Since the days of George Washington, Americans struggled to remain protected by the mighty oceans on its border. When European conflicts erupted, as they frequently did, many in the United States claimed exceptionalism. America was different. Why get involved in Europe’s self-destruction?
When Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife were killed in cold blood in the summer of 1914, thus igniting the most destructive war in human history, the initial reaction in the United States was the expected will for neutrality. As a nation of immigrants, The United States would have difficulty picking a side. Despite the obvious ties to Britain based on history and language, there were many United States citizens who claimed Germany and Austria-Hungary as their parent lands. Support of either the ALLIES or the CENTRAL POWERS might prove divisive.
In the early days of the war, as Britain and France struggled against Germany, American leaders decided it was in the national interest to continue trade with all sides as before. A neutral nation cannot impose an embargo on one side and continue trade with the other and retain its neutral status. In addition, United States merchants and manufacturers feared that a boycott would cripple the American economy. Great Britain, with its powerful navy, had different ideas. A major part of the British strategy was to impose a blockade on Germany. American trade with the Central Powers simply could not be permitted. The results of the blockade were astonishing. Trade with England and France more than tripled between 1914 and 1916, while trade with Germany was cut by over ninety percent. It was this situation that prompted submarine warfare by the Germans against Americans at sea.
German U-boat Warfare
With American trade becoming more and more lopsided toward the Allied cause, many feared that it was only a matter of time before the United States would be at war. The issue that propelled most American fence sitters to side with the British was German submarine warfare.
The British, with the world’s largest navy, had effectively shut down German maritime trade. Because there was no hope of catching the British in numbers of ships, the Germans felt that the SUBMARINEwas their only key to survival. One “U-BOAT” could surreptitiously sink many battleships, only to slip away unseen. This practice would stop only if the British would lift their blockade.
Sinking the Lusitania
The isolationist American public had little concern if the British and Germans tangled on the high seas. The incident that changed everything was the sinking of the LUSITANIA. The Germans felt they had done their part to warn Americans about the danger of overseas travel.
The German government purchased advertisement space in American newspapers warning that Americans who traveled on ships carrying war contraband risked submarine attack. When the Lusitania departed New York, the Germans believed the massive passenger ship was loaded with munitions in its cargo hold. On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the ship without warning, sending 1,198 passengers, including 128 Americans, to an icy grave. The Lusitania, as it turned out, was carrying over 4 million rounds of ammunition.
President Woodrow Wilson was enraged. The British were breaking the rules, but the Germans were causing deaths.
Wilson’s Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, recommended a ban on American travel on any ships of nations at war. Wilson preferred a tougher line against the German Kaiser. He demanded an immediate end to submarine warfare, prompting Bryan to resign in protest. The Germans began a 2-year practice of pledging to cease submarine attacks, reneging on that pledge, and issuing it again under U.S. protest.
Wilson had other reasons for leaning toward the Allied side. He greatly admired the British government, and democracy in any form was preferable to German authoritarianism. The historical ties with Britain seemed to draw the United States closer to that side.
Many Americans felt a debt to France for their help in the American Revolution. Several hundred volunteers, appropriately named the LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLES, already volunteered to fight with the French in 1916. In November of that year, Wilson campaigned for re-election with a peace platform. “He kept us out of war,” read his campaign signs, and Americans narrowly returned him to the White House. But peace was not to be.
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