During the summer of 1914, the tensions in Europe that had been growing for many years culminated with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian terrorist organization. Following the assassination, the Austrian-Hungary government (backed by Germany) and Serbia (strongly backed by Russia) entered into what became an intricate chain of political confrontations. Within less than a month, two coalitions emerged—the Central Powers, which primarily consisted of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the Allied Powers, which included France, Russia, and Great Britain.
As posturing between the two coalitions persisted, Russia began to mobilize its forces to strike against Germany. Feeling threatened, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914. Only days later, in an attempt to neutralize any opposition from France, Germany moved its forces through Belgium to strike the French nation. As a result of the German invasion of Belgium, Great Britain quickly sided with France to prevent Germany from accessing the French coastline from Belgium.
As war raged in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson argued that the United States should remain neutral in this conflict, urging Americans to be “impartial in thought as well as in action.” Given the distance between the United States and Europe, Americans readily embraced Wilson’s neutral stance. Although approximately one-third of American citizens had been born in Europe or were children of European immigrants, most were relieved to stay out of the conflict.
While U.S. policy remained neutral, both the Central Powers and the Allied Powers used propaganda in an attempt to sway American public opinion. German propaganda focused on Russian autocracy and anti-Semitism, which seemed to appeal only to German and Irish-Americans. Britain enjoyed certain advantages in its appeal to Americans, such as a common language and a closely aligned culture. Despite attempts by both the Allied and Central Powers to persuade U.S. opinion, President Wilson and the American people remained firmly neutral.
However, America’s neutrality was soon tested on what the U.S. considered free international waters. Both the Allied and Central Powers hoped to gain advantage over the other by controlling America’s trade relationships. Britain, who controlled the span of the North Atlantic Ocean, refused to allow American goods to be shipped to Germany and declared all cargo in neutral waters to be contraband. Britain then began seizing U.S. goods.
Although Wilson immediately protested this illegal act, he did not act against Great Britain. Instead, Wilson attempted to maintain a neutral position as Britain continued to throttle American trade with Germany. American ships traveling through the North Sea, which was the only route to access German ports, often found themselves illegally searched and seized, sometimes being held for months. Britain’s tactics proved to be highly effective—trade between the United States and Germany dropped off dramatically between 1914 and 1916.
However, Germany was not willing to concede control of the North Atlantic shipping lanes. In response to Britain’s tactics, Germany established a submarine war zone around the British Isles, declaring that they would immediately sink all enemy merchant ships encountered in the area. Wilson responded by declaring that Germany would be held to “strict accountability” if they injured American ships or citizens.
In an attempt to contend with the British Navy, Germany began to produce a new weapon of war—the U-boat. U-boats, a common English abbreviation for the German word `Unterseeboot', were submarines. Unlike surface ships, U-boats, did not adhere to the traditional rules of engagement, which required raiders to stop a vessel, examine its cargo, and allow passengers to escape before sinking the ship. Instead, the strength of the submarine was its ability to strike without warning, while its major weakness was its inability when surfaced to defend itself.
Germany began attacking British and American vessels in the waters of the North Atlantic. In March of 1915, Germany sunk the British steamer Falaba, killing one American. In May, two more lives were lost when Germany sunk the American tanker Gulfight. In all, during the first months of 1915, German U-boats destroyed more than 90 ships.
Germany’s aggression reached a turning point in May of 1915. Americans reacted in disbelief when a German U-boat attacked the Lusitania, a British passenger liner that was traveling from New York to Liverpool, England. Nearly 1,200 persons were killed, including 128 Americans. Germany defended the sinking of the Lusitania by correctly asserting that the ship was transporting a large supply of small-arms ammunition. This fact did little to convince Americans that Germany was justified. While many openly called for war, President Woodrow Wilson remained cautious against any action that would bring America into the battle.
Instead, President Wilson began to make a series of diplomatic moves to persuade Germany to shift its tactics. Wilson issued a note, grudgingly signed by Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, demanding that the Germans abandon unrestricted submarine warfare. Germany responded with an explanation of their military situation but not an apology for their warfare tactics, nor any indication that they were willing to change their strategy. About one month later, Wilson issued a second, more strongly worded note. This time, Bryan, rather than signing a letter that could provoke a war with Germany, resigned from his position.
In reaction to the storm of criticism and anger concerning the sinking of the Lusitania, the German government secretly ordered its military to avoid sinking defenseless passenger ships. However, in August of 1915, Germany sunk the Arabic, another British liner, killing two Americans. With Allied pressure mounting, the German government finally agreed publicly to not sink unarmed ships without warning.
Germany’s pledge proved to be temporary. Seven months after the sinking of the Arabic, a German U-boat sunk the Sussex, a French steamer. In response, Wilson issued the Sussex Ultimatum, a decree that said the U.S. would break diplomatic relations with Germany if German U-boats continued to sink unarmed vessels. Again, Germany signaled that they would not sink passenger vessels without warning. However, Germany’s latest reassurance came with one major stipulation: the United States would have to persuade the Allies to stop blockading commodities to Germany. Wilson accepted Germany’s pledge, but he did not accept the decree concerning the Allies.
On January 31, 1917, in an effort to end the military stalemate in Europe, Germany declared that it would wage unrestricted warfare against all shipping vessels, neutral or belligerent, in the war zone. Although Wilson broke diplomatic relations with Germany, he refused to ask Congress for a declaration of war, arguing that Germany had still not committed any “actual overt acts” that warranted a military response.
The “overt acts” that would bring America into the war came during the next two months with the sinking of four more unarmed American vessels. At about the same time, newspapers published an intercepted telegram from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman that proposed a German-Mexican alliance. In return for supporting Germany, Mexico was to reclaim the Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona territories. This proposed alliance concerned all Americans and was particularly troublesome to those living in the southwestern United States. Wilson was forced to acknowledge that the worst-case scenario for America was coming to pass and continuing to manage the German threat was no longer an option.
On April 2, 1917, Wilson requested a declaration of war from Congress. Congress complied with only six senators and 50 representatives voting against the war resolution. In his war message, Wilson declared, “It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war.” Nevertheless, the crisis of war would soon engulf the United States.
Mobilizing the Nation for War
In April of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson received a declaration of war from Congress. Even as America prepared for war, the country remained split over the prospects of sending American troops to fight the nations that comprised the Central Powers. In an attempt to unify the nation, the Wilson administration undertook a remarkable propaganda campaign to sway American opinion toward intervention in the European conflict. The centerpiece of this campaign was the Committee on Public Information, also known as the Creel Committee.
Headed by George Creel, a well-known progressive journalist, the committee’s purpose was to sell the American public on the war, to communicate the aims and goals of the Allied Powers, and to demoralize the Central Powers in the eyes of Americans. The committee mobilized about 75,000 individuals, known as “four-minute men,” to deliver pro-American addresses in public places. The committee also created and distributed millions of copies of pamphlets, posters, and leaflets exhorting the dangers of the Central Powers.
The Food Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover, worked to ensure the well being of the nation’s food supply. Hoover sought voluntary compliance for the food administration’s policies. To save food for export, Hoover asked Americans to observe “meatless Tuesdays” and “wheatless Wednesdays” in the name of patriotism. He also asked Americans to plant “victory gardens,” small gardens that sprouted up in backyards and empty lots, to help make Americans more self-sufficient and less dependent on the national food supply.
Hoover’s efforts paid off for both the U.S. and the Allies. Food produced in America increased in yield by 25 percent, while food exported to the Allied nations swelled to over three times the amount before the push of voluntary conservation. The success of the Food Administration did not go unnoticed by other agencies. The Fuel Administration enacted similar voluntary measures by proposing “heatless Mondays” and “gasless Sundays.”
During this time of conservation, Congress also restricted the use of food materials for manufacturing alcoholic beverages. The exercise of self-denial that emerged among citizens in reaction to the war accelerated the prohibition movement, which was already sweeping across the country.
As Americans struggled with conservation on the home front, the government struggled with how to provide the necessary food and munitions to troops. Although Wilson was a powerful and inspiring war leader, he found himself unable to build the necessary cooperation between military and civilian agencies. As a result of disorganized and often conflicting information about the amounts of food, munitions, and money required to wage the war, the American government found itself unable to provide troops and the other Allied Powers with much-needed supplies.
Wilson placed the task of organizing this crucial information into the hands of the War Industries Board, headed by stock speculator Bernard Baruch. The board was charged with effectively allocating scarce resources, standardizing the production of war goods, fixing prices, and coordinating American and Allied purchasing.
To minimize potential labor disputes that would hinder production, and therefore the country’s war efforts, Wilson formed the National War Labor Board. The board, chaired by former President William Howard Taft, was charged with maintaining order in the nation’s commercial sector by settling disputes between management and workers. The board used its power to strong-arm management into establishing higher wages and eight-hour workdays; however, the board’s most significant contribution was its recognition of workers’ rights to unionize, which revolutionized management-labor relations. In fact, union membership had nearly doubled to three million by the war’s end.
As a part of the American government’s propaganda effort to bolster public support for the war, the Committee on Public Information established powerful anti-German sentiment in the U.S. As a result, Americans rejected all things German, including German music, literature, and food. Some American citizens readily reported, without factual knowledge, spying and sabotage in the U.S. by German agents.
To reassure American citizens and to quash the dissenting political opinions of the anti-war factions, the U.S. government established the Espionage Act of 1917. Under this act, anyone convicted of aiding the enemy, obstructing military recruiting, or inciting rebellion in the military was subject to fines of up to $10,000 and imprisonment for up to 20 years.
Almost one year later, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918. In an effort to expand the powers of the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act made it illegal to speak against the purchase of war bonds or to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” against the U.S. government or the Constitution.
These two acts provided the legal foundation for almost two thousand prosecutions, many of which involved antiwar Socialists and members of a radical group called the Industrial Workers of the World. In 1918, Socialist Eugene V. Debs was convicted under the Espionage Act and sentenced to 10 years in a federal penitentiary for giving an anti-war speech. Industrial Workers of the World leader William D. Haywood and 99 of his associates were also convicted.
Many in America argued that the Espionage and Sedition Act were in violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment. The argument was ultimately debated in the Supreme Court in the case of Schenck v. U.S. in 1919. Charles Schenck was the general secretary of the Socialist Party. Schenck believed that the military draft was unlawful and mailed letters to draftees urging them not to report for military duty, an action clearly in violation of the Espionage Act. Like Debs and Haywood, Schenck was arrested, charged, and convicted for the crime of criticizing a government initiative.
During Schenck’s appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the legality of his conviction, thereby supporting the structure and purpose of the Espionage Act. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that during a time of war the nation had the right to protect its interest even if that meant suppressing certain freedoms.
Holmes argued that if Schenck had mailed his letters challenging the draft during peacetime, he would be safe from prosecution. During a time of war, however, Holmes contended that Schenck’s actions represented a “clear and present danger” to the United States. If words are used to create a clear and present danger to the nation, Justice Holmes said, the government has the right to suppress such behavior.