Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

Why the United States Entered the War

On August 4, 1914, the President formally declared the neutrality of the United States in the war which had just broken out, but the war was not many days old before it began to be clear that American sentiment was anything but neutral. For three years event after event only convinced the American people more firmly that the German cause was not ours and that the cause of the Allies was ours. As time went on the number of people who had any doubt of this fact became smaller and smaller, and in 1917 the vast majority of the nation without question was convinced that this was our war, and that we could stay out of it only at a risk to principles we held dear and at grave danger to ourselves. Belgium, France, Great Britain, and Russia had been for nearly three years fighting our war and it was our duty and our privilege to aid them.

Unquestionably the facts instrumental in creating these feelings in the American people had been first and foremost the invasion of Belgium and the German chancellor's declaration that the treaty protecting Belgium had been nothing but a scrap of paper. If such was to be international morality, no promises or agreements would ever after be worth anything. Then the atrocities in France, so horrible that for a time Americans felt them impossible to believe, gained credence and men came to know that the worst was only too clearly true. Not only were the atrocities facts but they were not chance facts. The cruelty was purposeful, intentional, no mere accident of warfare. The German was consciously a Hun. He meant to destroy his enemy forever while he had the chance. And the babies in arms, the children in the streets were as truly Belgians and Frenchmen to be slaughtered as the men in the armies. The Germans were striving to destroy a nation. Nothing so terrible had been conceived within the memory of man.

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The sinking of the Lusitania  and the execution of Edith Cavell, as well as the murder of Captain Fryatt for the "horrible crime" (to German thinking) of attempting to sink a submarine, convinced even the most obstinate minds in the United States that the German was the enemy of civilization. As time went on the scraps of paper multiplied. To President Wilson's warnings, the Germans replied with promises, which they broke in rapid succession. They agreed to give warning before sinking ships; to make adequate provision for the escape of the passengers and crew; but on the first of February, 1917, they issued a notification that all vessels would be sunk without warning. This was a direct violation of the solemn pledge given by the German government to the United States the year before.

The German intrigues against this country had also increased. The Secret Service seized papers upon German spies in this country which demonstrated an extent of operations contrary to the laws and rights of the United States truly extraordinary. German agents were placing bombs on ships, fomenting a revolution in Ireland from the United States, and organizing a great conspiracy in India, purchasing writers and lecturers, stirring up strikes in American factories, blowing up buildings, all justified by the same morality which sank the Lusitania.

The result was a conviction in American minds that the Imperial German Government had repudiated the fundamental principles of law and humanity and could be restrained and made to respect law and right only by being defeated in war. The American people became convinced that Prussian militarism and autocracy were a menace to the nations and civilization of the world and endangered the homes, rights, and natural privileges of men all outside of Germany. The war had become a combat between the democratic nations on the one side and the principles of militarism on the other. Autocracy as developed in Germany was a type of government with which free nations could not live in peace. The German system intended the destruction of all the United States had stood for since the founding of this country. Only by its annihilation could democracy be rendered safe.

Such being the conviction of the American people, the entry of the United States into the war became necessary in the spring of 1917. The Russian Revolution in March completed the German victories in eastern Europe. In 1914 and 1913 Poland had been overrun and the Russian armies beaten. In 1916 the Russian armies had been again destroyed and Rumania laid waste. The political revolution in Russia would now relieve the Germans of all further fear of war in the east and would enable them to throw their entire army against the French, British, and Italians in the west. There was more than a possibility that the Allies would not be able to hold the lines against such an access of strength. The French had borne the greater part of the burden of the war up to this time and still held the major part of the lines in France. The British had suffered great losses in the campaigns of the preceding year, and, with all the magnificent strength which they had still to put into the field, could scarcely offset the numbers the Germans could now bring to bear.

There was no lack of confidence in London and Paris that the Allies could themselves prevent the Germans from winning the war, but they were by no means so confident that they could win it without America's help. And they saw and President Wilson saw that the calamity to civilization would be almost as serious if the Germans were not beaten as if the Germans were to win. The United States must come to the aid of its true friends and allies in Europe before it was too late. The Russian Revolution meant that we could not possibly delay longer. The country was now solidly behind the President, as perhaps it had not been before, and he felt able to take the step with the consciousness that the nation would stand behind him to "the last drop of blood and the last dollar."

The specific causes of the American declaration of war were the facts which stood for this determination. The German order declaring unrestricted submarine warfare from February 1 convinced us finally that the Germans never proposed to keep any of the promises they had made or to respect any American rights. It showed us clearly what we would have to expect if the Germans won. In January, 1917, the State Department made known the Zimmermann Note, in which a responsible German official offered Mexico our southwestern states if she would join Germany and Japan in a war upon us. This was nothing more than confirmation of what President Wilson already knew, but it was a demonstration of the extent to which Germany was willing to go which the nation heretofore had not known. Accordingly the German Ambassador was dismissed and diplomatic relations severed on February 3. When it became clear that the Germans were executing their threat of unrestricted submarine warfare, armed neutrality was recommended by the President on February 26, and on March 12 American merchant vessels were ordered to be armed.

Then came the news of the Russian Revolution and the President saw that the moment for action had come. On April 2, 1917, he appeared before the assembled Congress and urged the recognition of a state of war with Germany. "With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the German Imperial Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the Government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it. . . ."

"A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic Government could be trusted to keep faith within it or to observe its covenants. It must be a league of honor, a partnership of opinion. Intrigue would eat its vitals away; the plottings of inner circles who could plan what they would and render account to no one would be a corruption seated at its very heart. Only free peoples can hold their purpose and their honor steady to a common end and prefer the interests of mankind to any narrow interest of their own. . . "

" . . . The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them."

Congress responded with a declaration of war against Germany on April 6, and one against Austria-Hungary on December 7. The exact reason why the latter declaration of war was delayed is not yet known, but probably because of the expectation that Austria-Hungary might be drawn away from Germany and a separate peace signed with her.