World War I: American Public Opinion


Figure 1.-- The American public was decidely against entering World War I and President Wilsom was relected because of it (1916). Only incredibly misguided German policies managed to change this. After the Germans renewed unconditional submarine warfare and President Wilson asked for a declaration of war, the once anti-war American people fervently embraced the War effort. There was very little descent or misgivings from a people who a year earlier reelected President Wilson who ran on the slogan 'He kept us out of war.' Americans around the country, including the strongly-pacifist Midwest, pitched in to support the war effort. There were all kinds of patriotic displays.

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 an admired 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, however, did not mean that Aericans wanted to go 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. The United States pursued a more friendly relationship with Great Britain and France than with Germany or Austria-Hungary, but Wilsonís administration maintained a strictly neutral stance. The President made 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. In the end it was incredably misguided German policy that brought America into the War. Many Ameicans began having second thoughts about the War, even before it ended (November 1918). The principal reasons were the casualties the AEF experienced in France. American war losses were small by European standards. But this was only because America entered the War several yearsafter the other combatants and the AEF was only committed for about 6 months of battle. During those 6 months, however, American casualties were as high as experienced by other combatant countries, especially because the AEF was engaged in largely pitched offensive operations.

Neutrality (1914-17)

President Wilson upon the outbreak of World War I declared the United States neutral (1914). The United States pursued a more friendly relationship with Great Britain and France than with Germany or Austria-Hungary, largely because of the U-boats. The Wilson Administration, however, maintained a strictly neutral stance. His policy of neutrality was enormously popular with the American people. It was a continuation of the isolationist policy set by President Washington at the very inception of the Republic. And with war raging in Europe and reports of enormous casualties appearung in the press. The vast number of Americans were convinced that this was the right policy. American neurtrality, however, did not mean that it had a neutral impact on the war. The British Royal Navy maintained command of the seas. This meant that Britain and France could trade in America. The Allies could buy raw materils, food, and industrial products in America. The Germans could not. There were no legl restiction, but they had no way of shipping purchases back to Germany. And because Wall Street was not neutral, the Allies could access American credit markets and the Germans could not. This was due to the very extensive financial ties between America and Britain. And the American elite that dominated the banks were strongly pro-Britih. As a result as the war progressed, while Americans continued to want to stay out of the War, important elements in the German Government, as victory seemed to slipping away, began demanding a firmer stance against America hose neutrality they saw as actually supporting the allies.

Public Opinion (1914-17)

The one strongly held opinion in America with the outbreak of the War was that America should hold to its long term isolationist traditions. There were efforts to aid the starving Belgians and to negotiate a peaceful end of the conflict, but there was no interest in entering the War. German-Americans were not the only group opposed to entering the War. Here sympathy with Germany was combined with strongly held pacifist sentiment. Irish Amnericans with anti-British sentiments were also opposed to entering the War. German Americans were, however, the largest and most influential group. There was some support for Britain. The most outspoken propent was former President, Theodore Roosevelt. There was some sympathy with the Germans among the large German ethnic community, but the overwealming desire on the part of Americans was to stay out of the war. This does not mean that Americans were neutral concrning who launched the war or on the conduct of the war. From the very beginning, most Americans saw the Germans who invaded neurtral Belgium as the aggressor nation. Most Americans as a result of the German invasion of neutral Belgium amd midstreatment of Belgian civilians from the onset saw Germany as the major aggressor and a lawless nation. The American assessment of Germany only deteriorated as the War coninued. The reports of German attrocities in Belgium began to change the generally positive view that most Americans held of the Germans. This was an entirely new assessment. Before the War, Germany was an admired 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. These reports were inflated by British propaganda, but were not entirely false. And then there was a steady drip of war reports that steadily darkened the American view of Germany, including U-boat attacks on shipping, RMS Luisitania, the introduction of poison gas, and Zephlin bombing of cities. The German sinking of Lusitani and the rerrible loss of life cemented the new American assessment of Germany. The American assessment of Germany, however, did not mean that Ameicans wanted to go to war with Germany. Dspite the public repulsion to German actions, most Americans wanted no part of the War.

President Wilson's Reelection (1916)

President Wilson's narrow reelection victory was largely due to the fact that he kept America out of the War (1916). Peace and neutrality almost certainly was the deciding factor. Wilson'selection in 1914 had been a fluke, the result of former-president Roosevely spliting the Republican vote. Wilson in 1916, however, managed to win against a united Republican Party. Wilson's victory did not men that Americans were moderating their view of the Germans. There was growwing anti-German sentiment, only there was no esire to fight the Germans. .Neutrality 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 sinking 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.

America Declares War (April 1917)

The President made diplomatic initiatives aimed at ending the War that suggested generous terms to the Germans. The Kaiser and his Government were, however, basically dimissive and intent on a military victory. In the end it was incredably misguided German policy that brought America into the War. The Germans believed that America was not all that important and that they could win the War before America could mobilize and send an army to France. The German Navy even assured the Reichstag that the U-boats would even prevent an American Army from crossing the Atlantic. The Kaiser's decesion to resume unrestricted submarine warfare (February 1917). And if that was not bad enough, the Zimmermann Telegram enfuriated the public. This finally decided the issue. The German actions unleashed a flood of anti-German sentiment and nationalist fervor. It galvanized public opinion which came to support entering the War. The United States declared War (April 6, 1917). Despite what had been strong anti-War sentiment, both the Senate and House overwhelmingly voted to declare war.

American Participation (1917-18)

The American public fervently embraced the War once it was declared. There was very little descent or misgivings. Americans around the country, including the Midwest, pitched in to support the war effort. There were all kinds of patriotic displays. There was an 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 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. Congress moved to supress even the limited opposition. There was a deplorable outburst of anti-German violence. President Wilson was concerned about public support for the war because the pacifist feeling had been so pronounced. Shortly after the declaration of War, he created Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) (April 13). The new agency was assigned with with the twin tasks of promoting the War domestically while publicizing American war aims overseas. Muckraking journalist George Creel was put in charge of the CPI. He recruited staff from business, media, academia, and the art world.

After the War (1918- )

Many Ameicans began having second thoughts about the War, even before it ended (November 1918). The principal reasons were the casualties the AEF experienced in France. American war losses were small by European standards. But this was only because America entered the War several yearsafter the other combatants and the AEF was only committed for about 6 months of battle. During those 6 months, however, American casualties were as high as experienced by other combatant countries, especially because the AEF was engaged in largely pitched offensive operations. By the time the AEF was back home, most Americans had concluded that the War had been a mistake. This was the prevailing attitude during the inter-War era (1920s and 30s). And it generated aiowerful anti-War movement that opposed American efforts to confront Germany after Hitler's rise to power (1933). This would lead to President Roosevelt's struggle with the isolationists, ironically perhaps the most critical battle of World War II.






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Created: 12:09 AM 6/29/2011
Last updated: 4:47 PM 1/9/2016