A century ago this month an event occurred that would have world-changing consequences: the United States of America entered the First World War.
In 1914 the prospect of ‘Europeans cutting each other’s throats’ proved a blessing to the economy of the USA. Industrial production and stocks and shares soared that autumn as the British and French placed massive orders for weapons with American companies. The war was very distant and very profitable. The general feeling among Americans was, ‘Let Europe stew in its own juice’.
However news of German atrocities in Belgium shocked many Americans and there were some open calls for war. But with 2.3m German-Americans, German immigrants were the largest ethnic group in the United States. The Irish bore no love for the British either and America’s Jewish community supported the Germans, seeing Russian Jews rescued from the tyranny of the Tsar. Congress agreed that staying out of it was best, and supported a strongly isolationist foreign policy. The Americans’ view was that it was not in their interest to get involved in the ‘Europeans’ War’.
However, the powerful ‘Robber Baron’ capitalists of Wall Street slowly came to realise during 1915 that if the Allies lost the war – and could not repay the two billion dollars they owed to the American bankers – the US economy risked collapse. US bankers, led by J P Morgan, unsurprisingly began to lobby for a pro-Allied policy.
Into this confused neutrality Mexican Pancho Villa’s invasion and attack on the border town of Columbus, New Mexico in early 1916 caused shockwaves throughout America. A retaliatory expedition under General John Pershing promptly invaded Mexico to hunt down the rebellious warlord. Suddenly the realities of war seemed closer for many Americans.
Moreover, by the summer of 1916 American attitudes towards Europe’s bloody conflict were changing. There were dark rumours of German-inspired industrial sabotage, supposed poisoning of water supplies, kidnapping individuals, and penetration of American labour unions. These rumours, along with the shock of the sinking of the Lusitania and the Sussex, added to the growing distrust of Germany. Growing public concern over the weak state of the US armed forces saw a National Defense Act passed in June 1916, authorizing an army of 175,000 men, and a National Guard of 450,000. Many liberals regarded this as a dangerous first step towards war and campaigned hard for peace and isolationism.
The November 1916 election spelled out these political issues very clearly. After a close fought campaign, Woodrow Wilson’s winning margin was tiny. (He carried New Hampshire by just 56 votes.) An idealistic Harvard law professor, Wilson was re-elected on a ticket promising ‘peace, progressivism and prosperity’. He succeeded primarily because he branded his Republican opponents as ‘the War Party.’ The great majority of Americans were determined to remain neutral.
Wilson tried hard to end the war, even launching his own diplomatic mission over the winter of 1916-17 to seek a peace deal. All it did however, was to reveal was that the warring factions’ aims were absolutely irreconcilable. Germany insisted on keeping Alsace and Lorraine; Britain, under its new Prime Minister Lloyd George, would fight to the death; and France and Belgium demanded all their occupied territories back, full compensation, plus a demilitarised border on the Rhine.
Then in February 1917 came the news of Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. The normally calm Wilson was furious and broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin. Despite this, Wilson still believed that ‘the Teutonic powers’ really wanted peace and began preparing a new round of peace proposals.
However, Germany now made a disastrous blunder. On 24 February an astonished Wilson learned of the contents of a secret telegram sent by the German Foreign Minister, Zimmermann.
On top of U-boat attacks on American ships, came the breath-taking news that Berlin had made a back-stairs deal with Mexico to invade the USA. It was impossible for America to ignore such a provocation. Wilson, who had been returned to office on a peace platform only two months before, was now contemplating taking his country to war – and all because of a serious German miscalculation.
When the German submarine cable had been cut in 1914, Sweden let Berlin use the Swedish cable to send its diplomatic telegrams out to its embassies world-wide. But this cable route went through the UK and the British codebreakers could read the German signals. The so-called ‘Swedish roundabout’ suddenly produced pay-dirt on 17 January 1917, when astonished Admiralty codebreakers intercepted a German telegram from Zimmermann to the German Ambassador in Mexico, to let him know that Germany was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Ominously, it also instructed the Ambassador to offer Mexico a secret alliance with Germany on the promise that Berlin could offer ‘an understanding … that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.’
The British sat on this explosive telegram for over 2 weeks, hoping that the Americans might be provoked without any action from London. The British problem was how to tell the world of the Germans’ plans without letting them know how they had found out? That would compromise the true source and the Germans would change their codes. Signals intelligence relies on total secrecy.
London’s ‘insurance’ copy of the Mexican version of the telegram provided the solution. The British obtained a hard copy of the actual telegram that had been delivered to the Germans in Mexico City. When the Americans were handed the formal copy of the offending telegram, they were told that it had been obtained by ‘an agent in Mexico.’ To British astonishment, Germany admitted that the telegram was no forgery.
Even when confronted with this open evidence of hostile German intention, Wilson still hesitated to call for war. He only briefed his Cabinet on 20 March, nearly a month after he had first seen the telegram. By then, the U-boats’ deliberate sinkings of neutral American merchant and passenger ships, plus the explosive content of the ‘Zimmermann Telegram’, had completely changed American public opinion. On 2 April an indignant President briefed the House and Senate, calling for a declaration of war. In typical idealistic style however, he sold it as some great moral crusade: ‘The world,’ Wilson declared, ‘must be made safe for democracy.’ On the 6 April 1917 the USA declared war on an unrepentant Germany.
Allied hopes of any immediate reinforcement by US armed forces turned out to be optimistic. America’s army was still tiny, with only 128,000 men. There was no air force – in 1914 the army had only 6 planes and 16 pilots, and the navy was undermanned and unprepared. America was just not ready for war. The first real reinforcement only came as late as December 1917, when US Navy dreadnoughts arrived in Scapa Flow to augment Britain’s Grand Fleet.
The real benefit of America’s entry into the war in 1917 was the psychological boost to Allied morale post-Passchendaele, post-French Army mutinies, with the promise of massive new fighting forces coming from across the Atlantic in 1918 to tip the balance in Europe by sheer weight of numbers. It also meant that Berlin was now uncomfortably aware that America’s entry inevitably spelled defeat unless Germany got in some war-winning blow before it was too late.
So April 1917 was a decisive month for the war – and for the world. It was the month that would ultimately lead to Germany’s desperate final offensive of spring 1918, to be followed by inevitable defeat, retreat, revolution and the fall of the Second Reich, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Those great events of one hundred years ago this month would also lead to America’s emergence as a world power.
To this day we still live with the consequences of that April, long, long ago.