Lecture 15: World War I

Part 1: The US Enters The War

I. World War I began when the Austro-Hungarian Empire invaded the small country of Serbia after a Serb-Bosnian radical group, the Black Hand, assassinated Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of the Austrian King, Franz Josef.

A. Josef used the assassination as an excuse to take Serbia, which he had long wanted to do. He issued the Serbs an unacceptable ultimatum, and when they refused to comply fully, invaded.

B. Due to the intricacies of the European Alliance System, the invasion triggered a series of military alliances to come into effect, and all of Europe was at war within a few weeks.

C. The Triple Alliance—Germany, Austria, Italy—were committed to helping each other in case of conflict. The Triple Entente—France, England, Russia was the other major alliance. When Austria invaded Serbia, Russia pledged to defend the Serbs (Slavic Unity). Russia does this, and as a precaution, bolstered its troops along the German border, Germany declared war on Russia, bringing France and England in to the war. Other countries joined one side or the other over the following months and years.

II. Woodrow Wilson argued that the war in Europe was of no concern to the US—and indeed, the US hope to make a great profit off the war by selling arms and supplies to both sides.

A. Of course, in reality the US had a huge stake in the war—and who prevailed. There were many Germans in the US, but a huge majority had a stronger natural affinity toward England.

B. Throughout 1914, Wilson declared US neutrality and that the US had the right to trade with both sides—however, England had de facto control of the seas and refused to allow US ships deliver goods to the Central Powers. By 1915, Wilson had to choose between stopping all trade and stopping trade with Germany only while maintaining trade with England—he chose the latter and the US became a veritable “arsenal” of the Allies.”

C. The war was brought to the US directly by Germany’s attempt to break the US transatlantic trade ties with the Allies—using submarine warfare.

i. May 7, 1915—a German submarine sank the British passenger ship Lusitania, killing 1,198 people (128 Americans). Americans reacted strongly, and Germany lost much of what little American neutrality remained. US protests caused Germany to become more selective in choosing its targets, but soon Germany had little choice but to resume attacking non-military vessels—the Allies had announced that they were arming merchant ships with anti-submarine weapons. The Germans sank a French passenger ship in spring 1916, killing several more Americans. Wilson once again protested, and the Germans once again agreed to stop.

D. Though Wilson had become increasingly antagonistic toward the Germans; he faced a presidential re-election campaign in 1915-16. The Democratic Party was overwhelmingly in favor of staying out of the war, and Wilson ran for re-election on the slogan, “He kept us out of War.” He won re-election by one of the smallest margins in US history.

E. Following the election, Wilson was still not ready to go to war—he needed a good reason, a moral justification for involving the US.

i. The German attacks on civilian vessels and their use of poison gas on the battlefields were two good reasons, but Wilson required a higher, moral justification.

ii. In his January1917 address to Congress, Wilson presented a plan for a post-war order in which the US would help to maintain the peace through a permanent “league of nations”.

iii. The US would serve as a model for the rest of the world, and in the league, nations would interact in a democratic forum to discuss their differences rationally—it would be a “peace among equals,” a “peace without victory.”

iv. Even in January 1917, Wilson hoped to avoid direct US involvement in the war—he hoped that the US would be called upon to mediate an end to the dispute.

v. In the early months of 1917, however, Germany announced a new polcy of “unrestricted submarine warfare”--that it would attack all ships—from any country—in a broad zone around the British Isles. At the same time the German’s launched a major new offensive in France that threatened, finally, to break French resistance.

vi. The British delivered a message to Wilson on February 25—a message from the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmerman, to Mexico they had intercepted and decoded. The “Zimmerman Note” proposed that if the US went to war against Germany, Mexico should join Germany and the fight against the Americans. It promised that if they did, they would regain their “lost provinces” (Texas, the American Southwest, and California). The note was widely circulated in the press and inflamed American public opinion.

vii. The final straw was the revolution in Russia. In March, the government of Czar Nicholas was overthrown and was, at least at first, replaced by a representative government. The US would not have to ally itself with a despotic monarchy.

ix. Wilson declared war on 2 April 1917 and Congress approved it on 6 April.


Part II: The War Effort

A. The Military Campaign.

I. At first, many Americans believed that the US involvement in the war could be limited to sea power—destroying the German u-boats might be enough. Before the US entered the war the British were losing 1 in 4 ships taking supplies to mainland (900,000 tons a month!). In just a few months, US destroyers had killed enough submarines to reduce that number 1 ship in every 32.

II. However, the land forces in Europe were exhausted on both sides, and stalemated—until November 1917 when the Bolsheviks hi-jacked the Russian Revolution and negotiated a separate peace with Germany (Treaty of Brest-Litovsk). Suddenly, the German alliance had no enemy in the east, and could direct all its attention to capturing France.

III. Wilson asked for and got a draft and quickly drafted 3 million men into the service. Another 2 million volunteered. The first members of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) didn’t arrive in Europe until late 1917, and they didn’t arrive in large numbers until Spring 1918.

IV. The US force helped to stop German advances, then went on the offensive in late summer. In September, over 1 million US troops (along with a huge number of British and French) advanced against Germany in a coordinated offensive, pushing the Germans back out of France and into Germany.

V. Faced with an invasion of their own country, German leaders began to seek peace. Though the US commander wanted to push into Germany and defeat the Germans outright, other commanders, chose to accept German peace proposals. The war ended on 11 November 1918, and though Americans probably take more credit for the victory than they are due, it is clear that the only victors in the conflict were the Americans.

IV.  The cost of the war was staggering

     A.  France lost 20% of its men between the ages of 20-44

     B.  Germany lost 15%

     C.  Almost every family in Europe had a son, husband, or brother who had been killed.

    D.  Winston Churchill said “Victory, bought so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat”

 B. The Home Front.

I. In addition to the draft, the war effort on the American home front was huge. The government needed to raise huge amounts of money, organize industry for the production of war materiel, and sell the war to a divided population.

A. Raising money: money for the war effort was raised in two main ways—increased taxes and the sale of “Liberty Bonds.” Liberty Bonds were essentially loans from the people—people would buy them, hold them for several years, then cash them in for a small gain in interest. This was the first use of government bonds to raise large amounts of money and it the program raised $23 billion by 1920.

B. Organizing Industry: Wilson created bodies called “Warboards”—government boards were set up to “manage” sectors of the US economy so that the activities of the variety of companies in those sectors could be coordinated—for example, the Railroad War Board ran all the nations railroads as a single transportation system, increasing the efficiency with which products could be shipped to the east and on to Europe. The War Industries Board, created in July 1917, was originally intended to simply coordinate the government’s purchase of war supplies, but after Wilson put Bernard Baruch in charge, the War Industries Board took an amazing degree of control over American industry—delegating raw materials and production goals to factories, coordinating production.

C. Selling the War: The US public was very divided over the war—there were many Germans and Eastern Europeans that disliked it, not to mention a rather large peace movement that thought the US had no business fighting in Europe. The Wilson Administration set up a Committee on Public Information to promote the war effort. At first, the CPI used traditional advertising techniques to promote the government’s reasons for entering the war and America’s stake in its outcome. Quickly, however, it degenerated into Anti-Germanism and encouraged people to spy on their neighbors and report anything suspicious to the authorities.

D. The Wilson Administration augmented these propaganda efforts with the Espionage Act of 1917, and the Sabotage Act and Sedition Act of 1918. These laws made it illegal not only to spy or commit sabotage for the Germans; they made it illegal to say ANYTHING critical of the President or the war effort!! State and local governments added their own tools for repression and numerous citizen groups were formed to root out “agents” of the Germans. Needless to say, people with German names were suspect. Many towns changed their names during this period, perhaps the most repressive period in American history.


Part III: The Peace

I.  Wilson proposed a plan for peace

A.  The fourteen points outlined goals for a just and lasting peace. The main points of the 14 points were:

1. The notion of  Self-determination- allowing people, through free elections, to decide for themselves under what government they wished to live.

2. The creation of a general association of nations, the League of Nations, would ensure countries a forum in which to discuss their problems and institute a policy of "collective security" to replace the old European idea of "balance of power." Under collective security, any invasion of a member state would be resisted by all the other members automatically.

3. No reparations--Wilson proposed that the countries of Europe should be satisfied with a slight readjustment of their borders and should not burden Germany with demands for repayment for the damage the war had done to their countries.

B.  Despite problems with the details of Wilson's plan for peace, both the Allies and the Germans accepted Wilson’s proposal as the basis for peace negotiations. 

II.  Conflicting demands dominated the conference

A.  Not since Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 had Europe faced such a task of  rebuilding

B.  France and Britain wanted to make the German people pay for the suffering the war caused

            C.  Italy wanted part of Austria-Hungary

             D. Russia was in the midst of a civil war

III.  The Allies dictated peace terms

     A.  Territorial losses

          1.  Germany lost 13% of its land

          2.  France, Poland, Belgium, and Denmark all received some of its territory

          3.  Poland became an independent nation and received a strip of land

               (The Polish Corridor)

4.  Germany’s territories in Africa and the Pacific were given as Mandates to Britain, France, and Japan

     B.  Military restrictions

          1.  The size of the German army was strictly limited

          2.  Germany could not manufacture war material

          3.  Submarines and airplanes were also banned

     C.  War guilt

          1.  Article 231- placed sole blame for WWI on Germany’s shoulders

2.  Germans were obliged to pay reparations to the Allies (around $35 billion total—Germany could not pay and the solution of the Weimar Republic was to print money. In 1918, 7DM=$1.00; By 1923, 4.2 trillion DM= $1.00)

     D.  The Allies agreed to create the League of Nations

IV.  Other treaties created new nations

     A.  The Turkish treaties

1.  Forced Turks to give up almost all of their old empire

2.  Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria were created as new states out of the old Turkish empire.

     B.  The break-up of Austria-Hungary

1.  Austria and Hungary were recognized as independent nations

2.  Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania were created as separate states.

     C.  Russia lost a lot of its land

V.  The U.S. rejected the treaty

A.  Many Americans rejected the treaty of Versailles

B.  The US Senate refused to allow the US join the League of Nations--mainly because of the idea of collective security (Article 10 of League of Nations Charter).

C.  The Treaty left a legacy of bitterness and hatred in the hearts of the German people

D.  Other countries felt cheated and betrayed by the peace settlements

E. Wilson died a pathetic and beaten soul after fighting for two years to get the US Senate to ratify the treaty.