World War I: America Enters the War (April 6, 1917)

Figure 1.--There was an outburtst of patriotic fervor after the United States declared war on Germany (April 1917) and entered World War I. There were parades and civiic celebrations withthe children dressing up in uniforms and other patriotic costumes. The boys were from a Catholic church/school in St. Louis, Missouri. Click on the image to see the rest of the boys.

American President Woodrow Wilson camaigned for re-election in 1916 with the slogan "He kept us out of war". America at various points tried to negotiate an end to the War. Wilson in a 1917 speech called for a "peace without victory". None of the major European combatants showed much interest in the American efforts. The Britsh were still hopeful that America would join the Allies. Kaiser Wilhelm dimissed Wilson's efforts as unrealistic. The Germans seriously under estimated the potential impact of American involvement. Gambling that they could force a decission in the Western Front, the military convinced Kaiser Wilhelm to resume unrestricted sunmarine warfare. After German U-boats sank five American merchant vessels, President Wilson asked Congress to Declare War on Germany which was approved April 6. President Wilson's motives are a subject of controversy among historians. The declaration of war was following the declaration of War an explosion of patriotic fervor not seen in America since the Civil war. Large numbers of young men enlisted. Many cities came close to fulfilling their quota within a few months, well before selective Service went into effect (June 5). There were patriotic celebrations with children dressing up in uniforms and patriotic outfits. Along with the patriotic fervor. a wave of anti-German hysteria spread over America with the declaration of war on Germany. It was far worse than hate crimes against Arab-looking and turbaned individuals after Septenber 11, 2001.

Diplomatic Efforts

The President launched diplomatic initiatives aimed at ending the War that suggested generous terms to the Germans. The Kaiser and his Government, were, however basically dimissive and internt on a military victory.

German Mind Set

Ultimately it was the incredably misguided German policy that brought America into the War. The Germans believed that America was not a real country--this was an especially prominent position among the German leadership. To them nationazlity required a core thnicity. And they noticed that america did not have an army if any consequence. The Prussian officer corps believed that they could win the War before America could mobilize and send an army to France. The Kaiser was stringly influenced by both assessments.

Public Opinion

President Wilson upon the outbreak of World War I declared the United states neutral (1914). His policy of neutrality was enormously popular with the American people. The German invasion of neutral Belgium amd midstreatment of Belgian civilians from the onset saw Germany as the major aggressor and a lawless nation. This was an entirely new assessment. Before the War, Germany was a adired mation. Not only had america not had any diplomatic differences with Germany (unlike Britain), but the Germans had become the largest etnic group in America. And the sinking of Lusitani cemented the new American assessment if Germany. The American assessment of Germany, howevet, did not mean that Aericans wasnted tongo to war with Germany. Peace and neutrality probably was the deciding factor in his reelection (1916). It was especially popular with German and Irish Americans. The Irish were strong Democratic supporters. The Germans were a major constituency in the Midwest which often determined the outcome of American elections. With the Germans it was probably more of an anti-War sentiment than a pro-German bias. Public opinion gradually shifted toward the Allies as a result of British propaganda, German policies in occupied Belgium, and incidents such as the xsinking of the RMS Lusitania. Even so the vast majority of Americans, especially the progressives, opposed American entry into the War. They also made any Administration efforts to strengthen the military difficult.

President Wilson's Re-election (November 1916)

American President Woodrow Wilson camaigned for re-election in 1916 with the slogan "He kept us out of war". The Democratic Party heavily played this slogan. Wilson himself fid not think that this was wise. He wanted to run on his achievements in enacting progressive legislation. Since World War I the Democrats had won very few presidential elections. And in 1916, President Wilson and the Democrats faced a united Republican Party. It is clear that Wilson;s success in stating out of the War, was a key factor in his narrow election victory. While most Americans favored the British, there was a decided desire to stay out of the War. A few politicans like Theodore Roosevelt wanted American to enter the War, but most Americans wanted no part of it.

British Propaganda

British propaganda proved more effective than German propaganda. The German war propaganda lacked subtlety and was seen as strident by most Americans. The British, however, had important advatages. British propaganda was to play an important part in the Allied victory. The British had no propagbda office when the War began, but quickly created one. The War Propaganda Bureau was placed in the hands of Charles Masterman (September 1914). The British had two concens with one broke out. First, The British from the onset needed to influence domestic public opinion. This was more important in Britain than any other because Britain entered the War with only a small all-volunteer army. Thus Britons until 1916 had to be persuaded to volunteer. And the British public as the War progressed will apauling casualties had to be persuaded to continue the War. Second, the British needed to influence world opinion and here it was the United States that most concerned the British. This became increasingly important as the War progressed and neither the Allies or the Central Powers could break the deadlock on the Western Front. By 1917 with the virtual collaose of the French Army and the disolution of the Russian Army that Allied success would depend on America. Here the Germans had given the British a substantial advantage. However the Germans tried to explin it, the fact remained that the War began wjen they invaded Belgium--a neutral nation. And the brutal German occupation regime in Belgium gave the British material for their progand mill. Certainly the British blew iy up out of all proportions, but the Germans provided plenty of material for the British to work with. Had not America rushed food shipments to Belgium, there would have been mass starvation. The British had another important advantage, they controlled the Trans-Atlantic cabels, which meant they controlled the War news America received. Thus from a very early stage in the War, American sympathies were with the Allies. The German introduction of sunmarine warfare and poison gas only confirmed American attitudes toward the Germans and British propaganda made full use of both in their propaganda.

President Wilson's Efforts for a Negotiated Peace (December 1916)

The Americans were in no way anxious to enter the War. In fact, President Wilson was relected largekly because he kep the United States out of the War (November 1916). after his reelection set out to secure a negotiated end of the War. The Allies were not interested, but were dependent on the financing they secured through Anerican banks. When Wilson began cutting off war financing from American banks, he secured their attention anbd gruging acquiensence. [Tooze] The German Embassy knew about Wilsonís efforts and informed the Kaiserís Government. The Germans, however, were also not interested and not dependent oin American financing. Instead the Kaiser decided to secure a military solution. Kmnowing that they would lose a cointinued war of attrition, the Kaiser pushed on by his son the Crown Prince (a future NAZI supporter) decided to intensify the War. Part of that effort was hostile actions against America, including renewing unrestricted submarine warfare. >br>.

German Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (February 1917)

The Germans seriously under estimated the potential impact of American involvement. Gambling that they could force a decission in the Western Front, the military convinced Kaiser Wilhelm to resume unrestricted sunmarine warfare. The German Navy even assured the Reichstag that the U-boats would even prevent an American Army from crossing the Atlantic. This was the critical decission of the War and Kaiser Wilhelm made a catetrophic error. In the end the British untroduced the convoy system and the U-boat camapign failed. The declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, however, brought America into the War and it would be the American infantry that would blunt the German 1918 offensive and turn the tide on the Western Front. Without the arrival of the Americans, it is likely that the Germans would have won the war.

Subsequent Actions

Three day after Germany announced the resumption of unrestricted warfare in war-zone waters, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany. Hours later a U-boat sank the American liner Housatonic. Congress passed a $250 million arms appropriations bill (February 22). Anti-War sentiment had prevented Congress from making prepations for war earlier. German U-boats sunk four more U.S. merchant ships (late-March).

The Zimmerman Telegram (January-March 1917)

Britain controlled the trans-Atlantic cable links to America. The Germans used the cables to send telegram messages to their diplomatic missions in America. The Germans encoded sensative messages, assuming the British could not read them. German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman sent a coded message to the German Ambassador in Mexico von Eckhardt (January 16, 1917). It instructed him to inform the Mexican Government that Germany would soon resume unrestricted submarine warfare which in a few months would knock Britain out of the War. The Germans assumed this would cause America to declare war. Zimmerman offered Mexico U.S. territory if Mexico would join Germany in the war. The telegram read, ""We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal or alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President's attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace." Signed, ZIMMERMANN." It was possible the most blatantly incompetent diplomatic approach in history. We are not sure to what extent the Kaiser was involved, but Zimmerman would not have made this offer without the Kaiser's approval. British Naval Intelligence cryptographers using a captured German codebook decoded the message. were surprised when a encoded German transmission came across their desks. German actions in the War, especially in Belgium and on the highseas had brought most Americans over to the Allied side, although public opinion still opposed entry in the war. The British turned the telegram over to the American Embassy in London (February 24, 1917). The Wilson Administration released the telegram to the press (March 1). Some at first thought the telegram a forgery which the Germans and Mexicans first claimed. Zimmerman inexplicteldly admitted he had sent the message (March 3). The American public was outraged. Public opinion shifted toward a declaration of war. [Tuchman]

Wilson's Decession

After German U-boats sank five American merchant vessels, President Wilson asked Congress to Declare War on Germany (April 2). The traditional explanation was that the combination of Germany resuming undeclared submarine warfare and the Zimmerman telegram changed Wilson's mind. [Keegan, pp. 351-52.] Perhaps this assessment is correct. These actions do seem to have changed the minds of large numbers of Americans. There is no way of knowing precisely what was going through Wilson's mind. I do not know that Wilson ever explained precisely why he decided on War. Publically the German resumption of unrestricted submarime warfare was the major reason. Most historians believe that more was involved. It seems strange that Wilson rejected war in 1915, but decided on war in 1917. Quite a bit had changed in those 2 years. After the Russian Revolution (February 1917), the Allied situation had weakened. This must have affected Wilson's thinking. Certainly a German victory would have significantly affected the strategic balance of power. A victorious Germany with a powerful High Seas fleet would had exposed America as never before. Since Trafalgur America had developed behind a shield created by the atlantic Ocean and Royal Navy. To what extent such real politik influenced Wilson I am not sure. War loans made to the Allies may also have been a factor. One historian argues that idealistic moral diplomacy was Wilson's prime motivation. [Powell] We know that Wilson did have such idealistic atytitudes. His acttions in the Caribbean and Mexico show a mixture of idealism and racism. Certainly his pronouncements such as a war "to make the world safe for democracy" show the imprint of his idealism. Statements made after the declaration of war can not be taken as a definitove statement of why Wilson decided on war. One historian believes that the key deciding factor was Wilson's desire to be a part of the post-War peace settlment. He realized that unless he was a part of the victorious Allied coalition that he and America would have no say in the peace. [Strachan] Clearly a wide range of issues may have affected Wilson and historians have discussed these issues. What we have not noted is persuasive evidence of what finally persuaded Wilson.

Declaration of War (April 1917)

Despite the country's reluctance to enter the War, German actions managed to galvanize American public opinion which shifted to favor entering the War. President Wilson appeared before Congress and requested a declaration of War against Germany (April 2). This did not include Austria-Hungary. and on April 2 President Wilson appeared before Congress and called for a declaration of war against Germany. The U.S. Senate after 2 days of debate voted 82 to 6 to declare war (April 4). The vote was testimony to the extent to which German actions had undermined the striong pacifist sentiment. Two days later, the U.S. House of Representatives vote 373 to 50 to declare war on Germany (April 6). The United States with a huge German population was at war with Germany. The resumption of unrestructed submarine warfare proved to be a disastrous German miscalculation. The American and Britsh Navies defeated the U-boat campaign and German soldiers on the Western Front was left to face a massive American Army arriving in France.

The American Army

The European powers in the years leading up to World War I had engaged in a massive arms race, building powerful navies and huge conscript armies. America built a creditable navy, but te army barely existed. Even after 3 years f fighting in Europe, the United States had not significantly expabded its army. President Wilson's message to Congress requesting a declaration of war contained no specifics about how the war would be waged--least of all any indication of sending a large land army to France. Many of the Congressmen who voted for war did not fully understand that America would need to send a large land army to Europe. Senate Finace Committee Chairman Thomas S. Martin of Virginia when told by an Army officer testifying before his committee on April 6, 1917,that funds might be needed for operations in France, exclaimed "Good Lord! You're not going to send soldiers over there, are you?" And this was not what Wilson had intended. Wilsom had hoped that American war supplies would be sufficent. He appears to have thought that the mere threat of an American army would bring the Kaiser to his sences. [Burk, p. 234.] When this did not occur and the British and France clamoring for reinforcements, the President had to ask Congress for a miitary conscription law. Within days of the declaration of war, 13 April a British mission led by Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Arthur J. Balfour and Lieutenant General Tom Bridges ldeparted from Liverpool (April 13). The French sent a mission headed by former Premier Renť Viviani and Marshal Joseph Joffre. The two delegations had separate meetings with American officals. The made a number of requests and suggestions. Chief among them was the immediate need foe American troops to bolster the Wesrn Front. Wilson chose General Black Jack Pershing to lead the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). When he arrived in France, the French were shocked. They had expected a large American Army. Pershing did not bring an army with him because there was no such army. The Allies made it very clear that what was needed was men, A large America Army was critically needed. America as late as Spring 1917 only had a small volunteer force. The United States would have to recruit, train, and equip its army and this would take some time. The Germans knew this and gambled that the U-boat campaign and their massive Spring 1918 offensive would win the War before the Americans could intervene in force. Significant numbers of American soldiers did not begin to arrive in Fance until the summer of 1918. At that time about 10,000 Americans arrived daily, unimpeded by the U-boats.

Patriotic Fervor

There was following the declaratioin of War (April 6) an explosion of patriotic fervor not seen in America since the Civil war. Large numbers of young men enlisted. Many cities came close to fulfilling their quota within a few months, well before selective Service went into effect (June 5). There wee patriotic celebrations with children dressing up in uniforms and patriotic outfits. The image here is from a Catholic Church/School in St. Louis Missouri (figure 1). There were parades with veterans of foreign wars, high school cadets, Boy Scouts, Red Cross girls, Boy Scouts, Rotary Club and other organization members. There were Liberty Bonds drives and and other fundraising efforts such as the Catholic War Fund and the YMCA War Fund.

Anti-German Hysteria

Along with the patriotic fervor. a wave of anti-German hysteria spread over America with the declaration of war on Germany. It was far worse than hate crimes against Arab-looking and turbaned individuals after Septenber 11, 2001. Germans were fired from their jobs, they were insulted, and many cases of beatings were reported. German shops were vandalized and looted. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms were no longer played in the concert halls. German-language newspapers were silenced. Schools stopped teaching German. German library books taken off the shelves. German shepherds became "Alsatians", dachshunds were kicked on the streets. Sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage". Many Schneiders and Schmidts changed their names to Snyder and Smith out of fear. Still, German-Americans rushed to enlist in the army to show their patriotism.


Burk, Kathleen. "Great Britain in the United States, 1917-1918: The Turning Point," International History Review vol. 1 (April 2, 1979).

Keegan, John. The First World War (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1999), 475p.

Powell, Jim. Wilson's War.

Palmer, Frederick and Newton D. Baker. America at War 2 volumrs (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1931).

Tooze, Adam. The Deluge: Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-31 (Viking: New York, 2014), 644p

Tuchman, Barbara. The Zimmermann Telegram.

Wells, H.G. The Outline of History: The Whole Story of Man (Doubleday & Co.: New York, 1971), 1103p.

"Our State of Preparedness for War," Literary Digest vol. 54 (February 17, 1917), pp. 385-87.


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Created: February 4, 2001
Last updated: 7:14 PM 5/28/2018