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The United States Enters the War: Previous Next
Digital History ID 3476


President Wilson was reluctant to enter World War I. When the War began, Wilson declared U.S. neutrality and demanded that the belligerents respect American rights as a neutral party. He hesitated to embroil the United States in the conflict, with good reason. Americans were deeply divided about the European war, and involvement in the conflict would certainly disrupt Progressive reforms. In 1914, he had warned that entry into the conflict would bring an end to Progressive reform. "Every reform we have won will be lost if we go into this war," he said. A popular song in 1915 was "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier."

In 1916, President Wilson narrowly won re-election after campaigning on the slogan, "He kept us out of war." He won the election with a 4,000 vote margin in California.

Toward Intervention

Shortly after war erupted in Europe, President Wilson called on Americans to be "neutral in thought as well as deed." The United States, however, quickly began to lean toward Britain and France.

Convinced that wartime trade was necessary to fuel the growth of American trade, President Wilson refused to impose an embargo on trade with the belligerents. During the early years of the war, trade with the Allies tripled.

This volume of trade quickly exhausted the Allies' cash reserves, forcing them to ask the United States for credit. In October 1915, President Wilson permitted loans to belligerents, a decision that greatly favored Britain and France. By 1917, American loans to the Allies had soared to $2.25 billion; loans to Germany stood at a paltry $27 million.

In January 1917, Germany announced that it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare. This announcement helped precipitate American entry into the conflict. Germany hoped to win the war within five months, and they were willing to risk antagonizing Wilson on the assumption that even if the United States declared war, it could not mobilize quickly enough to change the course of the conflict.

Then a fresh insult led Wilson to demand a declaration of war. In March 1917, newspapers published the Zimmerman Note, an intercepted telegram from the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman to the German ambassador to Mexico. The telegram proposed that Mexico ally with Germany in the event that the United States entered the war against Germany. In return, Germany promised to help Mexico recover the territory it had lost to the U.S. during the 1840s, including Texas, New Mexico, California, and Arizona. The Zimmerman Note and German attacks on three U.S. ships in mid-March led Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war.

Wilson decided to enter the war so that he could help design the peace settlement. Wilson viewed the war as an opportunity to destroy German militarism. "The world must be made safe for democracy," he told a joint session of Congress. Only 6 Senators and 50 Representatives voted against the war declaration.

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