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APRIL 2, 2012 8:49AM

April 2, 1917: When America Joined the World

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ww1 article



On this date 95 years ago, America set aside its isolationist heritage and, for better or worse, became a full-fledged member of the international oecumene.  It was on April 2, 1917, that President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a formal declaration of war against Germany.  The sympathies of most Americans long lay with Britain and the Allies.  Two and a half years after the first shots were fired, few harbored any illusions that American neutrality was anything but naïve wishful thinking.  By the first week of April, a virtual state of war had existed between the United States and Germany for at least a month.

Two years into the Great War, Germany was being strangled by an unrelenting blockade imposed by Britain.  Unwilling to defy the British blockade, American trade with Germany and the Central Powers was practically nonexistent.  The situation was the reverse when it came to Britain. From 1914 to 1916, American exports to the United Kingdom nearly quadrupled. 

It was this trans-Atlantic lifeline that Germany sought to bring to an end when it commenced unrestricted submarine warfare.  In the previous five months, German submarines or saboteurs were responsible for destroying 15 American merchant vessels, resulting in 70 casualties.  German diplomatic ineptitude inflamed an already volatile situation in late February, when Britain intercepted a telegram from the German Foreign Secretary proposing that Mexico should join in an offensive alliance against the United States in the event the Americans should declare war on Germany.

March of 1917 was perhaps the month that determined the fate of twentieth century Weltpolitik.  It was the month when America accepted the inevitability of joining the European fray.  The biggest news of all came mid-month, when the Russian Revolution swept the czar from power.  With the end of the autocratic Romanov dynasty, the Great War seemed to have morphed into an ideological conflict of representative democracies against medieval repression.  Americans applauded the events in far away St. Petersburg, unconcerned that the turmoil there could evolve into something even more repressive than what it had replaced.

In England, news of America’s entry into the war was met with jubilation.  The Stars and Stripes flew next to the Union Jack atop the Palace of Westminster.  In Berlin, the mood was far gloomier.  300,000 workers were on strike.  The Kaiser was becoming more and more impotent as Germany assumed the mantra of a military dictatorship under generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg.  That process intensified with America’s entry into the war, bringing a new sense of urgency bordering on panic to Germany’s military leaders.

That’s not to say Germany was impotent this late in the war.  Far from it.  Germany’s submarine warfare increased in its devastation.  U-boat sinkings reached nearly a million tons in the two months following America’s declaration of war.  Germany still possessed more military muscle than France, which was teetering on the brink of collapse following a disastrous offensive the second half of April.  In the course of two weeks, 250,000 French soldiers were killed or wounded for just 500 yards of real estate.  The real question now was whether America’s military impact might have come too late to prevent a French and Italian surrender.  That was surely in General Ludendorff’s thoughts as he initiated a series of offensives late in 1917 and early 1918.

Students of history have long debated what would have happened had Germany not provoked America’s entry into the war with its unrestricted submarine warfare.  Would the United States have still been pulled into the war by other means?  Assuming a negative answer to that question, would Germany have managed to outlast its continental enemies?  Or would the shortages of food and materiel force a German surrender even without the presence of American doughboys?  I have my doubts about that.  I suspect Germany would have outlasted France and Italy.  If those countries left the battlefield, I suspect London would have been forced to reach a settlement recognizing German dominance on the continent in return for British control of the seas. 

Ultimately, a settlement of that sort would have proved temporary.  Nationalism in the Balkans and the Mideast could not be permanently stifled.  Lenin, and Stalin after him, would have still ruled Russia.  Once Stalin consolidated his hold on power, surely he would have looked at the nationalistic turmoil on Russia’s western border as an opportunity for Russian imperial ambitions.  Further east, England could not prevent the rise of Gandhi in India, and its colonies in Africa still would have demanded their independence within one or two generations. 

A stalemate peace in late 1917 or 1918 would have left unresolved too many sources of instability to be very long lasting.  But the wars that would have inevitably commenced by mid-century would have looked a lot different than the Götterdämerung of 1939-1945.  While there probably would have been a Stalin, there would not have been a Hitler, at least not a German one.  France might be a different story.  I can easily imagine a revanchist France looking for a new Napoleon, a French version of Hitler, perhaps, complete with Jewish or North African scapegoats on whom to lay blame for the disaster of 1917.  As for Italy, there may have been a Mussolini, but he may have sought a benefactor and protector in Paris instead of Berlin.

Ultimately, I think America’s entry into the World War I was a short-term benefit to democratic governance in the world.  Its long-term impact, I fear, may have been at least as negative as it was positive.  Without America’s direct involvement, there would have been no Versailles Treaty.  Without Versailles, there would have been no Hitler.  No Hitler, no Holocaust.  No Hitler, no German-Japanese alliance, or at least none that would have been so brutally threatening to civilized society.  No German-Japanese alliance, no Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  No Cold War?  No Korea or Vietnam?

I am far too jaded to suggest the world would have avoided all the horrors of the 20th century if only America had managed to stay out of the First World War.  There surely would have been enough residual hatred and resentment to bring about plenty of bloodshed within a generation or two.  Still, I think the 20th century would have developed far differently than it actually did.  Would the carnage of the mid-20th century have been as intense?    What of American isolationism?  Just how long could America pretend to live apart from affairs on the opposite side of the globe?  I don’t know the answers to these questions.  There probably isn’t much value in even asking them.  But it is certainly an interesting exercise to ponder them.


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Fascinating questions which can never fully be answered. All we know is that we continue entering wars and bloodshed and terroism evolve.
Certainly an important day to remember for exactly those reasons. Personally, I think that with a high degree of probability, there would have been no stalemate, but a total German victory had we not intervened. The collapse of Russia was starting, after Caporetto Italy was gone, after the Nivelle offensives France was non-existent on offense, and the only reason Ludendorff's final offensives in 1918 failed was because of American logistical support of the Allies the previous year. Very close run thing as it was anyway.
Always worth looking at a "what if" scenario. The Zimmermann Telegram was really just the final straw, if I remember correctly.

The April Arras offensive to which I think you're referring was not a total failure for the Allies -- the Canadian Corps took the vital Vimy Ridge fortification April 9-12 at a cost of about 10,000 casualties, 3,600 of them fatal.

As for the rise of Hitler et al., that may very well have happened anyway as a result of the Depression.

Still, a very interesting speculative piece, Pro. But I'd expect that from you.
One thing is for sure, had Germany won or at least wrangled a conditonal peace from the allies at the end of WW1 it would not have suffered the draconian economic sanctions of the treaty that ended that war and would not have been in such a shambles that Hitler could have taken over.
As for Japan, well their interests always lay in the pacific rim and would have been the same problem without Germany as a partner.
Italy's bumbling attempts to reestablish the Roman Empire was doomed, with or without Germany.
Korea and Vietnam are two different animals. Communism and Democracy were at war with each other a war that was waged by proxy since both America and Russia knew that a direct conflict would be too costly and distructive for both sides.
Had America remained in Isolation from the rest of the world then sooner or later the rest of the world would have turned on them and they would have been alone. These are just my opinions, off the top of my head and worth nothing on the open market. Great Post, my friend.
I think America had set aside its "isolationist heritage" in a big way fully 20 years earlier, when the U.S. destroyed the Spanish Empire, grabbed the Philippines, Cuba, commenced to wrench Panama from Colombia, Roosevelt and his White Fleet, treaty of Portsmouth to end the Russian-Japanese war, etc. We had strode upon the world stage; the European war threatened the balance of world imperial affairs, a threat to our imperial ambitions. The very language of the times--'the great democracies' versus 'totalitarian' and 'oppressive' regimes--was the sort of propagandistic blather Orwell later railed against. Historians too often look for clean breaks, thresholds, turning points, in history, when in fact history flows, erratically to be sure, but it flows. Our entry into the Great War was ordained the day almost two decades earlier when we took Manila, and then sent in the Marines to crush those troublesome rebels--who had fought with us to get rid of the Spanish.
rwnj, it was long suspected, and finally proven, that the Lusitania was carrying arms, which is the reason it sank so quickly, with such devastating loss of life. Thanks for illustrating even more just how nonsensical our claims of neutrality were prior to 1917.

Lea, that's just part of the human condition, I guess.

Don, my suggestion is a stalemate between Germany and the UK. My guess is that popular support for the war would have crumbled in Britain once France fell, and that Germany would have come to terms with Britain rather than risk another year of war. But who knows?

Boanerges, thank you for your comment. I wish I knew more of the Canadian contribution to the Allies, both in WWI and WWII. Sadly, that's a piece of history that is largely ignored by your neighbor to the south.

David, without the threat from Germany, I have always suspected the Japanese threat would have been much less dangerous, and Japan's willingness to fight America much diminished. But as is always the case with these "what if's", no one will ever really know. Thanks for stopping by!

BadScot, you're correct, of course. America had shed its isolationism to a degree 20 years earlier. The difference is that America's entry into the Far East can be seen as an extension of 19th century Manifest Destiny. Once the the Western frontier was won, there was no where else to go but to the islands of the Pacific. Even with their involvement in the Far East, Americans still wanted to pretend, at least, that they were remaining apart from European colonial rivalries. As an interesting side note, you mention the "Great White Fleet". I had a Japanese roommate in college, and he told me in Japan those vessels were called "the Black Fleet".
Woodrow Wilson, LBJ and many others campaigned on promises to keep us out of war then once they one went into war anyway based on lies.

In the case of WWI it is hard to tell what the best course of action would have been; I'm inclined to believe that joining the war wasn't it. that war was almost certainly empire V. empire. They could have avoided it if they catted rationally earlier on but those who make the decisions send others to fight the war and pay the price.
"German diplomatic ineptitude" as unsurprising a phrase as "France, which was teetering on the brink of collapse following a disastrous offensive."

As for imagining an alternative 20th Century, the timing might have been different, but an attack on Pearl Harbor could still have happened. Tojo understood that the biggest deterence to Imperial Japan's domination of the Far East was the American Pacific Fleet. Japan had started its mission of conquest by the mid-30s. Whether or not Hitler came to power was not a factor in Japan's strategy.

Perhaps the largest question mark is: When would the atomic bomb have been invented? Without Hitler, the Manhattan Project likely wouldn't have happened. In that case, the U.S. would have invaded Japan to end the Pacific war (based on my assumption above). Fear of the Soviets or a direct hot war would eventually have led to the bomb. The Space Race may have become The Bomb Race.
I'd forgotten just how much I enjoy reading your stuff, Procopius. ALL history teachers should be required to have your abilities to bring history home.

Great read and a question that is indeed worth pondering.
If the British lose that offensive, which they would have, they couldn't have evacuated. Moreover, all Germany had to do then was move artillery to the channel, and begin bombardments, even use barges, and Eastern U.K. is a desert. The British were running out of food and money, and absent us, it was over.
zachery, I'm inclined to agree with you. It's a war that could have been avoided, but once Germany chose to sink American ships, there was little that could be done to keep us out of it;

Stim, I do wonder if Japan would have been as ready to provoke the United States without Germany as an ally. And with Stalin in power, facing a world so hostile to Communist ideology, who knows what would have happened. Your scenario seems as likely as any.

Boomer, thank you for your kind words. Glad you stopped by!

Don, you may be correct. Personally, I think the anti-war fervor was just as strong in Germany as it was in Britain, and Berlin may have been forced to accept a stalemate peace as 0pposed to a true victory. Of course, your suggestion that Germany might have destroyed the British expeditionary force changes everything.
This is a good read of ideas about "what if" things were different, but remember that 95 years ago it was "today" and our leaders took action to protect American lives and our way of life. Our leaders did the same thing when "today" was Dec 7th,1941 and just recently when "today" was Sep 11,2001. The question I see next is: do our leaders have a "habit" or will something really different happen when "today" brings a similar situation.
There have always been isolationists in America. The latest version of this philosophy is called "American Exceptionalism." It goes as far back as "the city on a hill" philosophy of the Puritans. It is worried about the pure, God-given idea of America is in danger of being polluted by The Other.

The pondering about intervention in World War I was summed up in the old song lyric.

How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree'
How ya gonna keep 'em away from Broadway
Jazzin around and paintin' the town
How ya gonna keep 'em away from harm, that's a mystery
They'll never want to see a rake or plow
And who the deuce can parleyvous a cow?
How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree'

American culture has always been one of fear. We operate out of fear. We invade and conquer because of fear. And to people on both sides of the political spectrum, cutting off the rest of the world and staying inside our own little town is the only solution. The right wants to keep them at bay, preferably with nuclear weapons and drones, so Americans will escape contamination. The left wants us never to go there in the first place to escape contamination.
There is a LOT of value in asking them! I wish more people would. Great job.
Considering America's XIX century record, I'm surprised by what you deem to call 'isolationalist heritage'.

At what point before WWI did the US decide to withdraw from international affairs?

If anything, the US has been an active international player since the time it asked France and Spain for help in defeating the British during the War of Independence.

History is always fascinating to me; I don't understand who find it otherwise. Your posts like this one remind me of that. I remember when I was about 9 or 10 years old reading a couple of books about WWI - THE GREAT WAR. I think Boanerges makes a good point about other factors aside from the Versailles Treaty, especially the depression, perhaps having more impact on Hitler's rise. We've seen many times how economic depression can lead to tyrants coming to power. The treaty's harshness did create an extra tool for manipulation.

What I wonder about more than the overriding international politics is what the majority psyche was of the citizenry in Hitler's Germany. I can imagine it was largely based on misinformation provided by Hitler's regime much like the majority American psyche regarding our own illegal wars in recent years, Iraq in particular. I wonder just how knowledgeable the general population truly was about what was occurring.