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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.