Woodrow Wilson’s Presidency And The Beginning Of WWI

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In the summer of 1914, years of growing tension over the balance of power in world politics provoked the major countries of Europe to gather large forces and march them into battle across the world. The assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarvajo on 28 June 1914 proved to be the spark that would set the smouldering tensions of Europe upright. Within a month Europe split into a state of war. Everything was changing so fast and events were happening at such a pace that no parties were clear in declaring their war aims at the beginning. Generals, Statesmen, Editors and Newspapers wrote patriotic articles and gave speeches about the fairness of their country’s decisions to go to war. The growing dependence on neutrals brought about its own consequences for the belligerents.

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The diplomatic relationship between the warring powers and the neutrals was a trying and unremitting process. In the first two years of war, there was a period of uncertainty in the on-going relationship between the United States and Great Britain as well. There were number of people and organisations who worked throughout the early years of war to maintain the relationship between the neutral United States and the belligerents, but the most important American was President Woodrow Wilson. He was elected in 1912 to the presidency of the United States. In the days before taking administration of U.S under his control, he once allegedly declared “It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.”

Soon after the European nations went to war, Woodrow Wilson announced that the United States would remain neutral. Historians tend to agree that Woodrow Wilson was sincerely trying to keep the United States neutral and out of the on-going war. But the situation was serious. Most middle class and articulate citizens of America were still of British background and they were in favour of the Allies from the beginning. On the other hand, the large German-American community resented the pro-ally view of the war presented in the most of the American press and for them what it come to feel was the bias of U.S policy. In United States, there were 105 million people living at that time out of which 8 million people were those who were born in Germany or had at least one German parent. Most Irish Americans, in all some 4.5 million strong, believed that defeat of Britain in the war will tend to Irish freedom. On the other hand, Czechs and Serbs wanted the destruction of the Habsburg Empire so as to free their home countries.

Maldwyn Jones, the author of “The old World Ties of American Ethnic groups” also pointed out, “the first world war bought to the American people a belated realization of what it meant to be a nation of immigrants as millions of American citizens sided with the countries from which they or their ancestors has come”.

It was clear from the very beginning that Woodrow Wilson, like other political leaders, was worried about the effect of the war in creating divisions throughout the United States and the arising tensions at home. Woodrow Wilson also feared that entering a World War could trigger a Civil War in the United States. Woodrow Wilson was not prepared to make a such a danger as of now mostly maybe in view of its impacts on the American economy which was at present experiencing the downturn, yet primarily, definitely in light of the fact that a measure that would so have solved the German war effort would have given rise to unquestionably more criticism at home than did the ineffectualness of American protests to the British about the infringement of neutral rights.

Not unexpectedly, the British were the most upset by Woodrow Wilson’s moral neutrality. The difficulty of Woodrow Wilson’s position started by realisation that the war in Europe was not just another conflict, but one that would decide the world’s future order. The future of a civilization to which America belonged could not be seen simply with indifference, particularly given the position that Wilson has assigned to the country.

The burden place on America by a crises world that undoubtedly followed by its strength and ideals. America could not be ignorant to the war and its consequences, able only to watch it from a distance and glad not to be involved. The “Stupendous fact of America’s recently gained wealth and power, when taken together with the vision of a nation whose flag of freedom was not only her own but humanity’s as well gave rise to a novel and difficult problem in a world that was suddenly overtaken by the crisis of World War I.”

But neutrality did not mean that Wilson wanted to curb the right of America, as a neutral country to trade freely with all warring parties. With the development in war, the allies took the benefit the most from this policy of Wilson as compared to the central powers. Britain’s large merchant fleet, strong navy, and there huge bank balance was the reason for that. During the first two years, the main aim of British propaganda was to preserve benevolent neutrality on the part of the United States to ensure the availability of loans and the shipment of foodstuffs and subsequent war material. Gradually over the course of 1915 and more significance over the course of 1916, Britain turned to the United States for the resources it needed to fight on aggressiveness war against Germany. From August 1914 through December 1915, Britain imported 3.5 million big guns shells from the United States and in 1916 that figure climb to 20.9 million which was around 50 per cent of the total Britain’s own home production. In 1915, 54,500 tons of finished weapons were imported by Britain whereas in 1916 those imports figures increased around 10 times to 547,000 tons.

Woodrow Wilson realized that his country could benefit financially from the war. Woodrow Wilson regularly considered the economic welfare of the United States. Wilson’s confidence in the economic opportunities presented by the war bore fruit, but it also created problems for his administration. While, U.S companies greatly benefited from the market for foreign made goods by the warring parties, on the other hand, Germany decided to use U- boats in the Atlantic in order to stop Anglo- American trade. Also, the Woodrow Wilson administration had to confront the allied blockade of the European coast, designed to prevent Germany from accessing war material.

Now, the United States became the prime target for British propaganda. Wellington house, the headquarters of British propaganda, distributed hundreds of thousands of pamphlets and books over there. Subtly, the American press was used to support the British case and American authors were hired to write for the Allies. Theodore Roosevelt became a powerful advocate of American intervention. He was himself one of the most influential writers in the United States on side of Allies. His incredible feelings about the war blessed him with the capacity to see all sides of the inquiry from a solitary perspective. Roosevelt utilized quite a bit of his enormous vitality in attempting to stimulate the US to activity notwithstanding German Aggression and he devoted himself completely to a ceaseless round of talks and article and letter composing.

The attempts of President Woodrow Wilson to serve as a peace- maker in the conflict have been steadily undermined by that pro-allied sentiment that has also been fuelled by sloppy German propaganda and infringements of American neutrality. Eventually, the submarine crisis soured U.S- German relations and further complicated Wilson’s medication efforts.

On May 7, 1915, off the shoreline of Ireland, a torpedo propelled by the German submarine U-20 struck the British passengers liner Lusitania, on which more than with 2,000 travellers and crew was on broad. The German attack killed almost 1200 individuals, among them 291 ladies and 94 kids. After some days their bodies appeared on the bank of southern Ireland, among the dead there were 128 U.S residents.

Upon the British liner’s sinking off the coast, the American public opinion turned sharply against the German cause, raised the war spectre. When the Lusitania was associated with a surprise attack on America, the ship’s name became a free-floating emblem of aggression, battle, and evil-setting off a strong reaction, encouraging agitation for violence. For Germans, Lusitania’s sinking was only an instance in the war against the British. Directing its propaganda to keep the United States, the leaders of which appeared to favour the allies out of war. Germany, completely exhausted by the wars with Britain, France and Russia, was trying to break the British naval blockade.

A week after the Lusitania sinking, the Bryce Report was published, and Wellington house, British propaganda headquarters, made sure it went to nearly every newspaper in the U.S. To Woodrow Wilson the crisis meant the strongest challenge to his presidential authority. For Britishers, it was a huge propaganda success to convince millions of American citizens and other neutrals into war against Germany. The crises produced some serious diplomatic problems for the American Government. The news created an unforgettable shock. Woodrow Wilson clearly thought he should do no less than demand disavowal of the attack and termination of U-boat operations against ships transporting tourists (even though the ships were, like the Lusitania, of belligerent nations and carried weapons).

While the British on the other hand gradually exploited their access to American credit and resources, they at the same time escalated their attempts to cut Germany off from the outside World. The British naval blockade led to hunger riots in Hamburg in the summer of 1916. Conditions worsened even more as autumn shifted to winter, with millions of German people subsisting on turnips to prevent hunger. Germany attempted to employ its submarines against Allied ships to retaliate against the blockade and threaten Britain’s supply line to America. But this effort was hobbled by Germany’s fear of war with the United States. The military High Command of Germany, dominated by de-facto generalissimo Enrich Lundendorff became persuaded by the fact that the only option for Germany to achieve the victory was unleashing the U- boats. Lundendorff supported naval officials encouraging the Kaiser to support a revolutionary plan to gain military success.

On 16 January 1917, the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmerman, sent a telegram to Mexico, in return for Mexico to start a war against the United States. The telegram was intercepted by a British, in turn, passed it to the Washington. It was released to the press and published. It serves as a prime illustration of operating hand-in-hand intelligence and deception which has done a lot to push the U.S. into combat.

The combined effect of the Zimmerman telegram and renewed attacks on American shipping worked as catalysts for pushing the United States to war. Through his speech ‘peace without victory’ of 22 January 1917, Wilson made his last effort to resolve the conflict by diplomacy. But, ten days later the German government declared unrestricted submarines warfare. It could just be a matter of time from them before the US went into the fight. “Addressing newly elected congress on 2 April 1917, Wilson asked the people of the United States to “formally accept the status of belligerent which has…been thrust upon it by the imperial German Government.” Four days later, by a vote of 373 to 50. Congress declares war.”

France went to war in 1914, when she was targeted. Britain got engaged because of her policy to keep any strong power to govern the continent and aiming a gun at her heart. America battled when German had threatened her. Unlike the other belligerents, Wilson had been clear about the America’s reason for fighting. While addressing to public, the president declared war and announced:

“Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable when the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples and the menance to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organised force, which is controlled wholly by their will, not the will of their people.”

Bibliography

  • Bailey, Thomas Andrew. Woodrow Wilson and the Great Betrayal, United States: The Macmillan Company, 1945.
  • Buitenhuis, Peter. The Great war of World: British, America and Canadian propaganda and Fiction, 1914-1933, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987.
  • Christopher, Hobson. The Wilsonian Revolution: World war one in The Rise of Democracy, Scotland: Edinburg University press, 2015.
  • Floyd, M. Ryan. Abandoning American Neutrality: Woodrow Wilson and the Beginning of The Great War, August 1914- December 1915, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
  • Liddle, Peter. Britain and Victory in the Great War”, Yorkshire, England: Pen &Sword Limited, 2018.
  • Reynolds, David. America’s Forgotten War and the long Twentieth Century, in World War I And American Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.
  • Thompson, J.A. Woodrow Wilson and World War I: A Reappraisal, Journal of American Studies 19 No.3, 1985.
  • Trommler, Frank. The Lusitania Effect: America’s Mobilization against Germany in World War I, German Studies Review 32, No.29, 2009.
  • Tucker, Robert Warren. Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality, 1914-1917, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
  • Zieger, Robert H. America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience, United States: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2001. 
16 August 2021

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