Chapter 20 “He Kept Us Out of War” – The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I

Chapter 20 “He Kept Us Out of War”


In This Chapter
  • Wilson’s neutrality policy
  • The United States war trade
  • U.S. efforts to mediate peace
  • The United States prepares for war
  • The Zimmermann Telegram
  • Wilson declares war

Woodrow Wilson, elected 28th president of the United States in 1912, was a new kind of American leader: an avowed intellectual and idealist. The son of a stern Presbyterian minister, he studied at Davidson College in North Carolina, at Princeton, and at Johns Hopkins, from which he received a Ph.D. in government and history. Wilson wrote political science texts and became a professor at Wesleyan University and then at Princeton, of which he was ultimately named president. Later, the corrupt New Jersey political machine tapped Wilson as a “pliable” gubernatorial prospect, only to end up with a thoroughly incorruptible, zealously reform-minded governor who would not tolerate machine politics.

Before completing his term as governor, Wilson was sent to the White House on a platform of progressive reform. During his first presidential term, the income tax was introduced, protectionist tariffs were lowered, the Federal Reserve Act (1913) reformed currency and banking law, and antitrust legislation was strengthened in 1914 by the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act. In 1915, Wilson supported legislation that federally regulated working conditions of sailors, and in 1916 he signed into law the Federal Farm Loan Act, providing low-interest credit to farmers.

Labor reform came with the Adamson Act, granting an eight-hour day to interstate railroad workers, and the Child Labor Act, curtailing children’s working hours.

The accomplishments of his first term prompted many to deem Wilson a great president and might well have been sufficient to earn him another four years; however, Wilson was propelled to his second term in large part on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Of all the president’s accomplishments, most Americans were most gratified by Wilson’s having managed to maintain U.S. neutrality.

But with each passing day, month, and year, the pressure to fight in the “European War” mounted.

Staying Neutral

From the moment war broke out in the summer of 1914, Woodrow Wilson committed the United States to a policy of absolute neutrality, showing no favoritism to any side. This was not easy. The United States in 1914 was riding the crest of an unprecedented wave of immigration and was populated by first- and second-generation immigrants from all the warring nations. Nevertheless, most Americans believed that what happened in Europe, clear across the Atlantic, should be of no concern to the United States.

Strict neutrality did not prevent Americans from participating indirectly in the war. All of the belligerents turned to America for war materiel and other goods. As a neutral nation, under international law and custom, the United States had a right to trade with any and all of the warring parties, and it did just that, to the profit of many industrialists and financiers.

Yet the actions of the Central Powers, particularly Germany, made it increasingly difficult to avoid taking sides. Germany’s unprovoked declarations of war on France and Russia were impossible to justify. Its violation of Belgian neutrality, a brutal invasion terrible enough as it was, was magnified by Allied propaganda into an atrocity of barbaric proportions. Germans were no longer portrayed as the people who had given the world Beethoven, Goethe, and good beer, but as mindless, butchering “Huns.”

Inexorably, the flow of trade between the United States and the European belligerents turned increasingly away from the Central Powers and more toward the Allies. In part, this was the result of America’s growing moral revulsion from the Central Powers, but it also happened to make good business sense: High demand, an ample supply of gold, favorable shipping, and the realities of geography made dealing with the Allies far more reliable and profitable than doing business with Germany and the other Central Powers.

And Germany did nothing to ameliorate this situation. On the contrary, each of its actions seemed to violate some rule of “civilized” warfare. It bombed civilian London and other British towns, it used poison gas at Ypres, and, most shocking of all, it unleashed a stealthy and devastating program of unrestricted submarine warfare against commercial shipping.

The Lusitania Strain

From the American point of view, the bedrock foundation of its rights as a neutral nation was freedom of the seas. This was a matter of philosophical principle, as President Wilson understood, but it was also much more.

By 1917, American firms had done some $2 billion in business with the Allies, and U.S. banks had made $2.5 billion in loans. The fact was that, Wilson’s strict policy of nonfavoritism notwithstanding, American industry and American banks were betting on an Allied victory. Without it, in the wake of German demands for war reparations from the defeated Allies, they would stand to lose untold fortunes. Like it or not, the fate of the American economy was becoming wedded to that of the Allied cause. Prosperity or depression hung on an Allied victory or defeat.


 From the Front Contrast the $2.5 billion in bank loans made to the Allies by 1917 with the mere $45 million U.S. banks had loaned to Germany.


To do business with the Allies, American business needed freedom of the seas. The War of 1812 had been fought (ostensibly, at least) over this very issue. Unrestricted submarine warfare—the German policy of using U-boats to attack merchant and passenger vessels without even surfacing to give fair warning—was a direct assault on freedom of the seas. And this policy was not restricted to the merchant shipping of the Allies. Neutral nations, including the United States, whose ships ventured into the “war zone” declared by Germany on February 4, 1915, around the British Isles (see Chapter 11, “A World War”) were also liable to attack.

As we saw in Chapter 11, the May 7, 1915, sinking of the British liner Lusitania, in which 124 of the 1,198 lives lost were American, brought anti-German sentiment in the United States to a fever pitch. President Wilson issued a stern yet measured note of diplomatic protest to the Germans, which prompted Secretary of State Williams Jennings Bryan, a firm neutralist, to resign for fear that the note would inevitably push the nation into the war.

The note, we saw, did not bring an immediate end to unrestricted submarine warfare. In August, another passenger ship, the Arabic, was sunk with loss of American lives. But after this came the kaiser’s orders restricting submarine operations to avoid drawing the United States into the conflict.

Early United States Mediation Efforts

If Bryan had resigned because he actually thought Wilson wanted war, he was mistaken. The president made repeated efforts to avoid American entry into the war by bringing the war itself to an early end.

Colonel Edward M. House was a Texas politician who became a trusted intimate of Wilson, a friend, adviser, and confidant, as well as a quasiofficial personal envoy. When World War I broke out in Europe, House made himself the administration’s expert on the conflict. Accordingly, early in 1916, Wilson sent him to London and Paris to sound out Allied leaders on the possibility of U.S. mediation between the belligerents.


 Combatants Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (1856–1921), born into a Frankfurt banking family, became a civil servant and was appointed Prussian minister of the interior in 1905 and state secretary in the Imperial Office of the Interior in 1907. He became chancellor of Germany on July 14, 1909, and introduced moderately liberal policies, which he often failed to defend against more forceful conservatives, especially the militarists. His attempt to negotiate reduction of naval armaments with the British in March 1909 and February 1912, for example, failed because of the intervention of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. Bethmann-Hollweg did work successfully with Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, to forestall the expansion of the Balkan Wars into an all-out conflict between Austria-Hungary and Russia. But this foreign affairs success was rare. Ultimately, Bethmann-Hollweg’s political coalition was one of conservatives and centerists. He did advocate and assist in the expansion of the German military and was in favor of breaking the Allied “encirclement of Germany.”

In 1914, Bethmann-Hollweg did not believe that war was in Germany’s best interest, but his issuance of a so-called blank check to Austria-Hungary, granting it Germany’s blessing for whatever steps it thought necessary against Serbia, was a fatal step toward war and rendered useless Bethmann-Hollweg’s subsequent warnings to Austria-Hungary to practice restraint.

Bethmann-Hollweg typifies the weak-willed nature of all too many civilian politicians during the era of the Great War, who instantly capitulated to military desires to provoke conflict. Only when the war was under way did Bethmann-Hollweg stand up to Tirpitz and the other militarists in resisting—for some time—the fatally provocative policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. His advocacy of electoral reforms turned conservative militarists as well as civilian politicians against him, and he resigned on July 13, 1917.


House was earnest and not unskilled, but his efforts were also naive, and Wilson would have been better advised to make a more official and concerted effort at mediation. In any event, House’s talks with British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey produced the House-Grey Memorandum of February 22, 1916, which declared that the United States might enter the war if Germany rejected Wilson’s mediation, but that the right to initiate U.S. mediation rested with Great Britain.

The memorandum was ambiguous. On one level, it was a genuine effort at initiating binding mediation. On another, it could be interpreted as the first diplomatic step toward U.S. entry into the war. In any case, with the approach of the presidential elections of 1916, Wilson decided to suspend his peace initiative, lest its veiled threat to enter the war provoke controversy that might conflict with his “he kept us out of war” platform. Besides, at this point, German politicians, led by Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, had managed to argue their nation’s military into postponing renewal of a declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare. This Wilson read as victory in his effort to keep the country out of the war.

Renewed Mediation Attempts

Yet even after he had achieved re-election, Wilson held off from taking any direct action toward peace. The Bulgar-German victory over Romania in the meantime emboldened Germany to propose peace on its own terms. Bethmann-Hollweg, fatigued by keeping the militarists at bay, agreed that if the German proposals were rejected, unrestricted submarine warfare should be resumed.

On December 12, 1916, Bethmann-Hollweg proposed outrageous peace terms that included annexation of Liège and a border strip of Belgium as well as the occupied portion of northeastern France. Clearly, this was unacceptable to the Allies, and Wilson finally stepped in on December 18, 1916, inviting both the Allies and the Central Powers to clear the air by stating their “war aims.” In the meantime, however, Robert Lansing, who had replaced William Jennings Bryan as secretary of state, secretly encouraged the Allies to offer terms that, like those proposed by Germany, were too sweeping to gain acceptance. With some justification, therefore, the Germans entertained the suspicion of collusion between Wilson and the Allies. They agreed to the opening of negotiations, but they defiantly left their own statement of December 12 virtually unchanged. By mid-January 1917, the December peace overtures collapsed.


 Words of WarAnnexation is the formal act of incorporating one political unit or nation into another.


Peace Without Victory

On January 22, 1917, Wilson took a new tack with an appeal for international conciliation based on achieving “peace without victory.” In response, Britain confidentially communicated its willingness to accept Wilson’s mediation. Austria-Hungary likewise was ready to listen to peace proposals. In Germany, however, the militarists had won their victory over diplomats like Bethmann-Hollweg. Not only had the decision been made to exclude Wilson from any peace initiative, but also to declare the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. With unabashed duplicity, on January 31, 1917, Bethmann-Hollweg restated Germany’s peace terms, invited President Wilson to persevere in his mediation efforts, but also announced that unrestricted submarine warfare would begin the next day.


 Words of WarArmed neutrality was the United States policy, initiated on February 26, 1917, of arming merchant vessels and taking other military steps—short of war itself—to protect American commerce.


America Drifts Toward War

In response to the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, Woodrow Wilson severed diplomatic relations between the United States and Germany on February 3, 1917, after a U.S. warship, the Housatonic, was torpedoed and sunk.

Preparedness Movement

On February 26, the president asked Congress for the authority to arm United States-flagged merchant vessels and to take all other military measures to protect American commerce. He called this new policy armed neutrality, and it was the first official step in an ongoing preparedness movement.

Until the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilson had met calls for instituting a formal program of military preparedness with the response that America was and would remain the “champion of peace.”


 Words of WarJingoism is extreme nationalism characterized by a chauvinist and belligerent foreign policy.


Despite Wilson’s official position, the United States began in various ways preparing for war as early as August 1914. The so-called “preparedness movement” was urged by such Republican “interventionists” as former President Theodore Roosevelt, financier J.P. Morgan, chief Wilson rival Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and a number of interventionist organizations.

In some respects, the preparedness movement was a realistic response to the world situation. However, it also thrived on and, in turn, fed war fever, jingoism, intolerant and bigoted feelings of “100 percent Americanism,” and anti-German hatred.

After the sinking of the Lusitania, the army’s chief of staff, General Leonard Wood, opened up the first of the so-called “businessmen’s military training camps,” at Plattsburg, New York. By the summer of 1916, well before the Selective Draft Act was signed in May of 1917, 40,000 men had been put through basic training in these camps on an “unofficial” basis, albeit by officers and noncommissioned officers of the regular United States Army. Although unofficial, the “Plattsburg movement” was given support by a government-funded propaganda machine under the direction of a prominent advertising executive named George Creel (see Chapter 22, “Over Here and Over There”).


 Voices of Battle “I am not now preparing or contemplating war or any steps that need lead to it.”

—President Woodrow Wilson, speech, February 1917


Wilson also encouraged American industry and commerce to assume a war footing, which they were quite willing to do, given the profitability of supplying materiel to the Allies. Whether here or abroad, there was a lively market for military goods. To facilitate and coordinate this transition to a war economy, Wilson created a number of emergency federal agencies, including the Council of National Defense, the Civilian Advisory Committee, and the Shipping Board. Even so, America was woefully unprepared to fight when it entered World War I. War production approaching a sufficient scale did not get under way until 1918.

While the nation anxiously eyed transatlantic Europe, relations with the United States’ southern neighbor, Mexico, deteriorated as that nation fell into the throes of a civil war. Francisco “Pancho” Villa, a Mexican bandit who had evolved into a popular revolutionary leader, broke with another revolutionary, Venustiano Carranza, in 1914. After Wilson officially recognized Carranza as president of Mexico in October 1915, Villa embarked on a course of guerrilla raids that included several sorties into New Mexico and the killing of 17 U.S. citizens in the town of Columbus. In response, Wilson dispatched a “Punitive Expedition” against Villa in 1916, under the command of General John J. Pershing.

The Punitive Expedition failed to apprehend Villa, but it did prompt Congress to strengthen the American military by passing the sweeping National Defense Act of 1916. The legislation appropriated funds for the enlargement of the regular army, the creation of federal oversight of the National Guard (hitherto, this force had been strictly organized on the state level, like a militia), and a massive expansion of the navy. The foundation had been laid for a full national mobilization.

The Zimmermann Telegram

If the pursuit of Pancho Villa had momentarily diverted American attention from Europe to Mexican border region in 1916, another development in March 1917 dramatically and unexpectedly linked that southern neighbor with the war overseas. The German High Command as well as Germany’s political leaders understood that the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare would inevitably bring the United States into the war, but they decided to take a desperate gamble, betting that it would require at least a year before American troops would reach Europe in sufficient numbers to have an effect on the Western Front. In that time, the Germans believed, U-boats would wreak such havoc on Allied shipping that peace would come on German terms.

As we will see in Chapter 22, the Germans grossly underestimated the American will and, even more important, the nation’s mighty industrial and economic capacity. However, Germany felt that it had another option available for keeping America out of the war. Foreign Minister Alfred Zimmermann believed that, through his deft diplomacy, he could drag the United States into armed conflict with Mexico and Japan. This would give the Americans plenty to occupy themselves with.

It was a delusional plan based on the slightest of historical precedents. Back in 1906, Kaiser Wilhelm II, propelled by his own anti-Asian prejudices, sought to enlist the United States as an ally in his crusade against what he called the “Yellow Peril.” He trumped up stories about Japanese imperialist activity in Mexico—stories that did catch on with the sensationalist American press but that did not impress President Theodore Roosevelt. In the United States, this German agitation came to nothing and was soon forgotten. But now, in the desperate year of 1917, after three unimaginably long years of bloody stalemate, Zimmermann and other German policymakers saw in this episode the possibility of a joint Japanese-Mexican war against the United States.

Indeed, Germany had a recent history of covert involvement in Mexican politics. When civil war broke out in that nation in 1910, Germany attempted to trade arms in exchange for the establishment of a German naval base in Mexico. Subsequent military intervention by a newly elected President Wilson cut these plans short. Next, at the outbreak of World War I, Germany covertly supported the Mexican coup d’état of General Victoriano Huerta, rival to Venustiano Carranza, the leader supported by the Wilson administration. The idea was to create a situation in Mexico that would occupy the United States military and divert American arms from the Allies. Again, however, the Wilson government foiled German efforts by arresting and imprisoning Huerta in Texas.

With Huerta neutralized, Germany began covertly supporting no less a figure than Pancho Villa. After Villa’s raids into New Mexico, Wilson dispatched the Punitive Expedition into Mexico under General Pershing to apprehend the bandit-revolutionary. This action had been taken with the consent of President Carranza, but, before long, in response to popular pressure, Carranza angrily demanded the withdrawal of American troops from Mexican soil. Observing this, Zimmermann felt confident that he could exploit a growing breach between Mexico and the United States.

On January 16, 1917, Zimmermann sent a secret, coded telegram, via the German ambassador in Washington, D.C., to the German minister in Mexico. It authorized him to propose a German-Mexican alliance to President Carranza. In return for a declaration of war against the United States, Mexico would receive Germany’s support in the reconquest of its “lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.” Carranza was also to be asked to invite Japan to adhere to the anti-American alliance.

Unfortunately for Zimmermann, President Wilson, in compliance with Carranza’s demand, had ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Mexico on January 25, and the pull-out was completed on February 5—before the German minister in Mexico had even delivered the proposal to Carranza. In view of Wilson’s compliance, Carranza was in no mood to start a war with the United States.

And for Germany, there was worse to come. Not only did the Zimmermann Telegram fall flat, but it fell into the hands of British Admiralty intelligence, which intercepted it, decoded it, and made it available to President Wilson. Enraged, Wilson published it to the American people and the world on March 1, 1917.


 Voices of Battle The Zimmermann Telegram read:

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the [Mexican] President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the [Mexican] President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.” Signed, ZIMMERMANN.


“Safe for Democracy”

The combination of Germany’s refusal to respect U.S. rights as a neutral nation and the evidence of the Zimmermann Telegram, with its attempt to incite two nations to war against the United States, made it virtually impossible for Woodrow Wilson to avoid war. On April 2, 1917, he went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war. It was voted up on April 6.

Wilson had this to say:

“We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their government acted in entering this war. It was not with their previous knowledge or approval. It was a war determined upon as wars used to be determined upon in the old, unhappy days when peoples were nowhere consulted by their rulers and wars were provoked and waged in the interest of dynasties or of little groups of ambitious men who were accustomed to use their fellow men as pawns and tools.”

Thus the president acutely and succinctly analyzed the almost mindless mechanism that had propelled Europe into war. He continued:

“Self-governed nations do not fill their neighbor states with spies or set the course of intrigue to bring about some critical posture of affairs which will give them an opportunity to strike and make conquest. Such designs can be successfully worked out only under cover and where no one has the right to ask questions. Cunningly contrived plans of deception or aggression, carried, it may be, from generation to generation, can be worked out and kept from the light only within the privacy of courts or behind the carefully guarded confidences of a narrow and privileged class. They are happily impossible where public opinion commands and insists upon full information concerning all the nation’s affairs.”

Wilson then articulated the leading idealistic principle that had moved him to ask for the declaration and that would guide him through the war. It would be “a partnership of democratic nations” against a “natural foe to liberty.” It would be a “fight . . . for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience.”

Then Wilson declared in a phrase that would ring through the remaining history of the century, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” And the president disavowed all the motives that had operated in the summer of 1914. “We have no selfish ends to serve,” he said. “We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”

Applause for a Message of Death

President Woodrow Wilson had made a stirring speech. In going to war, he began by claiming for America the moral high ground, although the minority who still advocated neutrality pointed out that the nation’s motives were not as lofty and disinterested as the president would have them seem. Considering how much money U.S. industrial and financial firms had invested in the Allies, a lot of very rich Americans would lose a lot of cash if a defeated France and Britain were crushed by war reparations that caused them to default on their massive debts.

Wilson himself had his doubts and was keenly, painfully aware of what he was asking of his fellow citizens. His eloquent war message was greeted with deafening applause by the members of the House and the Senate assembled in special joint session.

“Think what they were applauding!” Wilson remarked to his personal secretary, Joseph P. Tumulty, shortly after delivering the speech. “My message today was a message of death to our young men.”


The Least You Need to Know
  • From the very start of war, President Woodrow Wilson attempted to maintain a strict policy of neutrality for the United States, showing favoritism to no side.
  • American industrial and banking firms freely did business with the Allies as well as the Central Powers, but they favored the Allies because trade with them was more reliable and more profitable. In lending vast sums of money to the Allies, American financiers were, in effect, banking on an Allied victory.
  • In the face of repeated German provocations to war, President Wilson attempted unsuccessfully to mediate peace; the Germans perceived his efforts as a prelude to U.S. entry on the Allied side.
  • The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare coupled with the revelation of German attempts to incite Mexico and Japan to declare war on the United States (the Zimmermann Telegram) moved Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Germany in April 1917.