Why Did the US Enter WW1: 10 Reasons to Explain History’s Most Important Military Intervention
The First World War, to put it bluntly, was an absolute waste. It resulted from the unworkable entanglement of a barbed web of European alliances, a series of catastrophic diplomatic disasters, and a chauvinistic and utterly vacuous display of the ‘my dreadnought battle cruiser’s much better than yours’ ilk from two of the world’s leading superpowers. Most disheartening of all, though, was that the war was as inevitable as it was pointless.
The war began on 28 July 1914, yet it would not be until 6 April 1917 that the US came to the aid of the Allies. This historical curiosity requires some explaining. Firstly, the incumbent president Woodrow Wilson seemed to be taking George Washington’s ‘why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground’ mantra as gospel. The son of a Presbyterian, and a man whose academic background shaped his personal philosophy of pacifism, Wilson advocated a position of isolationism and neutrality ‘in thought and deed’. Secondly, there was little appetite for war among America’s immigrant population; Irish, German and Swedish Americans had little to gain from getting involved in the struggles of their ancestral countrymen and far less to gain from creating new frictions in the new largely world.
Lack of volition, therefore, explains why the US took so long to join the war. But it does not explain why, after so many years of staunch adherence to a policy of neutrality or, at best, preparedness, the US finally entered. This articles has compiled a thematically complete list of reasons to explain the US’ intervention. It can’t claim to be comprehensive, but hopefully it will provide the lay reader with a solid overview, and the specialist with some interesting and previously unknown information.
10. The ‘Rape of Belgium’
Belgium’s strategic position made her vulnerable from the war’s outset. Germany’s military blueprint – the highly intricate Schlieffen Plan – had established that if Germany were to win the war, she would have to quickly defeat France in the west, before Russia could mobilize in the east. To do this, the bulk of Germany’s army would pass through Belgium and Luxembourg, circumventing France’s eastern border fortresses before making its way down and encircling Paris. What the Germans hadn’t expected was that Belgium would remain neutral and refuse her military access.
Germany’s answer was to invade Belgium, which she did on 4 August 1914, drawing Britain into the war. The invasion was brutal, as even the chief of the German general staff, General Helmuth von Moltke, would admit: ‘Our advance into Belgium is certainly brutal, but we are fighting for our lives and those who get in the way must take the consequences.’
The problem was that many of the 5,521 killed between 4 – 28 August were unquestionably non-combatants who didn’t ‘get in the way’. Though the Germans claimed to be targeting francs-tireurs (snipers), Women and children and the elderly increasingly featured among the dead, and the modes of execution were indefensibly heinous – in one case residents were executed 10 at a time, the last having to climb upon a mound of the dead before being shot. The atrocities committed by the Germans towards the Belgian citizenry were enough to earn international censure, though what must have particularly affected the US was that Belgium had tried to remain neutral. German actions in Belgium were appalling, but there was one case above all others that stood out and shocked the world.
9. The razing of Leuven
The Germans first occupied the Belgian city of Leuven on 19 August, a few days into the main German force’s advance. At first, the occupation was not marked by any particular violence. A tragic series of events 6 days later on the 25 August, however, would change all that. Belgian forces arriving northwest of the city from Antwerp launched an initially successful attack on German forces, routing them into the city of Leuven. The occupying German forces mistook them for allied invaders, and in the confusion friendly fire was exchanged. When the smoke had settled, blame was not laid at the feet of the German command but at Leuven’s citizenry who were accused of contriving the confusion.
Intending to make an example of Leuven and so discourage further potential insurrection, the Germans set about on the city’s complete destruction.
German soldiers killed 209 citizens, burned down around 1,100 buildings – including the university library which saw the loss of 230,000 books, – and displaced some 42,000 people: the city’s entire surviving population.
As with all other German atrocities that made up the ‘Rape of Belgium’, razing Leuven served absolutely no strategic purpose. All it did, as we’ve already established, was mobilize public opinion against the Germany and the Kaiser; particularly in the US. Leuven’s symbolism was particularly potent; burning books did untold damage to Germany’s cultural predominance (established in the 18th century Enlightenment) and enabled the European intelligentsia to portray the Germans as waging a war on culture.
8. The sinking of the Lusitania
Though many British ships were called into military service during the war to replenish substantial U-Boat losses, the R.M.S. Lusitania – sister to the similarly ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic – kept to her traditional transatlantic route. Transporting 1,959 civilians, along with substantial cargo and munitions, the Lusitania departed from New York on 1 May 1915 amongst a deserved air of agitation; the German embassy in Washington had issued its threat to sink any vessels traveling in British water during the state of war.
The Germans were proving true to their word. On 6 May, the day before the Lusitania’s sinking, the German submarine U-20 sank two 6,000 ton British vessels. Lusitania’s captain took suitable precautions but it was not enough. At 13:20 on 7 May U-20 sighted Lusitania, and at 14:10 it fired a single torpedo. The ship took on water fast, and within minutes was leaning so far to the starboard side that launching the lifeboats went from being a herculean to an impossible task. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes, in freezing waters 11.5 miles off the south coast of Ireland.
Of ship’s 1,959 total, 1,195 perished with the Lusitania. Moreover, only 11 of the 139 US citizens on board survived. This drew international outrage, not just because of the number of losses but also because of the illegality (maritime law required the safe passage of passengers aboard civilian ships). It also plunged German-American relations into crisis, and contrary to Roosevelt’s protestations, war was only averted because of Germany’s promise to respect the US neutrality. For now…
7. The execution of Edith Cavell
The first notable female casualty of the war was a British nurse, Edith Cavell. As well as providing aid to the wounded of both sides, Cavell’s organization had been helping some 200 allied soldiers trapped behind enemy lines after the Mons campaign in Belgium return to Britain via Holland. According to German military law, harboring enemies was a crime punishable by death and Cavell was arrested on 3 August 1915. The British were unable to protect their nurse, and after several interrogations she was handed her sentence. At 7:00 on 12 October, Cavell was executed along with four other Belgians by firing squad at the Tir national shooting range in Schaerbeek, Belgium.
The Germans claimed that Cavell had been a spy; something vehemently denied by the British but, in light of recent evidence, probably not without some truth. Regardless, Cavell’s execution was exploited particularly by the British, who used her as a vehicle for their propaganda. Books, newspaper articles, pamphlets, and images began to circulate detailing Cavell’s tragic case. But her legacy was not only felt amongst the allies on the continent. We can attest to the effectiveness of allied propaganda across the Atlantic by the fact that a version of Edith Cavell’s story was published in the American Journal of Nursing. I say version, because what was reported was as counterfactual as it was moving; Cavell was said to have fainted after refusing to face the firing squad blindfolded, to which the German officer’s response had been to walk up to her and shoot her in the head.
6. To fight against tyranny
One particular episode stands out from the arrival of John J. Pershing’s expeditionary force in France (June – July 1917). On a detour to the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette on 4 July, Pershing’s aide, Colonel Charles E. Stanton, uttered the remark: ‘Lafayette, nous voilà’ (Lafayette, we are here).
The figure evoked had considerable significance in American history. Lafayette, a French aristocrat, had bucked the trend among his European milieu in helping American revolutionaries liberate themselves from the British yoke in 1781. Now, as alluded to by Stanton, the Americans had come to liberate Europe from a Teutonic yoke of its own.
When looking back at the First World War, especially through the distorting prism of the Second, it is tempting to view American intervention on the side of the allies as a given. But we should not fall into the trap of conflating hindsight with inevitability. The Central Powers were not alone in committing atrocities: Russian treatment of civilians in the East matched anything perpetrated by the Germans in Belgium of France, and the British army, it has recently been suggested, largely tolerated the killing of German POWs. The difference was that the Allies exploited their propaganda much more effectively than their Axis enemies. The Rape of Belgium, the sinking of the Lusitania and the execution of Edith Cavell all provided structure for a narrative of German barbarism; filled in with other aspects of German unconventionality (the use of Zeppelins and mustard gas). There were, of course, fabrications intended to shock the US out of neutrality. Some were identified and outlined, as in a 1929 article in The Nation. But the end result was the same: when the US arrived in 1917, they had named their tyrant.