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Authors: III H. W. Crocker

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Roosevelt blamed the sinking of the
on the Wilson administration's lack of big-stick diplomacy earlier in the war and its failure to condemn German atrocities. The Rough Rider colonel railed against Wilson's “abject cowardice and weakness” and said that the president “and Bryan are morally responsible for the loss of the lives of those American women and children. . . . They are both of them abject creatures and they won't go to war unless they are kicked into it.”
Roosevelt thought America should already be at the side of Britain and France, at least diplomatically, and be prepared for military intervention. German “piracy,” which was “on a vaster scale of murder than any old-time pirate every practiced,” and “the warfare which destroyed Louvain and Dinant” in Belgium, should end any doubts.
Roosevelt wrote his son Archie that “Every soft creature, every coward and weakling, every man who can't look more than six inches ahead, every man whose god is money, or pleasure, or ease, and every man who has not got in him both the sterner virtues and the power of seeking after an ideal, is enthusiastically in favor of Wilson” and his policy of drift, forceless diplomacy, and inaction.

William Jennings Bryan, on the contrary, feared Wilson was far too belligerent. He joined with pacifist congressmen to agitate against military preparedness. He opposed a volunteer officer-training program, paid for by the volunteers, known as the “Plattsburgh Movement” and pushed hard for Congress to prohibit American travel on the merchant ships of combatant powers.

Meanwhile, Americans continued to be killed at sea. In March 1916, a German U-boat sank an unarmed American steamer (the
) without warning. Eighty civilians, some of them Americans, went down with the ship. On 1 April 1916, another American steamer (the
) was torpedoed, and the Wilson administration
and the Kaiser's government replayed their mutual demands and pledges stemming from the sinking of the


But Wilson did something else, too. He recognized that if he was going to continue lecturing the world—which, as a professor, he was fond of doing—and if he was going to adequately defend the United States at a time of world war among the European powers, he needed a Navy that could deliver his message in words that everyone understood. With two vast coasts and commerce that extended across the Pacific and the Atlantic, the United States needed the largest Navy in the world and a greatly enlarged Merchant Marine.

The 1916 Naval Appropriations Act and United States Shipping Board Act proposed to give the United States just that: a Navy bigger than the combined forces of any two other navies and $50 million that would be devoted to building and buying for the Merchant Marine. Though Wilson, trying to be neutral in thought and deed, blamed both “German militarism” and “British navalism” for the calamity of war, he was not a man too proud to indulge in a little navalism himself—and a wee bit of militarism: the 1916 National Defense Act set out an incremental five-year plan to expand the Army to 175,000 men and the National Guard to 400,000.

Wilson campaigned for president in 1916 as “the man who kept us out of war,” and he knew the Naval Appropriations Act put him at odds with much of his party. He supported it anyway, out of well-founded prudence—to guard not only, or even primarily, against German U-boats, but against the dominance of Britain's Royal Navy. The United States, rather than Britannia, would rule the waves in the future and ensure the free transport of American goods across the oceans.

Resolute in his neutrality, Wilson dutifully suppressed his naturally Anglophilic sentiments—so much so that Secretary of State Robert Lansing feared the president might actually intervene on the side of the Central Powers. The putative casus belli were British suppression of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland in 1916, British and French interception of American mail, and British blacklisting of American firms that traded with Germany. Lansing's fears were exaggerated, but Wilson was certainly tetchy about these matters in a way that seemed a trifle unbalanced. Wilson came down hard on Britain partly to compensate for his naturally pro-British feelings; partly in response to Democrat constituencies (such as Irish Americans) who were appalled by Britain's undiplomatic acts of self-defense; and partly because he zealously put “America first”—a motto he coined
—and was determined that American trade and neutral rights not be constrained by British power. At the outset of the war, Wilson was quick to note parallels with the War of 1812, when clashes on the high seas propelled America into war against Britain. He also noted, rather curiously, that he and James Madison, president during the War of 1812, were the only two Princeton men to have been elected commander in chief.

But whatever the annoyances of British policy, German provocations seemed rather more dangerous to America and her interests. German saboteurs were widely suspected (and much later proved) to have blown up an American ammunition dump on Black Tom Island, New York, on 30 July 1916. The explosion had the force of an earthquake, shattering windows from Manhattan to Brooklyn, sparking fires, damaging the Statue of Liberty, and killing perhaps seven people and injuring hundreds more. This was only the most spectacular incident in a campaign of suspected German sabotage. Between early 1915 and April 1917 there were almost a hundred acts of apparent sabotage against American chemical plants, munitions factories, and
merchant shipping,
and German agents were suspected of paying union leaders to organize strikes. On more than one occasion in 1916, German U-boats turned up in American harbors and sank ships just off America's coastal waters.

It was, as Wilson predicted, conflict at sea that brought America into the war. Reelected in 1916 on the “he kept us out of war” slogan, Wilson began 1917 by announcing his eagerness to negotiate “peace without victory,” a proposal that was inevitably treated with contempt by all sides in the European struggle. On 31 January 1917, Wilson learned that Germany was renewing its policy of unrestricted U-boat warfare. In protest, he severed diplomatic relations with Germany.

The Germans, however, had calculated that they could win the war before the Americans roused themselves to intervene. How could the Kaiser and his generals not sneer when they looked at Wilson: a commander in chief who was too proud to fight, who believed in peace without victory, and who refused to put his Army and Navy on a war footing lest this be thought provocative. Such a man did not impress those who put their trust in “reeking tube and iron shard.”
The United States was an Atlantic Ocean away. Its Army was pitifully small and ludicrously ill-equipped. Its most recent major military action had been a punitive expedition against Pancho Villa for raiding across the border into the United States. It might very well have seemed in German eyes that all the U.S. Army was good for was chasing Mexican bandits. As General Erich von Ludendorff said, “What can she do? She cannot come here! . . . I do not give a damn about America.”

Wilson now spoke in favor of “armed neutrality,” which meant arming American merchant ships. That became rather more pressing after the Germans sank the American merchant vessel the
on 12 March 1917. Three more American merchant ships were sunk less than a week later.

Theodore Roosevelt believed that if America had been prepared for war, Germany would not have been so bold. Writing in March 1917, he fumed that Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping was a manifest act of war against the United States and should have been treated as such. Germany, he wrote, “has sunk our ships, our ports have been put under blockade. . . . If these are not overt acts of war then Lexington and Bunker Hill were not overt acts of war. It is well to remember that during the last two years the Germans have killed as many, or almost as many, Americans as were slain at Lexington and Bunker Hill; and whereas the British in open conflict slew armed American fighting men, the Americans whom the Germans have slain were women and children and unarmed men going peacefully about their lawful business.” Instead of recognizing that we were at war with Germany, the Wilson administration was ignobly hiding behind the shelter of Britain's Royal Navy; the slowing pace of U-boat attacks was “due solely to the efficiency of the British navy. We have done nothing to secure our own safety, or to vindicate our honor. We have been content to shelter ourselves behind the fleet of a foreign power.”


Then British intelligence handed Wilson the proverbial smoking gun: the transcript of a cable sent on 17 January 1917 from the German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann to the German minister in Mexico. Intercepted and deciphered by the British, it read:

On the first of February we intend to begin submarine warfare unrestricted. In spite of this, it is our intention to endeavor to keep neutral the United States of America.

If this attempt is not successful, we propose an alliance on the following basis with Mexico: that we shall make war together and together make peace. We shall give general financial support, and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. The details are left to you for settlement.

You are instructed to inform the president of Mexico of the above in the greatest confidence as soon as it is certain that there will be an outbreak of war with the United States and suggest that the president of Mexico, on his own initiative, should communicate with Japan suggesting adherence at once to this plan; at the same time offer to mediate between Germany and Japan.

Please call to the attention of the president of Mexico that the employment of ruthless submarine warfare now promises to compel England to make peace in a few months.

Wilson was informed about the telegram in February and made it public in March—the same month the Czar abdicated the throne, granting Russia a brief interim of liberal (actually, moderate socialist) government. The departure of the Czar made Russia a more palatable potential ally to American liberals, and the sensation of the Zimmermann Telegram made the Allies' cause inescapably America's own.

On 2 April 1917, President Wilson delivered his “War Message” to Congress, affirming that the United States had “no quarrel with
the German people,” but only with the German autocracy that had forced war upon the United States. “The world,” Wilson proclaimed, “must be made safe for democracy.” And it would be the doughboys of the American Expeditionary Force who would be charged to do it.





t was one thing for Congress to declare war—which it did on 6 April 1917 against Imperial Germany,
adding Austria-Hungary on 7 December. It was quite another for America's armed forces to wage it. Wilson's former strict neutrality—and pacifist politicos who believed preparedness was provocative—had helped ensure that America's war fighters were short of nearly everything but courage. The shortage included men. Though Americans rallied round the flag and damned the Kaiser, relatively few followed that up by marching down to the recruiting sergeant, at least at first.
Neither the president nor the Congress had any idea how many men might be needed; some, indeed, thought the United States need only supply
aid and perhaps some naval support to the embattled Western allies. Military delegations from Britain and France soon put paid to such minimalism. The war machine in Europe needed men—and America was far wealthier in young men, even if they were not yet uniformed, than it was in military materiel.

The regular Army was 127,000 strong, backed by 67,000 National Guardsmen in federal service and another 100,000 National Guard troops controlled by their respective governors. In terms of numbers, the United States was on par with the military strength of Portugal; in terms of supplies and training for trench warfare, and modern warfare in general, the American Army was hardly prepared at all. It was an army better suited to the wars of the past—fighting Apaches or Filipino insurgents—than the new, modern warfare of artillery and machine guns now being waged by the massive veteran armies of Europe. France and Britain weren't looking for one hundred thousand Americans to join the Western Front—they wanted a million men, at least for starters, and they wanted them fast, before the German armies of Ludendorff and Hindenburg crashed through the Western Front.


Given the task of forming and leading this army was the newly appointed (as of 10 May 1917) commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Major General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, a veteran of the Indian wars and the Spanish-American War and most recently commander of the campaign against Pancho Villa.
Pershing was charged with building a division that could embark for France in June. Wilson and Pershing agreed on another item: American troops would not be fed piecemeal, or “amalgamated,” into the
French or British armies—however hungry they were for immediate reinforcements—but remain separate and distinct, under their own officers.
This was the military corollary of President Wilson's insistence that the United States had entered the war not as an Allied Power but as an “associated” power. To Wilson, there was still such a thing as a man too proud to be an ally. For Pershing, a different, more readily admirable, martial pride was involved.

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