World War 1When the World War I broke out in 1914, with Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. America’s first reaction was to stay out to conflict. President Wilson, in his speech to the Congress on August 19, 1914 said: Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality. The United States must be neutral in fact as well as in name during these days that are to try men’s souls. We must be impartial in thought as well as in action.
All American leaders favored neutrality. While the entire European continent was divided into two camps: Germany, Austria, Hungary and Turkey as Central Powers were pitted against the Allied powers: Serbia, Britain, France, Belgium, Italy and Russia. As the war progressed, American public sympathies veered to the Allied side. Under the leadership of J.P. Morgan and Company many banking firms gave huge loans to the Allied powers.
By international rules the neutral country could trade with any other neutral nation and also with other ’belligerent’ countries not facing a blockade. The Americans wished to continue trade with both belligerent sides.
In the initial stages of the war the British blockade of Germany created problems for the U.S. The British tried to stop all trade between Germany and the rest of the world. They extended their blockade by controlling imports to other neutral countries like Holland, Denmark and Sweden with are geographically close to Germany The Americans protested against the violation of neutral rights though Wilson never put undue pressure on England as no U.S. citizen lost his life due to the blockade. Moreover, all cargo seized was paid for at war. It was the German use of submarines in the war that brought the U.S. in direct confrontation with Germany. The German submarines fired indiscriminately at neutral ships too. The last straw was when the British passenger liner ’Lusitania’ was sunk by German submarines on May 7. It resulted in the loss of 1,200 lives which included 128 Americans. The American public was outraged.
President Wilson immediately demanded compensation from Germany in a series of notes to Berlin. The tone of these notes was very crisp and harsh. Ten months after the incident, Germany apologized for the sinking and offered a compensation for the loss. But the U.S. was not satisfied. Wilson wanted to make Germany stop the use of submarines in the war. The Germans refused to comply with this.
The tension with Germany resulted in many leaders advocating preparations for a possible war. The President was pressurized to order the enlargement of the army. Also, a 3-year building program for new ships was given the presidential nod. In 1916, Wilson was re-elected as the President of the U.S.
Meanwhile, Germany declared that the U-boats would sink all ships: passenger or merchant; belligerent or neutral in the war zone. This angered the President. Three days later, he broke off all diplomatic relations with Germany. America still did not wish to enter the war. However, she took precautions. Wilson ordered all American merchants ships to be armed. On March 18, 1917, Germany sank three more American ships without prior warning. By now, Wilson had realized that without fresh troops and ammunition, the Allies would collapse. This war partly due to the Russian Bolshevik Revolution where Russia signed a peace pact with Germany. This had weakened the Allied camp. So during an extra-ordinary session of the Congress, the President declared war on Germany (1917). In his war message he stated: …We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest to our hearts – for democracy…for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all actions and make the world itself last free.
With the entry of the U.S. in the war, the Allies got a fresh lease of life. In 1918, the Central powers faced a crushing defeat. After America’s entry into the war, Wilson realized that the Allied nations had made several secret treaties among themselves. This, Wilson felt, would go against the maintenance of lasting peace in the region. On January 8, 1918 he delivered his now famous speech in the Congress on the 14-Point Plan. These points laid down that: there was to be freedom of seas; open covenants to be openly arrived at; to remove economic barriers between nations; to reduce arms; to reach an impartial settlement on colonial claims; to re-adjust boundaries of Europe with special attention to the principle of self determination; and the establishment of a general association of nations.
The Peace Conference opened at Paris on January 12, 1919. The conference was dominated by the ’Big 4’ namely Wilson, Lloyd George (Britain), Clemenceau (France) and Orlando (Italy). The peace treaty included several principles of the 14 points. It tried to reconcile its agenda with that of its members’ various secret agreements. However, it was on the whole a dictated peace move. Germany was made to pay heavy war damages and her military strength was drastically reduced. Besides, she was also humiliated for her role in the war.
The treaty with Germany was signed at Versailles in June and was sent to the American Senate for ratification. The Senate rejected it. This was mainly due to the fact that many Senators believed that the provisions for the League of Nations were not in the best interests of the U.S. Moreover, many Republicans were upset that the U.S. peace conference did not have a single Republican leader or Senator.
Though the treaty was not ratified at home, the main achievements of the peace negotiations were the Genesis of the League of Nations and the Provisions for a separate Court of International Justice. These 2 Covenants initiated by President Wilson were to play a significant role in maintaining peace during the next decade at least.
In the initial duration of the war, the U.S. had declared her neutrality. The German submarine attack on the British liner ’Lusitania’ killed a few American civilians. This incident propelled the U.S. into a war. The entry of the U.S. gave a new lease of life to the Allies. The Central Powers of Germany, Austria, Hungary and Turkey were defeated.
At the Peace Conference at Versailles, the defeated nations were forced to sign a treaty with the most humiliating conditions. This sowed seeds for future conflicts.
It should be noted that this was the first time a war was fought on such a large scale. New kinds of weapons, both on sea and land, caused massive destruction to human life and property. The war also saw the rise of nationalism in various countries. In Italy and Germany it took the bizarre form of fascism. The popularity of Woodrow Wilson (as messenger of peace) grew abroad. At home, however, he drew flak for his policies.