United States Neutrality in World War I
US social, political and economic situation during the neutrality period
1914 - 1917
author Paul Boșcu, August 2018
When war broke out in Europe in 1914 the US proclaimed a state of neutrality. Economically the US started to favor the British and their Allies. Tensions would rise between US and Germany when the Germans started using submarines to sink commercial vessels sailing under a neutral flag, in hopes of cutting off the British supply lines. President Woodrow Wilson tried to broker peace between Germany and the Entente, a peace that was not to be. When Germany resumed its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare America entered the war.

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American neutrality might have seemed a simple matter at the outbreak of war in Europe. The United States had no alliances that required siding with any of the belligerent powers. The nation had remained neutral in the several wars that had swept Europe since 1815. From the perspective of the United States, the Great War that broke out in 1914 appeared as another in a series of conflicts spurred on by the corrupt European system of balance of power, one that should be resolved by negotiation, possibly arbitration, border adjustment, and other diplomatic means, not by force of arms.

George Washington, in his Farewell Address in 1796, had warned Americans against becoming involved in alliances, and, although he never used the phrase ‘entangling alliances’ in that speech, he had indeed advised against such alliances in slightly different phrasing. Washington had said, ‘Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice? It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world…’ That concept had become so much a basis for American foreign policy that no president had varied from it in the nearly 120 years since Washington had declared it.

In August 1914, US newspapers told their startled readers that war had broken out in Europe. For the average American, however, it was still ‘business as usual’. Events 3,000 miles away, on the far side of a broad ocean, had little impact on everyday life, and there seemed no reason for America to become involved. American President Woodrow Wilson, reflecting the public mood, told Congress that the United States should remain neutral, saying, ‘we must be impartial in thought as well as action’. Like people in the rest of the country, Washingtonians agreed.

For years, Americans had watched warily as the European leaders constructed their alliances and fenced diplomatically. True, Theodore Roosevelt had barged into European affairs on occasion, but then he was unique. Yet despite the ocean barrier, the United States was deeply involved, economically and culturally, with Western Europe. Then, too, with its bid for colonies, this nation had become entangled on the periphery of the power struggle.

When it became apparent that there would be no quick victory in 1914, American resources were a strategic factor which belligerent planners had to consider. In any consideration, the degree of American neutrality and the interpretation of neutrality itself were crucial.

American neutrality would face numerous challenges in the period between August 1914 and February 1917. Many Americans had ethnic ties with one side or the other; the diverse origins of the American population made neutrality appear not only traditional but also very practical. But American trade with Europe threatened to involve the United States in the conflict. The diplomatic and legal pathway through this trade dilemma would consume much of the time of President Woodrow Wilson and the State Department during the first 32 months of World War I.

Wilson’s attempt to find a strictly neutral course of action through both the ethnic loyalties and the shipping and trade issues worked for a while, but his position angered both those who favored entering the war and those who opposed it.

As a population of immigrants and their descendants, the American people certainly had reason to have divided loyalties. Although a majority could trace their ancestry to one of the nations of the Entente, including Britain, France, Russia, and Italy, many regions and cities of the United States were heavily populated by people of German ancestry. Furthermore, Irish-Americans, like the population of the southern counties of Ireland, resented British failure to grant Home Rule to Ireland.

With German Americans, Irish Americans, and other groups such as Hungarians feeling affinity to the Central Powers or at least animosity to Britain, many feared that favoring either side in the European conflict could lead to civil war in the United States. Both Wilson and American statesman and politician William Jennings Bryan stated that the diverse ethnic roots of Americans were a leading reason to choose neutrality.

Many Americans were shocked at the news from the war zones and horrified at rumors of atrocities and destruction of cities. The ravaging of neutral Belgium and the French countryside by Germany appalled newspaper readers. The British established an official propaganda agency at Wellington House in London. There staff members collected stories of atrocities, both real and fabricated, to help convince American public opinion that German soldiers systematically raped, pillaged and burned their way across Belgium.

With British control of undersea cables, nearly all news of the war flowed through British censors, and editors and writers often generated stories with the intent to win America to the Entente side. At the same time, while Wilson sought to establish even-handed neutral policies, critics charged him with being too tolerant of British transgressions of international law. British censorship of the news, refusal to allow newspaper correspondents to approach the front, and the British blockade of Germany, which by 1915 led to food shortages and malnutrition, all shocked American sensibilities.

The death of innocent women and children, caused by German submarine torpedo attacks on merchant and passenger ships, the bombing of civilians in Antwerp, the shelling and burning of churches, the execution of civilian enemy collaborators by both sides, all caused consternation in the United States. The 1915 holocaust against Christian Armenians in Turkey seemed unbelievable and added to the disgust and horror Americans felt at the war.

American attitudes continued to be affected by tales such as the German execution of Edith Cavell, a British Red Cross nurse in Brussels, who helped some 200 Entente soldiers to escape through the Netherlands. Some of the stories were evidently true, but others, such as German soldiers bayoneting babies or amputating the hands of Belgian boys or the breasts of Belgian women, were patently false; many of them had been planted by clever propagandists. The end result was that many Americans began to believe the German ‘Hun’ was a barbarian.

Almost from the first, the United States demonstrated a predominantly pro-Entente bias. This is not to say that at any time between August 1914 and December 1916 most Americans wanted to go to war against Germany. A substantial majority of American citizens would have opposed such action. But it was equally evident that if America went to war, it would throw its weight to the Entente’s side.

While many Americans believed that Wilson advised the best course, one of strict neutrality, others believed that the United States had a more appropriate choice: build up arms, ships, and military training so as to be able to participate effectively, probably on the side of the democracies of Britain and France. Although the precise causes of the war in the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary appeared murky and difficult to unravel with objectivity, some of Wilson’s closest advisers came to accept the British view that Germany committed serious crimes in its ruthless refusal to recognize Belgian neutrality.

Advocates of preparedness included many Republican Progressives, like Theodore Roosevelt, and they pushed a program of voluntary training. Despite the pressures from militarists, and from pro-British advocates, Wilson steered a neutral course for two and a half years, from August 1914 to February 1917.

William Jennings Bryan, Wilson’s secretary of state, aroused equally controversial responses. Bryan showed little interest in the legal minutiae of memoranda, precedent, and international law, but, like Wilson, Bryan expressed a firm commitment to a strict isolation from the entanglement of European war. He set a policy that, had it been strictly adhered to, would have limited American sales of goods to the warring European powers to the amount of American funds they already held. In explaining his policy to Wilson, Bryan stated that he believed a refusal to loan money to the belligerents would help shorten the war. This policy lasted for about a year.

Noted as a powerful orator in the style of evangelical preachers, Bryan had crusaded in the 1890s against monopolies, banks and corporations, advocating an inflationary doctrine of increased coinage of silver to raise prices of farm commodities and diminish the power of vested capital. He had been the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1896, 1900, and 1908.

Bryan also pointed out that if the citizens of the United States made loans to the countries they favored, the country would be further divided into two camps. Expressions of sympathy based on ethnic connections would become combined with what he called ‘pecuniary interests’, his rather old-fashioned way of referring to economic motivation. Furthermore, the powerful banking interests, he argued, would make an effort through newspapers to influence public opinion in favor of the country to whom they loaned the money.

Wilson had chosen Bryan, as he did many of his cabinet and other high-level appointments, as a pay-off for political support in the 1912 elections, not for any special competence, and Bryan had never shown much interest in foreign affairs or defense policy. Bryan had handled Wilson’s nomination at the Democratic national convention in 1912 and had delivered an average of 10 speeches a day during Wilson’s campaign for the presidency.

Four days after Bryan requested that bankers refrain from loaning money to the belligerents, Wilson addressed Congress. He made a strong plea for impartiality: ‘Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned. The spirit of the nation in this critical matter will be determined largely by what individuals and society and those gathered in public meetings do and say, upon what newspapers and magazines contain, upon what ministers utter in their pulpits, and men proclaim as their opinions upon the street. The people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war. It is natural and inevitable that there should be the utmost variety of sympathy and desire among them with regard to the issues and circumstances of the conflict... Such divisions amongst us would be fatal to our peace of mind and might seriously stand in the way of the proper performance of our duty as the one great nation at peace, the one people holding itself ready to play a part of impartial mediation and speak the counsels of peace and accommodation, not as a partisan, but as a friend... We must be impartial in thought, as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments, as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.’

Bryan’s position on this score carried echoes of earlier campaigns he had fought against the banking interests. However, the ‘ban’ that he placed on loans to the belligerent powers took the shape of a simple request from the secretary of state to the bankers, not an official law or executive order. The informally stated policy worked effectively for a period of about one year.

The British began their blockade of shipping to Germany, stopping and confiscating goods and ships bound for Germany by way of neutral Denmark or Holland. At the US State Department, advisers prepared a strong protest to this British announcement. Before dispatching the note, however, Woodrow Wilson’s personal adviser, Colonel Edward House, notoriously pro-British, suggested that it be altered. Instead of protesting the violation of the laws of war or an infringement on American rights, the note simply suggested that the British practice might have an adverse effect on American public opinion. Within a month after the weak American protest, the British extended the blockade by mining the North Sea.

To avoid the mines, ships would be required to take on Admiralty pilots in British ports. Neutral Scandinavian and American shipping companies, without backing from a strong neutral navy, had to accept these terms. The British practice continued, with Wilson finally issuing a note on 29 December 1914, complaining that ships had been detained while British inspectors searched for contraband.

In the Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee, had grown highly irritated at what he regarded as a weak-kneed reaction to the British transgressions of international law. Wilson reciprocated Lodge’s hostility. Both Wilson and Lodge held doctoral degrees, and, until Wilson had taken office, Lodge had regarded himself as the leading intellectual in the government when it came to issues of foreign policy. Wilson, however, made it clear that he intended to personally set foreign policy and that he would simply inform Congress of that policy, rather than letting Congress have any role in setting it.

Secretary of State Bryan undertook to explain to Lodge and the Democratic chair of the committee, Senator William J. Stone, how U.S. policy had been strictly neutral and even-handed. Bryan pointed out to Senators Stone and Lodge, and to the other members of the committee that the United States could hardly protest against the British, since the United States itself had used the same tactics during the Civil War to prevent British goods from reaching the Confederacy. As to the fact that Britain held up goods destined for neutral countries, Bryan pointed out that this practice had already been protested in a formal note to the British.

In response to the increasingly severe British blockade and the American acceptance of it, Germany attempted to impose a kind of blockade, enforced by U-boat, around Ireland and Britain in February 1915. However, stopping a ship at sea and then sinking it had a far different effect than the British method of escorting a ship into a British harbor where it would be examined at leisure. The immediate American response to the announcement of a submarine blockade came in a warning to Germany that it would be held strictly accountable for any loss of American life aboard ships sunk at sea.

Over the next few months, the German use of the U-boat led to several American deaths. One American, Leon Thrasher, died when the Falaba was sunk in the Irish Sea by U-28 on 28 March 1915, probably the first American to be killed at sea in World War I as a consequence of armed conflict. On 1 May 1915, U-30 torpedoed the American tanker Gulflight, off the Scilly Islands, near the tip of Cornwall in southwestern Britain. Although the ship made it to port, two Americans aboard the tanker died. Of course, these episodes came to seem minor compared to the disastrous sinking of the Lusitania, with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives, including 128 Americans.

The German blockade necessitated the sinking of ships, rather than their sequestration in harbor, because it was nearly impossible for a submarine to escort a detained ship into a German port. The German ambassador to the United States, Count Bernstorff, suggested that the US government should warn Americans not to travel on ships owned by belligerent nations.

Britain could enforce a blockade against Germany through its control of the sea, with mines and with surface ships channeling trade through British ports. But if Germany sought to blockade Britain through the use of the submarine, the demands of that technology required submarines to sink a large number of blockade-running ships in order to effectively interdict the trade.

A few of the German U-boat captains seemed quite careless of human life, although the majority apparently tried to honor the traditions of the sea by ensuring the safety of the passengers and crew of the vessels they sank. The British press, however, portrayed them all as ruthless pirates, and a few episodes such as the attacks on the Falaba, the Gulflight, and the Lusitania sustained that impression.

In April 1916, President Wilson formally protested the continued German submarine sinkings and what he viewed as a clear violation of international law. In response, Germany said it would abandon unrestricted submarine warfare but reserved the right to initiate it again at its own discretion. German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg pledged that merchant ships would ‘not be sunk without warning and without saving human lives unless such ships attempt to escape or offer resistance’. For a time, Germany honored this pledge, allowing merchant ships not carrying contraband to pass unmolested.

Secretary Bryan saw the Lusitania incident realistically, saying: ‘A ship carrying contraband should not rely upon passengers to protect her from attack—it would be like putting women and children in front of an army.’ Few shared his view, and President Wilson, calling the sinking ‘unlawful and inhuman,’ fired off sharp notes. Ignoring the fact that the ship was carrying illegal contraband, the New York Herald was typical, saying the sinking was ‘premeditated murder’.

The world economy had become so intertwined by the early 20th century that a major manufacturing and food-exporting nation such as the United States found it nearly impossible to remain uninvolved in a conflict on the scale of the Great War. At the beginning of the war, the United States owed more to Europe than Europe owed to the United States, which was, in effect, a net debtor. As American industry geared up, employment picked up and American business began to thrive as a consequence of the new flow of exports. The United States had become an economic ally of Britain and France, regardless of Wilson’s policies and Bryan’s protestations.

British and French bankers and investment houses held outstanding investments equivalent to about a billion dollars in American firms and institutions. By simply cashing in these amounts, the British and French had ample resources to begin buying munitions and transport equipment without asking for additional credit.

The impersonal forces of technology and the geographic structure of the British blockade created a situation that made it nearly impossible for the United States to be neutral in economic terms. The injunction to be neutral in thought as well as action reflected a deeply felt American tradition and attitude, but it had little effect in stopping the natural flow of commerce.

The British government understood the strength of its position. In August 1915, it sent a note to the United States explaining that its blockade operated in full conformity with extant international law. If any problems came up, the British stated, they would agree to submit cases of confiscation to arbitration. Of course, very few problems did arise, since American companies, for the most part, did not attempt to sell goods to Germany, and most had no ethical problem as they tried to supply the large demand for goods in Britain and France.

By September 1915, it became clear that the Entente had come close to exhausting the financial resources available for purchase of US goods and that either short-term loans or long-term financing would be required if American companies continued to supply goods and food.

Secretary of State Robert Lansing recommended to Wilson that the banks be notified that the US government no longer believed it inconsistent with the spirit of neutrality for Americans to make loans to belligerents. Quietly, in this fashion, Bryan’s policy vanished. Over the next 18 months, American institutions made loans of more than $2 billion to the Entente. In the spirit of impartiality, loans could also be made to Germany and Austria-Hungary. But since the trade to those countries amounted to a mere trickle, the Central Powers borrowed less than $20 million in 1915 and 1916.

The American people continued to be severely divided by the horrifying events of the war. As journalists, famous authors and various eyewitnesses, including American volunteers serving with the Red Cross as ambulance drivers, sent back reports from the front, much of the reaction in the United States coalesced around two poles. At one extreme, a variety of pacifists, led by prominent Progressives, sought to pressure the president to continue a strictly neutral stand and, at the same time, bring the belligerents together for a negotiated peace. Cynics, however, pointed out that such idealism had become naive and misplaced. They criticized such private efforts as almost ludicrous.

The American social worker and political activist Jane Addams met in the Netherlands with representatives from 12 countries to advocate permanent peace. The women delegates included a group from Germany. Henry Ford sailed aboard the ‘peace ship’ Oskar II, on a separate, privately funded mission to end the war with a negotiated peace. The British and American press ridiculed these and other efforts, depicting the pacifists as woolly-minded idealists.

Many politically active Progressives believed that Wilson either did not do enough to bring about negotiations, or that he accepted advice from his pro-British advisers and acted with pro-British partiality in his handling of the blockade issues.

At the other extreme from the pacifists, practical businessmen and political leaders believed that the United States had missed an opportunity to build up the manpower of the nation in readiness for war. Following in the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt, many urged the establishment of training camps. Organizers established the American Defense Society to set up such camps. The preparedness movement, like the pacifist movement, went forward without official government sanction.

At one level, the disparity between the pacifist movement and the preparedness movement reflected two sides of the Progressive ideology, which seemed to spring from contemporary gender values. The pacifist movement drew upon many of the ideas and ideals supported by the leaders of the women’s movement, suggesting a humanism that rejected violence and force in favor of rational resolution of differences in national as well as international affairs. On the other hand, the preparedness movement reflected the ‘strenuous life’ concept promoted by Theodore Roosevelt, emphasizing a hard-headed practicality.

Wilson gave a nod to the growing support for the preparedness movement by developing a comprehensive plan for national defense. In December 1915 he put the plan before Congress, and over the next months several bills passed that fundamentally changed the antiquated system of state-controlled National Guard units into an effective reserve for the regular army and established government agencies for the coordination of the economy on a war footing.

At first Wilson approached these ideas cautiously, forcing the resignation of Secretary of War Lindley Garrison, who had supported nationalizing the Guard and placing all military training under a centralized administration. His replacement, Newton Baker, would go on to become a strong secretary of war. To build support for the defense plan, Wilson began a nationwide tour to urge preparedness.

In June 1916 Wilson signed the National Defense Act, the first step in his preparedness program. The plan called for expansion of the army to 223,000 regular troops and the National Guard to 450,000. Following a plan much like that suggested by the dismissed secretary, Garrison, the act placed the funding of the National Guard on the federal government. Furthermore, the act established the first Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs at universities across the nation. The act also authorized the establishment of civilian training camps similar to those already begun without government sanction.

One major difference between the defense plan adopted and that suggested by Garrison lay in the fact that Garrison had insisted that the troops be raised, trained, officered and controlled by the national government. The adopted defense plan left much authority for the Guard in state hands. Garrison had also favored universal compulsory military training. The need for a draft or conscription system did not figure in Wilson’s 1916 plans.

The Army Appropriation Act authorized the Council of National Defense. The council consisted of six cabinet members, working with Secretary of War Newton Baker and responsible for coordinating planning for transportation, labor, munitions and medical facilities. This council and other war agencies were later regarded as setting the precedents for national agencies involved in economic management during the Great Depression, in World War II, and in later years.

Wilson signed the Shipping Act—creating a five-person commission empowered to build, purchase, lease, or requisition ships through the Emergency Fleet Corporation—which received an initial funding of $50 million. The next day, Wilson signed the 1916 Revenue Act, which, among other powers, gave the president the ability to withhold port facilities in retaliation for acts of discrimination against American commerce. Although Wilson never used the provision, supporters claimed that its mere threat resulted in the British relaxing the Black List limitations on American companies.

The brutal British repression of the Easter uprising in Dublin caused many Irish-Americans to adopt an anti-British attitude. Anti-British feelings rose to a new level in the United States when Britain announced a blacklist of individuals and companies that had been trading with neutrals in Holland and Denmark, who in turn transshipped goods to Germany. German and Austro-Hungarian agents working undercover continued to attempt a variety of sabotage and labor-organizing efforts to block shipments of goods from America to the Entente. All such events put pressure on American neutrality.

On Easter Monday, 1916, the British suppressed the bloody and poorly planned uprising in Dublin. Roger Casement, an Irish statesman who had attempted to recruit an army of anti-British troops from among Irish prisoners of war held in Germany, landed in Ireland from a submarine. British warships interdicted a freighter carrying weapons sent to Ireland from Germany and destroyed them. The British quickly apprehended Casement and brought him to trial.

Casement’s rapid hearing and execution, together with the suppression of the Easter Rebellion, the execution by firing squad of nearly one hundred of the rebels, and deportation of more than 1,700 others, further angered Irish Americans. In an effort to increase the public’s antagonism to Casement, the British published his diaries, which detailed his prior homosexual activity while serving as a British diplomat in South America and Africa.

Although investigators uncovered several plots to sabotage American shipping, no one ever determined the facts behind a massive explosion at the docks at Black Tom, New Jersey, in New York harbor in July 1916. The early morning detonations shattered windows in Manhattan, and people heard the explosion more than 100 miles away. The explosion destroyed a large shipment of ammunition destined for the Entente. Although no proof emerged during the war that Black Tom had resulted from sabotage, the public and press assumed that German agents lay behind the detonation.

In the summer of 1916, the political season heated up. The Republican national convention in Chicago nominated Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes for president. Hughes began to win support among Irish Americans, who traditionally voted with the Democrats. In a more serious threat to Wilson, however, Hughes showed great strength in East Coast states that leaned in a pro-Entente direction, including New York and New Jersey, states usually found in the Democratic column.

Many cross-currents reflected the difficulty of running for the presidency in the heated atmosphere of war and neutrality. Wilson supporters charged Hughes with failure to repudiate ‘hyphenate’ support from the Irish and German voters, so-called because of the hyphen in expressions like ‘Irish-American’ and ‘German-American’, at the very time that Wilson’s neutrality stand appealed to those same voters.

Campaign speaker Ollie James supported Wilson by reciting a litany of the crises the president had faced. ‘What happened when the Germans torpedoed the Lusitania?’ James chanted. ‘He kept us out of war!’ The crowd shouted. ‘What happened when the British confiscated American ships?’ ‘He kept us out of war!’ The slogan and the chant captured the American sentiment for neutrality very well, but, nevertheless, the country remained evenly divided.

Many Progressive voters in the West who had supported Roosevelt in 1912 apparently shifted to Wilson in 1916, partly because of his firm neutrality stand and also perhaps because of Wilson’s support for woman suffrage and Prohibition. Bryan also campaigned tirelessly for him in the West, despite his earlier resignation from the State Department.

A symptom of how divisive Wilson’s own personality and decisions became showed up with his narrow electoral victory in the presidential election of 1916, when a switch of less than 2,000 votes in California would have resulted in his losing to his Republican opponent, Charles Evans Hughes. One of the closest elections in American history, it took several days to fully tally the vote and reveal Wilson as the winner.

On 7 November, with early results from the East Coast states in, newspapers in New York predicted a Hughes victory. The next morning, the vote seemed to be turning in Wilson’s direction with pro-Wilson returns from midwestern and western states that usually voted Republican. Wilson won the election, but the results did not become known until the final tally of the vote in California two days after the election, where Wilson took the state’s electoral college vote by 3,773 popular votes.

The American people became familiar with the quirks of Wilson’s personality, his precise and formal manner of speaking, his moral certainty, and his stern idealism. For some, those traits were endearing; for others, they were infuriating. Despite Wilson’s often convoluted speaking and writing style, from time to time his formal prose would result in a very memorable phrase, sometimes lifted by the press in order to encapsulate his thinking in a few words.

From early in the war, Wilson had hoped that the United States could play the role of mediator, and he hoped to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table. For this purpose, he sent his personal adviser Edward House on several missions to Europe. Finally, in December 1916, Germany notified the neutral countries of a willingness to enter peace negotiations. The Entente continued to demand a statement of German war goals. Wilson in turn asked for such a statement from the Entente. They responded in January 1917 with a list of goals that clearly would be unacceptable to the Central Powers.

In February 1916, House signed a secret agreement with British foreign secretary Edward Grey, known as the House-Grey Memorandum. In that document, House promised on Wilson’s behalf that when England and France thought the moment was opportune, the United States would issue a call for a peace conference. If Germany were to refuse to attend, the memo indicated, the United States would probably enter the war against Germany.

Wilson endorsed the House-Grey Memorandum in March 1916, but Britain refused to agree to a call for a peace conference, especially since the Central Powers continued to hold territory through 1916 that they had taken by force of arms, and the Entente had little bargaining power. Britain and France insisted that Germany state its war goals before agreeing to a conference.

In effect, the Entente demanded that the Austro-Hungarian Empire be dissolved and that the Ottoman Empire give up all territory in Europe. Further demands included the evacuation of all the lands conquered by Germany in Russia, France and Romania. In short, the demands amounted to acceptance of defeat by the Central Powers when they were not militarily defeated, and evacuation of territory they controlled politically and militarily.

Wilson responded by calling for a peace without victory. He hoped to be able to at least begin discussions on the basis of competing proposals. The Germans responded with a list of their own goals early in 1917. The terms the Germans proposed included restitution and funding by them for areas damaged in war and the establishment of an economic and strategic buffer state to separate Germany from Russia. Further, they expected the restoration of German overseas possessions and the establishment of rules of international use of the sea. However, while these apparently reasonable suggestions were being offered, Germany was developing a plan for winning the war.

With the growing collapse of Russian resistance on the eastern front, German leaders believed that a transfer of German armies to the west, coupled with a severely tightened submarine blockade, could force the Entente to surrender. The risk of bringing America into the war seemed worth it, as Wilson’s military planning had only just gotten started, in a fashion that Germany could only view as half-hearted.

Decisions taken by Germany in January 1917 to unleash unrestricted submarine warfare, not only against Entente shipping, but also against neutral shipping carrying goods to Britain and France, would put a sudden end to the long and difficult search for a neutral position that the American people and Wilson had sought since August 1914.

The German High Command planned in this fashion to snuff out the American supply line to the Entente, knowing that unrestricted submarine warfare would lead to war with the United States. In effect, the decision that the United States should enter World War I took place, not in the White House, but in a castle in Germany.