Skip to content


Choose a Chapter | Purchase the eBook

1 The Collision Of Cultures
2 Britain And Its Colonies
3 Colonial Ways Of Life
4 The Imperial Perspective
5 From Empire To Independence
6 The American Revolution
7 Shaping A Federal Union
8 The Federalist Era
9 The Early Republic
10 Nationalism And Sectionalism
11 The Jacksonian Impulse
12 The Dynamics Of Growth
13 An American Renaissance: Religion, Romanticism, And Reform
14 Manifest Destiny
15 The Old South
16 The Crisis Of Union
17 The War Of The Union
18 Reconstruction: North And South
19 New Frontiers: South And West
20 Big Business And Organized Labor
21 The Emergence Of Urban America
22 Gilded-age Politics And Agrarian Revolt
23 An American Empire
24 The Progressive Era
25 America And The Great War
26 The Modern Temper
27 Republican Resurgence And Decline
28 New Deal America
29 From Isolation To Global War
30 The Second World War
31 The Fair Deal And Containment
32 Through The Picture Window: Society And Culture, 19451960
33 Conflict And Deadlock: The Eisenhower Years
34 New Frontiers: Politics And Social Change In The 1960s
35 Rebellion And Reaction In The 1960s And 1970s
36 A Conservative Insurgency
37 Triumph And Tragedy: America At The Turn Of The Century

America and the Great War - Document Overview

» Return to Document Reader
» Worksheet

Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of State William J. Bryan were diplomatic idealists who hoped that international tensions could always be settled peaceably. To this end they negotiated "cooling off" treaties with thirty nations, whereby disputes between two countries would be handed over to an international arbitration commission. However logical such agreements might have seemed in theory, they ignored the fact that international disputes often involved emotional issues and self interests that were non-negotiable.

Nowhere was this truer than in Europe. There the great powers had divided themselves into two large interlocking military alliances. Germany and Austria-Hungary formed the Triple Alliance, and Britain, France, and Russia formed the Triple Entente. Intended to maintain a rough balance of power, these alliances also ensured that when conflict erupted it would rapidly escalate into a major war. In 1914 the unthinkable occurred when a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire. The archduke and his wife were gunned down in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia in the Balkans. The Austrians resolved to punish the Serbs, triggering Russia to mobilize its army in defense of Serbia's large population of Slavs. Germany rushed to support Austria-Hungary, preemptively declaring war on Russia and France. When Germany invaded Belgium (thereby violating its neutrality) in order to attack France, the British declared war on Germany. The First World War had began.

Americans were stunned by the sudden outbreak of European war, but were quickly reassured by the beliefs—mistaken as it turned out—that United States had no vital interests at stake in the conflict and that the Atlantic Ocean would insulate them from the conflagration. But it soon became obvious that Americans could not long remain neutral or uninvolved in an expanding world war. By virtue of their own ethnic background, political ideals, and economic interests, most Americans supported the Allies (as Britain, France, and Russia became known). Wilson, as it turns out, also sought to support the Allies behind the scenes while calling publicly for neutrality. By insisting on the American right to maintain trade with the belligerent nations, he was in effect aiding the Allies, for they received the vast majority of supplies.

Germany sought to cut off the pipeline of American shipments to Great Britain. In 1915 the German navy unleashed its submarines against transatlantic shipping and announced a blockade of the British Isles. Wilson warned the German government that he would hold them to "strict accountability" if any American lives were lost. The sinking of the huge British passenger liner Lusitania in May 1915 killed nearly 1,200 people, including over one hundred Americans. The news horrified Americans. Some commentators called for a declaration of war. Wilson instead sent strident protests to the German government, demanding payment for the lost lives and a pledge not to sink passenger vessels. The Germans agreed and tensions eased. But Wilson predicted that the fragile peace would not last. As he confided to an aide in 1916, "I can't keep the country out of war. . . . Any little German lieutenant can put us into war at any time by some calculated outrage."

On January 31, 1917, the Germans announced the renewal of unrestricted submarine attacks on Atlantic shipping. A few days later the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany. Soon thereafter, on March 1, an intercepted telegram from the German foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German ambassador in Mexico, inflamed public opinion in the United States. The Zimmermann telegram promised Mexico the restoration of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona if Mexico supported Germany in a war against the United States.

More immediately, however, American officials in early 1917 were preoccupied with the escalating number of ships sunk by German submarines. Between March 12 and 21, five American ships were lost. This was the last straw. On April 2, Wilson asked Congress to declare war. The war resolution swept through the Senate by a vote of 82 to 6 and the House by 373 to 50.

No sooner had the United State officially entered the war than Wilson began to turn the conflict into a crusade—not only to transform the nature of international relations but also to create a permanent peace. On January 8, 1918, in part to counter the Bolshevik claim that the Allies were fighting for imperialist aims, Wilson announced his Fourteen Point peace plan outlining allied intentions.

By the end of 1918 the war was winding down. American intervention proved decisive in turning the tide against the Germans and their allies. In December Wilson made the controversial decision for the American delegation to join the peace conference convening in Paris. This proved to be a political disaster because the Republican-controlled Senate felt that Wilson was purposely ignoring its historic role in shaping foreign policy. When Wilson presented the peace plan—with its controversial provision for a League of Nations to police world affairs—to the American public, it aroused intense debate. Critics led by powerful Republican senator Henry Cabot Lodge balked at American participation in the League, arguing that it would transfer war-making authority to an outside body.

Worn down by a public speaking tour intended to arouse public support for the Versailles treaty, Wilson suffered a stroke in the summer of 1919 that left him bedridden for months. Wilson's absence from the ongoing public debate proved fatal to his objectives. After much maneuvering and many votes, the Senate refused to ratify the Versailles treaty in March 1920.

American involvement in the so-called Great War signaled the arrival of the United States on center stage of world affairs. Yet in the immediate aftermath of the war, most Americans returned to their earlier stance of isolation from the turmoil of international events. Little did they know that the United States was more intertwined than ever in the fate of other nations.


Section Menu

Organize

Learn

Connect

Multimedia

Norton Gradebook

Instructors now have an easy way to collect students’ online quizzes with the Norton Gradebook without flooding their inboxes with e-mails.

Students can track their online quiz scores by setting up their own Student Gradebook.