Posted by Brad on Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 10:48pm.
Please help me revise my History essay.
The Inevitable Decision: America’s Entry into WWI
Words are cheap. The infamous maxim has survived throughout history and its value has been demonstrated on a multitude of occasions. One situation that is particularly fitting is America’s isolationist policy applied to its pre-WWI foreign affairs. America claimed to hold true to its non-interventionist policies, and kept this promise for many years. However, its words did not always match its deeds. Due to America’s heavy economic investment in the Allied nations, its saturation with British propaganda, and the many diplomatic mistakes made by Germany, the non-interventionist policy of America was thoroughly destroyed by 1917.
The non-interventionist policy of the United States of America has had a long history. “It is our true policy to steer clear of entangling alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” stated George Washington. Thomas Jefferson also agreed with this standpoint. He suggested, “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.” For over 100 years, this way of handling foreign affairs was virtually unchallenged. Before Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, there was an unbroken line of presidents that upheld this modest foreign policy. Breaking a standard such as this seemed impossible, and surely would require extraordinary circumstances.
When war broke out in Europe, this rule seemed as if it was in no danger. Public critics often cited the war as a vehicle for the desires of greedy imperialists and war profiteers (44, First). Also, there were mixed feelings about which side to favor in this European conflict. Germans and Irish made up an outstanding portion of the American constituency, and they both were advocates for the Central Powers. A smaller Jewish population also favored the Central Powers, seeing the German advances in Russia as a way of liberating Russian Jews from the tyrannical Czars. On the other hand, the cultural similarities between Great Britain and the US were undeniable, and there were a significant number of British Americans living in the industrial Northeast. There was a very real fear held by many Americans that joining either side in the European war would lead to civil war in the United States. This ambiguity of race helped America stay true to its promise of neutrality in the early years of the war.
Further complicating the issue, there were a number of grotesque acts of violence committed on both sides of the war. Reports of Germany invading neutral Belgium seemed like a testament to brutal German policies and swayed many Americans to favor the Allies. A suspicion that Germans were responsible for instigating the war compounded this distaste. However, news of a British blockade, stopping citizens from receiving food and other vital supplies also reached the ears of many Americans. As each side seemed increasingly violent and savage, staying out of the conflict all together seemed moral as well as convenient.
Also convenient was the timing of the war. The United States was experiencing a manufacturing boom due to European need of war supplies. This economic opportunity was very beneficial to the American economy, but it was one of the major forces that threw America into the war. Although there were some materials given to the Central Powers, the great majority went to the allies. In fact, at one point during the war, Britain alone was spending $10 million a day on war materials .
Just as a great need for war supplies comes with war, so does a great need for money. Throughout the beginning of the war, American bankers were denied the ability to give loans to either the Allies or the Central Powers in the interest of keeping America neutral. However, to the delight of many American bankers, this privilege was granted in 1915 (First, 171). This ability was taken full advantage of, and the Allies were loaned over $2 billion. Demonstrating the disproportionate nature of this practice, the Central Powers were only loaned $20 million. These economic investments certainly created American interest in an Allied victory.
British control of the cable lines over the Atlantic Ocean also gave the Allies a marked advantage in the battle for public opinion. Great Britain used this medium to showcase vast amounts of propaganda. German soldiers were represented as violent brutes and heartless animals. The German invasion of Belgium was displayed through dramatizations of soldiers systematically pillaging villages and terrorizing women and children. Predictably, the Central Powers were solely delegated the blame for starting the war. This saturation of British propaganda and a distinct lack of German response had a noticeable effect on the opinions of the American people.
The uncertainty of the American people was manifest in the mixed politics of the nation at this point. There were both political parties in strong opposition of the war as well as those who were strongly for American intervention. Those who felt that the United States should continue its policies of non-intervention proposed that peace talks be organized between the Central Powers and the Allies. This group was mostly comprised of pacifists, a large majority of whom were women. The opposing party was led by Republican Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt who saw the need for a national armament program. The presidential election of 1916 was one of the closest elections in history. Woodrow Wilson won by less than 4,000 votes in California. His campaign promises were reflective of each of the opposing political parties. He took on a platform where he promised to negotiate peace talks as well as increase readiness for the war. These sundry plans were representative of the mixed views that were dividing America.
However, clarification was established in the form of the many American casualties sustained due to Germany’s aggressive naval tactics. In May 1915, Germany sank the Lusitania, killing 128 Americans. Germany claimed that the Lusitania held British arms and was using evasive maneuvers in an attempt to escape, so the submarine had no option but to attack it. This event was widely shown in American newspapers, and revisited time and time again in British propaganda. Another attack on the citizenship of America occurred when a German submarine sank another passenger ship, the Arabic. Only two Americans were killed, but this left a strong impression on the American people, and led Germany to instate a strict law against attacking passenger ships. The law held captains of German submarines accountable for watching the crew and passengers exit the ship before it could be destroyed (172, eye). Despite this extensive protection granted to passenger ships, German submarines injured two Americans aboard the Sussex. This final noncompliance to American request infuriated Congress and Woodrow Wilson. Germany was given an choice: “Abandon submarine warfare against passenger ships or sever diplomatic relations with the United States.” Seeing as how completely abandoning submarine warfare would be extremely harmful to the Central Powers, Germany rejected this notion and cut diplomatic relations with America.
As stated before, the long standing policy of non-intervention would require an extraordinary event to be cast aside. Germany’s disobedience to America’s request to desist submarine warfare clearly helped the case for intervention, but for the United States to declare war, it needed a reason to believe in imminent danger. On February 24, 1917, America was given this reason. Great Britain had deciphered a telegram sent to Mexico which promised German help in retrieving southern American land if Mexico declared war on the United States. It was sent by Arthur Zimmermann, and was known thereafter as the Zimmermann Telegram. It not only worsened German relations with America, but it created an American fear for its own well being. Pacifists were quieted and Progressive Republicans were emboldened by this influential telegram. The majority of Americans now felt that a war with Germany was both justified and necessary. On April 6, 1917, Congress officially declared war on Germany.
However, a burning question still remains: was the war with Germany justifiable? Was the U.S.’s policy of non-intervention morally superior, or was it merely morally blind to the atrocities occurring around it? Did the United States absolutely need to declare war on Germany, or was the war more of a selfish attempt to save its own economic endeavors? Finally, was American intervention beneficial to post war efforts, or did it fuel German hatred and increase the harshness of the Versailles treaty? In order to examine this question properly, it is important to look to both the practical and moral concerns of the American people, as well as post war efforts by the United States.
In terms of practicality, the United States is clearly justified. Germany not only hurt the America’s economy by interrupting trade to Great Britain and the Allies, but the Zimmermann Telegram also showed that it had plans to danger the American population as a whole. All throughout WWI, American businesses were deeply invested in an Allied victory, and the government acted in the interest of its citizenship. The United States government was burdened to both to save the economy and ensure a prosperous future. This was easily accomplished with an allied victory. Furthermore, the Zimmermann Telegram distinctly showed Germany’s hurtful intentions toward the United States. By acting against Germany, the United States was able to preserve both its economic prosperity and the well-being of its citizens.
The issue of morality also needs to be mentioned. If one looks at the war from an objective standpoint, Germany is rightfully given the majority of the blame for bring it about. Through writing a “blank check” to Austria-Hungary, they set the domino effect in motion. In addition to this, one must consider the morality of the governments fighting in the conflict. The British, French, and American governments were all democracies fighting for human rights. The Central Powers were mostly composed of autocratic dictatorships that gave very little power to the average citizen. WWI was, in many ways, a fight of democracy against dictatorships. "The world," Wilson said, "must be made safe for democracy."
Finally, one must consider the effects that American intervention had upon the creation of the Versailles Treaty and subsequent German poverty. Although one might be inclined to blame America for the cruel Versailles Treaty, the fact of the matter is that Woodrow Wilson strongly opposed its creation and proposed a far less punishing solution in his Fourteen Points. It would be logical to concluded that Germany would have been more cruelly punished if the United States had not been apart of the agreements.
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