Monday, June 26, 2017
June 26, 2017: The US and World War I: Entering the War
[On June 26th, 1917, the first 14,000 U.S. soldiers arrived in France to join the Allied effort in The Great War. To commemorate that centennial, this week I’ll be AmericanStudying the U.S. and WWI—share your thoughts and contexts in comments, please!]
On two ways to understand a striking foreign policy reversal.
As I noted in this post on President Woodrow Wilson’s second term, that term began with one of the more abrupt and striking presidential policy reversals we’ve ever seen (at least in the years Before Trump, as our horrifyingly unprecedented era has changed that historical metric as it has so many others). Having campaigned for and won reelection in 1916 with the slogan “He kept us out of war” and on a platform of continued neutrality in the still-unfolding European and world conflict, Wilson dramatically shifted course almost immediately thereafter: on February 3rd, a month before his March 5th second inauguration, he addressed Congress to announce that he was severing diplomatic ties with Germany; and on April 2nd, less than a month after that inauguration, he addressed Congress once again, this time to request that they authorize a War Resolution (which they did four days later). By early June, after some conversation with England and France over whether our troops would initially serve within their units (a concept that came to be known as amalgamation) or in their own separate units (which is what Wilson and the military leadership decided to do), those first regiments of American soldiers set sail for Europe and the Great War.
The question of how and why this reversal took place—not only in Wilson’s policies, but also in public opinion, which had been overwhelmingly in favor of neutrality for years but had likewise shifted by early 1917—is of course a complex and multi-layered one, but I would highlight two particularly salient elements here. Ever since the May 1915 sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania (with 128 U.S. citizens on board) by German submarines, American narratives of the war had positioned Germany as its primary aggressor; beginning in late January 1917, Germany undertook an even more aggressive policy known as “unrestricted (or total) submarine warfare,” targeting neutral shipping (in an effort to blockade and starve Britain) and in the process sinking numerous American ships (five were sunk in March 1917 alone). While these submarine attacks on American ships were nowhere near as dramatic or visible as the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, I would argue that they can and should be seen as a similar, unofficial but clear, declaration of war against a neutral adversary; indeed, since the German submarines were targeting non-combatants, the attacks comprised an even more aggressive and controversial military policy than Japan’s. It’s difficult to argue that Wilson and Congress should not, or could not, have responded to such aggressions.
The submarine attacks weren’t the only controversial German action in this early 1917 moment, however, and the other most famous one is significantly more complex. In mid-January, British intelligence intercepted a telegram from German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government; Zimmermann promised Mexico that if it joined in a future war against the United States, Germany would help Mexico recover territory lost to the U.S. after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Britain passed the telegram on to the Wilson administration, which released it to the press in late February to great public outcry. It’d be entirely possible to read this entire contratemps as simply (or at least largely) political posturing by the administration to push both Congress and public opinion toward support for a declaration of war. But in any case, the focus on and outrage over the Zimmermann telegram reflects the continued role that hemispheric concerns played in 20th century American wars; every prior U.S. military conflict had featured central such concerns, and while the Great War was of course far more tied to Europe than to the Western Hemisphere, the telegram pushed Americans to recognize the possible extension of that war to our neighbors and borders. A Southern border in particular, of course, that had been determined by one of those prior military conflicts—a dark and complex history to which both the telegram and the outraged American response linked this new conflict.
Next Great War Studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other WWI stories or contexts you’d highlight?