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America at War
The History Cat Classroom
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Thinking Questions

In Europe, the so-called ‘Great War’ had been raging for three bitterly long years, transforming the continent's cities and farms into trenches and graveyards. Meanwhile, sitting safely behind three thousand miles of ocean, The United States was quick to say that European wars weren’t its problem by promptly proclaiming its neutrality.


But, where many saw death American Big Business saw a huge money-making opportunity. Even though they were claiming neutrality, American industries had been supplying Britain and France with war materiel since  1914, while American banks floated loans to the tune of two billion dollars to the Allied Powers for the purchase of war supplies. American industries stood to make fat profits. The only hurdle was in figuring out how to sneak past the German submarines who were busy playing Duck Hunt with Allied warships.


Germany cried “foul” on the United States’ so-called neutrality and issued a response: if American merchants were stupid enough to sail into U-boat infested waters they best be prepared to have their ships dominated by German torpedoes. And this is precisely what happened in the spring of 1915 when a German U-boat sank the British luxury liner, Lusitania, killing nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans. Former President Teddy Roosevelt called on America to defend her honor, but President Woodrow Wilson, aided by Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, remained steadfast in America staying out of it. It was the turn-of-the-century’s version of 9/11. The American people, however, remained divided over the war.


Each nationality having its own agenda. German-Americans sided with the Fatherland, and Irish-Americans looked at the war as a way to end British domination of the Emerald Isle. Those Americans of British descent were sympathetic to the mother country, and millions of Americans felt bad for Belgium thanks to British propaganda which made German soldiers out to be the muggle-version of Voldemort. But, despite their divided loyalties, Americans weren’t all that geeked about sending their sons to get a bullet in the eye on some distant battlefield. But then Germany crossed the line...twice. 


The Sinking of the Lusitania

When war erupted across Europe in August 1914, the United States was quick to declare its neutrality. President Woodrow Wilson, in a speech to the American public, pledged that the United States would remain “…“impartial in thought as well as in action.”. However, this was clearly not the case. War was good business for neutral America who did brisk business in exporting foods, ammunition, clothing, fuel and other needed supplies across the Atlantic Ocean. The trouble, at least as far as the Germans saw it, was that the Americans were doing far more trade with the British and French. Whenever the Americans attempted to deliver supplies to one side the other side would protest about “helping the enemy”. America was eager to keep its close friendship with Britain and began to back off doing trade with the Germans. The British strategy- with its superior naval power- was attempting to starve the Germans into submission by preventing any goods from reaching its ports.


The United States government was outraged when it found out that 124 of the dead were Americans who technically were not at war, many were calling for war against Germany. Diplomacy won out at the last minute, as the Germans promised to end their practice of unrestricted warfare (but not for long). The Germans would break their promise a year later when it again began attack passenger ships. It claimed that these ships were being used to smuggle weapons into Britain. Of course, the Americans denied this. But later investigations would uncover the truth that the Lusitania was carrying 4200 cases of rifle cartridges hidden in its haul.



In response, the Germans announced that they would be using unrestricted submarine warfare against any ship, commercial or military, that dared enter the waters around Great Britain. On May 7, 1915, a British ocean liner carrying 1,257 passengers was making its way from New York to Liverpool, England. Ignoring warnings that the waters off the coast of Ireland were infested with German U-Boats Captain William Thomas Turner ordered a course across the Atlantic. Captain Turner was confident in the Lusitania’s ability to outrun any U-Boat that he scoffed saying “Do you think all these people would be booking passage on board the Lusitania if they thought she could be caught by a German submarine…”



Then, Early in 1917, the British intercepted a telegram from German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German diplomat based in Mexico that had a pretty enticing offer. Germany would support a Mexican invasion of the United States to regain its lost territories of California, New Mexico, and Arizona.  Britain's espionage paid massive dividends because once released, the Zimmerman Note proved the final straw.


Germany may have been thinking ahead to prevent America's entry into the war by keeping them busy with their southern neighbor but they played their hand wrong and now America was looking for revenge. But like with most wars, it’s the politicians who get all fired up and end up having to convince the people that it is a good thing for them to die for their country in a war that had little to do with them. To motivate the masses, Congress passes the Selective Service Act. Millions of men between the ages of 21-45 were required (and still are) to register with the Selective Service. Four million were drafted and of those only about two million men saw service by the time the war was over in November 1918.


But drafting people is never a popular option for gaining fresh recruits and so Wilson creates the Office of Public Information to crank out tons of catchy propaganda in the hopes of winning support for the war to “make the world safe for democracy”. Of course, patriotism meant spending your hard earned cash on Liberty Bonds to raise badly needed cash for the war effort. After all, tanks don’t build themselves. Liberty Loan drives raised most of the $33 billion needed for the war. Using colorful posters with catchy slogans like our personal favorite where the Statue of Liberty tells people “You buy a Liberty Bond, Lest I Perish” Using scare tactics and the tug of the patriotic heartstrings, Americans were convinced to put their hard earned greenbacks behind their government and their troops.


Once war got underway, America was quick to drop the neutrality act and threw itself into good ‘ol fashioned German bashing. Overnight, German classics like hamburgers and sauerkraut became the bad guy and were renamed “Liberty Steak” and “Liberty Cabbage”. Can anyone say “freedom fries”? Schools dropped the German language from the curriculum. On the playgrounds, kids with the bad luck of being born with a name like Fritz (which is just plain cruel under any circumstances) were taunted as enemy spies. Even famous German composers like Beethoven and Bach came under fire. But, one of the most insidious ways of guaranteeing unquestioned patriotism was the Espionage and Sedition Acts. These laws tossed the Constitution into the trash by making it illegal for Americans to speak out against the war, the draft, or criticize any aspect of the war, the government, or its actions. Hundreds of Americans were imprisoned for their beliefs, even something as American as holding up a protest sign could land you in jail.


American women and African Americans were greatly affected by the war on the Homefront. Some of the leaders of the women's suffrage movement had been pushing for peace once the war began in 1914, but another, more radical suffrage group, the National Women's Party led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, saw the war as a way to push President Wilson to extend Liberty at home while preserving it abroad. Their 1917 protests in front of the White House (and incendiary rhetoric of comparing Wilson to Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm), along with persuasion from more established suffrage groups, pushed Wilson into endorsing the 19th Amendment to allow women the right to vote. As for African Americans, they benefited by moving North to find work in wartime factories. Thus began one of the greatest and longest migrations in American history (1915-1960) in which millions of African Americans moved to Northern cities to escape the racist conditions found in the South. In addition, thousands of African Americans served in the segregated armed forces in Europe yet returned home to find America no better at honoring their service than it had in previous wars. Race riots sadly became the norm in 1919 as black veterans fought back against unjust treatment.


When the American Expeditionary Force finally reached the Western Front in 1918, Americans were plugged into holes in the Allied trenches and sometimes used as cannon fodder. The war had truly become a horror of modern technology, with tanks, machine guns, howitzers that fired huge shells miles away, and poison gasses. The Americans were able to help the British and French stop the German offensive in the spring and summer of 1918 and were able to launch the counteroffensive that stopped the war in the fall. American General John "Blackjack" Pershing led the doughboys and fought to retain some control over American forces despite French insistence that they fight under French control. By November 11, 1918, the Germans had been pushed out of Belgium and France and an armistice had been signed that ended the fighting. Unlike World War II, the Germans (and Austrians and Ottomans) had not been utterly defeated, but the Paris Peace Conference treated them as if they had been and forced a brutal peace accord upon them.


President Wilson had hoped that his Fourteen Points would be the guiding influence at the Paris Peace Conference, but the British and French had different ideas. Wilson had hoped to fight a war that would end all wars, and in his idealistic rhetoric, he had proposed that the world get rid of secret treaties, open up the seas to free trade, decrease arms, allow subjected peoples of the world to rule themselves, and create a transnational entity that would guarantee peace (the League of Nations). But some of these ideas, especially self-determination, flew in the face of the victors' plan for expanding their empires, not eliminating them. Wilson's idealism ran into the British and French buzz saw that wanted vengeance and reparations. Despite protests, Wilson came home with a treaty that saw some of his most cherished principles left on the cutting room floor. Among the major provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany took sole blame for the war (the war guilt clause) even though other Central Powers had been involved in the fighting and atrocities (including the slaughter of at least 600,000 Armenians by the Ottomans). Germany also lost territory, though not as much as Russia / the Soviet Union had. Germany also had to reduce the size of its army to a shadow of its former size. And worst of all, the Allies extracted billions of dollars in reparations from the German government which would cripple their economy for a decade or more.


When Wilson arrived home in the summer of 1919 with the Treaty, two dozen American senators were ready to scuttle the whole thing over the proposed League of Nations. These senators were called the Irreconcilables because they did not want America to be sworn to defend other nations, nor did they want American soldiers to be called out as peacekeepers or enforcers. These isolationist senators, mostly Republicans like William Borah, played on Americans' fears of being pulled into foreign conflicts in which America had no interest. Some leftist members of the Senate and the president's party didn't like the League either because they saw America swearing to uphold the imperialistic notions of Britain and France (they conveniently forgot that America had its own imperialist holdings). The majority of the senators wanted to make changes to the Treaty, specifically dealing with the use of American soldiers, and weren't set upon scrapping it. Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge proposed a series of reservations or changes but these were apparently too much for President Wilson. Maybe he felt like he had compromised too much in Paris to let his brainchild be tinkered with, so he told Democratic Senators to vote it as is, and surprise, surprise, the Treaty went down to defeat. Despite Wilson's whirlwind speaking tour to garner support for the Treaty, it kept falling to defeat in both 1919 and 1920. Even the 1920 election became a referendum on Wilson's vision for an internationalist America, and it seemed that America wasn't ready to take on the responsibility of becoming world leader when Warren Harding won the presidency and the United States quickly said to hell with the rest of the world and went back to its isolationist ways.


Overall, 18 million people died in this first horrific modern clash between empires.  The British, French and American empires won out while the German, Russian, Ottoman, and Austrian empires collapsed into the pages of history. America in 1920 stood on the brink of a decade that would see so many changes to its national character, yet by the end of the decade find the world teeter at the abyss of financial collapse. And to think, it all started with an assassination in June 1914.

Zimmerman Telegram

Women workers in ordnance shops, Midvale Steel and Ordnance Co., Nicetown, Pa

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