The outbreak of war in 1914 had shocked Americans. Still, Europe and its quarrels seemed far away. Americans hoped to stay out of the war and avoid Europe’s problems.
As soon as World War I began, President Woodrow Wilson urged all Americans to be “neutral in fact as well as in name, impartial in thought as well as in action.” By not taking sides, Wilson believed the nation could avoid the war. Most Americans supported the President’s position. Slowly, however, and for various reasons, the United States drew closer and closer to involvement in the conflict.
American sympathies are divided. Americans from the start found it hard to be neutral. It seemed to most people that Germany and Austria-Hungary were chiefly responsible for the war. Also, many people had emotional ties to one side or the other. The majority of Americans were of British descent and were tied to Great Britain by common customs and language. Some Americans also remembered France’s aid in the Revolutionary War. On the other hand, many German Americans sympathized with Germany and the Central Powers. Many Irish Americans, who bitterly opposed Great Britain, also tended to give their support to the Central Powers.
As the war dragged on, American support for the Allies grew. Most of the war news that reached the United States came from Allied sources and was favorable to the Allied cause. The Allies also influenced American opinion through propaganda. Propaganda is the spreading of opinions that favor a cause or point of view. Allied propaganda called the Germans “Huns” and pictured them as bloodthirsty savages. The propaganda spread by the Central Powers made the British seem equally horrible. In general, however, Allied propaganda had a greater effect on American opinion.
The British Navy blockaded
Germany, making it difficult for American ships to reach German ports. Americans
found it easier to trade with Britain and France. The United States shipped
huge amounts of arms, food, oil, and other supplies to the Allies. This trade
created an economic boom in the United States. Americans naturally favored those
nations that bought American goods.
Perhaps the greatest influence on American opinion was Germany’s use of submarines, called U-boats. Submarines were new, and for several reasons people considered their use unfair. First, submarines attacked from hiding to avoid the guns of enemy ships. Second, submarines could not take captives. Torpedoed ships sank very quickly and U-boat crews could not rescue survivors from the sinking vessels or rescue survivors. People of the time considered it monstrous not to rescue survivors from a sinking ship. Finally, submarines often sank the ships of neutral countries. According to international law, a warring nation had the right to stop neutral ships and seize war goods being shipped to the enemy. The German U-boats could not follow this rule. Instead, submarines attacked and sank neutral ships without warning.
Early in the war, Germany warned the United States that it would attack neutral ships sailing to Great Britain. President Wilson responded to this threat with another warning. He said the Germans would be held to account if American lives were lost in U-boat attacks. In the view of German leaders, however, cutting Great Britain’s supply lines was worth the risk of angering the neutral countries.
On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat sank the British passenger liner Lusitania near the coast of southern Ireland. The Lusitania—then one of the largest and fastest ships in the world—was heading from New York to Liverpool, on the west coast of England. Hit by a single torpedo, the huge liner tilted sharply and sank within 18 minutes. Of nearly 2,000 passengers and crew members, 1,198 died. Among the dead were 128 Americans.
Americans were outraged by the sinking of the Lusitania. The United States issued strong warnings to the German government not to endanger the lives of American citizens. For a time Germany agreed to limit its submarine warfare.
In spite of the growing anti-German feeling, most Americans still wanted to stay out of the war. Wilson agreed. “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight,” he said. In 1916 Wilson ran for reelection as President. His campaign slogan was “He kept us out of war.” The Republicans chose Charles Evans Hughes, a Supreme Court justice, to run against Wilson. The election was close, and Hughes went to bed believing he was the new President. When election returns came in from California, however, President Wilson was the victor.