Topic 7: The First World War and American Involvement   

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Written by Sonniee Alli

The United States did not develop any interest in the affairs of Europe. There were two important reasons for this. First of all was that a large expanse of water separated America from Europe.

Secondly, the decision of the United States not to get entangled in any alliance was a fall out of the Monroe doctrine as well as America’s well-known policy of splendid isolation.

It was remarkable; therefore, that when war broke out in Europe in 1914, the United States did necessarily feel psychologically part of what was happening in Europe.

The outbreak of the war made the United States to affirm its principle of isolationism. This was manifest in the speech of the American president, Woodrow Wilson that, “America should be neutral in thought and in action”.

Getty Images/Chris Mellor/Lonely Planet Images
American Flag, Getty Images/Chris Mellor/Lonely Planet Images

The call by the president was to say the least farfetched. This was because during the period, the majority of the Americans were what would be regarded as hyphenated Americans, and out of this group the German Americans formed the largest ethnic composition of about 8,000,000.

This was apart from the Anglo-Saxon who formed the majority of the American people. It was, therefore, inconceivable that German Americans would fold their hands in the war between Britain and Germany.

The same could be said of the Anglo-Saxons whose allegiance would naturally be towards Britain.

As the war in Europe continued apace, the American philosophy of neutrality became somewhat compromised.

This was because in their yearning for supplies, the belligerent forces, that is, the Tripple Alliance members (the Central Powers): Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy, as well as the Tripple Entente members (the Allied Powers): Britain, France and Russia had to seek supplies from elsewhere for their war efforts.

The ultimate beneficiary of this need turned out to be the United States. A credit line was opened for each of these groups and by 1915. The United States had granted to the central powers a credit totaling 27 million dollars.

In the same period, members of the Tripple Entente were granted a line of credit totaling 2 billion dollars.

In spite of the desire of the United States to remain neutral, she was ultimately dragged into the affray. By 1914, the British had sown the North Sea with mines and left only straits of Dova where she could search all ships.

This was in her bid to strangulate the enemy economy and war efforts. By 1915, she had threatened to seize any ship that carried goods to the enemy territories and in actual fact she had been seizing ships originating from enemy territories.

When the United States protested against this action, the British remarked that they had only adopted the principle of continuous voyage, which the United States itself had adopted tom keep out British goods from the seceded Southern American states in 1800.

In spite of this argument, the Americans affirmed that the British action was against the philosophy of the Freedom of the Seas.

The Germans were nearly crippled by the British policies on the high seas. In an attempt to find a solution around the problem, the Germans resorted to what became known as Unrestricted Submarine warfare.

Their action came to a head on 7 May, 1915, when they blew up the British Liner called the Lusitania with 1198 lives on board. Out of these, about 128 were Americans.

This seriously angered the Americans who protested to the Germans. As a result of the protest, the Germans promised not to blow up any ship without adequate warnings.

By 1917, the Germans had become seriously hit by the British policies on the seas. As a result of this, they once again resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare and by March 1917 had inflicted serious damage on shipping.

They abandoned their policy of warning ships because they claimed that even British ships now flew neutral flags.

By March 1917, almost all ships destroyed by the Germans had American casualties. The destruction of six American merchant ships not only drew the anger of the United States, but also sufficiently mobilized public opinion in America against the Germans.

The situation was further compounded by the interception of what is known as the Zimmaann Telegram by British intelligent. This was a telegram purportedly sent by the German foreign minister to his ambassador in Mexico.

In the telegram, he ordered the ambassador in the event of a war with the United States not only to offer financial inducement to the Mexican, but also to promise that the Germans would help to reclaim the territories of Arizona, Mexico and Texas taken over by the United States.

The telegram caused uproar. Thus, the blowing up of the American merchant ships was regarded as an act of war.

Putting all these together, the United States president sought permission from the United States Congress to declare war on Germany, and on 6 April, 1917, which was a Good Friday, the United States entered the First World War.

The entry of the United States into the conflict altered decisively the course of the war in favour of the Tripple Entente members. This was because she came in with superior armaments as well as millions of fresh troops.

With this, the United States facilitated the end of the war, which led to the signing of the armistice on 11 November, 1918. That armistice ended the war. The peace process took place in Paris.

At the peace process, the victorious allies not only imposed certain indemnities on Germany, but also tried to make the First World War the war to end all wars. In this regard, the American president played a crucial role.

It would be recalled that Woodrow Wilson, the United States president had led the United States into the war “to make the world safe for democracy”.

In the peace process, therefore, he also affirmed that the role democracy should play not only in settling the problems, but also in preventing future wars. As a result of this, he enunciated what became known as the “14 Points Plan”. These formed the basis of the peace process.

One remarkable outcome of the peace process was the establishment of the League of Nations, which was designed as a body to resolve all future conflicts. Not everybody accepted the mediating posture of Woodrow Wilson.

For instance, the French president still smartened from the injuries the French nation suffered in the German onslaught was much more interested in seeing Germany punished more than anything else.

He, therefore, defiled Wilson’s 14 points as being unrealistic. As far as he was concerned, “the good lord gave us only 10 points and we broke it. With these 14 points, we shall see”.

At the end of the peace process, the belligerents were able to establish the League of Nations, which was to serve as a form of international government.

Unfortunately, however, because the United States president did not seek the approval of the Congress before taking part in the peace process, the Congress refused to ratify America’s membership of the League of Nations.

This, no doubt, seriously hampered the effectiveness of the League, which was unable to prevent the outcome of the Second World.

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Sonniee Alli

Dr. Sunday Abraham OGUNODE (aka Sonniee Alli) is a lecturer in the Department of History and International Studies and currently the Sub-Dean, Faculty of Arts, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba Akoko. He preferred to be called a Teacher not a Lecturer in order to allow students' easy access and enhance their inclusive experiences while imparting knowledge in and out of classes. It is, therefore, not surprising that Sonniee Alli takes time out of his very busy schedules to write and make available detailed notes in all his courses to the students. Despite this, he attends all his classes and passionately explains issues using real-time illustration. His notes are available on the History Archives managed by his mentee Obaloluwa Tadese FAFORIJI, a 300level young but promising student of the Department. Enjoy as you explore the academic world of Sonniee Alli.

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