Author: Cam Telch
Institution: York University (Toronto)
Professors: Professor Cothran and Professor Ladd-Taylor
President Woodrow Wilson was a major key player when dealing with the United States’ foreign policy during the First World War. During the years of the war, Wilson’s ideas about foreign intervention and the role of the United States in the world changed as he believed that the United States had to be involved with foreign affairs to protect American interests from foreign enemies. This was evident in the years leading up to American entry in the war as he guided his country through hardship and often catastrophic times, especially when dealing with Germany.
When facing such setbacks, Wilson used diplomacy and measured pressure to defend the interests of the United States as he believed that war, violence, and the loss of human life were not the answer. Only when Wilson’s diplomatic tactics did not work, did he push for war against Germany as a last measure to safeguard American national interests and used the war to advance his own interests as Wilson sought to shape the war torn world into a peaceful world where countries cooperated with one another through diplomacy. Wilson, in his mind, believed that the United States would not be threatened from abroad if such a cooperation existed amongst countries.
The traditional historiographical interpretation argues that the Wilson administration sought neutrality during the war. Some historians have argued that from the onset of the war in 1914, the Wilson administration was neutral as Wilson urged all Americans to remain neutral in thought as well as in action. In 1914, Wilson ordered a ban on all private loans to warring nations as a means to limit America’s financial contributions in the war. However, by 1915 the belligerent countries exceeded their cash reserves. Faced with a possible economic recession, the Wilson administration decided to lift the ban and traded materials and loaned money to both the Allies and Central Powers, therefore remaining neutral. However, both the British and Germans disrupted American neutrality as they sought to have an advantage over the other; the British imposed a naval blockade to limit American trade to Germany while the Germans used their submarines to sink American merchant ships and kill sailors en route to Britain. Wilson’s government protested against both sides, but in the end, historians argued, that Wilson abandoned neutrality when he sided with the British over the Germans, believing that human life had more value than property rights.
The revisionist interpretation argues that Wilson’s government attempted to remain neutral in the beginning of the war, but broke neutrality to defend American interests from Germany. On August 18, 1914, Wilson informed Americans to remain “impartial in thought as well as in action” as he reflected the wishes of most Americans who did not want to get involved with the war. Despite Wilson’s pledge to neutrality, his government found it difficult to remain neutral as concern for Germany and its allies grew; top government officials and military commanders were anti-German as they feared that a German victory would threaten the United States’ security and hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. Wilson supported the views of his advisers and military leaders as he was also afraid of what a German victory meant for his country. From 1914 onwards, Wilson’s government supported the Allies as it gave them loans and munitions while decreasing trade with the Central Powers. Moreover, in 1915 and 1916, Wilson pushed Congress to pass legislation for preparedness in case his country had to become militarily active against Germany. Revisionists believe that Wilson’s actions and policies brought the United States closer to war and not away from it.
While revisionists argue that Wilson attempted to pursue a policy of neutrality, but was forced to be involved with foreign affairs to defend American interests from Germany, this essay will challenge this revisionist school of thought by arguing that there was no such policy of neutrality for Wilson and his administration. Wilson’s speeches, decisions, and diplomatic notes reveal that his foreign and domestic policies aligned the United States with the Allies. This is significant because despite Wilson’s proclamation of neutrality, the reality was he clearly had an active agenda to involve his administration on the world stage in order to protect American national interests from Germany all while under the guise of neutrality.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, the United States was actively involved in world affairs when President Theodore Roosevelt issued the Roosevelt Corollary as it became an extension of the Monroe Doctrine. In his annual speech to Congress on December 6, 1904, Roosevelt gave a statement following the Venezuela crisis of 1902-1903; Britain, Germany, and Italy imposed a naval blockade around Venezuela as President Cipriano Castro refused to pay for foreign debts. In response to this crisis, Roosevelt issued the Roosevelt Corollary where he stated that any European intervention in Latin America would force the United States to intervene. While the Monroe Doctrine warned the European powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere, the Roosevelt Corollary took this step further as Roosevelt declared that the United States would use military intervention in Latin America to keep the European powers out.
When Wilson came to power in 1913, his administration was active in world affairs as it dealt with Mexico. The newly elected president sought to pursue a different foreign policy as he called for the abandonment of isolationism. By abandoning isolationism, Wilson believed that the United States could pursue a policy of economic self-sufficiency with other countries.
However, before Wilson could pursue with his administration’s goal, he was forced to deal with the Mexican Revolution, which was posed by the outgoing Taft administration. When President William Howard Taft was in power, revolutionary leader Franeso Madero ousted Mexican leader Porfirio Diza. Madero’s government drew attention from the Taft administration as his regime could not protect American citizens and their property in Mexico. Taft’s government supported a coup against Madero, which brought in Victoriano Huerta, a ruthless dictator that Wilson was forced to deal with. Wilson gave a statement to the new Mexican regime that his government does not support those who seek to seize the power of government to advance their own interests. He supported the Mexican people as he believed in the notion of self-determination as Wilson advocated for “good government” for the Mexican people and believed that their leaders should be democratically elected. Throughout his presidency, Wilson would attempt to undermine Huerta’s regime by imposing a policy of non-recognition, cutting Mexico off from the rest of the world, and selling weapons to Huerta’s opponents. Foreign relations between the United States and Mexico suffered heavily in the years leading up to American intervention in the war.
Following the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, Wilson issued a statement of neutrality, but was actively involved in foreign affairs at the same time in order to defend American interests. On August 9, Wilson issued a statement declaring that the United States would pursue a policy of neutrality throughout the course of the war and called all Americans to “act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality.” He urged for all Americans to remain united and believed that division would create hostility amongst Americans. In issuing his proclamation of neutrality, the president followed the traditional and normal course, but in his own thoughts he believed that a non-active position was unjustifiable as he wanted to “help the rest of the world.” To end the war, Wilson believed, would protect “our own honor and our obligations in the world.” Wilson also believed that promoting national honour to the belligerent countries would also guarantee American independence. He then ordered his most trusted advisor, Colonel Edward M. House, to begin peaceful negotiations between the European powers.
The Wilson administration pursed a diplomatic approach when attempting to end the war between the Allies and Central Powers. During the autumn of 1914, House, with Wilson’s approval, met in Washington with the British and German ambassadors, Sir Cecil Spring Rice and Count Johann von Bernstorff, as House proposed “ a durable peace” to end militarism and restore Belgium. The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, accepted the plans of House’s suggestions, but would not enter into any peaceful negotiations with Germany until it agreed to evacuate Belgium and pay it an indemnity. Grey then contemplated an idea as he instructed Spring Rice to get Wilson to agree to enter into an alliance in order to protect the Allies from further German aggression. When presenting this idea to House, he responded stating that Wilson would never agree to such an agreement; the idea of peace quickly collapsed that autumn as Germany also rejected American mediation.
Wilson attempted to remain economically neutral, but soon realized that economic neutrality had negative effects upon the American economy. Thus reserving the decision not to remain economically neutral and allowing American companies to sell to the Allies and Central Powers. The Wilson administration at first attempted to impose a loan ban on both the Allies and Central Powers as it would be “inconsistent with the true spirit of neutrality” should American banks issue private loans to belligerent countries. However, the ban failed as it harmed the American economy since it prevented the sale of American goods to European countries; the ban also reduced trade and harmed American farmers and manufactures who needed to sell their products abroad in order to make money. By October 1914, Wilson and his adviser, Robert Lansing, agreed to modify the ban so that American companies could sell their products abroad as “a means of facilitating trade.” The loan was eventually dropped as Wilson and Lansing realized that continuation of the loan could have caused an economic depression for the United States.
Britain attempted to control American trade by violating American maritime rights with its control over the Atlantic Ocean. Wilson sent notes to the heads of various European governments that the United States will use its legal rights, under the 1909 Declaration of London that established the rules of naval warfare and the treatment of neutral shipping, to sell cotton, wheat, and other commodities to the Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians, and Italians as a neutral power. Immediately, Germany and Austria-Hungary replied that they would follow the Declaration, but Britain replied that it would “generally [follow] the rules of the Declaration, subject to certain modifications.” Indeed, Britain tried to prevent American trade to Germany by using the broadest interpretation of contraband by including foodstuffs and cotton to its contraband list; the British Royal Navy forced American merchant ships into ports for inspection and seized contrabands from American vessels.
Due to Britain’s influence upon American trade, the United States forged strong economic relations with the British under Wilson’s leadership, undermining American neutrality and influencing a pro-Allied policy within Wilson’s government. The Allies became dependant to purchase an adequate amount of munitions from the United States. The Americans, motivated to make money, agreed to supply the British and French. By 1914, American exports to Britain and France amounted to $754 million; by 1915 that figure rose to $1.28 billion and by 1916 it increased to$2.75 billion. Foreign trade with the Allies prevented the United States from having an economic recession; within a year of the war American trade became intertwined with the economies of the Allies that any interference would have harmed American businesses.
Trade, however, with the Germany plummeted as American exports in 1914 fell to $345 million; that number further decreased to $29 million by 1915 and to $2 million by 1916. Indeed, the Wilson administration preferred trade with Britain and France over Germany as those countries had more money to spend; the Wilson government began to form an informal alliance with Britain and France as American capital was heavily invested on the side of the Allies.
Therefore, it became the financial interests for the Wilson administration for the Allies to win the war as Wilson feared that an Allied defeat could cost the United States money, damaging the American economy.
The Allies, however, soon encountered a problem as they could not keep up with their purchases without a system of credits or loans. The Allies used cash to purchase American products, quickly depleting their liquid assets. To resolve this issue, the Wilson administration, between October 1914 and March 1915, extended over $80 million of credits to the Allied buyers. Furthermore, with Wilson’s approval, after consulting with Lansing and Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo, American banks were allowed to give loans to the British and French; J.P. Morgan and Co. on October 15, 1915, gave a loan of $500 million to Britain and France. Eventually, by the time Wilson’s government entered the war on the side of the Allies by 1917, the federal government and private banks loaned the Allies $2 billion.
Despite the violation of American maritime rights, Wilson’s government tolerated Britain by maintaining diplomatic relations. Wilson knew that a British and French victory would guarantee long-term American economic interests over a German victory. However, the Wilson administration, at times, did become frustrated over Britain’s violation of American maritime rights as the Wilson administration did issue some protests against these violations.
To avoid angering the Americans, the British often compensated American businesses for damages and purchased large amounts of goods at inflated prices. Nonetheless, Americans tolerated Britain’s economic warfare and Wilson believed that these violations of maritime rights were not sufficient enough to justify an open breach with Britain. Wilson was lenient towards the British as he personally admired their democratic system of government and deeply believed that a German victory would be a setback for democracy everywhere. Furthermore, Wilson’s government was pro-British since American cultural ties to Britain were stronger historically than those to Germany and the British had maintained close Anglo-American relations since the late nineteenth century. Moreover, to influence public opinion, the British controlled the flow of information from Europe to the United States to gain the sympathy of Wilson and most Americans.
Germany protested against Britain’s economic relationship with the United States by launching unrestricted submarine warfare, which the Wilson administration opposed since it viewed it as a threat to American maritime interests. On February 4, 1915, the German government declared a war zone around the British Isles in retaliation for the British trading with the United States and control upon neutral commerce; Germany also warned neutral countries of the potential dangers within the zone. By February 15, Germany announced that it would use its submarines to destroy every merchant ship without regarding the safety for crews or passengers. In response to Germany’s announcement, Wilson wrote to James W. Gerard, United States Ambassador to Germany, that his government viewed Germany’s declaration “with such grave concern” that it was going to ask the German government to respect foreign relations between both countries. Wilson expressed the view to Gerard that his administration will hold Germany “to a strict accountability” if submarine commanders do not take the necessary steps to protect American citizens and their property. Wilson expressed his confidence stating that he hoped that American citizens and their vessels “will not be molested by the naval forces of Germany.”
Germany violated the Wilson administration’s strict accountability policy when it sank a British passenger ship resulting in the death of one American citizen; however, there was no precedent for the strict accountability policy. When the Wilson government announced its strict accountability policy, no one within the administration questioned nor knew what such policy meant as contemporary records do not exist to demonstrate what Lansing or Wilson were thinking. However, in the midst of this confused debate over American policy, a German submarine sunk a British passenger ship, the Falaba, which killed one American in March 1915. This attack set off an enormous debate within the Wilson administration about how American rights should be defended as this attack was in violation of the strict accountability doctrine. Lansing believed that the Wilson administration must protest against such actions. However, since the Falaba was a British ship, it must also be declared illegal for submarines to attack belligerent merchant ships as well as neutral vessels. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan forwarded Lansing’s recommendation to the president that any American who travelled onboard a British ship should be aware of the risks that it would place Wilson’s government in. Wilson agreed that sinking of the Falaba was a complex situation and the reality was that American leaders, for the first time, were confronted with a situation that they never faced before.
The sinking of more ships and the deaths of several Americans prompted the Wilson administration to enforce the strict accountability doctrine. Near the end of April and the beginning of May 1915, an American tanker, the Cushing, was struck by a German bomb with no reported casualties and another tanker, the Gulflight, was sunk by a German torpedo, killing three Americans. Lansing argued that the latest attacks revealed German hostility towards the United States and Bryan urged Wilson to issue a note of protest to the German government. Wilson, however, urged for diplomacy, but at the same agreed that the strict accountability policy must be upheld. On May 5, Lansing wrote a warning note to the German government and declared that “the German Government must make full reparation for the act of their naval force and must also repudiate the act, apologize for it, and give ample assurance that it will not be repeated.” With this new interpretation, it defined American rights and Wilson began to realize what his government had committed itself to and where it might lead. Bryan, however, thought that the Wilson administration’s response to Germany was too harsh as he wanted a more “even-handed” approach that he resigned from Wilson’s government. Following Bryan’s resignation, Wilson appointed Lansing as his new secretary of state.
The sinking of the Lusitania prompted Wilson to send a note of protest to the German government. On May 7, 1915, a German submarine torpedoed the Lusitania, killing 785 passengers and 413 crew members; 128 Americans also lost their lives following this attack. After the attack, Wilson condemned the sinking of the Lusitania as he sent a note of protest to the German government demanding that it stop its submarine warfare. Wilson defended the rights of American citizens claiming that they have the right to travel on the Atlantic Ocean for business or leisure and that American lives should not be placed in any danger. Wilson demanded that Germany, in the future, should take the necessary steps to protect the lives of non-combatants whether they are from neutral countries or countries at war to prevent the further loss of human life. Wilson indicated in his note that submarines cannot be used against merchant or passengers ships and that Germany must uphold the principles of justice and humanity.
Following the sinking of the Lusitania, Wilson then sent second and third notes of protest to the German government to condemn the sinking of the Lusitania and the sinking of other ships that caused the deaths of American citizens. In Wilson’s second and third notes, he defended the Cushing, Gulflight, and Falaba claiming that they operated as neutral vessels in open waters and that “they have not been guilty of hostile act” towards Germany. Wilson urged the German government to acknowledge and recognize that its submarine forces were guilty of attacking merchant vessels. Wilson then defended the Lusitania stating that it was not armed for an offensive action against Germany and that its primary purpose was to carry passengers. Wilson condemned the loss of innocent lives as men, women, and children and were “sunk without so much as a challenge or a warning, and were sent to their death in circumstances unparalleled in modern warfare.” Wilson called upon the German government to honour human life and reminded it that every government has a duty to protect human life under its care and authority. Wilson expected that the German government will take the necessary measures to safeguard American lives and merchant ships.
German-American foreign relations deteriorated following the sinking of the Lusitania and other similar sinking’s that caused the loss of American lives, that the Wilson administration decided to strengthen the army and navy. When the war began in 1914, the United States army had only 100,000 soldiers; military and civilians leaders believed that size of the army was dangerously small. Wilson sought to expand the size of the army for defensive purposes; two weeks after the sinking of the Lusitania, Wilson also ordered a slow buildup of the navy. During the autumn of 1915, Wilson firmly believed that the public would support him to what was called “preparedness.” Bryan believed that American military intervention in Europe would be disastrous for the United States as he viewed the president’s order as a step closer to intervention, but Wilson’s conversion to preparedness was nonetheless ominous.
To repair foreign relations, Germany made a pledge to the Wilson administration that its submarine forces will not attack passenger ships without warning. On August 19, 1915, a passenger ship, the Arabic, was torpedoed by a German submarine, resulting in the deaths of several Americans. To avoid angering the Americans and to keep the United States out of the war, Bernstorff promised Washington that submarine commanders have been ordered not to attack passenger ships without warning; on October 20 copies of the new orders were sent to submarine crews. Bernstorff expressed to the Wilson administration his regret for the loss of American lives and also promised that his government would pay for full indemnity.
To contain and prevent German aggression, Wilson attempted to end the war again through mediation, but developed a pro-Allied plan at the same time. In October 1915, Wilson agreed to House’s suggestion by developing a pro-Allied scheme because House strongly believed, as he warned the president, that an Allied defeat could lead to Germany turning against the United States as his recent trip to Berlin convinced him that Germany could be planning an all-out offensive on the British blockade, thus fearing that American ships could be sunk. With Wilson’s permission, House wrote a preliminary draft indicating that his government is committed to peace, but also included that the United States might intervene militarily on the side of the Allies as a last resort if its interests are further threatened by Germany.
In December 1915, House travelled back to Europe to meet with Grey in London to present to him Wilson’s proposal. Together both diplomats negotiated and developed a finalized draft of the proposal, becoming known as the “House-Grey Memorandum.” The final draft indicated that Allies would notify House when it would be deemed appropriate to have the Wilson administration demand a cease-fire and have peaceful negotiations. According to the draft, the Allies would accept the demand, but if the Central Powers refused it then the United States would go to war against them. Another demonstration to Wilson’s pro-Allied character was that, with the president’s permission, House included in the final outline a list of peace terms that the Allies were hoping to achieve. However, in February 1916, Germany announced that it would now attack armed merchant ships without warning; Wilson viewed Germany’s new announcement as a threat to American maritime rights and ordered House to strengthen his efforts for the peace mission. Despite House’s best attempts to end the war, peaceful negotiations were not held between the Allies and the Central Powers as Germany refused to accept the draft. Wilson even toned down his threat of American military intervention, therefore even weakening the draft. Lansing, however, announced that the Wilson administration would ban American citizens from travelling onboard armed merchant ships while German-American foreign relations deteriorated even further.
Germany violated its Arabic pledge when its submarine forces sank another passenger ship, forcing Wilson to issue an ultimatum to Germany. On March 25, 1916, a passenger ship, the Sussex, was torpedoed by a German submarine without warning, killing dozens of passengers and injuring four Americans. The Germans, despite overwhelming evidence, denied their involvement with the sinking. Facing pressure from his own cabinet who demanded that an ultimatum should be sent to Germany, Wilson listened to the advice of his cabinet when he issued a final ultimatum to Germany. In his final note to Germany, Wilson insisted that Germany cannot continue “to prosecute relentless and indiscriminate warfare against vessels of commerce by the use of submarines.” Wilson pressured the German government to permanently abandon submarine warfare or his administration would be forced to sever diplomatic relations. Fearing possible American military intervention on the side of the Allies, the German government informed the Wilson government that its submarine forces will obey international law by not attacking passenger ships anymore.
Wilson’s suspicions of Germany and deteriorating German-American foreign relations prompted him to launch his campaign for a league of nations in 1916. By 1916, the Allies and Central Powers were locked in a bitter stalemate and Wilson feared that the United States might be drawn into war on the side of the Allies if Germany continued to violate American rights. Following a brief vacation to get away from the war with family and friends, Wilson came back to the White House feeling refreshed as he complemented during his holiday that a permanent peace plan must be proposed to prevent such a war from happening again as well as to prevent Germany from threatening world peace. His plan of action involved instituting a liberal economic regime of a league of nations and a system of collective security to guarantee an everlasting peace. In his mind, Wilson believed that American participation in a league of nations could restrain Germany from threatening Europe and the United States ever again; once contained by American power, Germany could pass domestic reforms so that it could permanently shed its militaristic elements. Wilson strongly believed that once Germany developed a democratic system, it could live peacefully with other countries, such as Britain, France, and the United States.
Wilson then gave a speech to his supporters to address his beliefs with regards to having a league of nations in Washington D.C. in May 1916. In his speech, Wilson highlighted that “our rights as a Nation, the liberties, the privileges, and the property of our people have been affected [by Germany].” To end the war and to have a permanent peace, Wilson emphasized that “arbitrary force” must rejected so that the nations of the world can better cooperate with one another. He stated that having a permanent peace could only be established by having “an universal association of the nations.” Once such an organization was formed, Wilson believed, it will be the responsibility of nations to guarantee freedom of the oceans and to prevent future wars through diplomacy and cooperation; he also repeated that guarantee territorial integrity and political independence can also be used to prevent wars. Wilson finished his speech reiterating that once countries unite behind a “common force” the rights and interests of all peoples and governments would be long-lasting.
The 1916 U.S. presidential election was a significant victory for Wilson due to his administration’s efforts of promoting peace and diplomacy. Going into the election, Wilson was popular amongst voters for defending American rights in the world and for keeping the United States out of the war militarily; his campaign promoted the slogan “he kept us out of the war. Many voters were impressed by Wilson’s ability to use diplomacy to force Germany to stop its unrestricted submarine warfare campaign and many Americans supported Wilson’s efforts of using peaceful tactics to end the war. Wilson’s Republican opponent, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evan Hughes, promoted a different campaign in which he promised voters for military intervention on the side of the Allies. Wilson’s Democratic supporters stated to voters that a vote for Hughes was a vote for war; Wilson’s campaign was appealing to voters as many Americans wanted nothing to do with the war and had a clear choice in electing their respective party. Wilson’s approach to the war gave the Democrats a clear cut advantage over the Republicans as Wilson was re-elected as president, acquiring most of the votes.
Following Wilson’s re-election, the president again attempted to end the war in Europe through diplomacy. By the fall of 1916, the war continued to worsen; on the Western Front, the Battle of the Somme ended in a stalemate between the Allies and the Central Powers, disappointing the Allies bitterly as they hoped that the Battle of the Somme would have ended the war. Elsewhere the war continued to spread as more countries became involved; Romania declared war against Austria-Hungary and Italy declared war on Germany. The world turned to Wilson and the United States for assistance as many countries were hoping for Wilson to help end the war. Facing the pressure of the world, the president, at the end of November, finished a note that he intended to send to the Allies and Central Powers. Even though Wilson was still pro-Allied, he decided to take a less pro-Allied stance for the first time in the war in order to act as a neutral mediator with the intention of ending the war peacefully. Within the note, the president expressed that the war had badly affected neutral countries and called upon both sides to state specific war aims as a preliminary to a peace meeting. Germany announced that it was willing to negotiate for peace; Wilson realized that he had to act fast because the Allies might reject a German proposal and any peace conference. On December 18, Wilson sent his note off to both sides.
Wilson’s advisers, House and Lansing, undermined the president’s authority by siding with the Allies rather than acting as neutral mediators when the note was released, angering the Germans. The British and French rejected Wilson’s note as they expressed outrage in their respective press that Wilson was insensitive to their ideals. House strongly believed that the United States must enter the war on the side of the Allies to not strain relations with the British and French; meanwhile Lansing released a statement to the press on December 21 stating that Wilson was edging closer to intervening in the war. Germany then rejected Wilson’s note, forcing Wilson to order Lansing to issue another statement to the press as he did not intend to undermine American neutrality. However, in private Lansing did inform the British and French ambassadors that the United States would never side with Germany. Lansing and House prevented any chance of peace as they encouraged the Allies to demand extreme peace terms that could be only achieved through victory over Germany. As peace yet again was prevented, German leaders were privately discussing relaunching unrestricted submarine warfare.
Wilson then gave a speech to the Senate to highlight his vision for peace in the post-world war. Even though both sides rejected Wilson’s peace note, the president had no intention of giving up on his peace mission. He continued to use diplomacy in order to understand Germany’s expectations and pressured both sides through his speech, which was addressed to the Senate on January 22, 1917. In his speech, Wilson discussed that “a peace without victory” could only be achieved by the “equality of nations” that recognize “the principle that governments derive all their powers from the consent of the governed.” He emphasized that all countries should avoid alliances and instead enter into a global community where all nations can pursue for a common goal, which was an everlasting peace. The rights of all people to have access to the seas, the freedom of the seas, and an arms limitation would diffuse any hostility amongst nations. Once such a peace was established, humanity could work together through cooperation and communication to prevent such a war again from happening again. Wilson concluded his speech as he declared confidently that such an everlasting peace would draw support from the American people and that they would support the United States in joining “the other civilized nations of the world in guaranteeing the permanence of peace upon such terms.”
While the Allies accepted Wilson’s speech, Germany opposed the president’s speech due to its anti-German tone. Despite Wilson’s attempt to remain neutral, his Peace without Victory speech was still pro-Allied as he included in his speech some of the objectives that the Allies were fighting for such as democracy and preventing the spread of aggression in Europe. The Allies, nonetheless, welcomed Wilson’s speech due to its pro-Allied tone, but the Germans were outraged at Wilson since they did not want to accept his speech as the basis for peace as it indirectly called for the end of Germany’s autocracy. Instead, the German leadership realized that it was ready to continue with its unrestricted submarine warfare mission as German leaders believed that the only way to win the war was to sink ships of every nation as they believed that Wilson’s speech called for Germany’s defeat.
Germany publicly declared its intention to continue with its unrestricted submarine warfare campaign following Wilson’s speech to the Senate. On January 31, with the approval of the Kaiser, the German government declared that its submarine forces would adopt a policy where they would all ships in a zone around the British Isles. German leaders decided to risk war with the United States by starving Britain into submission before American entry into the war. On January 31, Ambassador Bernstorff delivered his government’s statement to the State Department and warned that no ships would be spared, including neutral vessels.
Realizing that Germany cannot follow through with its pledges and respect American maritime rights, Wilson decided to sever diplomatic relations with Germany. Wilson realized that his plans for peace had wait as he strongly believed that the Germans would reject his peace proposal. On February 3, Wilson delivered a speech to Congress, announcing that his administration has severed all diplomatic relations with Germany and that American ambassador to Berlin has been ordered back to the United States. Wilson expressed outrage stating that he cannot understand as to why the German government is willing to ruin “the ancient friendship” between Americans and Germans and as to why the German government is willing to violate American rights. Wilson informed Congress should Germany continue to sink American vessels and take the lives of Americans, he would appear before Congress again asking permission to take action against Germany to protect American seamen from further German aggression. Wilson concluded his speech warning Germany not to challenge the United States anymore and to respect its rights.
Germany still continued to antagonize the United States by proposing an alliance with Mexico. British intelligence officials intercepted a telegram from Germany to Mexico where the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman asked Mexico to join Germany in the war. Zimmerman promised, in exchange, Germany would give Mexico back the territories that it had lost to the United States during the Mexican-American War. When the British informed Wilson about the telegram, he became enraged that he went before Congress to ask permission to protect Americans given his administration’s poor relations with Germany and Mexico.
To protect the lives of American seamen from unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilson requested Congress to arm merchant ships. On February 26, Wilson appeared before Congress to express his concern that Germany’s renewed policy was a threat to American shipping and that American “commerce has suffered.” Wilson mentioned to Congress that diplomacy with Germany has failed and that the only way to protect American rights is through armed neutrality. Wilson asked Congress to grant him his request so that it could be used as a last resort to “safeguard the right of a great people who are at peace and who are desirous of exercising none but the rights peace.” He still expressed hope that it will not become necessary to put armed force into action as Wilson demonstrated that the American people do not desire war with Germany. Wilson finished his speech stating that not only is he thinking of the rights of Americans, but also the rights of humanity who deserve justice and the right to liberty. Following Wilson’s speech, the House of Representatives passed a bill to arm merchant ships, but the Senate did not vote on the bill, defeating the armed-ship bill.
Germany’s merciless unrestricted submarine warfare campaign finally made Wilson realize that the United States had to intervene militarily to defeat Germany and to protect American interests. On March 18, Germany attacked three American ships in the war zone, killing fifteen Americans. In a meeting with Wilson, Lansing implied to the president that Germany plans to execute its policy without regard to international law or human life; Lansing firmly believed that war would soon exist between the two countries. Lansing expressed his concern to Wilson that the longer the United States delayed its declaration of war against Germany, the rule of liberty and justice in the world will continue to be molested by German militarism. Wilson understood that his plans for peace could only be achieved through military force as his attempts at diplomacy failed numerous times. On March 20, Wilson meet with his entire cabinet at the White House and asked each person for their recommendation; after great debate the Wilson administration agreed that the time for war against Germany had come.
Wilson appeared before Congress requesting to declare war against Germany on April 2. In his speech, Wilson reminded Congress that every nation has suffered immensely as a result of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare campaign, including the United States. American ships and lives have been lost at sea as Wilson declared “in [this] darkest period of modern history.” He firmly believed that Germany’s warfare policy was a threat against humanity and that the United States’ purpose in the war would be to defend not only American interests, but the interests of humanity. Wilson concluded his speech to Congress that the United States will fight for democracy, the rights and liberties of smaller countries, for those who do not have a voice in their own government, and to make the world itself free from tyranny and and aggression. On April 13, Congress voted to declare war against Germany.
Following America’s entry into the war, the United States underwent a massive expansion of its armed forces before deploying them overseas. Wilson declared his plan to add at least half a million men to the armed forces “upon the principle of universal liability to service.” Secretary of War Newton D. Baker suggested to recruit volunteers to expand the size of the main army to 298,000 and to increase the National Guard to 440,000. However, Baker’s main recommendation was to create a “National Army” by drafting half a million men at the same time and adding another half a million later on as his suggestion was accepted by Wilson. Congress passed conscription laws and on June 5, national registration day, over 10 million men registered at their local draft boards, with over 2 million getting drafted into the military. The draft also expanded the size of the navy as the navy before faced a shortage of men with only 60,000 enlisted sailors and 4,400 commissioned and warrant officers; the draft supplied the navy with tens of thousands of new sailors and 26,000 new officers. Once ordinary Americans were conscripted into the armed forces, it became the duty of the military to train recruits for armed combat and to organize them into divisions in which they would fight in overseas.
As training went underway, the Wilson administration faced another problem as it lacked a shortage of ships that were needed to take troops overseas. To resolve this issue, Wilson had Congress pass a Shipping Act that established the United States Shipping Board that would own and operate a fleet during and after the war. At first, the Shipping Board had a slow start, but when Wilson appointed industrialist Edward N. Hurley to lead the Shipping Board did the program operate effectively. Under Hurley’s leadership, the program employed over 300,000 Americans and built many ships, over three million tons were constructed.
As American troops were slowly on their way to European battlefields, Wilson appeared before Congress to expand on his peace plan in his famous Fourteen Points speech on January 8, 1918. As expressed in his 1917 speech, the president suggested freedom of the seas, arms reduction, and an association of nations. Wilson’s 1918 speech went further beyond his 1917 speech as he specified that occupied territories should receive self-determination, recommended the removal of economic barriers, and denounced secret treaties. Even though some of the Fourteen Points were directed at Britain and France such as having self-determination for colonial peoples and allowing freedom of the seas to all nations, it was still relatively Allied friendly as most of the Fourteen Points were directed against Germany and the Central Powers.Wilson’s war aims demonstrated that the president wanted Germany to lose its overseas colonies, wanted Germany to evacuate and restore Belgium and northern France, and wanted Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey to lose authority over some of the nationalities in their European empires.
American participation on European battlefields turned the tide of the war in favour of the Allies. By the end of 1917, only 175,000 American troops had reached Europe, but by the summer of 1918 over 10,000 per day were on their way to European battlefields. General John L. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, planned to overrun German lines in France and Belgium with his army, but he failed to understand that his plan was identical to the Allies as they had been trying to breakthrough German lines for over three years with their massive armies only to get beaten back by German machine guns, artillery, and gas. However, the main difference was that the British and French were exhausted and morally worn down, while the Americans were highly enthusiastic and ready for combat; in August 1918 with his million-man army, Pershing and his troops were successful against the Germans in the Aisne-Marne sector of the front. By November, with over two million American troops under his command, Pershing felt prepared to invade a major part of Germany when the German government pursued for peace. The United States made major contributions on the battlefield to secure the Allied victory over Germany and were given a place at the peace conference, suffering over 53,000 fatalities and another 204,000 wounded.
Following Germany’s defeat and in November 1918, Wilson personally attended the Paris Peace Conference to secure his Fourteen Points and to ensure a fair and justified peace treaty. When the war ended, Wilson informed the Allies of his Fourteen Points to which they accepted; however, Britain filed a reservation concerning freedom of the seas and France insisted that Germany must pay reparations for damages to destroyed French regions. Even before Wilson informed his cabinet that he would be taking part at the Paris Peace Conference, the president was determined to defend the Fourteen Points and to ensure that American soldiers did not die in vain. When Wilson departed for Europe on December 4 on the George Washington, he was determined to change world history and to commit his government to an internationalist foreign policy through participation in a league of nations; then he would include the league of nations in a peace treaty based on his Fourteen Points.
The League of Nations formed at the Paris Peace Conference. The main discussion at the Paris Peace Conference was Germany as Wilson sought to “repair the evil that it has done and to prevent a recurrence of it” The Paris Peace Conference did not begin until January 12, 1919, and at the meeting Wilson used his strength as he became obsessed of creating his league of nations and integrating it into a peace treaty. Wilson shared authorship of the Covenant of the League of Nations with Jan Christian Smuts of the Union of South Africa and Lord Robert Cecil of Britain; however, the drafting of the covenant would have been easier had British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Premier Georges Clemenceau participated on the drafting commission. When the Covenant of the League of Nations was finalized and presented at a conference on February 14, some of its components were an assembly, a council dominated by five permanent members, and a secretariat to provide administration. However, Article 10 of the League of Nations Covenant was, in Wilson’s opinion, “the heart” of the document as it stated that “the Members of the League [agree] to preserve against aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League.” Some other parts of the Covenant also included that all members of the League of Nations would be required to settle disputes before an arbitrator and the League of Nations would manage a disarmament program so that no country can become militarily superior over another nation. Wilson’s goals had become a reality and believed that the various components of the League of Nations were strong enough to restrain Germany from threatening the world with war again. Wilson was confident that American security could be finally guaranteed through peace and collective security.
Following the establishment of the League of Nations, Wilson participated in the Treaty of Versailles discussions with the Allies. In the discussions that followed, many of Wilson’s Fourteen Points were disregarded by the Allies as they each had their own agenda. The British sought to protect their colonial empire and maintain naval supremacy; the French wanted to establish supremacy in Europe and reacquire lost territories from the Germans; finally, the Italians wanted to extend their influence on the Adriatic and expand their colonial empire. The European Allies, nonetheless, all shared a common goal as they wanted to punish Germany so severely that it would never threaten Europe again. Wilson agreed with the Allies that Germany had to be punished as the president believed that Germany “had committed a great crime.” In Wilson’s mind, the purpose of the Versailles treaty would not be for stability, but for justice.
After deliberations Wilson and the Allies imposed the Treaty of Versailles upon Germany, which punished the Germans severely. The Allies and Germany signed the Versailles treaty in 1919. The Allies condemned Germany alone for starting the war and was forced to pay reparations for the war’s cost. Germany was excluded from the Versailles discussions as an Allied commission decided that Germany had to pay over 33 billion in compensation. Germany’s military was significantly reduced and German soldiers were not permitted to remain in the Rhineland. Furthermore, Alsace-Lorraine was given back to the French, Germany lost territory to several European countries, and it could not maintain its overseas colonies. Even though the Germans were angered by the terms of the Versailles treaty because they thought thatthey were unfair, Wilson felt that the terms of the treaty were justified because he thought that a weakened Germany could never rise to power to threaten American interests.
Wilson considered his League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles as a victory, but his opponents at home criticized his accomplishments severely. When Wilson boarded the George Washington to return to America after spending six months overseas, he felt a personal accomplishment as he declared “a living thing is born.” The final draft of the Covenant also represented another victory for the president as such progress was achieved at the peace table. However, at home a group of sixteen senators, consisting of fourteen Republicans and two Democrats known as “the irreconcilables” criticized Wilson for ignoring Washington’s Farewell Address regarding permanent alliances and for disregarding the Monroe Doctrine. These senators rejected the Versailles treaty as they did not want the United States to be involved with European affairs anymore since they felt that “no more [American] blood should be spilt.” This group of senators condemned the European powers for dragging the United States into their war. They also attacked Wilson’s trip to Paris as he did not consult with either Republicans or Democrats about his peace plan. Besides attacking Article 10 of the League of Nations, these senators considered the admission of Britain and its dominions as sinister as they would be able to outvote the United States six to one.
When Wilson returned from Europe, he toured the nation to promote the League of Nations and Treaty of Versailles while Wilson’s opponents continued their attacks on his achievements, ultimately killing the League of Nations and Treaty of Versailles. During the summer of 1919, Wilson travelled across the United States to gain public support for the League of Nations and Treaty of Versailles. As Wilson toured his country, leading Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts urged the president to adjust the terms of the League of Nations, especially Article 10, but Wilson refused as he argued that the League of Nations could not operate properly if the covenants were altered. Wilson was forced to stop his cross country tour as he suffered a major stroke, leaving him paralyzed. The League of Nations and Treaty of Versailles was rejected by the U.S. Senate on November 19, 1919; the League of Nations did take effect until January 1920 and the refusal of American entry weakened the organization. The League of Nations was powerless during the 1930s when Germany, Italy, and Japan disregarded the organization and with pursued their own plans of conquest and violence. Furthermore, without the United States’ ratification of the Versailles treaty, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler violated the Versailles settlement by rearming the German military and leading again to the rise of German militarism in Europe.
This essay argued that the United States was not neutral during the war under Wilson’s leadership as his policies aligned the United States with the Allies. This is important because despite Wilson’s official proclamation of neutrality, the reality was he clearly had an active agenda to involve the United States in foreign affairs in order to safeguard America’s national interests from Germany all while under the guise of neutrality. Wilson was a prodigy of his time as he vigorously defended American rights to advance the interests of his government through his diplomatic skills and ability to remain calm. His ideas of the time were truly revolutionary as they set many precedents for the world and the United States’ foreign policy. Wilson’s greater legacy is that many of his ideas such as an association of leagues have become a reality and the way the United States operates in current world affairs can be traced back to the policies of Wilson.
This essay also revealed the impossibility of neutrality as Wilson and his administration were deeply involved with the war since 1914. With such a major conflict occurring in Europe, Wilson could not have referred to the traditional foreign policy of isolationism as America’s ties to its European Allies grew stronger as the war progressed. This was evident in the relationshipbetween the United States and Britain and France as Wilson’s government supported the British and French with money, munitions, troops, and their fight for democracy. Wilson believed that taking a neutral position would have been impracticable as American interests were always violated or threatened by Germany and he believed that his administration had to have an active voice in foreign affairs to stand up for his country’s rights. He believed that the United States’ interests can only be guaranteed through peace, collective security, and a weakened Germany. It was only through active participation did Wilson achieve the goals of his agenda and demonstrated to the world his commitment to American national interests.
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