American Entry into WWI

  • Created by: Pip Dan
  • Created on: 20-09-17 14:30

In April 1917, the USA entered the war on the Allied side. Various reasons have been offered for this:

Resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare

On 31 January 1917, Germany gave eight hours' notice that it intended to sink all shups found within the war zone around British waters. The German government believed they were in a position where they could starve Britain into surrender by intensifying the U-boat campaign. If the USA declared war as a result, the German gamble was that the Allies, both lacking foodstuffs and war materials imported from the USA and other American countries would surrender before the Americans could cross the submarine-infested Atlantic in sufficient numbers to make any difference.

While Wilson privately considered the Kaiser as insane, and on 3 February broke off diplomatic relations from Germany, he still hoped to avoid entry into the war. However during February and March 1917 several US ships were sunk by German U-boats.

German activities within the USA

We have already seen that Wilson distrusted many German-Americans and accused them of espionage and sabotage. Some Germans were undoubtedly spying and committing acts may have been exaggerated, the presence of internal traitors undoubtedly fuelled further resentment against Germany.

Zimmerman Telegram

The Zimmermann Telegram was a coded telegram from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann sent to the German Ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhart, on 16 January 1917. It told Heinrich to propose to the Mexican government a secret alliance with Germany in which, if they went to war with the USA, Mexico would receive back Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. In February 1917, the US Ambassador in Britain sent to the State Department an intercept of the telegram. The German Ambassador in Mexico had not in fact acted on the instruction, and Mexico knew nothing of it. With a civil war raging there they were hardly in a position to make full-scale war on the USA. Nevertheless, Wilson was affronted by this telegram and it afforded him a further pretext for war.

Declaration of War

In April 1917, Wilson asked Congress for the authority to make war on Germany. He realised quite simply that he had little choice; the USA had been provoked until its credibility was threatened. The Allies; moreover, were in trouble. In February and March 1917, 1 million tons of Allied shipping was sunk by U-boats. Wilson feared their defeat was increasingly likely if US involvement wasn't forthcoming. He, by now, realised that only belligerents could possibly have any influence in negotiating the post-war settlement.

Different interpretations

Historians have emphasised differing reasons for the entry of the USA into the war and in this debate we will reflect on some of the perspectives from which they argue.

The economic and isolationist debate

During the inter-war period between 1918 and 1941, when reaction to the horrors of the WWI had set in, many commentators such as C. Hartley Grattan and Walter Mills saw Wilson as a dupe, someone who had been swayed by a special relationship…


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