farmers. Congress still refused to budge, so Wilson replaced Garrison as Secretary of War with Newton Baker, the Democratic mayor of Cleveland and an outspoken opponent of preparedness. The upshot was a compromise passed in May 1916, as the war raged on and Berlin was debating whether America was so weak it could be ignored. The Army was to double in size to 11,300 officers and 208,000 men, with no reserves, and a National Guard that would be enlarged in five years to 440,000 men. Summer camps on the Plattsburg model were authorized for new officers, and the government was given $20 million to build a nitrate plant of its own. Preparedness supporters were downcast, the antiwar people were jubilant. America would now be too weak to go to war. Colonel Robert L. Bullard privately complained that "Both sides [Britain and Germany] treat us with scorn and contempt; our fool, smug conceit of superiority has been exploded in our faces and deservedly.". The House gutted the naval plans as well, defeating a "big navy" plan by 189 to 183, and scuttling the battleships. The battle of Jutland (May 31/June 1, 1916) saw the main German High Seas Fleet engage in a monumental yet inconclusive clash with the far stronger Grand Fleet of the Royal Navy. Arguing this battle proved the validity of Mahanian doctrine, the navalists took control in the Senate, broke the House coalition, and authorized a rapid three-year buildup of all classes of warships. A new weapons system, naval aviation, received $3.5 million, and the government was authorized to build its own armor-plate factory. The very weakness of American military power encouraged Berlin to start its unrestricted submarine attacks in 1917. It knew this meant war with America, but it could discount the immediate risk because the US Army was negligible and the new warships would not be at sea until 1919 by which time the war would be over, with Germany victorious. The notion that armaments led to war was turned on its head: refusal to arm in 1916 led to war in 1917.
In January 1917 Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. The German Foreign minister, in the Zimmermann Telegram, told revolution-torn Mexico that U.S. entry was likely once unrestricted submarine warfare began, and invited Mexico to join the war as Germany's ally against the United States. In return, the Germans would send Mexico money and help it recover the territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona that Mexico lost during the Mexican–American War 70 years earlier. British intelligence intercepted the telegram and passed the information on to Washington. Wilson released the Zimmerman note to the public and Americans saw it as a casus belli—a cause for war.
At first, Wilson tried to maintain neutrality while fighting off the submarines by arming American merchant ships with guns powerful enough to sink German submarines on the surface (but useless when the U-boats were under water). After submarines sank seven U.S. merchant ships Wilson went to Congress calling for a declaration of war on Germany, which Congress voted on April 6, 1917.
As a result of the Russian February Revolution in 1917 the Tsar abdicated and was replaced by a Russian Provisional Government. This helped overcome Wilson's reluctance to having the USA fight alongside a country ruled by an absolute monarch. Pleased by the Provisional Government's pro-war stance, the USA accorded the new government diplomatic recognition on March 9, 1917.
The home front saw a systematic mobilization of the entire population and the entire economy to produce the soldiers, food supplies, munitions, and money needed to win the war. Although the United States entered the war in 1917, there had been very little planning, or even recognition of the problems that the British and other Allies had to solve on their home fronts. As a result, the level of confusion was high in the first 12 months, then efficiency took control.
The war came in the midst of the Progressive Era, when efficiency and expertise were highly valued. Therefore the federal government set up a multitude of temporary agencies with 500,000 to 1,000,000 new employees to bring together the expertise necessary to redirect the economy into the production of munitions and food necessary for the war, as well as for propaganda purposes.
The Food Administration under Herbert Hoover launched a massive campaign to teach Americans to economize on their food budgets and grow the victory gardens in their backyards. It managed the nation's food distribution and prices.
Crucial to U.S. participation was the sweeping domestic propaganda campaign executed by the Committee on Public Information, overseen by George Creel. The campaign consisted of tens of thousands of government-selected community leaders giving brief carefully scripted pro-war speeches at thousands of public gatherings. Along with other branches of government and private vigilante groups like the American Protective League, it also included the general repression and harassment of people either opposed to American entry into the war or of German heritage. Other forms of propaganda included newsreels, photos, large-print posters (designed by several well-known illustrators of the day, including Louis D. Fancher and Henry Reuterdahl), magazine and newspaper articles, and billboards.
The nation placed a great importance on the role of children, teaching them patriotism and national service and asking them to encourage war support and educate the public about the importance of the war. The Boy Scouts of America helped distribute war pamphlets, helped sell war bonds, and helped to drive nationalism and support for the war.
The United States was never formally a member of the Allies but became a self-styled "Associated Power". The United States had a small army, but, after the passage of the Selective Service Act, it drafted 2.8 million men and by summer 1918 was sending 10,000 fresh soldiers to France every day. In 1917, Congress gave U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans when they were drafted to participate in World War I, as part of the Jones Act. Germany had miscalculated, believing it would be many more months before they would arrive and that the arrival could be stopped by U-boats.
The United States Navy sent a battleship group to Scapa Flow to join with the British Grand Fleet, destroyers to Queenstown, Ireland and submarines to help guard convoys. Several regiments of Marines were also dispatched to France. The British and French wanted U.S. units used to reinforce their troops already on the battle lines and not waste scarce shipping on bringing over supplies. The U.S. rejected the first proposition and accepted the second. General John J. Pershing, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) commander, refused to break up U.S. units to be used as reinforcements for British Empire and French units. As an exception, he did allow African-American combat regiments to be used in French divisions. The Harlem Hellfighters fought as part of the French 16th Division, earning a unit Croix de Guerre for their actions at Château-Thierry, Belleau Wood, and Séchault. AEF doctrine called for the use of frontal assaults, which had long since been discarded by British Empire and French commanders because of the large loss of life.
On the battlefields of France in spring 1918, the fresh American troops were enthusiastically welcomed by the war-weary Allied armies in the summer of 1918. They arrived at the rate of 10,000 a day, at a time that the Germans were unable to replace their losses. After the Allies turned back the powerful final German offensive (Spring Offensive), the Americans played a role in the Allied final offensive (Hundred Days Offensive). Many American commanders used the same flawed tactics which the British and French abandoned early in the war, and so not all American offensives were particularly effective. However, the manpower boost and morale boost to the seasoned troops gave the allies a decisive edge over the Germans. Victory over Germany was achieved on November 11, 1918 after German morale had collapsed on both the Western and Home Fronts.
Britain, France and Italy imposed severe economic penalties on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. The United States Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles; instead, the United States signed separate peace treaties with Germany and her allies. The Senate also refused to enter the newly created League of Nations on Wilson's terms, and Wilson rejected the Senate's compromise proposal.
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