President Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 campaign for reelection used the popular slogan “He kept us out of war” and “America First” to appeal to those voters who wished to avoid the United States’ intervention in the European Great War—now known as World War I. A majority of Americans, including many of those who voted for his Republican opponent, wanted to stay out of what they regarded as a purely European conflict. Wilson carried 30 states with 277 electoral votes to his opponents’ 254. The President was sworn in for a second term on March 4, 1917.
Less than one month later, on April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Imperial Germany; on April 6, Congress obliged him with huge majorities in both Houses. What had changed?
Many wars begin because of a series of miscalculations, and proceed with other miscalculations. World War I was an extreme example. It began with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke — Bismarck’s “fool thing in the Balkans” — which should have been merely a squabble between Austria and Serbia.
Serbia was a client of Russia, Austria was allied with Germany, Russia was allied with France defensive against Germany. Austrian insistence on Serbia’s total accession to an ultimatum was supported by Germany. Saber-rattling by the powers led to Germany’s preemptive attack on France in order to avoid a two front war. Britain joined in, ostensibly provoked by Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality believed necessary to effect its plan.
It was the first major war in Europe since Napoleon surrendered after Waterloo. In the century that passed, military technology had made quantum leaps. Most notably of these advancements were repeating rifles, machine guns, and high explosives based on nitrates. Tactics, however, had not made similar advances. Using mass formations to attack a line defended by machine guns produced mass slaughter. Military leaders on both sides were slow to realize this despite the horrendous number of casualties. When they did, the fighting settled into static trench warfare, where neither side could advance very far. Thus, stalemate.
In an effort to break the stalemate, in 1916 the German army began a massive assault on French positions at Verdun. This battle lasted over six months, and produced more than a million casualties, sometimes tens of thousands of a single day. In the same year the British began an assault known as the battle of the Somme, which was only slightly less horrific than Verdun. Despite the massive casualties, neither side really gained anything.
Even though the military stalemate had not been broken, by the end of 1916 Germany was really in a bad state. An early strategic measure by Britain and France was the establishment of a naval blockade of Germany and its allies to interdict war materials and other materiel necessary to carry on a war. The superiority of the British Navy, at least in its surface fleet, was able to enforce the blockade. Germany was thus cut off from essential goods that could have been supplied by the United States and other neutrals. Both the German military and the home front suffered materially.
To retaliate and likewise interdict supplies to Britain and France, Germany deployed its submarine fleet around the British Isles and French coast. The U-Boats, as they were called, being no match for an armed surface ship, attacked surreptitiously without warning. In an era when warfare was still considered glorious and romantic, at least to those who did not have to actually fight, the U-Boats were a sneaky and underhanded tactic, akin to shooting a man in the back without giving him a chance to defend himself in a fair fight. Or so the British anti-German propaganda would have the rest of the world believe.
The United States was the main target of such propaganda. Early on, President Wilson declared that the United States was to remain neutral, and so it did for the first two and one-half years. But America, even then, was an arsenal, if not necessarily for democracy, for the British Empire and France. Those belligerents could not sustain a war long without supplies from America. Manufacturing and shipping enjoyed an economic boom from the war almost from the start.
Unrestricted submarine warfare, where the U-Boats would sink commercial as well as military ships on sight, put American goods, ships, and even lives at risk. This was brought home in May 1915 when the British passenger liner Lusitania, later found to have had U. S. made arms for Britain in its cargo, was sunk off the coast of Ireland. Hundreds of civilian passengers, many of whom were American, were drowned. Subsequent to the Lusitania, to placate the United States, Germany agreed to restrict its submarine attacks to military targets and British and French commercial freighters identified as such.
While the great land battles of 1916 were being fought, the German military hatched a plan to break the British blockade with its surface fleet. Near the Jutland Peninsula, the German and British armored battleships and battle cruisers fought what may have been the only such battle in naval history. The battle itself was a tactical draw, but the German navy withdrew to its base. Another stalemate, and it became clear that Germany could not break the blockade.
The German leadership, after Verdun, Somme, and Jutland, was deeply concerned that the home front, if not the army, would collapse as result of the severe privation. In an effort to reply in kind and starve Britain and France to the negotiating table, decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917. Though this measure was sure to bring protests from America, the Germans gambled that, even if such a resumption provoked the United States into entering the war, such U-Boat campaign could succeed before American forces could be brought to effect.
One result of German resumption of unrestricted U-Boat warfare was curtailment of shipping of goods to England and France by U. S. carriers — exactly what the Germans wanted and expected. But the economic consequences to American manufacturers and shippers were immediate and dire. Those engaged directly or indirectly in the production and transportation of war goods were beginning to see American involvement on the British-French side as necessary and desirable.
Now the miscalculation, or what in hindsight appears to be a really hare-brained scheme. Some German officials believed that it was only a matter of time before the U.S. would join the western allies, In such an event they would need something to distract the American military for long enough for the new U-Boat campaign to work.
At this time, the relationship between the United States and Mexico was at its nadir. The Mexican Revolution of 1911 that overthrew Porfirio Diaz resulted in a period of instability in that country that threatened U. S. interests. Consequently, the U.S. Navy and Marines occupied Vera Cruz for a time, and in 1916, the U.S. Army under General John J. Pershing invaded northern Mexico to chase the revolutionary bandit Pancho Villa who had raided a town in New Mexico.
Someone in the Berlin high command concocted a plan whereby, in the event of war with the United States, Mexico would ally with Germany to recover its “lost provinces” in Texas and the American southwest. Accordingly, the German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann, set a coded message to the German ambassador in Washington to be forwarded to Mexican President Carranza proposing such an alliance. The telegram was intercepted by the British, who managed to decode it. Predictably, the publication of the telegram, the accuracy of which was confirmed by Zimmermann during a press conference, created a firestorm of public opinion against Germany.
Most Americans had been uninterested in what they considered a European squabble up until the Zimmermann Telegram was publicized. Loss of shipping and American lives on the high seas was one thing. The prospect of a German alliance with a troublesome neighbor like Mexico to help that neighbor seize territory of American states was quite another. The Zimmermann Telegram precipitated a decisive shift in American public opinion.
War was declared. Within a year the American presence on the western front in France tipped the scales against Germany. Rather than a stalemate ending in a negotiated peace, Germany was forced to sue for peace in November 1918. The world geopolitics for the rest of the 20th Century was set.
Barbara W. Tuchman’s The Zimmermann Telegram, published in 1958, is a readable, in depth treatment of the event. It is well worth reading for anyone interested in learning how why the United States became involved in what became known as the Great War.
Arthur Zimmermann had proposed a similar plan early in the war to ally Germany with the Irish separatists. He proposed to send arms and troops to Ireland where another front would distract the British. This plan was never approved by the German government, but just prior to the 1916 Easter Rising, the Royal Navy intercepted a German ship, disguised as Norwegian, carrying an arms shipment en route to Ireland. This plot failed, and the perpetrator was hanged for high treason.