On April 2, 1917, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress and requested a declaration of war against Germany, citing Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare, its violation of American neutrality, and its alliance with Austria-Hungary as reasons for entering World War I. Wilson’s request was granted, and the United States officially entered the war on April 6, 1917.
Voting in Congress
President Wilson’s important phrase “The world must be made safe for democracy” went a long way in securing an 82-6 and 373-50 votes victory in the Senate and the House of Representatives, respectively.
At the time, the decision to wage war against Germany in 1917 marked the fourth time our nation declared war on a foreign power. The three other times were: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), and the Spanish-American War (1898). Considering how those wars went, the U.S. was confident that it would be able to prevail again.
Did you know?
The US declaration of war against Germany came on the back of the severing of ties with Germany on February 3, 1917.
Prior to February, American companies were engaged in the export of food, raw materials, and munitions to both sides: the Allies and the Central Powers. However, the trade was a bit lopsided as Britain had imposed naval blockade of Germany. Regardless, American financial institutions did not discriminate when it came to extending loans to the warring nations in Europe. But then again, majority of the assistance went to the Allies. Why was this the case?
It turns out that the Germans were causing quite a lot of havoc to the United States, directly and indirectly. Take the example of the incident that happened in early May 1915, when a German submarine brought down RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner that was en route from New York to Liverpool, England. Over 1,100 passengers died, including more than 110 Americans. Those sorts of attacks steered public opinion against Germany in general.
Although President Wilson was absolutely furious by the sinking of RMS Lusitania in 1915, he still did not see our nation going to war against Germany.
President Wilson demanded that the Germans stop unannounced submarine warfare; however, he didn’t believe the United States should take military action against Germany, stating that the U.S. had to be neutral in those very trying times. Many war hawks and even former POTUS Theodore Roosevelt begged to differ, maintaining that the United States had to quickly end Germany and the Central Powers’ aggression.
Wilson’s slight leaning towards the Preparedness Movement would ultimately secure him a re-election in the 1916 US Presidential Elections. The movement praised Wilson’s efforts to significantly strengthen the U.S. Navy and the Army.
It must also be noted that some Americans volunteered to enlist in the armies of Allied European countries, especially France, as they felt obligated to support France, considering the fact that the French came to America’s aid during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Those American volunteers bemoaned Wilson’s nonintervention policy.
Major events leading up to the US declaration of war on Germany in 1917
Perhaps reeling heavily from the strong resistance put up by Britain, Russia and France, the Germans in late winter of 1917 invited U.S. neighbor Mexico to join its war efforts against the Allied Nations. In return for their support, Germany offered to help Mexico take back territories – i.e. New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas – it had lost to the United States in the previous century.
This offer came to the notice of US after US intelligence agents intercepted the so-called Zimmermann Telegram. Safe to say, Americans were not pleased with Germany, and there was increasing calls from the public to halt Germany’s aggression.
Prior to the Zimmerman Telegram, in March 1916, a German U-boat sank a French passenger ship called Sussex. The attack claimed the lives of several people, including a number of Americans. Faced with the possibility of destroying its already fragile ties with the U.S., Germany promised to end its attack on passenger ships and commercial vessels.
On January 31, 1917, Americans woke up to the shocking news that Germany was making a complete U-turn on its promise to stop attacking commercial and passenger ships. It was at this moment that the Wilson administration decided to sever all diplomatic ties with the European nation. In the months that followed, a pigheaded Germany attacked a number of U.S. commercial ships, causing the deaths of a number of Americans.
How Wilson mobilized the nation for World War I
Once it had become apparently clear that the United States ought to get itself involved in WWI, President Wilson proceeded to embark on what many historians call the largest war-mobilization effort in the nation’s history up until that time.
Initially beginning by asking the public to volunteer as soldiers, the White House later had to change its policy as it could not get the sufficient number of fighting forces needed for the war efforts. Therefore, Wilson and his advisors came out with the Selective Service Act in May 1917 which required young men between the ages of 21 and 35 to be drafted. By so doing, the president was able to increase troops’ size from less than a quarter of a million to a whopping 4 million by the end of the war.
Another part of Wilson’s strategy to galvanize the nation into action during WWI came in the form of the Committee on Public Information (CPI). In all sense and purpose, the committee was a propaganda office created to clearly explain the U.S. decision to get involved in WWI in the first place. The committee used a host of information dissemination tools, including issuing out speeches, newspaper articles, and films.
Also war bonds were sold to raise the needed funds for the war. Americans were also encouraged to use resources judiciously, especially food. A sort of anti-German sentiment grew around this time; however, the president and his advisors were cautious not to inflame personal hatred against the German immigrant community in the United States.
Regardless, that did not stop future president Herbert Hoover, Wilson’s senior advisor at the Food Administration, from changing German-sounding food names like hamburger to more American-sounding names like sandwich.
As the nation was at war, perhaps the biggest in its existence up until then, Wilson was quick to nip in the bud any labor agitations from trade unions, especially those from the railroad industry. This was certainly not the time for American industries to be experiencing supply chain difficulties that could undermine the nation’s war efforts across the Atlantic.
For example, the Espionage Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in June 1917. The act made it a crime to interfere with the draft or military operations, and also criminalized any speech or actions that could be seen as aiding the enemy. This included anti-war protests, distributing anti-war literature, and even criticizing the government or military. The act was used to arrest and imprison many people who were seen as disloyal or unpatriotic, including socialists, anarchists, and labor leaders. The act was controversial at the time and has since been criticized as a violation of free speech and civil liberties.
“I Want YOU!”
One of the most iconic posters from this campaign is the “I Want You” poster, featuring a stern-faced Uncle Sam pointing directly at the viewer and the text “I Want You for U.S. Army.” The poster was created in 1917 by artist James Montgomery Flagg and was based on a British poster featuring Lord Kitchener. Flagg’s version became wildly popular and has since become a widely recognized symbol of American military recruitment.
The poster’s bold and direct message, along with its striking visual imagery, made it a powerful tool for convincing young men to enlist. The poster was displayed in public places such as train stations, post offices, and schools, and was also reproduced in newspapers and magazines.
The success of the “I Want You” poster helped to boost recruitment numbers and played a significant role in rallying public support for the war effort.
The Wilson administration was confident that victory would be guaranteed so long as the nation supported his war-time initiatives.
When did the first U.S. forces land on the European continent?
Having made all those solid preparations, the US deployed the first batch of troops to Europe in June 1917. They were led by General John J. Pershing, newly selected commander of the American Expeditionary Forces. By late June, American combat forces had made their way to France to help the French in halting German advances.
READ MORE: Greatest Generals of World War I
Did you know?
In the same year that the US declared war against Germany, it also declared war against Austria-Hungary, an ally of Germany. The declaration of war against that Central Power came on December 7, 1917.
It must be noted that the US never formally declared war against the Ottoman Empire or Bulgaria, the two other Central Powers in World War I.
Future U.S. president Harry S. Truman served in World War I. Truman volunteered as an infantryman.