World War One
When the guns of August 1914 shattered the peace of Europe, pitting Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers) against Britain, France, and Russia, President Woodrow Wilson on August 4 issued a proclamation of neutrality. Two weeks later he urged Americans to be "impartial in thought as well as in action." But in the realms of both official policy and public opinion, neutrality proved difficult to sustain. Wilson insisted, for reasons of both principle and economic advantage, on full neutral trading rights with all the belligerent powers. Britain and Germany had different ideas. Each tried to throttle American trade with the other. Britain, whose battle fleet controlled the surface of the Atlantic, succeeded spectacularly. American commerce with Germany had fallen by 1916 to less than 1 percent of its 1914 value. In the same period, American trade with Britain and its French and (after 1915) Italian allies tripled.
British restrictions on American trade elicited repeated American complaints, but the harm done by British commercial regulations and surface ships paled next to the damage inflicted by German submarines. The U-boat (Unterseeboot) ignored existing rules of naval warfare. Contrary to the traditional practice, submerged U-boats torpedoed merchant ships without warning. When sinkings resulted in the loss of American lives - as in the assault on the British passenger liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915, killing 128 Americans - Wilson's government protested vehemently. Germany restrained its submarine attacks thereafter, but on January 31, 1917, in a desperate move to end the two-and-a-half-year-old military stalemate in Europe, the German high command declared unrestricted submarine warfare against all shipping, neutral or belligerent, destined for Britain.
Wilson broke diplomatic relations with Berlin, but declined to ask Congress for a declaration of war in the absence of "actual overt acts" against American lives and property. He sought instead to arm American merchant vessels as a way of forestalling attacks and thus avoiding war. But the "overt acts" came with the sinking of several American ships in February and March 1917. At about the same time, newspapers published an intercepted telegram from German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann, proposing a German-Mexican alliance against the United States. Mexico's reward would be the recovery of territory it had lost in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Wilson, though reelected in November 1916 on the slogan "He kept us out of war," asked Congress on April 2 for a declaration of war. Four days later, Congress complied, with six senators and fifty representatives (including the first congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin of Montana) voting against the war resolution.
"It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war," Wilson declared in his war message. It was fearful indeed. The war had already butchered millions of Europeans and shredded the social...