WORLD WAR ONE     home | history

War at Sea and the United States

The war began with Britain's navy dominating ocean surfaces while the Germans had a few submarines. With its navy, Britain blockaded Germany's foreign trade. With their subs, the Germans retaliated with a blockade against the British.

Britain armed its merchant ships and ordered them to fire on surfacing submarines. This put an end to the chivalry of German submarine captains surfacing to warn crews that they were about to be sunk. Among the ships sunk in early 1915 was the British liner, the Lusitania. While harbored at New York, the German embassy in Washington DC announced in New York newspapers that war existed between Britain and Germany and that the Lusitania would be a legitimate target when it reached the war zone in waters adjacent to the British Isles. Various Americans ignored the warnings. President Wilson was aware of the warning but chose not to restrict Americans from traveling on the ship. The Lusitania was making extra money for its owners by transporting war munitions. When it arrived in British waters a German submarine sank it, and 1,198 people died, including 128 Americans. In Britain and the United States, people were outraged. American newspapers stated that no war material had been aboard the Lusitania. The secondary explosion of munitions on board was erroneously described as a second torpedo. Newspaper editors described submarine warfare as cruel and barbaric – too barbaric ever to be employed by Americans.

President Wilson sent to Germany a demand that it end its submarine warfare. His Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, fearing that Wilson's demand might lead to war resigned. That was is June 1915. In August the Germans sank the British passenger liner, the Arabic. Approximately 40 passengers and crew were lost, including two Americans.

Kaiser Wilhelm was proud of his navy and concerned about its reputation and his honor. The Kaiser was a good Lutheran and concerned also about morality. The killing of civilians, he said, appalled him. In September 1915 he responded to a second appeal from Wilson's by ordering submarines to return to surfacing to warn merchant ships of an impending attack. Germany's admirals saw this as nonsense and withdrew their submarines from active duty. Germany's Admiral Tirpitz wished the Kaiser would stop interfering in the war effort.

President Wilson responded to former president Theodore Roosevelt's clamor for preparations for war to prevent a German invasion. German forces had challenges enough in Europe, but preparedness for war seemed a good idea, and on 7 December 1915 President Wilson presented to Congress a program to substantially increase the size of the US Army and Navy, and pacifists who had been Wilson's political allies were alarmed.

In January 1916, Wilson called for a negotiated end to the war, and this stirred that issue again in Europe. Britain's response was that Germany should withdraw from the territories it occupied and pay for damages it had caused its allies. And the French continued to insist that Germany withdraw from their territory. In Germany, the Social Democratic Party announced that it favored a compromise peace, a peace without annexations of territory — a reestablishment of the borders of 1914.

In the United States, hostility toward Britain was at a high point because of Britain's handling of the Irish rebellion. Wilson was fed up with Britain's attitude toward his peace proposals, fed up with Britain's continuing violations of the rights of the US and others on the high seas, displeased by Britain's censoring the mail of Americans and by its blacklisting US companies that traded with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

In his 1916 campaign for re-election Wilson complained to advisors about his campaign slogan "he kept us out of war." Mindful of the emotionalism in the US that accompanied the sinking of the Lusitania, he spoke of his being powerless before any tide of opinion that might sweep the nation as the result of some "damned" German submarine captain's "calculated outrage."

Germany's Supreme Command assured the Kaiser that he did not need to be concerned with opinion in the United States. It told the Kaiser that if Germany renewed its submarine warfare and the US responded with war, Britain would be forced to sue for peace before US troops could arrive in Europe in significant numbers. The Kaiser accepted their analysis. His government notified Washington of its intentions to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. It offered American ships passage to one British port a week, at Falmouth — a ship that, to avoid being torpedoed, had to be marked by flags, painted with certain signs, and had to follow a described sea lane across the Atlantic. The Wilson administration rejected all this, and on January 31, 1917, the Germans renewed their submarine warfare.

The British moved to influence opinion in the United States. On 28 February 1917 it made public a telegram that Germany's new Secretary of State, Arthur Zimmermann, had sent in mid-January to the German minister in Mexico. The telegram advised the minister in Mexico that war between the US and Germany might come with Germany's new submarine offensive. He said that Germany would offer Mexico an alliance and a return of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Britain's release of the telegram had an impact. A wave of indignation swept across the US.

Wilson found his advisors unanimously in favor of war. He agonized. No evidence exists that he was influenced by a desire to serve armament manufacturers or to save the investments of those who had been lending money to the Britain — largely men who had opposed him in his run for office in 1916 and to whom Wilson owed little or nothing. But Wilson came down on the side of his advisors, and he created a rationale for his decision. He went before a joint session of Congress and announced that the United States would not choose "the path of submission." The world, he told Congress and the nation, must be "made safe for democracy." He called for a new balance of power. On April 6 the US House of Representatives voted 373 to 50 in favor of declaring war, and the Senate voted in favor 82 to 6. The congressmen greeted the results by standing on their chairs, waving their American flag lapel pins and cheering. The evangelist Billy Sunday was cheered by the decision, and his view was echoed by the Los Angeles Times, which joined the evangelist Billy Sunday in claiming that the United States was on its way to fighting "Christ's war." (There were also religious leaders who protested that the war was a violation of Christianity.)

President Wilson created a Committee on Public Information to combat opinion opposed to the war, which became known as the Creel Committee. In June, Congress passed into law the Espionage Act. It outlawed "false reports or false statements" made with the intent "to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces." A song by Irving Berlin titled "Over There" anticipated American soldiers crossing the Atlantic, and it became the most popular song in the United States. Hollywood made films with titles such as "To Hell with the Kaiser," "The Beast of Berlin," and "One Hundred Percent American," the latter starring Mary Pickford.

In California, folk songs that were originally German were removed from children's song books. In schools across the nation, teaching the German language came to an end. Libraries across the nation removed from their shelves books by German authors. Under pressure from the public and a crusade led by former president Roosevelt, the editors of German language newspapers shut down their papers. Some German-Americans were forced to parade before irate townspeople as objects of ridicule. A German-American was lynched in southern Illinois. Kids threw stones at Dachshunds. Teachers lost their jobs for expressing their opinions on the issue of war and peace.

CONTINUE READING: More Failure: 1917

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