Causes of the War
As we discussed before, Europeans began to reach out and grab whatever land still remained unclaimed at the end of the 1800s. The US and Japan were late comers, but Germany and Italy came in even later. Germany had to go through an entire process to unify. In the 1860s after a series of wars with Demark, Austria, and then France, Germany announced the unification of the provinces in 1871 and the establishment of the second Reich or second German empire. They immediately began a process of industrialization, militarization, and developing a strong sense of nationalism among their people. Led by Otto Von Bismark, they took on grand plans to expand. Other nations began to militarize and well as develop their own sense of heightened nationalism. As Germany rose in power European nations were shoring up their hold on their colonies. By 1914 the competition for land, markets, and resources had heated up and many could see some major conflict as almost inevitable.
In order to attempt to avoid a major continental war, European powers met in London and signed the Declaration of London in 1909. In this document, they outlined the rights of neutral nations should a conflict arise. They discussed the last major continental war, the 30 Years War which lasted from 1618-1648 and inflicted a huge scar in the history of Europe. No one wanted a repeat. However, should something spark between two countries, perhaps the financial rewards that could come from remaining neutral would be enough to keep the damage at a minimum. They also began signing treaties with one another to try to discourage open continental warfare. Larger countries signed treaties, one example would be the treaty between Germany and Austria Hungary. If one wanted to declare war Germany, they would also have to face Austria. Taking on one major European power might be possible, but two would cause one to hesitate in theory. It also helped smaller countries like Serbia who signed a treaty with Russia. Attacking Serbia might seem like no big deal, but one would likely hesitate if they knew they would also face a huge Russian military. These treaties of friendship were designed to discourage warfare. However, the way the treaties line up, it appeared as though half of Europe would have treaties with each other and the other half of Europe would have treaties with each other. They were splitting up along two lines, not multiple. If one nation on one side declared war on a nation on the other side, the result could be a total collapse of all nations into war.
The spark came in August of 1914 when the archduke of Austria Hungary was assassinated in a public parade by a Serbian nationalist. Austria wanted the man delivered to them and the Serbs refused. Therefore Austria invaded to go get him. Since Serbia had a treaty of friendship with Russia, this act of war against Serbia promoted them to declare war on Austria. Since someone declared war on Austria, Germany declared war on both Serbia and Russia. Since Russia had a treaty with France, France declared war on both and it was declared back. France had a treaty with England. England needed a minute though. When Germany invaded Belgium (who was screaming they were neutral), England then decided to declare war. Belgium was just in a bad location in the 20th century, Germany can’t invade France without going through Belgium. The US immediately declared neutrality. Wilson made this public and evoked the neutral nation trading rights to trade with both sides. Spain, Norway, Switzerland, and a handful of other nations also immediately declared neutrality.
US “Neutrality” and the War
Initially this appeared to offer a real opportunity to American businesses. Both sides would need supplies and they could buy them from the US. American companies traded with the Allied Powers (principally England) and the Central Powers (principally Germany). During this period of isolationism and “neutrality”, American trade figures for 1914 reveal that with Central Powers the trade was figured at $169 million and the trade for Allied Powers was $825 million. In 1916 the numbers had changed to $1 million for the Central Powers and $3 billion for Allied Powers. Was the US truly neutral? Clearly the US had a vested economic interest in the outcome of the war. Only the winner could pay this back to the US, the loser would have to pay reparations.
While the US appeared very biased in an economic sense, they also had a large immigrant population to consider. Many of the people in their society were from Austria. Of the 32 million migrants from southern and eastern Europe, 8 million were from Austria. We also had a large and well established German population here. Socially speaking, there was a large contingent of Americans who would want the US to side with the Central Powers if they became involved in the war.
It took a lot for the US to declare war and get involved in this. Americans did not want to touch the Great War. They were hearing reports of how bad it was. Germany and France had stalemated along the western front and were engaging in trench warfare. Men were dying by the thousands and those that were surviving were coming back shell shocked and with amputations. Many men lost their feet as the trenches on the Allied side were dug below sea level and remained filled with water for much the of war. The feet would decay in a slow, excruciating process. In one battle, the Battle of the Somme, the British took 60,000 casualties in 24 hours. It got to the point that men were given last rites as they went into the trenches for the first time. Dead bodies piled up and got lost on the battlefield or in the trenches. So many mines were placed in between the trenches that there are still places today in France that the government won’t let you in because of all the arsenic in the soil.
Three events led the US into the war. Americans reelected Wilson in 1916 who ran on the campaign slogan “He Kept Us Out Of War”. Convincing Americans that the US should get involved would be difficult. First of all, Russia experienced a revolution and began to usher in communism. As a result of being busy with that, Russia signed a quick treaty to get out of the war. Wilson could now use this to convince Americans that we needed to make the world safe for democracy and become involved. The argument was political, but did have an impact. Secondly, we were losing so much shipping in the Atlantic as a result of this war, that it was beginning to hurt us financially. Conducting massive amounts of trade is great, only if you can get your goods to your target without getting blown up in the process. We were attempting to trade with two sides that did not want us trading with the other side. Germany had this new undersea boat or u-boat that could attack without warning. When the Lusitania sunk in 1915, it heated up tensions between Germany and the US because 125 Americans died on this civilian, not military, ship. Those tensions had been abated by Germany’s promise to be more careful in the future. In 1917 however, Germany declared they would sink anything that came in the direction of England, so the advice was not to trade with them. Then there was the Zimmerman telegram. With the Zimmerman telegram, Germany offered the southwestern part of the US to Mexico if Mexico attacked the US and fought for Germany. The telegram had to go through American telegraph lines to get to Mexico, so the US picked it up, decoded it, and then massively published it. While other attacks had been argued to have been “accidental” by Germany, this was a direct threat. Germany then sank five large US ships in the span of 9 days. The US declared war right after.
Propaganda and Dissent
American opinion was split. Many Americans now supported becoming involved in the war out of a sense of national pride and the fact that Germany had now made them an enemy. A hyper nationalism developed quickly. Americans reacted in a whole variety of ways. Some of the responses involved renaming things. Dachounds became “Liberty Pups” and sauerkraut became “Liberty cabbage”. The response was similar to the “freedom fries” McDonalds served up a few years ago when we had issues with the French. Other reactions were more serious. Schools quit teaching the German language. Some German Americans felt so threatened they quit speaking their language in public or celebrating German holidays. One man was lynched in the north in what was called a patriotic lynching. He was a German American. Anyone of Hispanic descent was also targeted in border states with Mexico. Mexico never really responded to Germany, but that didn’t stop Americans from targeting people as potential spies.
The US government had some big problems to face in getting involved in this war. First of all, they didn’t have a large army. Wilson had to initiate a draft which was wildly unpopular. The final argument to convince him was Teddy sending a message to the White House offering to call up the Rough Riders and take out the Keiser himself. Teddy was blind in one eye and bedridden at this point. The last thing Wilson needed was a bunch of geriatrics running around Europe in the name of the United States. Over 28 million men registered, 2.4 million were induced, and they made up 75% of the military. Draftees had no experience in war so our involvement needed to take its time. General Pershing who was put in charge understood this and kept as many men out of the line of fire right away as possible.
In the meantime, the government had to literally sell this war to the American people. A committee was created in Congress whose job it was to sell the war. The government needed people to donate money to government for the war and they needed people to not eat as much so food could be sent to the front lines. Which of you wants to be in charge of getting people in San Antonio to donate money to government because it needs it or wants to convince people not to eat as much for the government? The committee was headed by George Creel. The Creel Committee created propaganda posters to convince Americans to do these things. They send out the 4 minute men, who would give 4 minute long speeches on how German spies were in the US watching them and how the government needed you to buy bonds (giving the government money for now). There was a song that was popular, “Don’t Bite the Hand That’s Feeding You” that is the happiest little xenophobic song you will ever hear in your life telling immigrants to do their part in the war. You can find it here
Despite their efforts, many Americans disagreed with involvement in the war. Some published their thoughts and distributed them. Others simply spoke in public in opposition to the war. In the past, the government had passed Sedition Acts but they had not been tested by the federal court system. Freedom of speech and of the press was still considered a primary right of Americans. Now it would be tested. In Schenck vs. the US, the Supreme Court ruled that the government could restrict civil liberties in wartime. During a state of emergency our rights could be curtailed. They argued that not all speech should be protected. If that speech causes physical bodily harm to another, it is not protected. One cannot go into a crowded theater and shout “fire” for example. It opened a door for the government to restrict our civil liberties as they deem necessary. Speaking and writing in opposition to the draft put the soldiers already in France in physical danger.
The End of the War
The war ended within 2 years of our declaration. The Keiser surrendered and our forces, coming in at the end of the war fresh and ready to fight, helped to make the difference. Our troops were thrown into key battles and the Germans attempted one final assault in 1918. We celebrated the end of the war in November of 1918 and still remember today as Veterans Day. Wilson tried to negotiate the end of the war itself as the US had emerged as the dominating world leader now, but he failed to take any Republicans with him. He may have been a Democratic president, but Republicans held the Senate. The treaty he negotiated in Paris was rejected. His idea of a League of Nations was rejected by the US, so even though we created it, we did not join it. The Treaty of Versailles which ended the Great War, was an utter failure. It left a mess in Europe. Germany had to take full responsibility for the war and pay a ridiculous amount in reparations. They actually paid them off in 2012, yes it took that long. The treaty could also be argued to be one of the causes of the Great Depression and is a cause of World War II. The war ended though, and Americans were glad.
Use of Propaganda and Dissent: Discussion Question
The government created and then mass distributed propaganda posters all over the US. Those who still disagreed with the war could likely find themselves imprisoned. Eugene Debs protested and went to prison. This labor leader then ran for president in 1920 from prison and received over a million votes. Americans were not comfortable with the government taking these kinds of actions. Do you agree with the dissenters? Is the government ever really justified in taking away the rights we have in the Bill of Rights? What about today and the Patriot act? What about our rights against unlawful search and seizure? Do you agree that the government can and does use fear from time to time? I am including a couple of propaganda images below. The US was not alone in creating these, all countries did. But this is our country, discuss!
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