America Enters WWI — Finally


Even though family ties united much of Europe and Asia (Kaiser Wilhelm, King George V, and Czar Nicholas were first cousins,) squabbling over territorial claims had been going on for some time. France, at odds with Germany, aligned itself with Russia; Kaiser Wilhelm struck up a deal with the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and Italy took sides with Germany. Naturally, to ensure a stable peace, everyone was armed to the teeth. All that was needed for the roof to blow off was one spark. It came on June 28th, 1914, when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Princess Sophie, were assassinated by a 19-year-old Serbian student named Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo.

Kaiser Wilhelm
King George V
Czar Nicholas II

On July 28th, Austrian armed forces crossed the border into Serbia and World War I, the “war to end all wars,” was on. By August 4th, nearly the entire world had taken up arms, with one notable exception: on August 5th, America declared itself to be neutral.

The United States was ill-prepared for war. Its navy was no match for that of the Germans, its small standing army was tied down chasing Pancho Villa in Mexico, and President Wilson was determined to keep America out of the conflict. Most Americans heartily agreed with him.

This was to change, slowly, over the next three years. First, on May 7th, 1915, the Lusitania, pride of the Cunard fleet, was torpedoed by a German U-boat 10 miles off the coast of Ireland and sunk. Of the 1924 people aboard, 1198 drowned, including 124 Americans. Germany defended its action (a “damnable act of piracy,” according to Teddy Roosevelt) by pointing out that it had published a number of newspaper advertisements strongly advising citizens of neutral countries not to travel on ships belonging to combatants, and by claiming that the ship was transporting war matériel, a claim wholly repudiated by the Allies. (Many years later, Germany was proved correct, at least on the last point.)

The sinking raised America’s indignation against the Germans and brought with it a new call to arms. President Wilson, however, refused to be drawn into what he still considered to be a European problem, saying, “The example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world and strife is not. There is such a thing as a nation being too proud to fight…a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.”

This was entirely too much for Teddy Roosevelt, who declared that Wilson was a “… Byzantine logothete, surrounded by flubdubs, mollycoddles, and flapdoodle pacifists.”

Then, on March 1st, 1917, the contents of a coded letter were made public. The letter was written by German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German ambassador to Mexico, and was given to the United States by British intelligence, who had intercepted and decoded it. It stated that if America entered the war against Germany, Germany would propose an alliance with Mexico. In return for Mexican support, Mexico would get back their “lost” territories of California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. The letter helped push the public further towards war, and, finally, in April the German High Command announced that they would, from then on, sink without warning any vessel approaching England, Ireland, or various Mediterranean ports. Three days later, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany, and just hours after that the American liner Housatonic was sunk by a German U-boat. In late March, Germany sunk four more U.S. merchant ships, and this finally did the trick. On April 2 a reluctant President Wilson appeared before Congress and called for a declaration of war against the Triple Alliance of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Turkey (actually, the Ottoman Empire) saying, “…the world must be made safe for democracy.” The declaration was passed two days later, and war was declared on April 4th. Congress’s vote for war was decisive, but not universal. In the House of Representatives the vote was 373 to 50; in the Senate it was 82 to 6.

On May 18th, Wilson signed into law the Selective Service Act, which required that all men between the ages of 21 and 30 register for possible service in the armed forces. The first U.S. troops reached Europe on June 26th. Corporal James Gresham of Evansville, Indiana, Private Merle Hay of Glidden, Iowa, and Private Thomas Enright of Pittsburgh, all of the First Division, garnered the unfortunate distinction of being the first American servicemen to die in combat, being killed in a German raid near Nancy, France.

WWI-MapBetween 1915 and 1917, German and Allied armies fought each other to a standstill along a 380 mile line of trenches stretching from Flanders in the North, and following the French border all the way to Switzerland. Flanking was impossible, so attacks had to be made “over the top,” gains and losses were measured in yards per day, and casualties were high. The fortunes of war seesawed back and forth, and by 1917, lines were about where they were when the war started.

As America was getting into the war, the American Expeditionary Force, under the command of Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, rejected British and French demands that American forces be integrated with their armies and fight in the trenches. Pershing thought that armies should be free to move around, and strike wherever the enemy was weakest. He incurred the wrath of of the French and English, but his reliance on frontal assaults, together with the ability to move troops quickly to where they were needed was the key to ending the so-far stalemated war.

Once America was in the war, Henry Ford took it upon himself to get it back out. He chartered a ship and filled it with pacifists, clergy, and assorted other cranks and sailed merrily off to Europe, with the idea being that as soon as he got there the warring factions, who really didn’t want to be at war in the first place, would all come together on the ship to kiss and make up.

Ford, himself, became seriously ill during the crossing, and the assorted peaceniks began bickering among themselves. In the end, they accomplished little, and Ford went back to Dearborn.

As an aid to financing America’s involvement in the war, the government launched drives to sell liberty bonds, an action repeated 25 years later. Opera singers, stage actors, movie stars, and political figures exhorted the public to subscribe, and the public responded with a vengeance, swelling the government coffers by $17 Billion. Even children got into the act, filling up their liberty books with 25-cent stamps (“Lick a stamp and lick the Kaiser.”)

Children also collected millions of fruit pits, to be burned into charcoal and used in the manufacturing of gas masks. Each mask required seven pounds of pits, and one million men needed gas masks. Men, women and children alike organized knitting circles, and knitted socks and sweaters for “the boys,” and people cleaned out their bookshelves for reading material.

America was also undergoing food rationing. Food Administrator Herbert Hoover instituted a system of wheatless Mondays, meatless Tuesdays, and porkless Thursdays and Saturdays, making that much more available to be sent overseas. To the absolute delight of prohibitionists, production of liquor was suspended for the duration, and no gas was sold on Sundays. Enterprising drivers got around this last restriction by hitching up the team to the front bumper and then taking their drive as usual.

With more and more men joining the armed forces, women rushed in to fill the void. Women became trolley motormen (motorwomen?), telegraph operators, mechanics, elevator operators and steeplejacks. They worked on assembly lines, delivered ice, plowed fields, became traffic cops, and painted buildings. Some even joined the army, as stenographers.

The Government Council of National Defense issued a federal edict that no gift-giving would be allowed in 1917, justifying their actions on the premise that the supplies used in the manufacture of toys could be better spent producing war matériel. They were finally persuaded to change their minds by a consortium of toy manufacturers who were able to convince that august body that it was because of all the toy rifles and cannons that American boys made the best soldiers in the world.

When the war finally ended, on Nov 11, 1918, more than 9 million soldiers and 10 million civilians had been killed. America had lost some 120,000 men killed and about twice that many wounded.

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