Credit: Courtesy of American Memory(Library of Congress)
American foreign policy continues to resonate with the issues involved in the entry of the United States into World War I—unilateralism versus foreign alliances, the responsibilities of power, the influence of the military-industrial complex on foreign policy, the use of force to accomplish idealistic goals. Understanding the choices the Wilson administration made and their consequences provides insight into international affairs in the years since the end of the Great War and beyond.
In this lesson, students reconsider the events leading to U.S. entry into World War I through the lens of archival documents.
Read the following with the class:
… I am not now thinking of the loss of property involved, immense and serious as that is, but only of the wanton and wholesale destruction of the lives of noncombatants, men, women, and children, engaged in pursuits which have always, even in the darkest periods of modern history, been deemed innocent and legitimate. Property can be paid for; the lives of peaceful and innocent people can not be. The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind.
It is a war against all nations. American ships have been sunk, American lives taken, in ways which it has stirred us very deeply to learn of, but the ships and people of other neutral and friendly nations have been sunk and overwhelmed in the waters in the same way. There has been no discrimination. The challenge is to all mankind. Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it. The choice we make for ourselves must be made with a moderation of counsel and a temperateness of judgment befitting our character and our motives as a nation. We must put excited feeling away. Our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.
—President Woodrow Wilson's War Message, April 2, 1917
… We have loaned many hundreds of millions of dollars to the Allies in this controversy. While such action was legal and countenanced by international law, there is no doubt in my mind but the enormous amount of money loaned to the Allies in this country has been instrumental in bringing about a public sentiment in favor of our country taking a course that would make every bond worth a hundred cents on the dollar and making the payment of every debt certain and sure. Through this instrumentality and also through the instrumentality of others who have not only made millions out of the war in the manufacture of munitions, etc., and who would expect to make millions more if our country can be drawn into the catastrophe, a large number of the great newspapers and news agencies of the country have been controlled and enlisted in the greatest propaganda that the world has ever known to manufacture sentiment in favor of war.
—Senator George W. Norris Opposition to Wilson's War Message, April 4, 1917
The failure to treat the belligerent nations of Europe alike, the failure to reject the unlawful "war zones" of both Germany and Great Britain is wholly accountable for our present dilemma.
—Senator Robert M. LaFollette Opposition to Wilson's War Message, April 4, 1917
As you or students read, have them compile a list of reasons each gives for American entry into World War I. If desired, use a two-circle Venn diagram to identify the reasons the two pieces have in common and those they do not.
1 class periods