Ninety-eight years ago, on April 6, 1917, the United Stated declared war on the German Empire. The next day it declared war on Austria-Hungary. Since the start of the war in the summer of 1914, President Woodrow Wilson had vowed to keep the United States out of the war. In fact, that was his 1916 re-election slogan – “He kept us out of war.” The U.S. policy was neutrality early on, however with the British blockade against Germany, we mostly sold goods to Britain and France. Then we let them buy on credit. By 1917, Britain and France owed $2.25 billion in loans to the United States, while Germany owed only $27 million. That doesn’t seem neutral to me.
There are many reasons given for the change in stance of the President and the country in deciding to go to war. In January of 1917, the Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare which meant they would again attack passenger and merchant ships, especially merchant ships since these were likely loaded with supplies for Britain and France. Following the sinking of Lusitania in 1915 and an unarmed French ship in 1916 by German U-boats, President Wilson threatened to terminate diplomatic relations with Germany if they continued attacking nonmilitary vessels. The Germans relented then, but by 1917 with the continued British blockade on their ports, they were desperate.
Another reason often given for the change in stance was something called the Zimmerman Telegram. British Intelligence intercepted and decrypted a telegram sent to Mexico from the German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmerman, which promised the Mexican Government they could recover territory they lost to the US in the Mexican-American war if they helped Germany win the war. As you can imagine, this made a lot of people mad.
While both of these reasons added fuel to the fire and were great for getting the citizenry riled up, I can’t help thinking about the Russian revolution (which started in March 1917 with help from a mutinous Russian Army), and how if the Germans didn’t have to fight on two fronts and had to deal only with the Western Front, they probably had a pretty good chance of defeating Britain and France. And if they did, then what would have happened to our $2.25 billion in loans? You don’t have to scratch very far beneath the surface to find the monetary reasons behind any war.
Instead, we hear the rhetoric of “the war to end all war” and “making the world safe for democracy.” The latter is especially ironic since we didn’t even have democracy in the U.S. (e.g. women didn’t have the right to vote, segregation and intimidation ruled rampant for African Americans, treaties were broken with Native American tribes, and immigrants worked for pennies in life threatening situations). Worldwide, we had a system of colonization that was inequitable for the native peoples of Africa and Asia!
My own relatives, my great uncle Harry who would soon be drafted and fight in France, and his family (including my grandmother Esther) lived on a farm near Highland Corners in western Pennsylvania. They might have read about the U.S. war declaration in the local paper or heard it from neighbors. Like many Swedish Americans (as with German-Americans and Irish-Americans) they may even have been quite upset that the U.S. was getting involved the war. Yet, they were probably busy finishing up the apple tree pruning in their orchard, checking on the honeybees to see if they had made it through the winter, and getting ready for bark peeling camp. The war would have seemed very far away.