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The great American U-turn: from isolationism to WW1 combatants

In November 1916, US president Woodrow Wilson won re-election on an isolationist ticket. But just a few months later, he was issuing an impassioned call to arms. On the centenary of its entry into the First World War, Adam IP Smith traces America's journey from neutrality to committed combatant...

Theodore Roosevelt visiting a US army camp, c1918. (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Published: August 25, 2021 at 6:06 am
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In a committee room on Capitol Hill on 6 April 1917, Senator Thomas S Martin of Virginia was listening to testimony justifying the White House’s astronomically large appropriations request. When the costs of transportation of troops to France were mentioned, Martin sat up with a bolt. “Good Lord!” he spluttered, “You’re not going to send soldiers over there, are you?” A veteran of the Confederate army in the American Civil War, Senator Martin had just voted for President Woodrow Wilson’s war resolution – but his notion of war evidently did not include actual fighting.


Martin’s reaction was not unusual. After all, the US decision a century ago to enter what Americans referred to as ‘the European war’ was one of the most dramatic 360-degree turnabouts in modern diplomatic history and its implications could hardly have been processed in a matter of hours. Martin probably hoped that financial assistance to the Allied powers and a show of naval strength might be enough (though the US navy was hardly, in April 1917, in a position to demonstrate much of anything). And the practical difficulties involved in raising an army seemed overwhelming. Despite the persistent calls for “preparedness” from tub-thumping pro-interventionist former president Teddy Roosevelt, the US had a tiny standing army, and a limited arms industry. Early plans drawn up by the Wilson administration envisaged an American Expeditionary Force arriving in France – but not until sometime in 1919.

And even if the logistical challenges could be overcome, how would Americans respond? While European powers were catapulted into war in 1914 with little time to consider the consequences, Americans had been debating the issue for two and a half years. Anglophile east coast elites warned that the US could not honourably avoid the fight against “Prussian autocracy”. Charity fairs raised money for Belgian refugees. A dashing corps of well-bred flying aces volunteered to fight for France, in defiance of Wilson’s plea in 1914 for every American to be neutral in thought as well as deed. Wall Street bankers bet heavily on an Allied victory.

Their fight too?

Yet none of this, in itself, was enough to persuade the mass of Americans of the case for war. Wilson, after all, had been re-elected in November 1916 on the slogan ‘He Kept Us Out of War’. Beyond the east coast, most Americans were unpersuaded by the prowar faction’s pleas that this was their fight too. Americans born in Germany or the Habsburg empire still retained loyalties to their homelands – and Irish-Americans, an influential bloc within the Democratic party, were of course staunchly opposed to the US fighting alongside a British state that they thought was holding Ireland in chains.

Progressive reformers and intellectuals were also fearful of how war would change America. Just as British liberalism was shattered when the lights went out over Europe, Americans who cared about legislation to improve working conditions, or women’s rights, or political reform, knew that a war would overwhelm all other priorities and might well empower the forces of reaction they had been struggling against.

And by 1917, Americans were only too aware from their newspapers of the scale of butchery taking place in France. An Ohio Democratic congressman, Isaac Sherwood, confessed that his experiences in the Union army in the Civil War had “saddened his life”. He made an impassioned plea to colleagues to “keep the stalwart young men of today out of a barbarous war 3,500 miles away, in which we have no vital interest”.

More so than any European power, then, popular support for the war in the US was not a given. Wilson’s chief propagandist George Creel observed that forging a “war-will” in a democracy depended on the “degree to which each one of all the people of that democracy can concentrate and consecrate body and soul and spirit in the supreme effort of service and sacrifice”. But how was this mythical state of unity to be accomplished?

Battered by the Somme

When Wilson changed his mind about American engagement, he did so because he felt that he had run out of other options. This was no longer a war of choice, he thought, but a conflict that had been forced upon him. He didn’t know it at the time, but the final chain of events that led him to that conclusion began on 8 January 1917. On that day, the German high command ordered the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. Battered by the Somme offensive on the western front, the Germans were on the point of being forced to withdraw their forces to the relative security of the Hindenburg line. Seemingly unable to win the war by conventional means, the German government gambled on being able to win it by cutting off Britain’s Atlantic supply-line – even at what they must have known would be the almost certain price of American entry.

Wilson had staked much on his efforts to pose as a disinterested mediator; the resumption of U-boat attacks on neutral shipping was a rebuff to his peace efforts as well as a direct threat to US interests. When the new German policy became known, Wilson severed diplomatic relations and, soon after, ordered the arming of US merchant vessels.

And then, in early March, the administration revealed to the press the contents of a decoded telegram from the German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican president suggesting a military alliance. The proposed incentive for the Mexicans was the return of Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Texas that they had ceded to the US in the 1840s, a plan seemingly so preposterous that antiwar campaigners denounced it as a forgery, only for Zimmermann himself to confirm the telegram’s authenticity.

At about the same time, events in Russia made it easier for the Americans to enter the war. The uprising in Petrograd that led to the formation of the provisional government and the abdication of the tsar meant that no longer would the US be fighting on the same side as an autocracy. For a brief few months, until the Bolshevik revolution, it was possible for Americans, in the words of the young journalist Walter Lippmann, to speak of the “new democracy of Russia”.

Wilson, in any case, insisted that his course was entirely consistent: he was now advocating war to accomplish the same grand objectives he had previously sought through neutrality. The US was not lowering itself to the level of the barbarous Old World powers, but was intervening to create a new world order, modelled on the American example. Wilson put the case in idealistic terms: he wanted to make the world safe for democracy. The Republican senator Henry Cabot Lodge made a similar case in darker terms. Americans, he said, had no choice but to fight to resist “an effort to thrust mankind back to forms of government, to political creeds and methods of conquest which we hoped had disappeared forever from the world”.

Casualties of war

There was a burst of prowar enthusiasm in April 1917 – flags were flown, newspapers published patriotic editorials, and there was much talk of obligation and duty. Contrary to Senator Martin’s evident disbelief that it could be done, an enormous army was created. Nearly 5 million Americans eventually served in uniform. Almost 2 million crossed the Atlantic. Of these, 116,516 died, about 53,000 in combat.

This mass mobilisation could not have been achieved without conscription – which conjures up images of a powerful state demanding the ultimate sacrifice from its subjects. But in America in 1917 the federal government was far too small to do the job alone. The huge effort of registering men for the draft, designing propaganda, co-ordinating the shift to war production – and the policing of dissent – was often done by volunteer organisations.

Churches, clubs, societies, unions and the like sometimes acted as the state. Local newspapers published the lists of men who had registered for the draft, those who were called up for a medical – and those who had failed to show up. To President Wilson, this was evidence that the war effort was characterised by voluntarism – the willing acceptance of obligation by a patriotic population. Defending the ‘Selective Service’ act that required every man of military age to register for the draft, the president claimed it was “in no sense a conscription of the unwilling; it is, rather, selection from a nation which has volunteered in mass”. In this happy fiction, the factious, divided republic was suddenly at one, the government’s role merely being to provide the logistics.

The truth was rather more complicated. The United States might have lacked a strong central state (though it was getting stronger) but citizens still had obligations to the nation that could be enforced. In fact, there were many who suggested that, precisely because the United States had long styled itself a democracy, dissent could be more easily delegitimised. Back in the 1830s the perceptive French liberal Alexis de Tocqueville argued that there was less real freedom of mind in America than elsewhere: democracy legitimated the tyranny of the majority. In the First World War, the nation’s ‘war-will’ was both voluntary and coerced.

Four-minute men

There was a peppy, upbeat dimension to the effort to instil the right kind of loyalty. It was exemplified by the 75,000 Americans who volunteered as ‘four-minute men’. A play on the revolutionary-era ‘minute men’ who had defended American liberties (against the British), the job of the four-minute men was to deliver speeches of exactly four minutes in length in public places, usually in cinemas and nickelodeons. Four minutes was assumed to be the average attention span of listeners and was also, conveniently, about how long it took a projectionist to change the reel on a feature-length film.

The four-minute men wrote their own speeches – this was no centralised dissemination of an official line – but did so on the basis of guidance from headquarters. Arresting openings were encouraged: “Ladies and gentlemen, I have just received information that there is a German spy among us – a German spy watching us,” one speaker began. The four-minute men were usually familiar figures in a local community, but they introduced themselves with a slide announcing that they spoke with “the authority of the Committee on Public Information, Washington DC”. In this way, the volunteers were bestowed with the authority of the state.

The four-minute men aimed to morally coerce the population into compliance with the war effort, but there was plenty of violent coercion too. Congress passed laws effectively criminalising antiwar speech and authorising the detention of ‘enemy aliens’. Prominent opponents of the war including the leader of the Socialist Party, Eugene V Debs, were imprisoned. In Washington, a young J Edgar Hoover began his sinister career in public surveillance in the Bureau of Investigation.

But paid agents of the state were not the only ones to exercise police power. A vigilante organisation called the American Protective League (APL) claimed 100,000 members by June 1917 and a quarter of a million by war’s end. Its members, typically professional men over draft age, wore official badges sent by the Justice Department in Washington. The APL was at the forefront of the so-called ‘Slacker Raids’ – large-scale attempts to round-up draft dodgers in which APL members would accost anyone who looked of military age and demand to see their draft registration papers (as everyone was required to have by law). The Ku Klux Klan performed a similar policing role, targeting with physical threats anyone they regarded as insufficiently American. More than 70 people were killed by mobs for alleged antiwar displays.

Librarians took it upon themselves to burn German books, and public pressure stopped orchestras performing German composers. School districts banned the teaching of German on the grounds that, in the words of the California State Board of Education, it was a language that “disseminates the ideals of autocracy, brutality and hatred”. Ultimately, it was coercion by neighbours more than the direct intervention of the state that decimated the rich associational world – the schools, churches, newspapers and charities – of German-Americans.

The leading pacifist Norman Thomas called all this a “national madness”. And the violence in American society continued after the Armistice – into the repression of labour unions and African-Americans in 1919 – paving the way for the revived Ku Klux Klan and immigration restrictions of the 1920s.

Americans were torn between old notions of citizenship as obligation, and a newer idea that citizenship conferred individual rights. Their deeply held suspicion of centralised government power was balanced by a deep fear of subversion. That remains the case to this day.

Timeline: America in WW1

1914: America stands aside

On 4 August, as war begins to rage across Europe, American president Woodrow Wilson proclaims a policy of neutrality, asking Americans to be “impartial in thought as well as in action”. In September, the American Red Cross sends its first ‘Mercy Ship’ to Europe carrying medical staff and supplies.

1915: Roosevelt rattles his sabre

One hundred and twenty eight Americans are drowned when a German U-boat sinks the British liner the Lusitania on 7 May. Former president Theodore Roosevelt condemns Wilson’s neutrality and calls on America to join the war on the Allied side.

1916: The military grows

In June, in response to Mexican raids across its border and growing tensions with Germany, America passes the National Defense Act to expand the army and navy. Despite all of this, on 7 November, Wilson is re-elected president on the slogan ‘He Kept Us Out of War’.

1917: Battle is joined

On 3 February, two days after Germany announces that it will resume unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilson announces that diplomatic ties with Berlin are to be severed. Two months later, in the wake of the Zimmermann telegram being made public, Congress votes overwhelmingly in favour of a declaration of war. Within a matter of weeks, the first US troops, commanded by General John J Pershing, have arrived in France.

1918: War trumps liberalism

On 16 May Congress passes the so-called Sedition Act, making it illegal to use any “disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” when the country was at war. A month later, Socialist Party leader Eugene V Debs is imprisoned for impeding the war effort. In June, in what is their first large-scale battle, American troops defeat the Germans at the battle of Belleau Wood. On 11 November, with victory secured, American towns and cities mark Armistice Day with the ceremonial burning of images of the kaiser. 

Adam IP Smith is a senior lecturer at University College London, specialising in American history. He also presents history series on BBC Radio 4.


This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine


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