The Gradual Process of Woodrow Wilson and the United States of America Joining World War I

Woodrow Wilson served as President of the United States from 1913 to 1921. Just after winning the election, he stated that, “It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs” (1). Wilson’s focus when entering office was on domestic matters, however, his presidency would be consumed by emphasis on foreign policy issues, particularly of World War I. Wilson and the majority of Americans were adamant in staying neutral throughout World War I (1914-1918). However, the United States would face countless problems and pressures, eventually pushing the nation into war. With the threat of Germany growing greater, especially through its use of unrestricted submarine warfare, the U.S. took numerous steps in avoiding direct conflict. However, Wilson and his administration would also take incremental steps in preparing the nation for the growing inevitability of war. This map provides place marks for some of the most significant events leading up to the U.S. joining World War I. The map not only provides the incidents that slowly pushed America closer to war, but also the actions Wilson’s administration took in preparing for the increasing likelihood of conflict.

Wilson declared a policy of neutrality with the emergence and development of war in Europe. Neutrality was not only widely accepted by the public, but it also provided the flourishing of American businesses through the demand of products for war (2). Furthermore, Wilson believed that the declaration of neutrality would protect American citizens and ships from attacks, however, he would be proven wrong as both Germany and Britain would repeatedly violate the neutrality rights of the U.S (3). Britain set up a blockade in order to prevent imports into Europe, and moreover to essentially, “strangle the enemy economically” (4). This led to the British violating U.S. neutrality as they would prevent the transportation of American goods to Germany (5). Wilson would not take strong action against the British, therefore as a result the, “Acceptance of the blockade tied the United States closer to the Allied cause” (6). On the other hand, Wilson and the American public would not concede so easily to Germany’s breaking of neutrality rights through the use of unrestricted submarine warfare.

The sinking of the British liner Lusitania in May of 1915, can be marked as a turning point in the change of attitude of the American public towards the war. The result of the attack led to the death of twelve hundred people, with one hundred twenty-eight of them being American citizens (7). The public turned strongly against Germany and moreover, Wilson was pressed to take a strong stance against the perpetrators. Notably and not surprisingly, Theodore Roosevelt pressed the Wilson administration to take action and enter the war (8). Wilson took cautious steps in the aftermath of the Lusitania attack. He gave a speech in Philadelphia in order restate the U.S. position of neutrality, however, his poor choice of the words “too proud to fight” lacked as a sufficient response to the assault (9). Wilson’s strictly pacifist message would not do enough to quell the anger of Americans. Consequently, he took a stronger stance by sending a note to Germany that demanded the change in unrestricted submarine warfare. His note suggested that another sinking, which resulted in American civilian casualties, could lead the United States to break diplomatic relations and even join the war (10). However, it was not until the sinking of the British Liner Arabic on August 19, 1915, in which two Americans were killed, did the German government officially and publicly announce the prohibiting of unrestricted submarine warfare (11).

Germany’s public pledge in the aftermath of the sinking of the Arabic would not do enough to fully suppress its ruthless tactics in its use of U-boats. In March of 1916, a German submarine sank another ship with Americans aboard, the Sussex (12). Although no Americans died, there were calls for the government to sever ties with Germany and furthermore even enter the war. Wilson was still determined to avoid war, and was successful in doing so by coercing the Germans to make the Sussex Pledge in early May. The Sussex Pledge stipulated that Germany would not undertake anymore surprise attacks against passenger liners (13). Although Wilson was able to keep the United States out of the conflict in Europe, it forced him into a corner. If Germany believed that preventing the U.S. from entering the war was not as crucial than resuming unrestricted U-boat warfare, then American neutrality would surely cease to exist (14). Wilson at best would have to break relations with Germany and at worst go to war against them.

In the aftermath of the Sussex Pledge, Wilson signed the National Defense Act and Naval Expansion Act in 1916. Not only was the National Guard strengthened, but also construction of battleships and cruisers were undertaken (15). Wilson understood how fragile the German pledge was and the potential implications of it being broken. Wilson took the necessary steps to insure America’s safety, while not overly pressing for war. This was not the first instance in which Wilson took progressive steps to assure U.S. safety. Although America was generally not enticed to join the war in the aftermath of the Lusitania sinking, Wilson’s administration sent forces to Nicaragua and Haiti in order to protect its overseas interests and influence in case of future outbreak (16). Germany could potentially take control of these nations and as a result pose a threat to America’s sphere of influence. Furthermore, the U.S. bought the Danish West Indies in August of 1914 in order to protect the Panama Canal. The administration was worried that Germany could build a base there and threaten to take control of the coveted passage (17).

The protection of overseas interests and bolstering of forces would pay off, as the Zimmermann Telegram confirmed the U.S. joining the war, if there was any doubt to begin with. In exchange for Mexico’s alliance, Germany would return its former territories currently presiding in the U.S (18). On April 2, 1917, Wilson presented Congress with a declaration of war against Germany. At this point the administration and the American public were in general decisively supportive of fighting in the war.

Negative public sentiment towards Germany increased starting with the sinking of the Lusitania. Want of joining the war only increased with the continuous use of German unrestricted U-boat warfare and moreover the sinking of other passenger vessels. Wilson tried his best to prevent the U.S. from fighting in Europe, however, he was also cautious of the threat Germany presented. Although reluctant to fight, he took steps to ensure the safety of the U.S. either through the protection of overseas interests or increasing of armed forces. Wilson and America’s joining of World War I was a gradual process that increasingly became inevitable.

(1) H. W. Brands, “Wilson at War Wilson in Love,” American History 48, no.2 (2013): 48.
(2) Brands, “Wilson at War Wilson in Love,” 50.
(3) Brands, “Wilson at War Wilson in Love,” 51.
(4) George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 401
(5) Herring, From Colony to Superpower, 401
(6) Herring, From Colony to Superpower, 402
(7) Herring, From Colony to Superpower, 402
(8) Michael S. Neiberg, “Blinking Eyes Began to Open: Legacies from America’s Road to the Great War, 1914-1917,” Diplomatic History 38, no.4 (2014): 805
(9) Brands, “Wilson at War Wilson in Love,” 51
(10) Brands, “Wilson at War Wilson in Love,” 52
(11) Brands, “Wilson at War Wilson in Love,” 52-53 and Herring, From Colony to Superpower, 403
(12) Neiberg, “Blinking Eyes Began to Open,” 809
(13) Herring, From Colony to Superpower, 404
(14) Herring, From Colony to Superpower, 404
(15) Herring, From Colony to Superpower, 405
(16) Neiberg, “Blinking Eyes Began to Open,” 806
(17) Neiberg, “Blinking Eyes Began to Open,” 808
(18) Herring, From Colony to Superpower, 410


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