Horrors of World War I: US Strength at Painful Cost

World War I introduced a new type of warfare to the American public, leading to both pride and fear when victory arrived.

Nov 18, 2021By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
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A political cartoon showing American frustration with foreign wars, via the Library of Congress


World War I saw America fighting overseas against an industrialized foe for the first time in its most violent conflict since the Civil War. During and after the war, the United States came face-to-face with the unexpected brutality of modern warfare, complex international relations, radicals and communism, and diplomacy. Despite America’s tremendous show of industrial and military strength, the public balked at the possibility of having to remain a “global policeman” and fight faraway foes. While US president Woodrow Wilson sought a post-WWI era of international idealism, rivals wanted to take advantage of America’s surrounding oceans to focus on domestic issues.


Before World War I: From Isolationism to a Growing American Empire

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A printing of U.S. president George Washington’s Farewell Address from September 1796, via Historic Ipswich


During the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the new United States of America was aided by allies France, Spain, and the Netherlands. As historical enemies of Britain, the three other western European powers seized the chance to stick it to King George III. After the war ended, the US was faced with a difficult choice: repay the alliances and remain actively engaged in European affairs, or try to avoid foreign entanglements. In September 1796, first US president George Washington gave his famous Farewell Address and advised the country to avoid political parties and foreign entanglements.


At first, isolationism and focusing on domestic issues were easier due to America’s physical distance from other countries. The Atlantic Ocean separated the US from Europe, and territory to the west and south was largely unsettled. Eight years after the War of 1812 against Britain, US president James Monroe told European powers to back off and stay out of the Western Hemisphere. During the US Civil War (1861-65), France decided to invade Mexico and set up an empire but left in 1867 after the victorious Union – having held the US together as a single country – demanded it go.


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A political cartoon showing the U.S. protecting a Cuban refugee from the Spanish, via PBS & WGBH Educational Foundation


By the 1890s, the US was strong enough to extend its power beyond its shores. In 1898, after increasing tensions with Spain over Spain’s remaining colonies in the nearby Caribbean, the US engaged in the Spanish-American War. The brief war, which saw the US attack and dominate in both the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, created an American empire by taking Spain’s island colonies for itself (as well as the independent territory of Hawaii, which the US desired for a naval base). Having won a swift war against a once-powerful rival, the United States was now an undeniable world power.

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European nations, Japan, and the United States united to put down the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, via the Los Angeles Review of Books


During the late 1800s, European powers had taken exclusive territories in China to use for trade and economic production. The US opposed “colonization” of China, similar to what had occurred in Africa, but did not argue for increased sovereignty of China. In 1899 and 1900, rebels in China tried to push out foreigners and Chinese people who appeared sympathetic. The United States was one of eight western powers that responded with force, sending in the US Marines during the summer of 1900 to defeat the Boxers who were besieging diplomatic missions. As a result, the US was now an active diplomatic and economic power along with historic powers like Britain, France, and Russia.


Perhaps encouraged by two quick military victories overseas, the US remained active on the diplomatic scene, with US president Theodore Roosevelt negotiating peace between Russia and Japan during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. The Treaty of Portsmouth, signed in the United States, ended hostilities between the two powers. However, such diplomacy was not entirely altruistic: the US wanted to ensure that neither Russia nor Japan could dominate northeastern China, which was important to America’s economic interests.


He Kept Us Out of War: The US Supports Wilson’s Neutrality

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A political cartoon showing the United States remaining neutral during the early years of World War I, via the State Historical Society of Iowa


When World War I erupted in Europe, the United States did not seek to engage, still practicing isolationism. Although it had more economic trade with Britain and France, and the public sympathized more with the Allies (Britain, France, and Russia), the US remained neutral in the conflict. At the outset of the war, many Americans still identified as ethnic German, and the complex way the war began made it difficult to label any power as the true aggressor. However, public opinion shifted against Germany in 1915 with the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania by a German submarine, in which 128 US citizens perished.


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A 1916 re-election campaign button for US president Woodrow Wilson, who maintained America’s neutrality in World War I until 1917, via Dickinson College, Carlisle


After Germany agreed to end its unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic, America’s neutrality continued. That autumn, US president Woodrow Wilson won re-election by running on having kept America out of the bloody conflict. “He kept us out of war” was a popular slogan, and the public wanted little to do with the horrors of trench warfare and new weapons like the machine gun, artillery, and poison gas.


However, Germany returned to unrestricted submarine warfare less than a year later. Suffering from a British naval blockade that was causing food shortages, Germany wanted to return the favor by sinking any ship crossing the Atlantic to Britain. Woodrow Wilson suspended diplomatic relations with Germany in response. Despite Germany’s declared hostility toward American ships that might be aiding the Allied war effort, nothing physical had been committed by the Central Powers…yet.


The Smoking Gun: Zimmermann Telegram Shows Germany Planning For War

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A political cartoon showing Germany attempting to divide up the western US, via the National Park Service, Washington DC


Despite Germany’s upsetting return to unrestricted submarine warfare, the public did not want war. However, the very next month came news that Germany had tried to tempt Mexico into invading the United States. The Zimmermann Telegram, intercepted by the British, was a German diplomatic cable to Mexico proposing a military alliance. Although many thought the telegram was a forgery, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann confirmed its existence. Public opinion instantly swung against Germany and the other Central Powers for such machinations.


On April 2, less than a month after the public first learned of the infamous telegram, President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war. At the time, despite its growing imperialism in the 1890s, the US military was quite small. Without historic enemies nearby, the nation – in a practice common at the time – kept only a small standing army when there were no hostilities. Now the United States faced an unprecedented challenge: mobilizing mass armies and shipping them overseas!


The Largest Conflict Since Civil War Leads To Full Mobilization

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The now-iconic World War I military recruiting poster


In a major cultural shift, World War I would not be a quick conflict like the Spanish-American War or Boxer Rebellion. Germany and its allies, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, were large, industrialized nations with experience in modern warfare. Having held Britain, France, and Russia to a stalemate thus far, only a tremendous application of power could turn the tide against Germany. Thus, the US created the first military draft, or conscription, since the Civil War over 50 years before. All men between ages 21 and 30 had to register for the draft.


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A draft order from 1917, showing the punishment for failing to register, via the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources


The seriousness of the war effort could be seen in punishments for failing to register for the draft, as well as government censorship of the media. Speaking critically of the war effort was seen as hostile, and president Wilson proposed the first law against “disloyal expression” since the Sedition Act of 1798. This demand for patriotism can be seen as part of the “rally around the flag” effect often utilized by incumbent leaders during wartime. People were encouraged to support the war effort through military enlistment, conserving resources, purchasing war bonds, or working in war-related industries.


Reduced German-American Identity During World War I

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A World War I war bond poster urging Americans to prove their loyalty, via Yale University, New Haven


When World War I erupted, German-Americans were the largest non-English speaking ethnic group in the United States. At the time, many still spoke German in the home and lived in areas with German names. When the US declared war against Germany, there was a swift movement to remove German-language studies from schools. Many German-American families stopped speaking German or identifying with their German heritage. Anti-German war propaganda declared German a “Hun” language, and there was sporadic violence against recent German immigrants.


In an attempt to prove their loyalty, many German-Americans completely abandoned any behaviors that could identify them as having German heritage. Few continued to speak German at all, resulting in the language becoming rather uncommon among Americans today. At the time, there was little concern for losing this cultural heritage, and complete assimilation was the widely-declared goal for all groups of immigrants (and minorities).


Victory In the War Leads to Tough Decisions

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A cover image for Welcome Home by Ed Nelson, about soldiers returning home to the US from Europe after World War I, via the Library of Congress


On November 11, 1918, Germany asked for an armistice, or cease-fire. Nineteen months after the US had declared war, its application of thousands of fresh troops had helped the Allies turn the tide. Following the Hundred Days Offensive, the first major offensive in which the US took part, Germany’s military was at a breaking point. American troops had performed very well, and up to ten thousand per day were unloading in France. Faced with growing economic problems at home, including food shortages, it was clear that Germany could not continue to fight effectively.


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US soldiers fighting during the Hundred Days Offensive in autumn 1918, via the National Archives, Washington DC


However, the victory had exposed Americans to the brutality of trench warfare. Unlike previous wars, there seemed to be no targeting or sparing of carnage – machine gun fire, artillery shells, and poison gas killed indiscriminately. Artillery and poison gas could permanently render land uninhabitable. Although the US had responded swiftly and bravely when plotted against by Germany, did it want to be embroiled in future foreign wars if this was what could be expected?


With Germany seeking peace, a debate loomed over how the vanquished power should be treated. The remaining Allies (Britain, France, the United States, and Italy) would determine Germany’s punishment. The other two Central Powers, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, writhed in social turmoil and had exited the war prematurely. Russia, one of the Allied powers, had also left the war early and was embroiled in a civil war. The four Allies met in France to determine the formal resolution to a war so horrendous it was known as “the war to end all war.”


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An image of US president Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points peace proposal in 1918, via City University of Macau


US president Woodrow Wilson had proposed his guidelines for a post-war peace with his Fourteen Points speech to Congress in 1918. Unlike Britain and France, he did not want Germany to be punished severely. He famously championed creating an international body, the League of Nations, to prevent future wars. Ultimately, however, France was successful in seeing Germany harshly punished: the Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to accept sole responsibility for starting World War I and pay tremendous war reparations.


Sadly for Wilson, the US Senate rejected the League of Nations. Senators were both suspicious of any ability of an international body to limit US decision-making and of breaking the longstanding US tradition of isolationism in avoiding foreign entanglements. The public, horrified by the brutality of World War I, supported the idea of the League of Nations but worried about potential restrictions to American sovereignty from it. In poor health from a stroke, Woodrow Wilson did not run for president again, leaving the US to remain a non-member of the League.


After World War I: US Returns to Isolationism and Fears Radicals

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Communist revolutionary V.I. Lenin leading the Russian Revolution in 1917, via the International Socialist Review


The Treaty of Versailles did little to stabilize post-World War I Europe. Germany’s economy was in tatters, and socialist protests and uprisings occurred. To the east, the Russian Revolution had devolved into the Russian Civil War, with the communist “Red” Bolsheviks fighting for control of the country against various White (non-communist) groups. Intense social unrest also gripped Italy, one of the victorious Allies. At home, Americans feared that such radicals might try to stir up trouble.


In the United States, fear of communists, socialists, anarchists, and any other radicals created a Red Scare. After the tumult of World War I, anyone who seemed insufficiently pro-American or pro-capitalist was deemed suspicious and could be accused of being one of the aforementioned radicals. The US, having not joined the League of Nations, returned to a policy of relative isolationism and avoided strong ties to European allies. Additionally, fear of radicals, especially from southern and eastern Europe, led to the Immigration Act of 1924, which significantly limited immigration from those regions. This cultural trend of isolationism and anti-immigration would continue until the US entry into World War II.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.