United States Entry Into the Great War
American path from neutrality to joining the war against the Central Powers
author Paul Boșcu, August 2018
The American path to World War I is a long one, mired with political, economic and social complexities. At the star of the war the vast majority of Americans supported neutrality, not wanting to participate in what seemed a purely European war. As the war progressed the American administration adopted a policy of military neutrality but economic alliance with Great Britain. In response Germany started attacking shipping lines at sea, hoping to cut off Britain's supply lines. In the US, public opinion started shifting towards aiding Britain because of the American citizens that lost their lives in the German U-Boat campaign, and because British anti-German propaganda started to work. By the beginning of 1917 the political and social climate in the United States was such that it allowed President Woodrow Wilson to declare war against Germany.

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As part of the naval blockade of Germany, the British declared the North Sea a military area. From the outset, Theobald Bethmann Hollweg, the German Chancellor, was concerned about the possible reaction of neutral America. But the combination of press agitation and naval frustration overbore him, and on 4 February 1915 the Kaiser announced that the North Sea was a war zone and that all merchantmen, including neutral vessels, were liable to be sunk without warning. The US government immediately protested in the strongest terms.

Orders regarding the treatment of neutral vessels became ambiguous and the accusations directed by one belligerent against the other increasingly heated – and on the whole justified. The British flew neutral flags, and they armed merchant ships. If the U-boat captain obeyed international law he was liable to have his submarine attacked, particularly if he had fallen for one of the British decoys, the heavily armed but equally heavily disguised Q ships.

The breach of maritime law and its possible repercussions were recognized. The prevailing code required commerce raiders, whether surface or submarine, to stop merchant ships, allow the crew to take to the boats, provide them with food and water and assist their passage to the nearest landfall before destroying their vessel. The unrestricted policy allowed U-boat captains to sink by gunfire or torpedo at will.

The proponent of the unrestricted submarine warfare policy was Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, chief of the German naval staff. His argument was that only through an all-out attack on British maritime supply could the war be brought to a favorable conclusion before blockade by sea and attrition on land exhausted Germany's capacity to continue the war. A similar argument was to be used by the German navy during the Second World War, when it instituted an unrestricted sinking policy from the start.

In terms of propaganda and diplomatic effect, the sinking of the Lusitania off the Irish coast on 7 May 1915 had a strong impact. She was indubitably a British-owned vessel, and as it happened she was carrying munitions. But she was principally a passenger ship, and among the 1,201 who died were many women and children, including 128 American citizens. President Woodrow Wilson, an academic and a Democrat, had been president since 1913. For the moment he held back from war. In doing so he reflected the views of most of his fellow citizens. After the incident the Germans temporarily suspended U-boat warfare.

Colonel Edward House, plenipotentiary of Wilson, had crossed the Atlantic in the Cunard liner only weeks before and was about to sit down to a dinner in London organized by the American ambassador when the news came. House telegrammed the president to say that ‘America has come to the parting of the ways, when she must determine whether she stands for civilized or uncivilized warfare. We can no longer remain neutral spectators. Our action in this crisis will determine the part we will play when peace is made, and how far we may influence a settlement for the lasting good of humanity. We are being weighed in the balance, and our position among nations is being assessed by mankind.’

In Germany itself, the incident inclined both Bethmann Hollweg and the Kaiser’s circle in favor of operating under cruiser rules once more. By September 1915 the constraints on the U-boat commanders imposed by the Kaiser, as well as the internal friction they were generating within the navy itself, were sufficient to persuade the naval staff to suspend U-boat warfare.

Germany responded officially, noting that the Lusitania had carried ammunition and war cargo. The German press claimed that Britain had used civilians as human shields to protect such cargoes. Wilson regarded the response as evading the central issue of the right to travel on the high seas.

The Lusitania tragedy created such a newsworthy sensation that, for a generation, Americans remembered it, mistakenly, as one of the major causes of American entry into the war. In fact, the strong American protests over the Lusitania sinking resulted in a change in German policy and in a gradual improvement in German-American relations over the issue of sea transport during the following months.

Despite the popular outcry over the loss of American lives and of the lives of more than 1,000 other civilians aboard the Lusitania, Wilson delivered an appeal for calm in a speech in Philadelphia in May 1915, in which he pointed out ‘There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight.’ Cartoonists and critics immediately used the speech to suggest that Wilson lacked the spine to defend American rights.

President Wilson still went further than his pacifist secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, was prepared to accept. Bryan resigned when Wilson sent Germany a strong note demanding that it cease submarine warfare against unarmed merchantmen. It was a significant step: the sinking of the Lusitania had convinced his successor, Robert Lansing, that ultimately the United States would have to enter the war against Germany. Bryan’s resignation sprang directly from the dilemmas of neutrality. Although Bryan was wrong and the stronger notes to Germany did not lead to war, the crisis showed the difficulty American statesmen encountered in trying to find a neutral path.

William G. McAdoo had just arrived home for lunch on 5 June 1915, when Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan stopped in unexpectedly. Bryan’s haggard face reflected a visible nervousness, and McAdoo, his colleague in the cabinet, had never seen him so agitated. Bryan began by saying that he had come to McAdoo because of their personal friendship and because of McAdoo’s intimacy with Woodrow Wilson, McAdoo’s father-in-law.

The issues between the two men ran deeper, for it had become clear to Bryan that Wilson intended to be his own secretary of state and that Bryan’s role had been reduced to simply signing the notes and stating the positions decided upon by the president.

Bryan explained that if Wilson were to send a second note to Germany regarding the Lusitania, it would surely lead to war. As a profound believer in peace, Bryan could not conscientiously follow the president in that course of action. When McAdoo asked what should be done instead, Bryan suggested arbitration, but McAdoo regarded that as out of the question, and an impossible solution. He did not argue that point with Bryan, however. Bryan went on to say that he regarded his usefulness as over; he planned to resign, and he sought advice on how to make the resignation create the least possible embarrassment.

McAdoo related the conversation to Wilson, and the president expressed no surprise at Bryan’s intended resignation but said that he would prefer him to stay on, so that the Germans would not get the wrong impression. McAdoo tried again to convince Bryan, but he was steadfast. Troubled by his conscience, William Jennings Bryan finally decided to resign as secretary of state. Bryan put his resignation in the hands of the president. McAdoo was surprised at the ‘hurricane of abuse that was to howl around’ Bryan for his action.

Wilson replaced Bryan with Robert Lansing, a specialist in international law who had served as counselor to the State Department and who had worked on arbitration commissions as a professional international lawyer for more than a decade prior to the war. Bryan, by contrast, had been an established leader of the Democratic Party, had run for president three times, and had a clear reputation as a pacifist. Lansing, who had no independent political following or reputation, seemed far more suited to the position as conceived by Wilson than Bryan had been.

The German army’s Supreme Command planned to remain on the defensive in the west in 1917, and endorsed a memorandum written on 22 December 1916 by the chief of the naval staff, Henning von Holtzendorff, arguing that unrestricted U-boat warfare could win the war by autumn 1917. Bethmann Hollweg remained very worried about the likely American response. Wilson’s policy was one of internationalism, but he recognized that its fulfilment might require the United States to take up arms. A German move to unrestricted submarine warfare was likely to be the precipitant to such a step.

At one level this seemed irrational. In the autumn of 1916 Wilson fought his campaign for reelection as president with the slogan ‘He kept us out of the war’. But his success reflected other factors – his record in domestic policy, above all. Moreover, although he had not done as much to prepare the United States for intervention in Europe as Theodore Roosevelt and other Republicans demanded, he had secured the passage of the National Defense Act in May 1916, doubling the regular army and expanding the National Guard, and of the Naval Appropriations Act in June, setting out to create a US navy equal to the most powerful in the world by 1925.

Stunned by an international outcry, the Kaiser endorsed a confidential order in June 1915 to submarine captains not to sink any passenger liners, no matter what flag they flew, without warning. He did not specify such a warning notice for merchant freighters, however, and many freighters carried a few supercargo passengers or were crewed by international crews. In any case, the Kaiser did not publicly announce the change in policy.

German submarine captains, however, continued to attack merchant ships through the summer of 1915, usually warning the crews to evacuate, but not always. The policy varied with the personality and character of the submarine captain and with the particular situation. In August, Captain Rudolf Schneider of U-24 sank a British steamer without warning, the Arabic. Although most of the 433 passengers and crew were rescued, two Americans were among the 44 dead. World outrage mounted again, and this time the Kaiser issued explicit orders that not only should a liner be fully warned before being sunk, but that the submarine captain must observe that both crew and passengers safely boarded lifeboats before sinking the ship.

Schneider claimed that the steamer took an evasive zigzagging course and that he interpreted that action as an attempt to ram, but few believed the claim. The ship sank in 10 minutes.

Orders went to Count von Bernstorff, the German ambassador in Washington, to give assurances to the US government, and he did so in a statement that Americans interpreted as the ‘Arabic Pledge’. ‘Liners will not be sunk by our submarines without warning and without safety of the lives of non-combatants, provided that the liners do not try to escape or offer resistance.’ Backing off from attacking liners, German submarine commanders found themselves restricted to attacking freighters or warships. As a result of the changed submarine tactics, from the late summer of 1915 until early 1917, German-American relations gradually improved.

Germany advised the US government that armed merchantmen were to be treated as cruisers beginning on the 1st of March. This action came in response to the British use of Q ships in large numbers, to the use of neutral flags by British merchant ships, and to the open arming of merchant vessels. Realizing that Americans traveling on an armed merchant ship could easily be killed by either side, and that such an event could draw the United States into the conflict, members of Congress introduced congressional resolutions designed to preserve neutrality. The resolutions openly challenged Wilson’s policies. Again, Wilson reacted firmly, believing that no one, including ambassadors, secretaries of state and legislators, should infringe on his ability to set foreign policy.

The resolutions came in direct response to the German announcement that their submarines would sink armed merchantmen as warships. Member of Congress Jeff McLemore of Texas introduced a resolution requesting that the president warn Americans not to travel on armed vessels.

Senator Thomas P. Gore of Oklahoma introduced a separate bill that would deny passports to Americans traveling on armed vessels and demanded Entente respect for non-contraband trade with the Central Powers.

Following the votes closely, and seeing them as congressional challenges to his prerogatives as president, Wilson called on his party regulars to have both resolutions stopped. The Gore and McLemore measures, although they failed, showed strong public and congressional opinion that Wilson’s policies could put the United States in a position to be drawn into the war.

Improved relations between the United States and Germany were threatened in the spring of 1916 over one more U-boat attack. A German U-boat torpedoed the Sussex, a French cross-channel passenger ship, and several Americans aboard were injured. The United States regarded the attack as a violation of the Arabic Pledge, but Germany claimed the submarine captain mistook Sussex for a minelayer. Wilson dismissed the minelayer story, and, in response to the sinking of Sussex, sent an ultimatum that unless Germany abandoned its method of submarine warfare, the United States would sever diplomatic relations.

In fact, U-boat captain Herbert Pustkuchen of U-29 acted wantonly, simply ignoring the orders about warnings, and he sank several other ships on his March 1916 cruise with no regard for the safety of passengers or crew.

Wilson explained to Congress his decision to issue an ultimatum to Germany in response to the Sussex sinking, stating that ‘unless the Imperial German Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of warfare against passenger and freight carrying vessels this Government can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the Government of the German Empire altogether.’

Germany agreed to the US demands issued after the Sussex sinking but imposed a counter-condition that the United States compel the Entente to respect the rules of international law with regard to shipping, and in reference to mines, continuous voyage blockades, and rules of contraband. Traditionally, food had never been regarded as contraband, and shortages were affecting Germany. Wilson accepted the German response as a pledge but refused to accept the counter-condition. This so-called Sussex Pledge remained in effect, and German U-boat captains generally refrained from sinking passenger ships or American merchant ships over the next months.

The pledge continued to leave the decision as to war in German hands, because, if Germany openly moved to violate the pledge, the United States had almost committed itself to entering the war against Germany. So from mid-1916 onward, in this sense, Germany held the power to keep America in or out of the war.

The German chancellor resolved to appease potential American wrath by himself proposing peace. But the chancellor was so constrained by the army’s shopping list of war aims that his offer, when it was published, was meaningless. Realising that the Entente was likely to reject the German initiative, Wilson stepped in with one of his own. He invited the belligerents to state their terms. But the Entente did not want a peace set by America, and the Germans did not want a public debate on war aims, which was likely to divide the country internally.

The failure of the December 1916 peace initiatives was not simply the consequence of diplomatic maneuvers and the great powers’ amours propres. There were irreconcilable issues here, which, if exposed in negotiation, would have deepened and explained the war’s continuation, not ended it.

Wilson continued to advocate a negotiated peace during January 1917. In a speech he called for a ‘peace without victory’. He argued that a war that resulted in victors and vanquished would lead to an uneasy peace, in which the defeated nations would want revenge, leading to another round of war. If the war were to result in a lasting peace, he argued, the nations of the world would have to organize in a league to preserve the peace. His remarks, as so often in the past, became reduced to slogans and headlines. The concept of peace without victory infuriated those like Theodore Roosevelt who advocated American participation on the Entente side. A war fought to preserve a lasting peace would become, in a slogan of the era, ‘a war to end wars’.

While pro-British Americans, like Walter Hines Page, the US ambassador in Britain, believed that the war should bring about a lasting peace, they believed that only a sound defeat of Germany could ensure such a peace. Wilson’s position, they argued, treated Britain as if it were on an equal footing with Germany in terms of war guilt and responsibility.

On 8 January 1917 the navy and army presented a united front in an audience with the Kaiser, ‘who has suddenly come round to the idea that unrestricted U-boat warfare is now called for, and is definitely in favor of it even if the Chancellor is opposed to it.’ Georg von Müller, head of the naval cabinet, noted in his diary that ‘He voiced the very curious viewpoint that the U-boat war was a purely naval affair which did not concern the Chancellor in any way.’ Bethmann Hollweg was not even at the meeting, and when he was informed of the Kaiser’s decision he simply accepted it.

Bethmann Hollweg had run out of options, hemmed in between the armed forces on the one hand and public opinion on the other. When at the end of the month he rose in the Reichstag to announce the decision to begin unrestricted U-boat warfare on 1 February 1917, ‘his voice was hoarse and rough. It was evidently very painful for him to plead for a policy which formerly he had passionately opposed.’

German submarines made direct attacks on American merchant ships, sinking three. That was a direct challenge to the United States as a sovereign power, one which Wilson decided he could not ignore.

The political effect in the United States was felt immediately and the severity of American reaction vastly exceeded German expectation. On 26 February 1917, the same day that two American women were drowned in the sinking of the Cunard liner Laconia by a German submarine, President Wilson asked Congress for permission to arm American merchant ships.

The announcement of the German submarine blockade brought a storm of protest from the pro-Entente camp in the United States. Even the provisions that the Germans made for allowing free passage for one ship a week for passengers to and from Britain, a safety zone in the North Sea for trade with neutrals Holland and Denmark, and a lane through the Mediterranean for trade with Greece appeared to such critics as insulting and dictatorial, a clear set of infringements on the concept of freedom of the seas.

The sinking of a total of nine American ships constituted the specific casus belli, or cause of war: the overt acts Wilson required before declaring war. However, when submarines sank the first of these ships, the humane practices of the submarine commanders and the fact that the seamen survived made it possible for the United States to remain at peace with Germany, at least for a few weeks.

From the German perspective, the submarine blockade seemed to represent the best chance to bring the war to a successful end. A negotiated peace or a victory for the Entente would mean that Germany would have to pay indemnification, sacrifice territory, give up its colonies, and limit its arms. The Entente war goals, the German leadership believed, would reduce Germany to a second-rate power in Central Europe. A victory would leave Germany a major nation and world power, ranking as an equal to France and Britain.

In a rather organized and mathematical calculation, the German High Command recognized that if they could reduce the tonnage flowing to Britain by 600,000 tons a month, Britain would have to capitulate within a year and perhaps within a few months, if the British recognized the situation they faced.

The United States did not have a large, trained army, and it would take months to transport troops and equipment to Europe. With submarine control of the sea-lanes, even that transport would be endangered. With starvation in Germany among the civilian population, and with the troops in strong positions outside the German frontiers, a push to victory through full use of the submarine weapon, even with the risk of American hostility, made logical sense by these calculations.

The German leadership knowingly took on a clear risk in using the submarine against American shipping. Wilson had threatened Germany with the severance of diplomatic relations over the sinking of the British ships Lusitania and Arabic and the French packet Sussex; with the violations of the pledge to respect liners and not to attack unarmed ships, a blockade enforced by submarines, especially one against neutral American ships, even with warnings to the crews, would have serious consequences.

With the announced blockade, most US ships stayed in port, although a few that had already departed began to arrive in European ports. The first two American ships to be destroyed under the new blockade were the steam-propelled freighter Housatonic and a schooner, the Lyman M. Law. In both cases, the submarine commander ensured that the crews evacuated the ships before sinking them, and no one died in these two sinkings.

The Housatonic carried a cargo of wheat consigned to the British government and encountered the submarine off the Scilly Islands, in the designated war zone off the tip of Cornwall in Britain. Housatonic sailed under a special provision of the American maritime law that allowed ships built in Germany to be transferred to American registry. In the case of the Housatonic, the submarine captain gave the crew a full hour to evacuate into lifeboats and, after sinking the ship, he towed the lifeboats toward land for an hour and a half.

The sinking of the Housatonic did not represent an overt act of war, since the goods aboard were consigned to the British government and were thus clearly contraband, and since the submarine captain had followed traditional cruiser rules in warning the ship and providing for the safety of the crew. Indeed, it appeared from this episode that the Germans would be quite scrupulous in applying cruiser rules to American ships in their new blockade.

Another submarine stopped the four-masted American schooner the Lyman M. Law, with a crew of 10, off Sardinia in the Mediterranean, not too far from the lane that the Germans had designated as the safety zone for trade to Greece. The ship carried lumber and a good supply of live chickens. After the schooner crew evacuated to two lifeboats, the submarine crew planted a bomb aboard the schooner, setting fire and destroying it.

The US State Department did not regard the attack on the Lyman M. Law as an overt act of war. It appeared that the submarine might have accosted the schooner within the protected safety lane, but since the exact location remained unclear, official reaction in Washington remained muted. Captain S. W. McDonough and the other nine members of the crew landed safely in Cagliari, Sardinia. McDonough had set sail before the blockade announcement had been made, and he had not expected any difficulty.

It was now clear that the United States could not participate in world politics in any major way by staying out of the conflict. On 3 February 1917 America broke off diplomatic relations with Germany. Its reason for doing so was the danger to American shipping. The State Department notified Ambassador Johann von Bernstorff that the United States had severed diplomatic relations. In the expression of the day, the US government ‘handed his passports’ to Bernstorff.

Cabinet members urged Wilson to give some guidance to the shipping companies. After all, several companies had government contracts to deliver mail, but did not sail because of fear of destruction. William Gibbs McAdoo insisted on setting a policy of at least ‘armed neutrality’ in which US merchant ships would be provided with anti-submarine guns to defend themselves. Wilson expressed impatience at the warlike suggestions, but others supported the idea.

As Wilson discussed the matter with his cabinet, some members insisted that the announcement that German ships would attack American shipping amounted to an act of war in itself. At the very least, they argued, the United States had to break diplomatic relations with Germany. Reluctantly, Wilson agreed to break relations, holding off declaring war at least until Germany committed an overt act of war. The United States arranged with Britain that Bernstorff and his staff could sail safely from New York by way of Halifax, Canada, and Holland on his return to Germany.

Within sixteen days the US ambassador in London knew of a possible German threat to the United States itself: Germany had approached Mexico with an offer of alliance and an invitation to invade Texas. The foreign minister of Germany, Arthur Zimmermann, had decided that, in the event of war with the United States, Germany should seek new allies. Zimmermann used three different routes to send a message to the German ambassador in Washington regarding a potential alliance with Mexico. Room 40, the British Admiralty’s cryptanalysis department, intercepted all three. Although the Mexicans refused the German proposal, Wilson now had the motive to declare war on Germany.

In 1916 John J. Pershing had led an American military expedition into Mexico to capture Pancho Villa, a Mexican revolutionary leader backed by the Germans. Mexico’s resentment at this intervention encouraged Arthur Zimmermann, the German foreign minister, to think that the Mexicans might relish the opportunity to invade Texas. He therefore signalled Germany’s ambassador in Washington, telling him to broach the idea of an alliance with Mexico in the event of war between Germany and the United States.

Zimmermann’s plans to approach Mexico to join in an alliance against the United States may have seemed quite logical, since Mexico already had severely strained relations with the United States. Furthermore, Zimmermann hoped that Mexico would be able to convince the Japanese to break their alliance with the Entente and join against the United States. With the United States threatened on its southern border, and needing to protect its island possessions against Japanese attack, any American participation in the war in Europe would be strictly limited. Like a number of other apparently logical decisions made by leaders on both sides during the war, it would backfire against its creator.

Secretly, Zimmermann sent the telegram outlining the proposed alliance to Bernstorff, with instructions that Bernstorff should forward the message to the German minister in Mexico, H. von Eckhardt. The German foreign ministry sent the message encoded over undersea cable. The cable system they employed had been provided by the United States to allow Germany to respond to peace negotiations made by Wilson.

Unknown to the United States, the British listened in on the line, and, furthermore, the British Naval Intelligence service had made great progress in cracking the German codes. In their crowded Room 40 in the British Admiralty building, Director William ‘Blinker’ Hall and his team of code-crackers worked day and night on such intercepts.

British code-breaker Nigel de Grey began to learn the content of the Zimmermann telegram, including the plan for unrestricted submarine warfare, the proposed alliance with Mexico, and the feelers to Japan that Zimmermann requested Eckhardt undertake in Mexico.

The secret Zimmermann telegram, the British assumed, would infuriate the Americans once they heard about it and would help convince Wilson of German underhand tactics. However, revealing the message and the fact that the Admiralty had deciphered it would lead the Germans to adopt new and tougher diplomatic codes. Thus, Hall worked at first to develop a full transcription of the Zimmermann telegram and to plan a strategy for its revelation to the Americans. He realized that Bernstorff would have forwarded a version to Mexico, and he worked to recover that version, so that it would appear that the leak came out of Mexico City.

Wilson asked Congress to authorize the arming of merchant ships and to grant him the power to use any other means he deemed necessary to protect American shipping and citizens. When Congress hesitated to give him such freedom of action, he released the telegram for publication. After Congress adjourned without acting on his request, Wilson decided in early March that he could place naval gun crews and guns on merchant ships by executive authority.

The revelation, and Zimmermann’s own acceptance of its truth, persuaded the undecided in America that the US should intervene in the war. Wilson had little to offer in terms of immediate contribution. The first American troops landed in France in June 1917. However the first units to see any action, although on a small scale, were those of the 1st Division in October. It was not until 1918 that the American Expeditionary Force was able to bring a significant contribution to the war effort.

On 2 April 1917 Wilson addressed the American nation, telling it of the cabinet’s unanimous resolve: ‘The right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts – for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.’ He meant what he said, and in saying it he revalidated and reformulated the big ideas which Britain and France had espoused in 1914, but which had lost their luster in the mud and blood of the intervening years.

When Erich Ludendorff dismissed the military implications of America’s entry, he was not just resorting to bravado. He reckoned that the United States could not put a major army on the continent of Europe until 1919 and he knew that Germany would have to obtain victory by then. What Ludendorff’s calculations failed to take into account was the consequences of America’s entry on the conduct of economic warfare. They were much more immediate: the American entry to the war saved the Entente – and possibly some American speculators – from bankruptcy.

After returning to the White House, Wilson and his wife had dinner with friends. Then the president wandered off. His secretary, Joseph Tumulty, found him later, sitting at the table in the Cabinet Room. Looking up, Wilson said, ‘Think what it was they were applauding. My message today was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems to applaud that.’

Pershing, appointed to command the American army in Europe, did not arrive in France until June. Rear-Admiral W S. Sims, commanding the American naval forces in European waters, reached Britain on 9 April, three days after the formal declaration of war. In London, the US ambassador and Sims drafted a cable to the president: ‘Whatever help the United States may render at any time in the future, or in any theater of the war, our help is now more seriously needed in this submarine area for the sake of all the Allies than it can ever be needed again, or anywhere else.’

Through the rest of March 1917, the sinking of American ships by German submarines continued. A submarine sank the single-screw, three-masted steamship Algonquin. All members of the crew safely evacuated in lifeboats and landed in Penzance. What seemed to tip American public opinion and many newspaper editorialists in favor of war came in a single announcement of the sinking of three more American-registered and American-crewed ships: the City of Memphis, the Illinois, and the Vigilancia. In the case of the Vigilancia, 15 members of the crew died, including five Americans.

The Vigilancia had sailed for Le Havre from New York on February 28, carrying a general cargo of iron, fruit, asbestos and straw; a submarine fired two torpedoes at the ship without warning, about 145 miles from land. F. A. Middleton, who captained the steamship, had a crew of 45, including 20 American citizens. Usually in this period, American-registered ships had crews made up of men of several nationalities.

The City of Memphis had been on a return trip from Cardiff, bound for New York, when a German submarine shelled and sank her off the coast of Ireland. The ship did not carry any cargo but sailed in ballast after having delivered her cargo of baled cotton to Le Havre, France. The submarine sailors fired warning shots, instructed the City of Memphis crew to abandon ship in lifeboats, and then sank the empty cargo ship. Eventually, all 57 members of the crew of the City of Memphis reached land safely.

The tanker Illinois was sunk while returning in ballast from London and destined for Port Arthur, Texas. All 34 crew members of the Illinois reached land safely.

Wilson had little to offer in terms of immediate contribution. The first American troops landed in France in June 1917. It was not until 1918 that the American Expeditionary Force was able to offer a significant contribution to the war effort. The entry of the most powerful remaining neutral to the war removed any final constraint on the enforcement of blockade. America showed few of the reservations displayed by Britain, in dealing with the neutrals bordering on Germany. And that was where the United States’ military contribution was first felt.

Wilson immediately adopted conscription, on the grounds that it was the most democratic form of military enlistment. But the creation of a mass army had two short-term consequences likely to work against the rapid dispatch of the American Expeditionary Force overseas: first, it required the existing army to become the cadre for the new, and second, the latter was likely to commandeer the war production of American factories carefully nurtured by Britain and France.

The mobilization of the United States Navy, with the second largest fleet of modern battleships in the world after Britain's, immediately altered the balance of naval power in the Atlantic and North Sea indubitably in the Ententes’ favor. After December 1917, when five American Dreadnoughts joined the Grand Fleet, the German Fleet, outnumbered by thirty-five to fifteen, could not hope to stand against it in battle.

The United States Army, by contrast, was in April 1917 only 108,000 strong and in no condition to take the field; the federalization of the National Guard, of 130,000 part-time soldiers, scarcely added to its effectiveness. The best American units belonged to the Marine Corps, but numbered only 15,000. Nevertheless, it was decided to form an expeditionary force of one division and two Marine brigades and send it to France immediately. Meanwhile, conscription would produce a first contingent of a million recruits, with another million to follow. It was expected that two million men would arrive in France during 1918.