A light rain was falling on the evening of 2 April 1917 as Woodrow Wilson was driven from the White House to Capitol Hill, escorted by a unit of the United States cavalry, to address a specially convened joint session of Congress. According to contemporary accounts, the 28th president looked pale and nervous. But his words betrayed not the slightest doubt or hesitancy.
America’s declaration of war against Imperial Germany, he declared, served no selfish end. “We desire no conquest, no dominion, we seek no indemnities, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make.” Rather, the goal was peace. “The world must be made safe for democracy… and America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth.”
It was a masterly speech, rousing and idealistic, touching his countrymen’s deepest patriotic chords. Even his political opponents acknowledged it was a triumph. Within four days, both House and Senate gave overwhelming approval, and though few probably suspected so at the time, the arc of world history would be changed. But the conversion of a man of peace into a warrior-statesman had been anything but simple.
When the great European conflict began in August 1914, the US at once declared its neutrality, offering its services as a mediator between the Allies and the Central Powers. To this policy Wilson hewed with consistency for the next two-and-a-half years, a task made easier by the national mood. Incidents such as the death of 114 American passengers on the Lusitania, the British liner sunk by a German U-boat in May 1915, fuelled German unpopularity – but there was no special upswelling of sympathy, least of all among the large German-American and Irish-American communities, for the haughty former colonial power in London.
In November 1916, Wilson had been re-elected to a second term on a platform of “peace and preparedness”, and as late as 22 January 1917 he had been calling for “a peace without victory”. Once again, he offered America’s good offices to that end, as well as a vision of a league of peaceful, democratic nations that would truly render the Great War “the war to end war”. Adolf Hitler may still have been a private in the Bavarian army – but, prophetically, Wilson warned that “peace after victory” could not last, because of the bitterness and humiliation felt by the losers. Such an outcome would be a mere quicksand: “only a peace between equals can last.”
But that speech to the Senate proved US pacificism’s last hurrah. Within days, Germany announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. All the while, reports of German plots and subversion multiplied, culminating in the Zimmermann telegram, a secret proposal from Berlin for Mexico to join the Central Powers, should the US enter the war against Germany. Mexico’s reward would be Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
The note, dated 16 January 1917, was intercepted and deciphered by the British, who informed Washington. The inevitable outrage sealed Wilson’s decision to go to war. The rejection by both belligerents of his every previous attempt to mediate had merely underlined the ineffectuality of the peace policy. Now, idealism and Wilson’s unwavering belief in American exceptionalism, or special calling, were in perfect alignment with evident national self-interest.
And so the “doughboys”, as the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces to Europe were known, went to war. Mass mobilisation began slowly, and US forces did not see frontline action until late October 1917. But within a year of their entry into war, a million US soldiers had landed in France, and by summer 1918 more were arriving at the rate of 10,000 a day.
By Armistice Day, total US casualties had reached some 50,000 dead and 230,000 wounded. Compared with the carnage endured by the main belligerents, these losses were small. But America’s involvement had a crucial impact.
For the battered and disheartened allies, the infusion of fresh troops provided a huge boost to both firepower and morale. For the Germans, who had vastly underestimated the ability of the US to send sufficient forces to Europe in time to affect the outcome, their arrival was demoralising in similarly decisive measure.
More broadly, the New World, with its vast manpower, resources and energy, had come to the rescue of the Old. It was in the First World War, not the Second, that the US first served as the “arsenal of democracy” to save threatened European civilisation. For 134 years, ever since the end of the American War of Independence in 1783, the US had stayed out of European affairs. Now, for better or worse, it was in them to stay.
Without American intervention, some would argue, the course of history might have been very different. If the US had stayed out, this thinking runs, the First World War might have petered out in exhausted stalemate. In other words, there would have been no Versailles, no Hitler and no Second World War. Yes, America may be blamed for everything…
One point however is incontestable. Since the First World War, we have lived in an “American century”. And if that era’s beginning can be traced to a single place and moment, it is a damp Washington evening in the early spring of 1917.
Tomorrow: Lenin and the sealed train
The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar
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