The events of July and early August 1914 are a classic case of “one thing led to another”- otherwise known as the treaty alliance system.

The explosive that was World War One had been long in the stockpiling; the spark was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Ferdinand’s death at the hand of the Black Hand, a Serbian secret society, set in train a mindlessly mechanical series of events that culminated in the world’s first global war. Austria-Hungary’s reaction to the death of their heir was three weeks in coming. Arguing that the Serbian government was implicated in the machinations of the Black Hand, the Austria-Hungarians opted to take the opportunity to stamp its authority upon the Serbians, crushing the nationalist movements there and cementing Austria-Hungary’s influence in the Balkans.

It did so by issuing an ultimatum to Serbia, which in extent of its demand that the assassins be brought to justice effectively nullified Serbia’s sovereignty. Austria-Hungary’s expectations were that Serbia would reject the remarkably severe terms of the ultimatum, thereby giving her pretext for launching a limited war against Serbia.
Austria-Hungary unsatisfied with Serbia’s response to her ultimatum declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. Russia bounded by treaty with Serbia, announced mobilization of its vast army in defense, a slow process that would take around six weeks to complete.

Germany, allied to Austria-Hungary by treaty, viewed the Russian mobilization as an act of war against Austria-Hungary, and after scant warning declared war on Russia on 1 August.

France, bound by treaty to Russia, responded by announcing war against Germany and, by extension, on Austria-Hungary on August 3rd. Germany promptly responded by invading neutral Belgium so as to reach Paris by the shortest possible route.

Britain allied to France by a more loosely worded treaty, which placed a “moral obligation” upon her to defend France, declared war against Germany on August 4th. Her reason for entering the conflict lay in another direction: she was obligated to defend the neutral Belgium by the terms of a 75-year old treaty. With Germany’s invasion of Belgium on August 4th, and the Belgian’s King appeal to Britain for assistance, Britain committed herself to Belgium’s defense later that day. Like France, she was by extension also at war with Austria-Hungary (Duffy, 2000).

During the early phase of the war, the Americans exhibited a wide range of attitudes and a broad sense of detachments from events in Europe. The fact that millions of Americans had significant ties to one or another of the warring nations complicated public response to the war. More than one-third of Euro-American population of the country was either foreign born or had at least one parent who had been. Some retained citizenship in their native land, and many cared deeply about the fate of their mother country. Historical memory of the role of French in American Revolution prompted pro-Allied feelings, as did a sense of common culture and common institutions with Great Britain. But then there were ten million German-Americans, many with family members in the Fatherland and many of who supported openly the Fatherland’s cause. Millions of Americans of Irish descent regarded England as a tyrant and, indirectly, Germany as possible means of national liberation. Sicilians, Piedmontese, and others from Italian Peninsula often had only a vague sense of Italian national identity but followed the war news intently after Italy joint the Allies in April 1915. Millions of former residents of the Austria-Hungarian and Russian empires had experienced little but deprivation and discrimination in their countries of origin. Jews from the Russian empire detested the czar, and Poles and Czechs hoped for an end to imperial rule and the creation of the new national states. These broad categorizations masked powerful crosscurrent of difference, dissent, and perspective. It was possible to love German culture while hating German authoritarianism and militarism, to cherish English literature while abhorring English snobbery and arrogance, to be Irish and without wishing for British humiliation. (Kennedy; Bailey 1986)

At the start of hostilities, official American opinion was confused and uncertain with respect to the legal and economic implications of the war, but in the fall of 1914, the U.S government made critical decisions that directed its course over the next three years (Zieger, 2000). President Wilson issued the routine neutrality proclamation, and urged his countrymen to be neutral in both thought and deed. But Wilson could not even take is own advice, for as a lifelong admirer of British civilization, he was at heart pro-Ally. Most Americans, too, sympathized strongly with Britain and her allies. Ties of ethnic and cultural heritage, as well as commerce, bound the republic to Great Britain, while Anglo-American diplomatic relations has risen to a new level of friendliness.

Germany’s assault on “poor little Belgium” whose neutrality she and other powers had guaranteed in 1839, confirmed the image of German aggression, especially after the Chancellor himself dismissed the neutrality treaty as a mere “scrap of paper”.

Allied propagandists skillfully drenched the United States with news of “Hunnish” savagery, while avoiding mention of the rapes and atrocities committed by their own soldiers. Quite a number of the stories of German “atrocities” were deliberate falsehoods, like the tales of a “crucified Canadian” a “corpse factory” where Germans supposedly converted human bodies in soap, Belgian babies with their hands amputated, and Belgian maidens with their breasts slashed off. The most effective British propaganda, however, was based on facts, like the brutal German execution of English nurse Edith Cavell and the sinking of Lusitania. Especially as the war dragged on, the feeling deepened that Britain was “fighting our fight.” But the great majority still hoped to stay out of the horrible war.

The Germans in any case had built up their vast war machine with adequate stockpiles of military supplies, knowing well that, in the face of a British blockade, they probably could not import armaments from abroad. The sea-controlling allies had amassed a less formidable stockpiles, partly because they knew that they could count on supplementary arms from neutrals, including the United States. A stoppage of American munitions would have been a signal victory for the Germans, a stunning defeat for the Allies.

German and Austrian secret agents resorted to violence. Two German attaches in Washington as well as the Austria-Hungary ambassador were implicated in such underhanded schemes and forced to leave the country in 1915.
In the hand German plotting backfired badly. In August 1915, Dr. Albert, a key German agent, absent-mindedly left his briefcase in a New York elevator car. It was promptly picked up by an agent of secret services, and some of the documents relating to industrial sabotage were published in the newspapers. The American was again filled with images of German spies –men with short-cropped square heads and rolls of fat on the backs of their bull necks. Thus American opinion, already ill disposed, was further turned against the Kaiser and his Fatherland.

US diplomatic relations with Britain, in spite of America’s pro Ally bias, were not all-smooth sailing. The naval blockade, which was still Britain most offensive weapon, was bound to bruise American shippers. By heavily mining the North Sea and forcing neutral ships off the high seas into ports for close inspections, Britain went beyond the rules of the offshore blockade sanctioning by internationals law. The British also arbitrarily redefined contraband to include foodstuffs, cotton, and other items not hitherto regarded as directly useful in waging war. These annoying British practices violated American traditions, especially freedom of the seas.

Germans at the other hand posed a clear threat to the United Sates. Berlin officials declared that they would try not to sink neutral shipping, but they conceded that mistakes would probably occur. Outraged by the U-boat menace, President Wilson ringingly warned Germany that she would be held to “strict accountability” for any attacks on American’s vessels and citizens.

While such debates run on, German U-boats began their deadly work. From February to early May 1915, they sank about ninety ships of various kinds in the war zones. But the submarine issue became acute when the passengers liner Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915, with the loss of 1198 lives, including 128 Americans. The Lusitiana was carrying 4200 cases of small ammunition, a fact the Germans used to justify the sinking. But the United States was swept by a wave of shock and anger at this act of “mass murder” and “piracy.” The New York Nation branded the deed as for which “a Hun would blush, a Turk be ashamed.” Yet Wilson, sticking to his verbal guns, made some diplomatic progress.

After another British liner, the Arabic, was sunk in August 1915, with the loss of two American lives, Berlin reluctantly agreed not to sink unarmed and unresisting passenger ships without warning. This pledge appeared to be violated in March 1916, when a French passenger steamer, the Sussex, was torpedoed. The infuriated Wilson informed the Germans that unless they renounce the inhuman practice of sinking merchantmen without warning he would break diplomatic relations- an almost certain prelude to war. Germany reluctantly accepted Wilson’s Sussex ultimatum, thereby agreeing not to sink passenger ships without proper warning. But Berlin attached a long string to its Sussex pledge: America would have to persuade the allies to respect international law in their unlawful blockade. By accepting the pledge but ignoring the string, Wilson won another temporary, though precarious, diplomatic victory- precarious because Germany could pull the string whenever she chose, and the President would have to sever relations.

Why were the American people finally dragged into the conflagration, despite their two and one-half years of determination to stay out?

The German U-boat was undoubtedly the reason. In a figurative sense, America’s war declaration bore the well-known trademark, “Made in Germany.” Take away the submarine and the United States might have stayed out. Choosing the right foe was not difficult. British and other Allies restriction on America commerce were galling but endurable; claims for damages could be collected later. But Germany resorted to the mass killing of civilians; and there was no adequate monetary recompense for taking life. One Boston newspaper luridly concluded that while the Allies were a “gang of thieves,” the Germans were a “gang of murderers.” Many Americans were so deeply disturbed by the U-boat, and by its threat to freedom of the seas, that at the outset they proposed to fight a limited-liability war. They would pull out as soon as the Germans agreed to respect America’s rights on the high seas. But in the pointing the finger of accusation solely at the blood-splattered submarine, the American people overlooked their own share of responsibility. Undeniably, the United States was in some degree to blame for inviting these ruthless reprisals. The Germans found it easier to resort to their last desperate throw of the dice because of America’s seemingly unfriendly policies. She was sending munitions in vast quantities to their foes; she was advancing credits for such purchases; and she was acquiescing in the “unusual” British blockade that slowly starving the Fatherland, all the awhile condemning the German counter-blockade.

Once the “overt” acts came, the Americans people accepted the verdict of war with considerable enthusiasm. At heart they were pro-Ally. They were bound closely to the British and French by profitable golden threads, which were in danger by being cut off by ruthless German tactics.

Fear of Germany’s militaristic and monarchical threat to democracy was a clincher. Many Americans assumed that if the Kaiser won the war he would dash across the Atlantic, with millions of spike-helmeted soldier. Hunnish “slitters of babies’ throats” would brush inside the Monroe Doctrine, and than crush precious liberties under Prussian boot heel. Even if there would not be German immediate assault, the triumph of the Kaiser would badly upset the long-established European balance of power. The United States would then, as many apprehensive Americans believed, be placed in ultimate jeopardy.

Danger of a future attack, either directly or by way of Latin America, appears to have been graver than those of an immediate invasion. Naval and military difficulties hampering a German assault were immense. But countless Americans accepted such an attack as an alarming possibility. They preferred to fight in 1917, when they had European allies afloat, than to wait until they might have to face a wrath of the German militarist alone.

As the crisis developed early in 1917, America’s entrance to war became inevitable. Desperate German’s militarist, with confidence in their U-boats, had concluded that they had more to gain than to lose by making the United States an open enemy. Certain defeat was too high a price for them to pay for America’s continued “neutrality.” (Kennedy, & Bailey, 1986)

The Allies demanded the restoration of Belgium, Serbia, and Montenegro; the evacuation of the invaded territories in France, Russia, and Rumania; the restitution of “provinces formerly torn from the Allies by force”; the “liberation” of Italians, Slavs, and Rumanians. The German Supreme High Command regarded these aims as no less than the intention to dismember and dishonor Germany and its allies. Germany has been deliberately vague in its response to Reichstag and public support for the retention of the territories already won by the German armies, and for starving England into submission.

At a conference called by the Kaiser in the castle of Pless on January 10,1917, Field Marshall von Holtzendorff brushed aside the prophetic warnings of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg that unrestricted warfare would inevitable add America to the list of Germany’ enemies, reviving their confidence; that German-American citizens would not revolt; that America ships and troops would actually reach Europe. Disdaining the pessimism of Bethmann the Cassandra, Admiral Holtzendorff assured the Kaiser: “I guarantee on my word as a naval officer that no American would set foot on the continent!” This convinced the Kaiser and on January 31, 1917, the German government announced that begging on February 1, its submarines would sink without warning all ships, including neutrals after a brief period of grace, which were sighted within a broad zone around Great Britain, France, Italy and the eastern Mediterranean. One American vessel a week would be allowed to sail to and from England by a specific route.

President Wilson’s response was to sever diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3. Since the Kaiser’s government had already discounted the probability of America’s entry into the war, the new foreign minister, Zimmermann, wanted to distract and pin down the United States by embroiling it in further conflict with Mexico, and by making America fear a Japanese volte face and attack.

On March 1, the Americans were outraged by the publication of the notorious Zimmermann Telegram, which had been intercepted by British naval intelligence and divulged to President Wilson. In his cable Zimmermann had instructed the German minister in Mexico City, Heinrich von Eckhardt, to propose to the president of Mexico a German-Mexico alliance, and to promise German support in a Mexican reconquest of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Mexico was to persuade Japan to change sides in the war from the Allies to the Central Powers. After the provocation with Zimmermann Telegram war with Germany was all but inevitable.

The unrestricted submarine warfare was now waged with deadly efficiency against British and neutral shipping. By the end of the war, the U-boats sank 5708 Allied and neutral ships, including about half of the United Kingdom’s total cargo fleet. Until in became belligerent and adopted the convoy system to which England belatedly resorted, America had its share of ships losses. The German submarines sank the American vessels Houstonic, Lyman M. Law, Algonquin, City of Memphis, Illinois, Vigilancia, and Healdton in the months of February and March 1917. By now most Americans felt provoked beyond endurance. On April 2 President Wilson read a war message to a joint of session of Congress. After impassionate and often a bitter debate, the American declaration of war on Germany was adopted on April 6, by vote 82 to 6 in Senate, and 373 to 50 in House of Representatives. Contrary to the contemptuous predictions of the Kaiser’s military advisors, two million American troops and vast quantities of supplies were transported in vigilantly guarded convoys to Europe, and Germany’s fate was thereby sealed by November 11, 1918. (King, 1972)

The American people were not duped into war by profit-seeking connivers. They were not dragged in, as later charged, by Wall Street bankers, propagandists, sloganeers, weaponeers, and munitioneers. Although loans for the Allies were not inexhaustible, the munitions makers were already reaping obscene profits, unhampered by gornment restrictions and wartime excess-profits taxes. Their unpublished slogan might well have been “Neutrality Forever”(Kennedy; Bailey, 1986)