World War I, 1914-1920

What were the causes of the First World War, American entry into the war, and the political, social, and economic impact of the war on the United States and its people? The nation's entry into the war is discussed in Precarious Neutrality and The Decision for War. Although President Wilson proclaimed the United States to be a neutral nation in the European conflict, three realities made neutrality practically impossible. Those realities confirm the interrelation of domestic and foreign policy. Furthermore, the discussion of the tenets of Wilsonianism and Wilson's strict interpretation of international law reinforces the concept that a nations foreign policy is based on its perception of the world community of nations and of its relationship to those nations.

Besides the underlying reasons for American entry into the war, there were obvious and immediate reasons for that decision: the naval warfare between Great Britain and Germany, the use of the submarine by the Germans, and Wilson's interpretation of international law as he attempted to protect the rights of the United States as a neutral nation. The authors inference that Americans got caught in the crossfire between the Allies and the Central Powers is supported through the tracing of United States policy from the sinking of the Lusitania to the adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans. Therefore, the Zimmermann telegram, perceived as a direct threat to American security by American officials; the arming of American commercial ships; and additional sinkings of American ships by German submarines brought a declaration of war by Congress. Finally, America went to war because of a special sense of mission. The country went to war to reform world politics, war being the only means that guaranteed Wilson a seat and an insider's voice at the peace table.

In spite of antiwar sentiment in the United States, the country began to prepare for war before the actual declaration, as can be seen in the passage of the National Defense Act, the Navy Act, and the Revenue Act. Once war was declared, the country turned to the draft (the Selective Service Act) to raise the necessary army. Even though American military and political leaders believed that American virtue could reshape the world, they feared that the world would reshape the virtue of American soldiers. Despite attempts to protect that virtue, venereal disease became a serious problem within the army. Furthermore, American soldiers could not be shielded from the graver threat of influenza and pneumonia, and more soldiers died from disease than on the battlefield. Another serious problem in the American army one that government and army officials did little to combat was racism. Not only were African Americans segregated within the army, but they were also subjected to various forms of racial discrimination.

Mobilization of the nation for the war effort altered American life. Government power increased, especially in the economic sphere. Government-business cooperation became part of official government policy. Centralized governmental control and planning of the nation's economy were largely successful, but there were mistakes and problems. Government policy caused inflation; government tax policies meant that only one-third of the war was financed through taxes; and, although organized labor made some gains, it usually took a back seat to the needs of corporations.

The war intensified the divisions within the pluralistic American society. Entry of more women into previously male jobs brought negative reactions by male workers. Increased northward migration of African Americans intensified racist fears and animosities in factories and neighborhoods. The government's fear of dissent and of foreigners led to the trampling of civil liberties at the national, state, and local levels. In the immediate aftermath of the war, events both within and outside the country heightened these fears, culminating in the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids. The American effort to make the world safe for democracy brought actions on the home front that seemed to indicate a basic distrust of democracy.

Divisions also intensified on the political front, as the debate over the Treaty of Versailles indicates. In The Defeat of Peace, Wilson's Fourteen Points are contrasted with the actual terms of the treaty. The divergence was an issue used in the arguments of those opposed to the treaty and to American entry into the League of Nations. But the core of the problem lay in Article 10 of the League covenant. Critics charged that the collective-security provisions of this article would allow League members to call out the United States Army without congressional approval. The belief of many that this was true was at the heart of the debate against the League. Fear that the United States would be forced to forgo its traditional unilateralism in foreign affairs led the Senate to reject the treaty and American entry into the League of Nations.

The American experience in the First World War influenced every aspect of American life, producing consequences for the future. The war changed America's place in world affairs to one of world prominence, and it continued to shape America's institutions and decisions both at home and abroad long after 1920.

War, Prosperity, and the Metropolis: 1914-1929

1914 Slav nationalist assassinates Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary.

1915 German submarine sinks the Lusitania. Ku Klux Klan reorganized in Georgia.

1916 General Pershing pursues Pancho Villa into Mexico. Wilson wins reelection.

1917 Zimmerman telegram. Congress declares war. Russian Revolution.
Espionage Act passed.

1918 Daylight saving time introduced. Wilson advances his "Fourteen Points."
Armistice in Europe.Spanish influenza kills thousands.

1919 Eighteenth Amendment ratified. Treaty of Versailles signed, but fails in Senate. Seattle general strike. Race riots in Chicago and other cities.

1919-20 Palmer raids.

1920 Congress passes the Volstead Act. Nineteenth Amendment ratified.
Harding wins presidency. Nation?s first radio station (KDKA in Pittsburgh) goes on the air. Sinclair Lewis publishes Main Street.

1921 Margaret Sanger founds the American Birth Control League.

1921-22 Washington Arms Limitation Conference.

1923 Harding dies in office; Coolidge becomes president.

1924 Teapot Dome scandal. Coolidge wins reelection.
National Origins Act restricts immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.

1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald publishes The Great Gatsby. Alain Locke publishes The New Negro. Scopes Monkey Trial.

1926 NBC established.

1927 Coolidge dispatches U.S. troops to Nicaragua. Advent of motion picture "talkies." Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic.
Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.

1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlaws war. Herbert Hoover defeats Al Smith for president.

1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff raises rates to historic highs.

War and Diplomacy:
World War I transformed America's relationship with the world. The outbreak of war in Europe in the summer of 1914 initially seemed to have little to do with the United States. However, economic ties to Great Britain and France, the sympathies of various ethnic groups, and President Wilson's desire to protect American neutral rights all made it difficult for the United States to remain truly neutral. By early 1917, Wilson sought to use the influence of the United States to fashion a new world order based on the principles of free trade, self-determination, and collective security. His efforts to fashion a just and lasting peace met opposition from America's allies and from congressional leaders who feared the potential for the United States to be dragged into foreign conflicts.

The United States had been gradually moving away from its policy of political isolation from world affairs since the 1890s (and arguably before). American economic interests abroad grew significantly during the war through sales of munitions and other goods to the Allies, and by the end of the war the United States was the world's leading creditor nation. The nation debated greater political involvement through the League of Nations at the conclusion of the war. Although this course was rejected, American commercial interests continued to grow during the postwar period, leading to a growing imbalance between the nation's significant economic influence abroad and its limited political role.

Economic Transformation: Wartime mobilization facilitated significant economic growth for the United States and also transformed the relationship between business and government, cementing a close alliance between the two that continued into the postwar period. While workers, farmers, and minority groups (particularly African Americans) benefited from the wartime boom, significant inflation and a deep postwar economic downturn erased the gains that they had made and left many worse off than they had been before. These groups by and large continued to struggle throughout the largely prosperous 1920s and into the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Politics and Citizenship: The search for social unity following American entry into the war in the spring of 1917 had important and far-reaching consequences for American society. The Wilson administration's propaganda efforts expanded beyond their original intent and in many cases became a mechanism for suppressing dissent and persecuting suspected radicals, members of minority groups, and others who did not fit the ideal of "100 percent Americanism." This ugly atmosphere continued into the postwar period and to some extent throughout the 1920s, as civil liberties frequently came under attack and those who questioned American institutions and ideals were labeled as unpatriotic (and worse).

Digital History

America at War: World War I
The Associated Press ranked World War I as the 8th most important event of the 20th century. In fact, almost everything that subsequently happened occurred because of World War I: the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War, and the collapse of empires. No event better underscores the utter unpredictability of the future. Europe hadn't fought a major war for 100 years. A product of miscalculation, misunderstanding, and miscommunication, the conflict might have been averted at many points during the five weeks preceding the fighting. World War I destroyed four empires - German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Romanov - and touched off colonial revolts in the Middle East and Vietnam. WWI shattered Americans' faith in reform and moral crusades. WWI carried far-reaching consequences for the home front, including prohibition, women's suffrage, and a bitter debate over civil liberties. World War I killed more people (9 million combatants and 5 million civilians) and cost more money ($186 billion in direct costs and another $151 billion in indirect costs) than any previous war in history.

Triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, World War I began in August 1914 when Germany invaded Belgium and France. Several events led to U.S. intervention: the sinking of the Lusitania, a British passenger liner; unrestricted German submarine warfare; and the Zimmerman note, which revealed a German plot to provoke Mexico to war against the United States. Millions of American men were drafted, and Congress created a War Industries Board to coordinate production and a National War Labor Board to unify labor policy. The Treaty of Versailles deprived Germany of territory and forced it to pay reparations. President Wilson agreed to the treaty because it provided for the establishment of a League of Nations, but he was unable to persuade the Senate to ratify the treaty.

1. Nearly 10 million soldiers died and about 21 million were wounded. U.S. deaths totaled 116,516.

2. Four empires collapsed: the Russian Empire in 1917, the German and the Austro-Hungarian in 1918, and the Ottoman in 1922.

3. Independent republics were formed in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Turkey.

4. Most Arab lands that had been part of the Ottoman Empire came under the control of Britain and France.

5. The Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917, and fascists triumphed in Italy in 1922.

6. Other consequences of the war included the mass murder of Armenians in Turkey and an influenza epidemic that killed over 25 million people worldwide.

7. Under the peace settlement, Germany was required to pay reparations eventually set at $33 billion; accept responsibility for the war; cede territory to Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, and Poland; give up its overseas colonies; and accept an allied military force on the west bank of the Rhine River for 15 years.

Lecture Outlines

World War I 1914-1918

Aftermath of World War I

Foreign Policy 1865-1919 Notes


World War I