Most histories date the beginning of America’s entry on to the world stage as a serious Great Power to 6 April 1917, when the United States Congress approved the then president, Thomas Woodrow Wilson’s (see here) declaration of war on Germany. The declaration was not exactly unexpected: indeed, the German government’s announcement of the resumption of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (ie, sinking anything that floated, as a way of starving the British into surrendering, and also in response to the Royal Navy’s blockade of the North Sea since 1914) on 31 January, and the revelation in American newspapers of the Zimmermann Telegram (see here) on March 1. It was surely only a matter of time before the Wilson Administration would go a step farther than the quasi-neutrality that was the government’s policy of trading with the Allies only – though such German actions as the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 can’t exactly have helped German-US relations.
The speech that Wilson had delivered to Congress just four days before has justly gone down as one of the most stirring ones in American history:
The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.
Some historians, however, have posited alternative motives to the traditionally ascribed ones like Wilson’s liberal-democratic ideals. Howard Zinn was one of them. In his brilliant People’s History of the United States, Zinn reckons Wilson and his cabinet also had an eye on the economic advantages of total war:
In 1914 a serious recession had begun in the United States. J P Morgan later testified: ‘The war opened during a period of hard times… Business throughout the country was depressed, farm prices were deflated, unemployment was serious, the heavy industries were working far below capacity and bank clearings were off.’ But by 1915, war orders for the Allies (mostly England) had stimulated the economy, and by April 1917 more than $2 billion worth of goods had been sold to the Allies. As [Richard] Hofstadter says: ‘America became bound up with the Allies in a fateful union of war and prosperity.’
War has historically tended to be good for business, and even long after the guns and howitzers have fallen silent the spillovers from enormous government orders have served to fuel innovations and technological advances (for example, the space race prefiguring such entities as non-stick pans). The First World War was no exception, and America’s economic boom, which started with the Wilson Administration’s calculated risk of trading with the Allies only (and thus raising an understandable question mark as to whether the US was a truly neutral power), would continue right up to the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
6 April 1917 would prove to be a fateful date, and one that carried shockwaves around the capitals of Europe and beyond. It was mostly seen as good news on the part of the Allies: the Russians may well have been on their way out of the War, and the Italians tottering in the Alps, but the power, riches and dynamism of the US were about to be added to the conflict, and in the Allies’ favour. The Allies’ victory in November 1918 would open the way to a radical re-drawing of the maps of Europe and the Middle East, with Wilson taking an idealistic lead over the creation of new nations and the setting-up of a League of Nations.
Not that Wilson should be seen only as a liberal internationalist – as has already been covered in Harold Rex, he was also a white supremacist, and a firm and unashamed believer in racial segregation. What’s more, his earlier promise to stay neutral in the European war (‘There is such a thing as a nation being too proud to fight’) also needs to be weighed against his earlier shameless interventions in the internal affairs of Latin American countries: for example, in 1914 he ordered the US Navy to occupy the Mexican port of Veracruz, and sent soldiers into Haiti, who didn’t leave until the legislature at Port-au-Prince had chosen as the country’s president a candidate of Wilson’s liking. For a man reputed to be a liberal in global affairs, Wilson could be shockingly illiberal in his respect for international law (in his first year as president, he had unblushingly declared, ‘I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.’).
America’s entry into the Great War ushered in a new era of the country’s domination of the agenda of international relations – an era which, despite the pause in the ’20s and ’30s, hasn’t completely ended. Whatever the mixed motives of Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet for doing so, there were plenty of doughboys joining up who were motivated by idealism – though despite Wilson’s dubious promise of neutrality his government wasn’t exactly completely wet behind the ears when it came to getting involved in disputes between (and within) other countries.