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America's Road to the Great War


As the Great War raged across the world, many in the United States opposed any American involvement in the brutal conflict. President Woodrow Wilson won reelection using the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” but by early 1917, German actions had changed public opinion in the U.S. and it was clear that America could no longer sit on the sidelines. On April 2, 1917, President Wilson abandoned his previous policy of neutrality and asked Congress to declare war against Germany. Four days later, the United States officially entered World War One on the side of the Allies.

On February 1, 1917, Germany resumed its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, allowing their U-boats to torpedo ships regardless of their military status or national origin. The New York Times called the act “a declaration of war upon the trade, the rights, the sovereignty of all neutral nations.” Americans had previously fallen victim to this policy in 1915 when a German U-boat sank the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner en route from New York to Liverpool, England. 120 Americans perished as a result of the torpedo attack on the Lusitania, fueling pro-war factions in the United States. The British had hoped that the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare would draw America into the war, but President Wilson made the decision to sever diplomatic relations with Germany. For the British, it was now time to drop an intelligence bombshell that would most certainly bring the U.S. closer to entering World War One than ever before.

The RMS Lusitania. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Back in January, the British cryptographic office known as “Room 40” had intercepted an encrypted message from German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann to Heinrich von Eckardt, Germany’s ambassador to Mexico. Zimmermann’s message was decoded and its contents were stunning. In the event that the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies, Eckardt was instructed to “make Mexico a proposal of alliance.” Under this proposition, Germany would provide military and financial support for a Mexican attack on the United States. In exchange, Mexico would be free to annex “lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.” Eckardt was also told to use the Mexican president as a go-between to flip Japan to the side of the Central Powers. In late February, a copy of the Zimmermann Telegram was handed over to the United States. When President Wilson was told about the contents of the message, he is reported to have repeatedly exclaimed the words “Good Lord!”

The Temptation, a political cartoon about the Zimmermann Telegram published in the Dallas Morning News. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On March 1, 1917, the full text of the Zimmermann Telegram was published in American newspapers. Some pro-isolationist publications in the U.S. dismissed it as a British-made fake. It was clear to others that the enemy had revealed himself and that America could no longer remain neutral in the First World War. On March 3, Arthur Zimmermann admitted that he had written the telegram. There could no longer be any doubt about what was to come.

A popular political cartoon depicting the Zimmermann Telegram blowing up in the face of German Kaiser Wilhelm II. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

By the time the telegram went public, Mexico and Japan had both already dismissed Germany’s offer of a military partnership. President Wilson wavered over the issues before him for several weeks. On April 2, 1917, he stood before Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Germany. During his address, the president cited the Zimmermann Telegram as evidence that the Germans had attempted “to stir up enemies against us at our very doors.” On April 6, the United States formally entered World War One. American troops would soon be committed to assisting the Allies on the bloody battlefields of Western Europe.

American troops marching by Buckingham Palace, London. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In late June 1917, the first 14,000 U.S. infantry troops landed in France to begin training for combat. By the wars end on November 11, 1918, more than two million Americans had served on the battlefields of Western Europe. The U.S. entrance into the First World War helped to break the vicious stalemate that had developed along the Western Front, propelling the Allies to victory.

Sources

Encyclopædia Britannica: United States presidential election of 1916.

History.com: American Enters World War I.

History.com: Lusitania.

History.com: The Secret History of the Zimmermann Telegram.

History.com: What was the Zimmermann Telegram?

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