US History

America Prepares for War


*President Wilson did not want the United States to get involved in the Great War.  Neither did many Americans; they were known as isolationists.


*Those Americans who did have sympathies for one or another foreign country were often divided between those who preferred the Allies or the Central Powers, as many Americans were of British descent, but others were from German, Italian, Russian, Irish, or other backgrounds.


*Eventually, though, Americans felt forced into war.  The US wanted to trade with both sides in the war, but the British navy stopped most shipments to Germany, and in response, German U-Boats began sinking ships bound for Britain.


*One of these ships was a British passenger ship that was also carrying weapons called the Lusitania.  A German U-Boat sank it off the coast of Ireland in 1915, and 1,200 passengers, including 128 Americans (who had been warned not to board the ship by the German consul in New York), died. 


*Many Americans now wanted to go to war, but Wilson refused, saying ‘There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight.  There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.’  In 1916 he was re-elected with the slogan ‘He Kept Us out of War.’


*In 1917, the British intercepted and decoded a German telegram from Arthur Zimmerman, the foreign secretary, making an offer to Mexico.  If Mexico would help Germany and attack the United States, Germany would return to Mexico all the land that Polk took from them during the Mexican War.  Wilson and America were angry about the Zimmerman note, but still Wilson counseled peace.


*In March, the Germans sank three more American ships, and even Wilson, felt compelled to ask for a declaration of war, which he got on 6 April, 1917, although there was some dissent.  One of the pacifists who voted against the war resolution was Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman in Congress.  She was not re-elected the next time around, and would only return to Congress in 1941, when she would vote against going to war with Japan.


*Read Wilson’s quote on page 291.


*Wilson said he was going to war to make the world safe for democracy.  To accomplish this, Congress passed the Selective Service Act in May, 1917, allowing the government to draft men to fight in the war.  2.8 million men were eventually drafted, and 2 million more volunteered.  4 out of 4.8 million went to France during the War.


*Some people (besides Jeanette Rankin) did not want to fight because they thought it was wrong.  Some were able to get out of the draft (or at least tried to) as conscientious objectors, and they got to (at least in theory) if their religious beliefs forbade them from fighting.


*The war would not just be fought on the Western Front, but also on the Home Front.  The government regulated the production of food, coal, oil, as well as the railroads to make sure the army got what it needed. 


*The War Industries Board under Bernard Baruch managed the production and cost of many things manufactured during the war.


*the Food Administration under Herbert Hoover asked Americans to eat less in order to save food to send to soldiers.  After the war, Hoover helped feed so many starving people that he was known as the Great Humanitarian.


*The Committee of Public Information, led by George Creel, produced propaganda to encouraged people to support the war, sometimes by exaggerating or inventing German atrocities. 


*Eventually prejudice (sometimes including violence) against Germans grew so strong that many German-Americans changed their names and many German things were given new ‘American’ names—Sauerkraut became Liberty Cabbage, Hamburgers became Liberty Sandwiches, and Dachshunds became ‘Liberty Pups’  (in England, King George V had already changed the royal family’s name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor). 


*The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 made it illegal to interfere with the war in any way—even speaking out against the war or making fun of soldiers’ uniforms could result in fines and jail time.


*Charles Schenck was a known socialist who printed pamphlets to encourage the resistance of the draft implemented in WWI which violated the Espionage Act of 1919.  When he was arrested, he sued all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was decided in  Schenck v. US that Schenck’s First Amendment right could be taken away if the words was of the nature of or during times that created ‘a clear and present danger.’


*Even Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs was locked up (and ran for president while in jail, winning over 900,000 votes).


*Because so many American men went off to fight, many women went to work in the factories, even middle-class women of the sort who had not worked before.  Others joined the Red Cross or worked as nurses for other organisations.  After the war ended, most of them went back home to their traditional roles as wives and mothers, but their service was one of the main reasons that Congress and the states were convinced to ratify the XIX Amendment in 1920.


*Many African-Americans fought in the war, trying to earn respect through their sacrifices, as W.E.B. Du Bois encouraged them to do (and Booker T. Washington would have done had he not died in 1915).  Others moved north in the Great Migration to work in factories (where workers were needed after so many men went overseas to fight) and to live in areas where they might face less discrimination.


*Look at the map on page 298.  What three cities are shown as major destinations during the Great Migration?  (New York, Detroit, and Chicago)


*Although the number of soldiers American sent to Europe to fight on the Western Front was small compared to the armies the British, French, and Germans fielded, it was enough, late in the war, to tip the balance of power in the Allies’ favour.

This page last updated 14 September, 2015.
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