18/5/1917 America introduces conscription

US warships have arrived in Europe to join patrols against the U-boat menace. President Wilson knows however that if the war is to be brought to an end it will be done so on land. Here the USA is at a considerable disadvantage. The country’s army amounts to just 145,000, insignificantly small compared to the great armies of Europe.

In order to make a difference in Europe, the American army will have to be expanded. Today the President signs into a law the Selective Service Act, which allows for conscription. Even so, it will be some time before the army will have been built up to a level that can take on the Germans. Given the task facing the Americans, that of building a large modern army almost from scratch, some wonder whether the USA will be able to deploy troops to Europe in strength before 1919.

In keeping with the traditions of the United States, draftees will be segregated by colour.

image source (Wikipedia)

2/4/1917 Wilson addresses Congress, seeking a declaration of war against Germany

President Wilson was re-elected last November on the slogan “He kept us out of the war”. Now he addresses a joint sitting of both houses of Congress, seeking a declaration of war against Germany. The German U-boat campaign has inflamed opinion in the United States. The interception of the Zimmermann Telegram (and the revelation that Germany was seeking an alliance with Mexico) has further poisoned relations between the two powers.

Wilson broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin last month. Since then Germany’s submarines have continued to attack ships without warning. So it is that Wilson now appears before Congress to ask it to back war against the Kaiser. Wilson asserts that the USA will not be joining the war for conquest or selfish advantage. Rather this will be a war to defend civilisation. Furthermore, Wilson argues that this will be a war to reorder the world so as to make future wars impossible. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” he says. “Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.”

The Senate and House of Representatives will vote on the President’s request for war over the next few days. Support for war is not unanimous, but in the current climate it is highly unlikely that the supporters of neutrality will prevail.

image source:

Wilson addresses Congress

Read the text of Wilson’s speech here.

1/3/1917 The Zimmermann Telegram published: Germany’s plot against America revealed

When American pick up their morning newspapers today they are greeted by the astonishing news that Germany is trying to recruit Mexico into an anti-US alliance. This shocking proposal is carried in a secret telegram sent by German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German embassy in Mexico City. The German ambassador is to promise the Mexicans Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in the event of war, as well as financial incentives.

Zimmermann’s telegram had been sent in code, but British code breakers managed to decipher it and pass on its contents to the Americans. Now President Wilson has decided to make it public. To hide the fact that the British have cracked the German codes, an outlandish story about the telegram’s text having been retrieved from Mexico is concocted.

Relations between the United States and Germany are already tense. Wilson has severed diplomatic relations following the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Now the Zimmermann Telegram’s publication causes a sensation, further inflaming tensions between the two countries.

image sources:

The decoded Zimmermann telegram (US National Archives)

The Temptation (Wikipedia Commons, originally Dallas Morning News)

see also: WWI Centennial: The Zimmermann Telegram (Mental Floss)

3/2/1917 The United States severs diplomatic relations with Germany

Two days ago Germany’s Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg announced to the Reichstag that Germany has commenced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. The U-boats are now free to attack Allied merchant ships without warning. Neutral ships suspected of carrying goods to the Allies are also liable to attack. Bethmann Hollweg had opposed this policy with all his vigour, fearing that it would bring the United States into the war, but the rest of the German leadership had been won over by the navy’s promise that the U-boats can starve Britain into submission in a matter of months.

The new U-boat policy does indeed cause grave disquiet in Washington. President Wilson successfully campaigned for re-election under the slogan “He kept us out of the war”, but his response to the Germans is swift. Today he addresses Congress, announcing that his government is severing diplomatic relations with Germany. Count Bernstorff, the German ambassador, is to be expelled with immediate effect, while James Gerard, the American ambassador to Germany is to be recalled. Wilson still hopes that there will not be war with Germany, but he warns that there will be dire consequences if the U-boats sink American ships without warning.

Germany has a U-boat fleet of some 152 vessels. Since the recent decision to send them directly through the Channel, they are able to spend much longer patrolling where they are likely to find enemy ships.

Today U-53 encounters the Housatonic, an American ship carrying wheat to Britain. Despite the new U-boat regime, the Germans do not sink the Housatonic without warning, instead boarding and searching her. The ship’s crew are ordered to abandon ship before it is scuttled by the Germans (who first seize some soap, in short supply in Germany).

The attack on the Housatonic is thus carried out according to some approximation of the traditional prize rules governing naval warfare. However in the atmosphere of heightened tension between the United States and Germany, the attack causes a sensation.

image source:

Woodrow Wilson (firstworldwar.com)

22/1/1917 “Peace Without Victory” – Wilson addresses the Senate

President Wilson is not giving up in his efforts to bring the war to a peaceful end. Before Christmas he asked the belligerents to state the terms on which they would agree to end the war, hoping that this would help to kick-start negotiations to an end. But their response was non-committal. The Central Powers did not state terms but merely expressed a willingness to negotiate, while the Allies set forth general terms that made clear their intent to prosecute the war until victory.

Now Wilson addresses the US Senate. Once more he talks about the need to bring the catastrophic war to an end, to achieve a “peace without victory”. And he looks beyond the immediate end of the current conflict. Steps need to be taken to ensure that a war like this never happens again. He talks of a post-war “concert of power”, some kind of combination of the nations that will prevent future conflicts, and an end to the entangling alliances that preceded the outbreak of violence in 1914. Furthermore he proposes universal democracy, the freedom of countries to order their own affairs without external interference and a general adherence to liberal values.

The belligerents appear to be intent on continuing the war until they can impose a peace on their enemies. Wilson’s vision therefore appears rather utopian. But it serves as a useful corrective in a world that appears to have taken leave of its senses.

Full text of Wilson’s speech

image source:

Woodrow Wilson (First World War.com – A Multimedia History of World War One)

10/1/1917 The Allies reply to Wilson’s peace proposal

Before Christmas President Wilson of the USA invited the belligerent nations to state their terms for peace, hoping that by doing so he might kick start negotiations to end the war. The response of the Central Powers was vague, though it reaffirmed Bethmann Hollweg’s offer to commence peace negotiations without pre-conditions.

Now the Allies finally respond. While thanking Wilson for his love of peace and affirming a desire to end the war that has turned Europe into a charnel house, the Allied response leaves no room for a peaceful end to the war. After objecting to Wilson’s attempt to establish a moral equivalence between themselves and the dastardly foes with whom they are fighting, they state that the war will be continued until the Central Powers are defeated and expelled from the French, Belgian, Serbian, Romanian and Russian territory they are now offering, with an end to the war to be followed by reparations for damages inflicted and the reorganisation of Europe.

These are not terms on which any meaningful negotiations can be made with the Germans. The war will go on.

see the slightly abridged text of the Allies’ reply here

18/12/1916 President Wilson’s peace initiative

Could the war be coming to a negotiated end? Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg of Germany recently offered to open peace talks with the Allies. His proposal has had a frosty response from Germany’s enemies, who want to prosecute the war to victory. But across the Atlantic President Wilson of the United States is interested.

The USA is still neutral, but many Americans fear that if the war continues they will eventually be sucked into it. Wilson was elected on a peace platform, trading on the fact that he had kept his country out of the war. Now he acts to try and bring the war to an end. He sends a message to all the belligerent countries, asking them to state their terms for an end to the conflict. In so doing he hopes to start the ball rolling on negotiations to end the conflict, one in which his country could perhaps serve as an honest broker.

image source:

Woodrow Wilson (Wikipedia)