When the American congress agreed to Woodrow Wilson’s request that America join WW1 on the side of the allies in April 1917, it was nearly three years since the war had broken out1. Up to that point, in spite of continuous provocations by Britain and Germany, and especially the latter, America had remained in the mainstream and kept its promise to remain neutral in the war and continue doing business with both sides.
The three years have been used to argue that the US was unwilling to enter the war; that the US was neutral as Woodrow Wilson had declared. But this is not exactly true; the US was not neutral, neither was it unwilling to join the war. In this paper we shall explore this assertion.
As the war broke out in Europe, Woodrow Wilson, in calling for neutrality said that the Americans “must remain impartial both in thought and in action”2. But was this true, that the US could remain impartial in thought and in action? First, let us look at the ‘thought’. From the earlier days of war, it was obvious that the US would be more aligned to the allies, mainly led by Britain and France; as one historian observed “France had lent a hand to the colonies during the times of American Revolution”3.
Now America recalled those times and it was time for payback, but America was also more “socially and culturally connected with Britain in terms of literature, language and democratic institutions”4. With these historical factors and ties in place, it is doubtful that the US would have been neutral, at least not in thought.
But in the first two years of the war, the undecided ‘thought’ became reflected in the ‘actions’ of the US as well. The US had made great investments in the efforts of the allies in the war.
“Soon, as the war progressed and it became highly likely that the blockade by the British would only allow the US to trade with allies, the US took upon itself to finance essentials such as foods and weapons for both France and Great Britain”5 and the US industries basked in the market. On the economic front and in arms supply it became obvious to the Germans, there was no partiality as the US’s sympathies and loyalty lay mostly with the allies.
Up to this point, it is clear that the US was not as neutral as they had claimed. But these factors are not to be solely blamed on the US. Britain, having cut off communication between the US and the alliance, especially Germany, controlled much of the information on the war that reached the US. With this it became easy to absolve the US of the German-type-itchiness to join the war.
This is especially reflected in the US’s act of restraint and control to avoid getting into the war even in the face of rude provocations by the warring camps, especially Germany. It has been argued that “the Zimmerman Telegram’ was one of the major immediate impetuses for the US joining the war”6.
This is true, especially in the sense that by threatening the US’s stance on the dispute zones along its borders with Mexico, Germany was most explicitly taking the war to the US front door. Yet, in declaring war, President Woodrow Wilson gave the main reason as an effort to make the world a safer place for democracy to thrive.
The truth was that the US had to, amongst other reasons, save the allies from falling and hence guard against losing its loans to them. But it sought to hide these fears under a ‘global’ face. This marked the first of US’s effort to use its so-called search for global democracy to veil its own immediate interests. ‘Global’ democracy has been what defines the US’s foreign policy even up to date; the US’s global foreign policy has been the impetus behind its place as the ‘superpower’.
It is quite convenient how the US’s entry had coincided with the subsiding strength of the allies. Yet in spite of joining the war on the sides of the allies, President Wilson had decided that the US would fight alone; that is, without integrating the American military with the ally armies (French and British). This became a major bone of contention amongst the allies in the dying days of the war.
Contrary to the truth, the US claimed impartiality in thought and action while it continued to supply the allies in the war with arms, food and financial aid while at the same time seeking to end the war. These factors expose much of the US’s perception of this war at the time.
Of course, if the US hadn’t entered the war, the damage would definitely have been worse; its entry marked the end of the war and an uglier ending. But one must also acknowledge that the outcome of WW1 laid the ground for WW2, and both these wars marked the US’s rise to world power.
“America in the Great War,” Eyewitness history. Web.
Guisepi Robert, “Tragic War and Futile Peace: World War I,” Historyworld. Web.
“America and World War One,” History learnings. Web.
- History learnings. America and World War One.
- History learnings, op. cit.
- Eyewitness history. America in the Great War.
- Guisepi, R. Tragic War and Futile Peace: World War I.