The United States and World War I

I know that I shall meet my fate Somewhere among the clouds above; Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love; My country is Kiltartan Cross, My countrymen Kiltartan's poor, No likely end could bring them loss Or leave them happier than before . . .

~ William Butler Yeats An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

The United States' 1917 entry into World War I represents one of the crucial turning points in American history. Its significance, however, scarcely exceeds modern America's collective ignorance of it.

The war began for corporate America long before it started for the common man. Within two months of the conflict's August 1914 beginning, Charles Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel, one of the world's largest arms merchants, took a profitable trip to London. There, he secured orders from the British government for millions of artillery shells, as well as ten 500-ton submarines. Though the construction of such foreign vessels broke the law, Bethlehem proceeded with it and the Wilson administration did not stop them. The company earned $61 million in 1916, more than its combined gross revenues for the previous eight years.

"The Bethlehem story is a pithy summary of the evolution of the United States into a branch of the British armament industry during the thirty-two months of its neutrality," writes historian Thomas Fleming in his powerhouse book The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I. "Wilson talked – and talked and talked – about neutrality and apparently convinced himself that he was neutral. But the United States he was supposedly running was not neutral, in thought, word or deed, thanks to Wellington House (the engine of British government propaganda) – and the international banking firm of J. P. Morgan in New York."

By the time America declared war on Germany, Morgan was having a bang-up war of its own. The company had already loaned Britain and France $2.1 billion (around $30 billion by 2004 standards), and had cleared $30 million – around $425 million in 2004 dollars – in profit.

Fleming summarizes a very effective partnership: "As British and French orders for ammunition and other war materiel filled the books of U.S. companies, the pressure for financial assistance to pay for them grew more and more acute." In other words, the more intense the fighting, the more arms, ordnance, and supplies the British and French ordered from American manufacturers, and the more money they borrowed from American banks.


The well-publicized May, 1915, German sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania is typically cited as one of a series of outrages to which President Woodrow Wilson reacted with restraint and patience. Eventually, so the story goes, even Wilson, a devout, peace-loving man, was forced to make war upon the Germans in order to protect the people and land of America. Yet few in America at the time suggested the nation should go to war because of the sinking of "a British ship flying a British flag." In fact, that British ship carried over four million rifle cartridges and 1,250 cases of shrapnel shells — destined for use against German soldiers.

"A ship carrying contraband should not rely on passengers to protect her from attack," wrote Wilson's own Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan. "It would be like putting women and children in front of an army." Bryan presciently feared that Wilson's orders to balloon the size and firepower of the American military would multiply the chances of the country finding a war in which to involve them.

It is interesting to note what was and what was not told the American passengers who perished on the Lusitania, which embarked from New York. They were told by the Germans, in full page newspaper ads in the New York Times and elsewhere, that boarding a British ship heading into the war zone would place them at risk. They were not told by the British that the ship was a virtual floating munitions dump.

For at least one British leader, losses such as the sinking of the Lusitania were perhaps no great tragedy in the larger context of the war. "It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany," First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill wrote. The more neutral "traffic" the better, he insisted, and "If some of it gets into trouble, better still."

It was the first of two World Wars in which Churchill would exert the full strength of his being to drag America into the conflict in order to preserve victory for the British.

Overlooked by most "popular" historians is the brutal toll taken on the men, women, children, and aged of Germany by actions given the antiseptic term "naval blockade." Hundreds of thousands of Germans starved to death or perished due to other malnutrition-related maladies during the war because Britain and her allies would not let supplies and food into Germany or even into Europe in many cases. Hundreds of thousands of others suffered serious or debilitating illnesses. This was the context in which the Germans launched their submarine warfare against ships traveling into British waters.


Something else is lost in traditional American histories. That is the vigorous, often eloquent attempts of citizens and statesmen from every part of the country to keep America out of what they saw as a war fought by other nations for their own purposes, and the inevitable threat to Constitutional liberties they posed.

Texas Congressman James H. "Cyclone" Davis accused governmental and industrial titans of "forming cabals to force upon the country a stupendous program of military preparedness, hoping to put in the White House a dictator to execute it."

Concerning "the unhappy nations of Europe," Davis declared that "‘The wages of sin is death' applies to nations the same as to individuals. The nations, now drunk on blood, rioting in ruinous war, are paying the death penalty because their sins have found them out. Given over to ravenous greed, with a riotous aristocracy living in luxury and lust, ruling in rapacity . . . they are now reaping the harvest of their sowing." Another Congressman called the war "a war of kings against kings."

Other Congressmen also fought tenaciously against the forces, domestic and foreign, that sucked America toward war. Texan James Slayden called it "a conspiracy to force our country into a war with Germany" and reminded his audience of "the sound advice of George Washington" in Washington's farewell address regarding foreign entanglements and attachments. Slayden exhorted other leaders to mobilize the American public "against the majority of the newspapers and great commercial interests."

For awhile, it seemed as though these and other opponents of America's involvement in the Europeans' war had an ally in President Woodrow Wilson. He was berated for his supposed caution by Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge; after their roles in America's imperialistic adventures with Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, these men – with evident disregard for the Constitution and the Monroe Doctrine alike – considered it a disgrace for America not to throw its weight into the much-larger fracas of World War I.

Wilson went so far as to campaign for re-election in 1916 with the slogan, "He kept us out of war." Less than ninety days after beginning his second term, however, he called upon Congress for a declaration of war against Germany in order to "make the world safe for democracy."

The response of American manhood to that declaration was underwhelming. Weeks afterward, only 73,000 men out of a pool of 10 million had volunteered for the army. Part of the problem may have been that Congress and the American public in general were led by the government to believe that even though the country was now at war, it would never have to send an army of its own people to fight that war!

Well they should hope not, when considering historian Jackson Spielvogel's sobering outline of the effect of the war on its belligerents: "increased centralization of government powers, economic regimentation, and manipulation of public opinion to keep the war effort going." These led, Spielvogel writes in his Western Civilization, to a situation in which, "Throughout Europe, wartime governments expanded their powers over their economies. Free market capitalistic systems were temporarily shelved as governments experimented with price, wage, and rent controls, the rationing of food supplies and materials, the regulation of imports and exports, and the nationalization of transportation systems and industries. Some governments even moved toward compulsory employment. In effect, to mobilize the entire resources of their nations for the war effort, European nations had moved toward planned economies directed by government agencies."

What Spielvogel fails to mention is that these same pathologies swept the U.S., in some ways even more dramatically than the Europeans because of America's heritage of more limited government. Mercantilism and an authoritarian central government colossus superseded the Founding Fathers' vision of a limited, Federated, check-and-balanced system of Constitutional Republican government with enumerated powers.


It is impossible to grasp with clarity American history during the World War I era without accurately apprising President Woodrow Wilson, just as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, respectively, must be understood to in order interpret the War Between the States and World War II. Mainstream American historiography typically portrays Wilson as a pious, greathearted leader with a watershed vision for God using America as a sort of chosen nation to light the way to freedom and prosperity for the benighted nations filling the rest of the world. Indeed, prior to World War I, Wilson had already loosed the American military on a controversial series of forays against Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Mexico. In the latter case, he sided with one faction during a murderous civil war, but managed to draw the contempt and hatred of both sides.

The late conservative scholar Robert Nisbet wrote that Wilson “was an ardent prophet of the state, the state indeed as it was known to European scholars and statesmen…. He preached it…. From him supremely comes the politicization, the centralization, and the commitment to bureaucracy of American society during the past seventy-five years.”

Noted contemporary conservative historian Paul Johnson describes Wilson as having “…a self-regarding arrogance and smugness, masquerading as righteousness, which was always there and which grew with the exercise of power.”

Historian Donald Miller writes that Wilson intended to transform America as well as the other nations: "From a domestic and economic standpoint, as with his foreign policy, he wanted to expand the power of government to effect a revolution in society. He sought to increase both the size and scope of government. He said that he wanted to put government u2018at the service of humanity.'"

Miller points out that it was during Wilson's two terms as president, from 1913–1921, that Congress passed bills creating the Federal Reserve System (1913); the Federal Income Tax (Amendment 16, ratified in 1913); the Federal Trade Commission (1914); the Federal Farm Loan Act (1916); and the Prohibition of alcohol (Amendment 18, ratified in 1919). Before he was elected president, federal government spending never exceeded three percent of the Gross Domestic Product, except during the War of 1812 and the War Between the States. It rose to more than twenty per cent of GDP during Wilson's two terms as president.


These accomplishments, especially those related to building America's military juggernaut, could not occur quiescently, not amidst a citizenry still largely hostile to central government growth and intrusion into their lives. Examples of Wilson Administration–spearheaded governmental repression of the Constitutional rights of its citizens, across the country, in nearly every walk of life during World War I are numberless. Some corporations and political leaders used sedition laws to crush trade unions with whom they were contending before the war started. Historian Walter Karp recalled a woman who wrote to a newspaper during the war that “I am for the people and the government is for the profiteers” received a ten-year prison sentence. Federal agents seized a motion picture, The Spirit of '76, because the “portrayal of the American Revolution had cast British redcoats in an unfavorable light.” That film's producer, too, received ten years in prison.

German-Americans and Irish-Americans, in particular Irish Catholics, faced harsh treatment by a galaxy of government agencies. They were widely distrusted because both Germany and Ireland were at odds with England. They often faced worse from the public, which had imbibed a years-long stream of pro-British, anti-German propaganda, much of it generated by the British themselves. Patriotic, longtime German-language newspapers were shut down, the German language was disallowed from being taught or, in places, even spoken, and musical performances by German composers such as Beethoven were outlawed.

Not even dissenting elected leaders were immune to unconstitutional repression from the Wilson Administration. Wisconsin Congressman Robert D. LaFollette had credited Wilson's expansion of military expenditures to the influence of "the glorious group of millionaires who are making such enormous profits out of the European war." A Congressional committee investigated LaFollette, and for months he was in jeopardy of prison, though no official charges were ever filed against him.

"On any fair reading of the period, there was probably more real freedom of speech in Germany and in the German Reichstag in the same years than in the u2018home of the free' or the World's Greatest (and Least) Deliberative Body," writes historian Joseph Stromberg.

Miller does not place all the blame on the United States government. "The (American) people's participation in suppressing their own rights, so to speak, calls to mind the radical phase of the French Revolution. There," he writes, "everyone who was not a republican zealot was thought of as an u2018enemy' to be guillotined. In the American variation, the Rousseauian form of republicanism, in which the people force particular individuals u2018to be free,' held hands with Americans' notion of their natural goodness as u2018natural men' produced by the frontier experience."

Still, according to Karp, “The official repression drove millions of independent-minded Americans deep into private life and political solitude. Isolated, they nursed in private their bitterness and contempt.”

The final count of America's World War I battlefront casualties, meanwhile, listed nearly half-a-million men ultimately dead to war-related wounds and/or diseases, and hundreds of thousands more wounded. It is a staggering toll unknown to contemporary Americans.


What, in the end, drove Woodrow Wilson to stake his career and his nation's liberties on an all-out effort in World War I? Perhaps Wilson himself best answered that when he said, in regards to his vision for American-inspired democratic post-war global peace and harmony: "as head of a nation participating in the war, the president of the United States would have a seat at the peace table, but . . . if he remained the representative of a neutral country, he could at best only u2018call through a crack in the door.'"

Woodrow Wilson's frequent proclamations against his domestic critics grew harsher and shriller the longer the war lasted, and after the war. Still, his greatest hopes remained. He had crafted the Fourteen Points, a plan designed to insure a fair and lasting peace, and a "League of Nations" to work among themselves to preclude future wars. Too late did Wilson learn the British and French had long possessed "peace" plans of their own, and they contained little concern for fairness. The wily British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George and the vengeful French Premier Georges Clemenceau repeatedly outflanked and outfoxed Wilson in their post-war peace negotiations. "I never saw a man talk more like Jesus Christ and act more like Lloyd George," Clemenceau mocked Wilson behind his back.

The Treaty of Versailles officially ended the war in May 1919. The crushing effect of this "peace treaty" on an already-reeling Germany is as staggering as it is forgotten. The defeated nation lost nearly one-third of its total land area, along with millions of German citizens. Its foreign colonies were divvied out to the victorious Allies. The brazen and humiliating requirement for the Germans to admit all responsibility for the war – when Serbia, Austria, Russia, and France all held equal or greater roles for its inauguration – set the stage for the half-starved nation to pay financially for the whole war as well, to the tune of $7.5 trillion in today's dollars. This, along with later punitive actions taken by France, set the Germans on a course of runaway inflation, Communist uprisings, economic ruin, social chaos, moral breakdown, and Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

On a more personal level, the German nation itself faced the danger of mass starvation. Between the November 11, 1918 armistice, which stopped fighting, and the signing of the Versailles treaty, the British and French insisted on continuing the strangling naval blockade of Germany. Future U.S. President Herbert Hoover arranged for the delivery of hundreds of millions of tons of free American food to the malnourished Germans, only to have the French, Italians, and British disallow it and accuse the Americans of selfish ulterior motives for the act. During this time, eight hundred adults were dying of starvation every day in northern Germany alone. By the final tally, hundreds of thousands of Germans had starved. One disgusted British journalist visiting a Cologne, Germany hospital described "rows of babies feverish from want of food, exhausted by privation to the point where their little limbs were like slender wands, their expression hopeless, and their faces full of pain."

Back in America, President Wilson campaigned across the country to generate support for the League of Nations. But after he pushed himself to exhaustion, his speeches grew confused and his treatment of hecklers surly. The scale and passion of his opposition, which wanted nothing to do with roping America's future to Europe's, frustrated and angered him. Finally, he suffered a devastating cerebral thrombosis. His wife Edith then orchestrated a scheme that kept from the American people for the last eighteen months of Wilson's second term the fact that their President, in the words of White House Chief Usher Ike Hoover, had changed mentally "from a giant to a pygmy." Wilson had little knowledge of the issues and events transpiring outside his sealed-off little world.

By then, the upshot of Lloyd-George and Clemenceau's outmaneuvering of Wilson in their strategic peace talks – the shredding of the Fourteen Points – had led the United States Senate, controlled by members of Wilson's own Democratic Party, to reject membership in the League of Nations because they feared its toll on American political sanctity. Bitterness and hatred toward his foes consumed Wilson the final years of his life, until his death in 1924.


World War I killed nearly ten million people, The United States's "retreat" from involvement in European affairs following that bloodbath had "dire consequences" according to Jackson Spielvogel. Our belated pursuit of the Founding Fathers' admonitions against foreign entanglements and permanent treaty alliances "forced" the French to "stand alone" and take "strong actions against Germany that only intensified German resentment," according to Spielvogel.

In reality, the dire consequences were generated by the French and the gaggle of other European nations who engineered The Great War. These included the aforementioned consequences for Germany that led ultimately to the Gtterdmmerung of that nation in 1945; the fall of Christian Russia to the mendacious Bolshevik strain of Communism, which led to Stalin's slaughter of between ten and forty million of his own countrymen in the 1930s, and to the half-century enslavement of ten Christian countries in Eastern Europe to atheistic Communism; the millions of deaths that meant the loss forever of the flower of British and French manhood and the greatness of their nations; and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of America's bravest young men, broad and deep growth of our nation's central government, and the sacrifice of many of its Constitutional liberties, some permanently.

”The blunt fact is that when [under Wilson] America was introduced to the War State in 1917, it was introduced also to what would later be known as the total, or totalitarian, state," wrote Robert Nisbet.

In the final accounting, the Great War was only the opening chapter of a new Thirty Years War. That war climaxed more than fifty million deaths later with the incineration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese men, women, and children. And it launched a bitter half-century Cold War involving triumphant Bolshevism.

Perhaps the Los Angeles Times said it best after World War I and its "peace" were concluded: "It is quite impossible to tell what the war made the world safe for."

January 26, 2004

John J. Dwyer (send him mail) is chairman of history at Coram Deo Academy near Dallas, Texas. He is author of the historical novels Stonewall and Robert E. Lee, and the upcoming historical narrative The War Between the States, America's Uncivil War. He also is the former editor and publisher of The Dallas/Fort Worth Heritage newspaper.