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American History II


The U. S. and World War I

            President Theodore Roosevelt had claimed that world order could only be maintained through a balance of power among the great nations. He was determined that the U.S. would be one of the great nations involved in that balance of power. To that end, he had preached "preparedness" and "righteousness." By "preparedness," he meant that the United States should have a foundation of physical strength: a large population, strong industries, and preserved and protected natural resources. Roosevelt also meant by "strength" that American people should be of strong moral fiber, especially when it came to being willing to sacrifice and to fight for their country. Finally, he meant by "preparedness" that the U.S. should be prepared militarily by having a powerful army and navy. To convince both Americans and others of American power, Roosevelt, as Commander in Chief, displayed the U.S. Navy on a cruise around the world in 1907, despite protests from Congress.

            Roosevelt judged other nations on the same criteria he used to judge individuals: righteousness and morality. He believed that the great powers of the world, and especially the U.S., should act with self-restraint while pursuing their own goals, never using force for anything other than righteous causes.  In a 1914 speech, "Warlike Power: The Prerequisite for the Preservation of Social Values," Roosevelt said: "War, like peace, is properly a means to an end: righteousness. Neither war nor peace in itself is righteous. Righteousness, when triumphant, brings peace."

            Roosevelt believed that "It is certain that the only way successfully to oppose the Might which is the servant of Wrong is by means of the Might that is the servant of Right." He repeatedly had found it necessary to intervene militarily in the nations of Latin America in order to restore efficiency and order (which he considered righteous ends) in those countries and to keep European nations out of the region.  His foreign interventions included Venezuela (1902), Santo Domingo (1904-1907), Panama (1903) and Cuba (1906).  Roosevelt had also acted as mediator in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, for which he had won the Nobel Peace prize.

            What Roosevelt began, Woodrow Wilson, elected President of the United States in 1912 after serving as president of Princeton University and as governor of New Jersey, continued. By his own admission, Wilson couldn't "let alone those things I see going downhill."  Just as moralistic and righteous as Roosevelt, Wilson was less of a realist.  Roosevelt tended to intervene in situations to achieve specific goals.  Wilson thought in terms of  saving the world.  Wilson said, and actually believed, "When properly directed, there is no people in the world not fitted for self-government."

            The key phrase in the above quotation is "when properly directed." Wilson believed that the United States of America was the rightful and natural power to provide that direction within a framework in which economics, democracy, and morality were closely linked. Wilson believed that other nations of the world should (and would) look to the U.S. as an example. At the time, America was dependent on the rest of the world for economic markets. Wilson saw world markets as the new frontier for the American system and believed the world market ought to allow itself to fill that role. He was also determined to direct the affairs of other nations so that they could eventually achieve self-government based on the American model.  Wilson was even more willing to intervene in other countries than Roosevelt.  He sent American troops to Mexico to intervene in Mexico's civil war (1913-1917). When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, he tried to maintain an American version of neutrality but eventually the U. S.  entered the war because, as Wilson stated, "The world must be made safe for democracy."

            American neutrality early in the war was maintained before 1917 because American public opinion about the war was seriously divided, primarily along ethnic lines.  Old-stock Americans of Anglo-Saxon heritage were generally on the side of Britain and France. Americans of German heritage wanted the U.S. to remain neutral. Many Americans with ties to Eastern Europe, such as Russian and Polish Jews, favored or supported Germany , because Germany, up to that time, had been more tolerant of religious minorities than either Russia or the countries of Western Europe. In addition, there was still strong support among American voters for a policy of isolationism. There was simply not sufficient support for entry into the war on one side or the other for the United States to become involved. (Remember, a president can ask for a declaration of war, but Congress alone has the power to declare war.)

            The American version of neutrality in World War I, as in many earlier European wars, did not require that it refrain from trading in goods that might aid in the war effort--just that it avoid trading in arms specifically. Sales to Britain and France soared from $825 million in 1914 to $3.2 billion in 1916. While exports to those nations were not armaments, neither Britain nor France could not have sustained their war effort without the agricultural and manufactured products they imported from the United States. In addition, Wall Street financial institutions such as the House of Morgan had given loans to Great Britain totaling over $2.3 billion. The United States also continued to trade with Germany, but the German market was not nearly as important as the markets of its enemies. By 1915, President Wilson, while still talking peace and neutrality, had begun to gear up for warfare, expanding both the army and the navy.

            Both Germany and Britain violated the professed neutrality of the United States. The British searched American ships bound for German ports and occasionally seized them or their cargoes because they felt that the cargoes would aid the German war effort. For its part, Germany, equipped with a new weapon, the U-boat, periodically torpedoed American ships bound for Germany and France. Because of increased German submarine attacks on American ships, because of the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania with many Americans aboard, and because of the substantial investment of American banks in Britain, the United States entered the war on the side of Britain and France in 1917. American involvement in the war tipped the balance in favor of the Allies almost immediately. In full retreat back to its own borders, Germany asked for an armistice, which the Allies granted on November 11, 1918. The armistice was granted before there was substantial Allied invasion of Germany, a fact that would have significance later in the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.

            By March of 1919, almost all American forces had returned to the United States, generally to ticker tape parades and other demonstrations of the nation's gratitude for their effort and sacrifice. Experience in World War I was to profoundly affect veterans over the next two decades. Promises made to veterans by a grateful nation would also play a role in future events.

            American experience at gearing up for a war effort was also to have a major effect on American industry, as was the fact that devastated European nations whose productive capacity had been seriously eroded had to depend on American industry for the products with which to rebuild. Finally, Germany's assistance to the Communist Revolution in Russia in exchange for Russia's withdrawal from the war would have major impact on not only the future history of Europe, but also American attitudes toward its own Socialist and Communist radicals.

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