Chapter 23 America and the Great War chapter summary

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America and the Great War


In the summer of 1914, what was then called the Great War erupted in Europe. The conflict was expected to be brief, even glorious. Instead, it was a disaster for all of the participants. Four years of fighting, infused with many new lethal war technologies, saw the inglorious slaughter of a generation of men. At the outset of the war, the United States assumed a stance of strict neutrality, but it soon became apparent that the Wilson administration was much more pro-ally (Great Britain, France, and Russia) than pro-German. Officially, America was simply asserting its rights as a neutral trading power; however, the assertion of those rights put the United States on a collision course with the German submarine. After many fits and starts, the German government announced unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917. Two months later President Wilson made the final—and fateful—decision to enter the war against Germany. At this point the armies and civilians of the warring nations had suffered mightily. The insertion of fresh American troops and supplies in 1917 probably hastened the end of that suffering, tipping the balance toward the Allies, and thereby providing the margin of victory.

To place America on a war footing, the federal government turned to an array of unprecedented measures: sharply graduated income taxes, conscription of troops for a foreign war, management of the economy by federal bureaucracies, and a massive propaganda and anti-sedition campaign. Part of that propaganda campaign involved President Wilson’s formulation of non-punitive war aims known as his Fourteen Points, the highlight of which was the last point, a call for the creation of a League of Nations for peaceful international diplomacy. Wilson’s desire to form his “new world order” required his attendance at the postwar peace conference in Paris. This, too, was an unprecedented move, but it was not a successful one. Wilson’s idealism proved no match for France and England’s desire for territorial security and revenge against Germany. The Treaty of Versailles was much more a victor’s peace than a reflection of the Fourteen Points. The gap between the expectations raised by Wilson and the reality of the punitive treaty was so great that many Americans preferred to retreat altogether from international obligations. By 1920, after two Senate votes against the Treaty of Versailles and American participation in a League of Nations, the American people had so tired of two decades of reform, a foreign war, and a failed peace that they elected a Republican President and Congress, which promised little more than a retreat from the world and a return to normalcy.

A thorough study of Chapter 23 should enable the student to understand:

1. The background factors and immediate sequence of events that caused the United States to declare war on Germany in 1917

2. The new technology of warfare employed between 1914 and 1918 and its effects on the tactics and course of World War I

3. The extent of government control of the American economy during World War I and both the economic and military contributions of the United States to Allied victory

4. The course of events that led to the United States’ entry into war and the announced American objectives in fighting

5. The desires and limits of American support for the war, the propaganda campaign to promote unity, and the development and the outcome of war hysteria in the United States during the war

6. The public and political climate in the United States and Europe at the start of the Paris peace conference and Wilson’s successes and failures at Versailles

7. The circumstances that led the U.S. Senate to reject the Treaty of Versailles and their consequences

8. The economic problems the United States faced immediately after World War I and their consequences

9. The reasons for the Red Scare and the resurgence of racial unrest in postwar America

1. How official American wartime neutrality was something less than actual neutrality and eventually led to full American participation in the war

2. That the American intervention on land and sea provided the balance of victory for the Allies

3. How the Wilson administration financed the war, managed the economy, and encouraged public support for the war effort while raising the expectations for the postwar period

4. How President Wilson tried to apply his personal and political idealism and morality to the realities of world politics and how he largely failed

5. How the American war effort affected the American homefront not only during but also immediately after World War I


1. Was American involvement in World War I inevitable? What forces worked to maintain American neutrality? What forces propelled the country into the war?

2. Discuss the military and economic impact of American entry into World War I. What was the impact on the domestic American economy during and immediately after the war?

3. On what grounds did Wilson call for the United States to enter the war? How did those grounds govern American conduct during the war and at the peace conference?

4. Describe the suffering that this war visited on Europe. Why did so many people die? Why was it so much easier to wage a defensive fight than an offensive one during World War I?

5. How did the American government try to unify public opinion behind the American war effort? What were the consequences of that effort? In what way is propaganda a war weapon?

6. Why did Wilson go to Paris at the end of the war? How was he received by the public? The other attending representatives? What was the nature of the opposition, both foreign and domestic, to him and his ideas? Why did he encounter such intransigent opposition to his idealism? How did he handle this opposition? What mistakes did he make along the way? How might he have handled the situation?

7. Compare Wilson’s Fourteen Points with the final Treaty of Versailles. How do you account for the differences? What would have been a reasonable treaty settlement in your view?

8. Why did the U.S. Senate reject the Treaty of Versailles? Could Wilson have prevented its rejection? What were the immediate and long-term consequences of that rejection?

9. How did developments at home and abroad between 1918 and 1920 help produce a sense of disillusionment? Why did those developments contribute to a Republican victory in 1920?

10. Discuss the economic, social, and racial impact of the American war effort. To what extent were the Red Scare and a black nationalist movement direct consequences of the American involvement in World War I?

1. Identify the Allies, the Central Powers, the occupied nations, and the neutrals.

2. Note the approximate location of Germany’s deepest penetration of France and of Russia and the approximate location of the armistice line.

1. What two nations bore the brunt of the western front fighting within their borders? What nation suffered the most on the eastern front? How did the general course of military operations on both fronts affect the peace negotiations?


These questions are based on the preceding map exercises. They are designed to test students’ knowledge of the geography of the area discussed in this chapter and of its historical development. Careful reading of the text will help students answer these questions.

1. To what extent was American involvement in World War I a natural outcome of the imperial expansion that began in the 1890s? What other factors pulled America into the war?

2. What internal effects did World War I have on the United States?


Lloyd Ambrosius, Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition (1987)

William Breen, Uncle Sam at Home (1984)

Kathleen Burk, Britain, America, and the Sinews of War (1985)

Garry Clifford, The Citizen Soldiers (1972)

Alfred E. Conrebise, War as Advertised: The Four Minute Men and America’s Crusade, 1917-1918 (1984)

Robert H. Ferrell, Woodrow Wilson and World War I (1985)

Frank Freidel, Over There: The Story of America’s First Great Overseas Crusade, rev. ed. (1990)

Maurine W. Greenwald, Women, War, and Work (1980)

Meirion and Susie Harries, The Last Days of Innocence: America at War, 1917-1918 (1997)

Manfred Jonas, The United States and Germany (1984)

John Keegan, The First World War (1998)

David Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (1980)

Philip Knightly, The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker (1975)

Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (2001)

Robert K. Murray, The Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920 (1955)

Ralph Stone, The Irreconcilables: The Fight Against the League of Nations (1970)

Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (1962)


These questions are designed to help students bring together ideas from several chapters and see how the chapters relate to one another. Some questions will also help students explore how changes in the landscape and in geopolitical conditions are significant to understanding American history.
1. To what extent did the political issues of the Reconstruction Era persist throughout the balance of the nineteenth century? What were those issues?

2. What was the relationship between the American frontier and the nation’s rise to industrial world supremacy? Could the United States have prospered without the natural resources of the West?

3. What cultural beliefs, attitudes, and myths that developed as the United States pushed into the American West were carried into the nation’s imperial expansion after 1898?

4. What forces were at work within and outside of the United States to lead the nation into a more active role in world affairs? Why did the country acquire an empire?

5. Progressivism has been described as “twentieth-century solutions to nineteenth-century problems.” Is this an accurate description? Would it be more accurate to say that the Progressive Era was really the end of the nineteenth century rather than the beginning of the twentieth?

6. Compare America’s economic position in 1865 with its position at the end of World War I. What forces led to so much change in just over half a century?

7. Compare American urban centers in 1865 with their position at the end of World War I. How did cities come to dominate the economic, political, and cultural life of the nation? How had social attitudes, customs, and values changed? What had happened to rural America?

8. Describe the process by which the United States went from an insular nation as little concerned with world affairs as possible in 1865 to the world’s leading economic, military, and diplomatic power by the end of World War I.

9. Weigh the ecological costs of railroad development with the economic benefits to the nation. Which way do the scales tip? Could the benefits have been obtained at less cost?

10. Why did the role of the American presidents change so dramatically between the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century? To what degree were these changes motivated by popular desire or by the other factors?

For Internet resources, practice questions, references to additional books and films, and more, see this book’s Online Learning Center at

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