Deciding to Go to War: A Moral Decision
Many have approached the process of American entry into the World War I as a study in how public opinion changed radically in three years' time. In 1914, most Americans called for neutrality, seeing the war as a dreadful mistake and determined to stay out of it. By 1917, the same public felt just as strongly that going to war was both necessary and wise.
Military leaders had little to say during this debate and military considerations were seldom raised. The decisive questions dealt with morality and visions of the future. The prevailing attitude was that America possessed a superior moral position as the only great nation devoted to the principles of freedom and democracy. By staying aloof from the squabbles of reactionary empires, it could preserve those ideals, knowing that sooner or later, the rest of the world would come to appreciate and adopt them. In 1917, this run program faced the severe danger that powerful forces adverse to democracy and freedom would triumph.
Strong support for moralism came from religious leaders, women (led by Jane Addams), and from public figures like long-time Democratic leader William Jennings Bryan, the Secretary of State from 1913 to 1916. The most important moralist of all was President Woodrow Wilson—the man who dominated decision making so totally that the war has often been labelled "Wilson's War. " In 1917, Wilson, a Democrat, proved his political genius by winning the support of most of the moralists by proclaiming "a war to make the world safe for democracy. " If they truly believed in their ideals, he explained, now was the time to fight. The question then became whether Americans would fight for what they deeply believed in, and the answer turned out to be a resounding "YES".
Critics of Moral Motivations for War
Anti-war activists at the time and in the 1930s alleged that, beneath the veneer of moralism and idealism, there must have been sordid forces at work. Some suggested a conspiracy on the part of New York City bankers holding $3 billion of war loans to the Allies, or steel and chemical firms selling munitions to the Allies.
This interpretation was popular among left-wing Progressives (led by Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin) and among the "agrarian" wing of the Democratic party. In the 1930s, some journalists pointed to the British propaganda that played on exaggerated tales of German barbarism and appealed to the British cultural roots of most Americans. In 1915, Bryan thought that Wilson's pro-British sentiments had distorted his policies, so he became the first Secretary of State ever to resign in protest. He did not, however, blame the bankers.
Opposing the Immorality of Germany
In reality, the pro-war element was animated not by profit, but by disgust with what Germany actually did, especially in Belgium, and the threat it represented to American ideals. Americans set a standard for German behavior in terms of human decency, political philosophy, international law, and American national interest. Belgium kept the public's sympathy as the Germans executed civilians. Compounding the Belgium atrocities were new weapons that Americans found repugnant, like poison gas and the aerial bombardment of innocent civilians in London.
Above all, American attitudes towards Germany focused on the U-boats (submarines) that sank the RMS Lusitania in 1915 and other passenger ships without warning. That appeared to Americans as an unacceptable challenge to America's rights as a neutral country and as an unforgivable affront to humanity. After repeated diplomatic protests, Germany agreed to stop. But in 1917, the Germany military leadership decided that "military necessity" (i.e., a chance to win) dictated the unrestricted use of their submarines. German leadership gave this order knowing full well it meant war with the United States—a country they felt was enormously powerful economically but too weak militarily to make a difference.
The political philosophy Americans believed in was a combination of democracy and individualized freedom, which was the same philosophy exemplified in Britain and France. The alternative to U.S. entry into the war was a world dominated by German political values, including imperialism, militarism, and the suppression of minorities—a guaranteed formula for more wars in the future. Americans wanted a world of peace and democracy; in 1917, they realized that they must fight Germany to achieve it. One stumbling block was that Czarist Russia—almost as politically repugnant as Germany—was one of the Allies. When a liberal revolution overthrew the Czar in March 1917, this obstacle suddenly vanished, and war increasingly became the only remaining choice.