U.S. Entry into World War I

Wilson warned the German command of the United States' strong opposition to unrestricted submarine warfare. Therefore, when Germany announced that, effective February 1, 1917, unrestricted submarine warfare would be launched on all shipping to Great Britain, the president had little choice but to break off diplomatic relations. At Wilson's request, a number of Latin American countries also broke off relations with Germany. In a speech before Congress, Wilson suggested that if American ships were attacked, he would be forced to act. Not heeding the U.S. signals, the Germans sent secret telegrams to Mexico promising an alliance in return for help in defeating the United States should it enter the war. The British intercepted a telegram from Arthur Zimmerman, the German foreign minister to Mexico, which encouraged Mexican attacks upon the United States, offering the return of Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico in exchange. When the Zimmerman telegram was published in the newspapers, with Wilson's blessings, public opinion supporting war against Germany increased dramatically. Newspaper headlines read, “Kill the Kaiser!”

The Red Scare resulted in America's obsession with Communism following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. In 1919, the U.S. House of Representatives refused to seat Socialist representative from Wisconsin, Victor L. Berger, because of his socialism, German ancestry, and antiwar views.

Undaunted, German U-boats torpedoed two American ships (the Illinois and the City of Memphis) on March 16, 1917, and Wilson asked Congress to declare war. “It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance,” Wilson said. “The world must be made safe for democracy” was the sentiment he declared, and most of the nation rallied behind him. Only limited antiwar activism prevailed, particularly in small towns in the Midwest and South. The United States officially declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

The United States Deploys Its Forces

General John Pershing, having led the force that took on Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in New Mexico, was given command of American expeditionary forces in Europe. But unlike its allies, the United States had no large standing army to send overseas, nor was the nation equipped with planes, ships, and other military equipment. Major efforts outfitted the newly drafted troops, and unlike the Civil War, no one could buy his way out of military service in this conflict. Thus, the first American troops arrived in France in June 1917 — approximately 200,000 Americans in training. They were ill prepared for the fierce warfare they encountered, but they were rested and had enthusiasm on their side; they truly believed they could win. Americans began learning about poison gas, hand grenades, and demolition. Trench warfare provided some basic protection against enemy fire, but not nearly enough. Enemy soldiers raided the trenches, killing unsuspecting soldiers, and the mud and dampness wreaked havoc on the soldiers' health. Penicillin and other antibiotics didn't exist, so even minor cuts were potentially lethal.

Germany Makes Peace on Its Eastern Front

The tide was starting to turn against the Germans. They had failed to destroy the British navy through submarine warfare and began sustaining heavy losses in their U-boat fleet, around the same time the Allies' shipbuilding efforts increased.

In December 1917, Russia signed a peace agreement with the Austro-German negotiators, essentially ending eastern-front fighting. The Russian Revolution had occurred after Czar Nicholas II abdicated in March. Withdrawal from the Great War was a cardinal point in Bolshevik policy.

In January 1918, President Wilson proposed his peace plan, but the war continued. In May, Allied victory came in the tiny French village of Cantigny as Americans, in their first offensive of the war, took the town in less than an hour, aiding their British and French counterparts. The Germans launched a major offensive along the Chemin des Dames Ridge, and the Americans defeated the Germans at Belleau Wood, a small hunting ground, in June. In fact, U.S. artillery hit Belleau with everything it had, ravaging the area with shells and fire.

Neither the British nor the German press (including official dispatches) were forthcoming in their reports of the war. The title of Erich Maria Remarque's great novel, Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) was a German army dispatch on a day when thousands of soldiers were dying in the trench warfare of World War I.

The European forces seemed weary. Originally wanting to keep American troops together, General Pershing gave in to pressure and allowed his troops to hold up the French line at various points in the conflict. New troops began arriving daily with the confidence needed to finish the war.

On September 26, 1918, American and French troops launched the Meuse-Argonne offensive in an effort to cut off the Germans between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest, and British forces breached the Hindenburg line the next day. The Germans had fortified this line for four years, reinforcing bunkers with concrete and turning towns into virtual forts.

Victory at Hand

Despite the preparations by the Germans, the fresh supply of Allied troops, combined with overhead fighting power, overwhelmed them. It took much forward movement and military strategy on land, in the air, and through naval blockade, but the Hindenburg line was broken on October 5, sealing Allied supremacy. The Allies were gaining on the enemy. By November 1918, the American Expeditionary Forces numbered nearly 2 million. On November 11, 1918, Germany and the Allies reached an armistice agreement, thus ending years of heavy fighting and world rancor.

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