When war was declared in Europe, the United States of America had no interest in joining what they labelled as the European War. American doctrine of the time was insular with regards to the old world and instead concentrated on shaping the Americas as to its own liking. Indeed a significant portion of the American public had sympathies with the Axis Powers rather than the Allies, primarily amongst Irish, German and Scandinavian settlers although generally there was an underlying sympathy in most Americans for their Anglophile cousins.
Despite the best efforts of President Woodrow Wilson to keep a policy of neutrality, a number of factors gradually led the American people to become outright hostile to the Axis forces. The rape of Belgium by the German army was well publicised with the countless deaths of civilians and ill-treatment of women and children.
On 7th May 1915, as part of its policy of submarine warfare specifically targeting Great Britain but in reality against all ships, Germany sank the Cunard liner the RMS Lusitania. Its U-boat U20 torpedoed the liner just 11 miles off the Irish coast causing the deaths of 1,198 people. It caused a worldwide controversy, not lessened by the fact that the German embassy in the United States had printed an advert warning passengers that any vessels flying the British flag or entering British waters was a possible military target.
The Royal Navy had some success tracking U-20 though couldn’t stop the submarine from sinking vessels in the mid-Atlantic. The German Navy had recently cracked a British code which the Royal Navy used to telegraph civilian vessels. As such no transmissions were sent to vessels in this period in case the U-Boats would be able to use them to track down Allied shipping.
Captain Turner of the Lusitania did everything possible to avoid a sinking but technology and anti-submarine techniques were in their infancy and when the Lusitania reached the southern Irish Sea, they were almost a sitting duck in a an area heavily infested with German U-Boats..
According to Maritime Law, any civilian ships targeted had to be given time to evacuate and indeed the U-20 had already followed this policy when it sank other vessels but with the Lusitania this was not the case. Germany tried to justify the sinking by claiming the Lusitania was carrying large amounts of arms and ammunitions, that it was a valid target and that as it had warned passengers of the possibility of attack, it should be absolved of any blame. However 128 Americans lost their lives and it caused outrage in America, quite aside from the hundreds of British killed in the sinking.
President Wilson came under ever increasing pressure to declare war on Germany but he was determined not to rush into armed conflict and instead urged Germany to apologise for the attack and compensate the victims of the attack as well as promising not to attack civilian ships of any flag in the future.
Germany portrayed itself to America as a victim of a British policy of an illegal blockade that was starving its people and that it had the right to try and do the same to Great Britain even if it was only able to do so through submarine warfare. President Wilson didn’t buy into this point of view but refused to go to war.
Opinion amongst the British public, media and politicians was almost one of disgust at the policy chosen by the American president, seemingly unaware that he was simply following American public opinion. It is said that when shells failed to explode on the Western Front that they were labelled “Wilsons”. There was a feeling in Britain that America was either too prideful or too scared to go to war and this wasn’t disputed by members of the American Preparedness Movement.
By 1916, more Americans began to support entering the war, if only for reasons of nationalism and trade. A German undercover agent left his briefcase on a train in the United States and it revealed all sorts of policies and secrets that were soon published in the American papers. The British of course had their own propaganda campaign but weren’t involved in illegal subterfuge or at least if they were, weren’t stupid enough to get caught like Germany. An example of British propaganda was the successful British ploy of telling America that German school children were given a day off each year to celebrate the sinking of the Lusitania. Of course it was untrue but the Americans believed it and it was always in the interest of Britain to get America to enter the war as quickly as possible.
Despite the promise from Germany, further ships were sank with the loss of further American lives and the feeling grew in America that they should become allies of Great Britain. After their defeat at Jutland in 1916, Germany in 1917 announced a totally unrestricted policy of targeting vessels. The outrage this caused finally saw President Wilson change his policy and on April 6th 1917 the United States declared war on Germany.
For its first year, the American build-up and participation was low-key but all sides knew that if Germany didn’t win before full-scale American involvement then they never would. In March 1918, Germany launched an all-out assault on the Western Front and came close to succeeding at overwhelming the Allies but it was not enough and by April 1918 1 million American soldiers had arrived and the result of the war was then unavoidable.
Even after the war, the majority of the American public believed their wartime intervention has been a mistake and an estimated 300,000 men had illegally avoided conscription all together. The U.S. Senate rejected both the Versailles Treaty and membership of the League of Nations. Laws were put in place to try and preserve neutrality in any further conflicts and it took not just the fall of France or the sight of Great Britain standing alone against Fascism but the attack on Pearl Harbour before public sympathy decided to fight again.
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