Once war broke out in 1914, each of the European powers felt that its very existence was at stake, and rules of international law were rapidly abandoned.
The Germans violated Belgian neutrality because their war plan called for the quick defeat of France, and that could best be accomplished if the German army cut through Belgium. Britain declared a blockade of Germany that was illegal according to the accepted rules, since it was effected simply by laying mines, rather than by closing off German harbors with the use of surface ships. The Germans protested that the aim of the blockade — to starve them into submission by denying food to the civilian population — was also illegal. The British, who held undisputed command of the seas, ignored the German protests.
In the United States, public opinion was sharply divided, although into unequal segments. The great majority of Americans saw no reason for us to become involved in what was rapidly becoming a bloodbath. They felt that the European powers, having indulged themselves in rampant imperialism and militarism for a generation, were now reaping the whirlwind of their own political vices. For most Americans, the wisdom of the Founding Fathers’ advice — steer clear of foreign entanglements — was being demonstrated as never before.
But these tens of millions of Americans who wished for peace were mostly content to go about their business, trusting their government to keep the nation out of war. Meanwhile, a much smaller segment of the population harbored very different feelings. Concentrated on the Eastern Seaboard, and centered in New York, its members included most of the country’s social elite, which was by inclination and family tradition strongly pro-English. Prominent among the supporters of the Allied cause were the major New York banks. After it was over, Thomas W. Lamont, senior partner of the House of Morgan, referred to the first weeks of the European war:
Those were the days when American citizens were being urged to remain neutral in action, in word, and even in thought. But our firm had never for one moment been neutral. We didn’t know how to be. From the very start, we did everything we could to contribute to the cause of the Allies.
It was Woodrow Wilson himself, the president of the United States, who had cautioned his countrymen to remain neutral, even in thought. Yet in Washington, Wilson was surrounded by supporters of the English cause, the most important being Colonel Edward M. House, his advisor and intimate friend. The American ambassador to Britain, Walter Hines Page, was so pro-British he sometimes even astonished his English hosts. The only man in government who seemed to reflect the people’s desire for peace was the secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan. For, despite his protestations of neutrality, Woodrow Wilson, deep down, was as much a partisan of England as most of his advisors. In private, Wilson confided to his press secretary:
England is fighting our fight, and you may well understand that I shall not, in the present state of the world’s affairs, place obstacles in her way when she is fighting for her life — and the life of the world.
What Wilson was referring to were the violations of neutral rights being committed on the seas by the British in implementing their hunger blockade. American ships could not enter vast areas, on pain of being blown up by mines. Ships carrying goods that no one except the British considered to be contraband were prohibited from sailing to Germany and even to neutral ports. Mail bound for the continent was seized and searched. Occasionally, Washington chided the British government in a mild protest. But Walter Hines Page, our ambassador, was always ready to explain to his English friends that we did not really mean it.
The Germans announced that they were responding to the British blockade with submarine warfare, while admitting that they could not guarantee that neutral interests would be safeguarded. Now Washington came down hard. A note was sent to Berlin:
If the commanders of German vessels should destroy on the high seas an American vessel or the lives of American citizens, it would be difficult for the Government of the United States to view the act in any other light than as an indefensible violation of neutral rights.
The United States, the note warned, would hold Germany “strictly accountable” for the loss of American ships or lives through the actions of German submarines. The Germans replied that they would cease submarine warfare if the British lifted their illegal blockade.
On May 7, 1915, cruising off the southern coast of Ireland, Captain Walter Schwieger, of U-boat 20, found a target. Schwieger suspected the truth: that although a passenger liner, the British ship was carrying large amounts of explosives. From captured documents, Schwieger knew that many British merchant ships had been outfitted with guns and were under instructions to ram any surfacing submarine. He took no chances and fired a torpedo. An explosion aboard the ship caused it to start sinking at once. Schwieger had sunk the Lusitania , star of the British Cunard Line. Around 1,200 persons were killed, including 128 Americans.
Just as with the Maine in Havana in 1898 and the battleships at Pearl Harbor in 1941, mystery still surrounds the sinking of the Lusitania . Why was it sailing without destroyer escort through a notorious submarine zone? The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had declared that there was nothing he would not do for his country, including “embroiling” neutrals in the war on England’s side. A number of students of the case have concluded that the sinking of the Lusitania had been arranged, in order to bring America into the war.
This was exactly what many influential Americans now demanded, including Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge. Colonel House noted in his diary: “I have concluded that war with Germany is inevitable,” and advised Wilson accordingly. Secretary of State Bryan tried to stem the hysteria. He pointed to what an investigation had revealed — that the Lusitania was carrying 5,500 cases of ammunition — and declared that Americans should not book passage on British ships with mixed cargoes of “bullets and babies.” Bryan told Wilson:
We unsparingly denounce the retaliatory methods employed by Germany, without condemning the announced purpose of the Allies to starve the non-combatants of Germany and without complaining of the conduct of Great Britain in relying on passengers, including men, women, and children of the United States, to give immunity to a vessel carrying munitions of war.
Wilson hesitated. Finally, he decided to give the Germans one last warning, again holding them “strictly accountable,” but not admonishing the British in any way. Bryan, realizing that this policy sooner or later meant war, resigned.
Meanwhile, public opinion was starting to shift. There is no doubt that outside of the corridor that ran from Boston to Washington, the majority of Americans still demanded peace. Yet the influential newspapers were more and more urging “action” against Germany, and British propaganda was taking its toll. Many Americans were startled to read about the horrendous atrocities committed by German troops in Belgium: nuns raped and murdered; prisoners crucified on barn doors; babies maimed and slaughtered for amusement. Perhaps England was not just defending its own political and strategic interests, but really fighting for civilization itself? And wasn’t the cause of civilization an American cause as well? After the war was over, investigations by various commissions revealed the truth: though the Germans were harsh in punishing civilians who chose to engage in combat, the “atrocities” were a hoax. Later, Josef Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda, admired the British propaganda in World War I so much that he modeled his own campaigns on the “big lie” of the “Belgian atrocities.”
In Berlin, the Kaiser’s government decided to discontinue attacks on enemy passenger liners, even if armed and carrying munitions of war. But they insisted that the British should be compelled to “observe the rules of international law universally recognized before the War,” and terminate their blockade. This condition, however, Wilson chose to ignore. The diplomatic controversy between Germany and the United States dragged on for months.
A noisy campaign for “preparedness” began in the United States, led by Theodore Roosevelt and General Leonard Wood. The aim was to instill in the public an awareness of alleged threats to our national security. Summer camps, financed by security-minded bankers and industrialists, were held to train college students and even businessmen in the military arts. To familiarize Americans with the threat from overseas, the National Security League was launched, funded by U.S. Steel, the Rockefeller oil companies, and others concerned with national defense.
In 1916, Wilson was up for reelection. The Republicans had nominated the Supreme Court justice, Charles Evans Hughes, who called for a stronger stand against Germany. When the Democrats met in St. Louis, Wilson and his friends were in for a surprise. They had become used to the pro-Allied attitudes prevalent in Washington and the Eastern press. Now, they witnessed an assembly where every mention of peace was greeted with wild cheers. When one speaker used the phrase, “Wilson kept us out of war,” it was taken up by the whole convention. “He kept us out of war!” became the slogan of the campaign and won Wilson the votes of the Midwest, the mountain states, and California. Wilson had been reelected on a peace platform.
On the Western Front, the year 1916 brought inconceivable horrors. In the battles at Verdun and on the Somme, hundreds of thousands were killed on both sides. And still, despite all the carnage and the introduction of weapons like the tank and poison gas, neither side could crack the front.
But the British hunger blockade was slowly starving the enemy, and in the winter of 1916-17, the German potato crop failed. The military chiefs urged the Kaiser to order unrestricted submarine warfare, to force Britain to its knees before Germany collapsed. They conceded that, given Wilson’s policy, America would enter the war, but they promised that Britain would sue for peace before the U. S. forces could arrive. On January 31, 1917, Germany declared that any ship found in the waters around the British Isles would be sunk. To Wilson, Germany was breaking its pledge. He continued to abide by his position: Americans have the sacred right — which will, under all circumstances, be backed up the their government — to travel on armed belligerent merchant ships carrying munitions of war through submarine zones. On February 2, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Germany.