Woodrow Wilson tried to keep America out of World War I, and succeeded in postponing U.S. entry into the war for almost three years.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
In August 1914, President Woodrow Wilson asked Americans to remain impartial in thought and deed toward the war that had just broken out in Europe. Wilson wanted the United States to exemplify the democratic commitment to peace, but "The Great War" continually challenged the nation's neutrality. American farms and factories fed and armed Europe's armies; both the Allied and Central powers violated international laws governing ocean travel and shipping. For almost three years, the President presided over a difficult, deteriorating neutrality, until finally the provocations could no longer be ignored or negotiated. In this lesson, students will analyze one of the most significant moments in twentieth century U.S. foreign relations: Wilson's decision to enter World War I in order to make the world "safe for democracy."
After almost three years of neutrality, was the decision to intervene in World War I justified?
After completing this lesson, students should be able to:
Americans welcomed their President's statement of neutrality in August 1914, believing that the European conflict was none of their business. However, neutrality quickly proved easier to declare than practice. With an economic recession underway, American manufacturers, munitions makers, and agricultural producers were eager to capitalize on the belligerents' need for their goods. Such trade was, of course, an internationally recognized right of a neutral nation, but U.S. trade practices already favored the Allied nations. While exports to the Central Powers totaled $169 million in 1914, the United States shipped goods worth $825 million to their opponents. Britain's expansive definition of contraband-prohibited items-provided an excuse to interdict American merchant vessels and seize almost anything headed to Germany. Although Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan declared loans from U.S. banks to warring nations to be a violation of neutrality, such lending was legal, and, in 1915, loans and credits began flowing to Europe, with most of the money going to the Allied side.
Wilson and the Department of State strongly protested British infractions of American neutrality but did not retaliate. German sinking of passenger ships, most notably the Lusitania in May 1915, further strained the U.S. position. In May 1916, Wilson secured a German promise, known as the Sussex pledge, to not attack merchant ships without warning. In return, Germany expected the United States to pressure Britain to end its naval blockade. Not only did Britain refuse, it also began blacklisting American companies trading with Germany. Wilson now faced an acute dilemma: the more he tried to preserve neutrality, the closer the nation came to war. In November, Wilson won re-election, but the margin of victory was slim.
In January 1917, Wilson delivered his "Peace without Victory" speech, which called for an end to the war and the creation of an international organization that would ensure peace through arms reductions, freedom on the seas, and the promotion of democratic rule. Embroiled in a conflict that had inflicted horrifying casualties, the belligerents ignored the proposal. Desperate to cut off Britain's access to food and munitions, Germany rescinded the Sussex pledge and commenced unrestricted submarine warfare in February. Revelation the next month that Germany had sought a military alliance with Mexico (the infamous Zimmermann telegram) added to American outrage. On April 2, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. The President duly noted German provocations, yet, as he stated in eloquent if abstract language, this was no mere retaliation against an aggressor. By entering the conflict, predicted Wilson, the United States could use its share of victory to spread democracy, eradicate authoritarian rule, and sweep away the entangling, selfish military alliances that had engulfed Europe in war. Most of all, the United States could "bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at least free." For almost three years, Wilson had struggled to safeguard American neutrality, but now the mission was far greater. Even as the nation grappled with the enormous challenge of mobilizing for war and sending troops to the Western Front, Wilson began articulating the specific points of his ambitious vision to mold this conflict into "the war to end all wars."
To provide your students with the skills needed to examine primary sources, you may find it helpful to visit this site from the Library of Congress. In particular, students may find the Mindwalk activity useful in preparing to work with primary sources. At the National Archives website, the Digital Classroom provides worksheets to practice analysis of various primary sources, including photographs and cartoons. Another exercise involving interpretation of primary sources can be found at History Matters.
To begin the first exercise, read or have a student read to the class Wilson's statement of neutrality, which is available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Great War Primary Documents Archive (You may prefer to read just an excerpt, available on pages 1-2 of the Text Document.) Either orally or in writing have the students answer the following questions about Wilson's statement:
Next, divide the students into five small groups and assign each group one of the documents below, all from the EDSITEment-reviewed Great War Primary Documents Archive or the American Memory Project. Each group will use the assigned primary source to prepare a presentation answering this question: why was it so difficult for the U.S. to remain neutral? (See Text Document for further guidance. In order to complete this exercise in one class period, you will probably want to assign just two or three documents; six documents total are provided. If you have not used this curriculum unit's first lesson, "The Origins of Wilsonianism," it is recommended that you add a sixth group and assign it Wilson's "Peace without Victory" speech.)
Group 1: Excerpts from September 19, 1914 instructions from the U.S. Department of State regarding the arming of merchant ships registered to nations at war (pages 3-4 of the Text Document)
Group 2: November 13, 1914 letter from Sir Cecil Spring-Rice to Sir Arthur Nicolson [both were British officials] describing U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan's thoughts on the war (pages 5-6 of the Text Document)
Group 4: The Lusitania Incident (pages 9-10 of the Text Document):
Group 5: Wilson's April 19, 1916 remarks to Congress regarding Germany's attack on the Sussex, an unarmed French passenger ship traveling in the English Channel (pages 11-12 of the Text Document)
Group 6 (optional, see above): Wilson's "Peace without Victory" address to the U.S. Senate, January 22, 1917 (pages 13-14 of the Text Document)
For the second activity, the class will remain in small groups, this time adopting the role of political cartoonists, circa March 1917. Each group must prepare a cartoon that comments on the difficult position of the United States and President Wilson now that Germany has declared unlimited submarine warfare in the Atlantic Ocean and has attempted to ally with Mexico (as the intercepted Zimmermann telegram revealed). Students will use the primary sources and sample cartoon below to create their cartoon. (Further instructions are provided on pages 15–17 of the Text Document.)
(Suggestion: students could be asked to consider why Mexico might find the German offer attractive, given the intervention of the United States in the Mexican Revolution in 1916. Students should draw upon their work in Activity 2 of Lesson 2 of this unit.)
The third exercise asks the students to review primary sources so that they can write a brief essay answering this question: Was Wilson's policy of neutrality impossible to maintain during World War I?
After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1-2 paragraph) essays answering the following questions:
Students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:
Some of the lesson's activities, especially those pertaining to the difficulty of American neutrality could be adapted and extended. Students could research the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, for example, or Wilson's sending of his trusted adviser Colonel Edward M. House to Europe several times to mediate an end to the war. For more on the latter topic, see the text of the 1916 House-Grey memorandum on the EDSITEment-reviewed web site First World War.com
There are numerous films about the American experience in World War I, though most relate to the fighting on the Western Front. The 2001 television movie "The Lost Battalion" dramatizes the plight of some 500 American soldiers pinned down by a German unit late in the war. A portion of the PBS/American Experience biography "Woodrow Wilson" details Wilson's struggle to keep the United States neutral.
3-4 class periods