When President Woodrow Wilson appeared before Congress on April 2, 1917 asking them to declare war on Germany, it wasn’t a snap or rash decision. Rather it was something Wilson wished to avoid at all costs.
When the first World War broke out in 1914, much of Europe rejoiced, like they were en route to a great adventure that would be covered in glory and over in a few weeks. The slaughter that took place in the fields of Europe would take 18 million dead to finally end the suffering with 41 million casualties.
Unfortunately, the “war to end all wars” would bring scant peace to Europe, less than 21 years later they would once again raise their armies to fight and before that was over, 80 million more would die. Wilson in 1914 was wise to try (unsuccessfully) to keep the United States out of it.
But by then the close ties that the U.S. had with Britain would push the Germans into stupidly drawing America into the fight on the side of the British and the French. Early in the war, the Germans attempting to squeeze the British lifelines on the sea, they sunk neutral merchant vessels, placed mines around English ports and turned the feelings of America against them.
In early 1915, the German decision to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare around Britain would be the tipping point. After sinking an American ship, which the Germans characterized as an “unfortunate accident,” they didn’t stop there.
In May 1915, the Germans learned the cruise liner Lusitania was carrying war supplies. But rather than stop her and allow the passengers to get off, she was torpedoed without any warning, off the coast of Ireland. Over 1200 passengers would die, including 128 Americans. The country was outraged. Wilson demanded reparations and for the German Navy to stop attacking unarmed merchant and passenger ships.
Despite the Germans agreeing to the safety of the passengers before attacking any unarmed merchant or cruise liners, a German U-boat did exactly that, sinking an Italian cruise liner without warning in November of 1915. In that attack, 272 passengers and crew would die including 27 more Americans. Wilson was being dragged into a conflict he was trying to avoid.
The German cause wasn’t helped by the “Zimmermann Telegram” early in 1917. German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann sent a telegram to the Mexican government from Washington D.C. It was encoded but intercepted by British intelligence and decrypted.
The German Foreign Office sent an alliance proposal to Mexico. Tensions had been high between the U.S. and Mexico since General Pershing went on a “Punitive Expedition” in 1916 hunting for the bandit Pancho Villa.
In the proposal, the Germans asked that if the U.S. declares war on Germany, that Mexico does the same to the United States. In doing so, Germany promised the return of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.The Germans were convinced that their unrestricted submarine warfare tactic which they were again using would strangle Britain and they needed the United States tied down in their own turf.
The Zimmermann cable as decoded read as follows: We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.
Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, 1917, and that was basically the final straw. The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with the Germans two days later and the Zimmermann telegram was the final piece of the puzzle. Many people believed at first that the telegram was faked, but Zimmermann himself admitted it to the press.
On April 2, Wilson addressed Congress and the Senate on April 4, passed the following resolution:
WHEREAS, The Imperial German Government has committed repeated acts of war against the people of the United States of America; therefore, be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial German Government, which has thus been thrust upon the United States, is hereby formally declared; and that the President be, and he is hereby, authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the United States and the resources of the Government to carry on war against the Imperial German Government; and to bring the conflict to a successful termination all the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.
The Senate vote was 82-6 with eight Senators not voting. The resolution passed the House on April 6, with a vote of 350-73. One of the House members who voted against the resolution, Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana, later became the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan the day after Pearl Harbor.
By the next October when the Armistice was signed, about 110,000 Americans had lost their lives. The war to end all wars was just the next one.
Photo: Library of Congress