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History, America and World War I

Zimmermann telegram, Selective Service Act, unrestricted submarine warfare, German attacks, neutral nation

World War I broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914. The war set Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers) against the United Kingdom, France, and Russia (the Allied Powers), and eventually involved many more nations. The United States declared itself a neutral nation, but neutrality proved elusive. For three years, as Europeans faced war on an unprecedented scale, the neutrality so popular in the United States gradually slipped away.

At the outset, Germany and Britain each sought to terminate U.S. trade with the other. Exploiting its naval advantage, Britain gained the upper hand and almost ended U.S. trade with Germany. Americans protested this interference, but when German submarines, known as U-boats, began to use unrestricted submarine warfare in 1915, American public opinion turned against Germany. Then on May 7, 1915, a German submarine attacked a British passenger liner, the Lusitania, killing more than a thousand people, including 128 Americans. Washington condemned the attacks, which led to a brief respite in German attacks. In the presidential race of 1916, President Wilson won reelection on the campaign slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.”

In February 1917, however, Germany reinstated the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Ending diplomatic ties with Germany, Wilson still tried to keep the United States out of the war. But Germany continued its attacks, and the United States found out about a secret message, the Zimmermann telegram, in which the German government proposed an alliance with Mexico and discussed the possibility of Mexico regaining territory lost to the United States. Resentful that Germany was sinking American ships and making overtures to Mexico, the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

The United States entered World War I with divided sentiments. Americans debated both whether to fight the war and which side to support. Since the outbreak of war in Europe, pacifists and reformers had deplored the drift toward conflict; financiers and industrialists, however, promoted patriotism, “preparedness,” and arms buildup. Some Americans felt affinities for France and Britain, but millions of citizens were of German origin. To many Americans, finally, the war in Europe seemed a distant conflict that reflected tangled European rivalries, not U.S. concerns.

But German aggression steered public opinion from neutrality to engagement, and the United States prepared for combat. The Selective Service Act, passed in May 1917, helped gradually increase the size of America’s armed forces from 200,000 people to almost 4 million at the war’s end.

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