In 1865 the United States of America emerged from the nightmare of civil war. It had been won by the northern states of the Union bringing their overwhelming industrial superiority to bear on the agrarian Confederacy. This surging industrial might would be the central fact of the United States for the 100 years after Appomatox turning the America of Henry David Thoreau into the America of John Dos Passos in the next 50.
Between 1890 and 1913 the population grew from 62.6 million to 97.3 million. The increase in population worldwide was augmented in America by the influx of immigrants, mostly from southern and eastern Europe, but also from the Far East with over 1 million immigrants a year were arriving by 1914. This growth was in the cities, the urban population of the United States increasing from 15.3% in 1890 to 23.1% in 1913.
This growing population was supported by wheat production which grew by 256% between 1865 and 1898. In the same period corn production increased by 222%, refined sugar by 460%, coal by 800%, steel rails by 523%, and miles of railway track by 567%. Manufacturing grew thanks to the father of mass production, Henry Ford. According to D.M. Pletcher, “In newer industries the growth, starting from near zero, was so great as to make percentages meaningless. Thus the production of crude petroleum rose from about 3,000,000 barrels in 1865 to over 55,000,000 barrels in 1898 and that of steel ingots and castings from less than 20,000 long tons to nearly 9,000,000 long tons”. In 1890, the U.S. produced 9.3 million tons a year of pig iron, by 1913 this was up to 31.8 million. To put this in context, its pig iron production was, as Paul Kennedy points out, “larger than those of the next three countries (Germany, Britain and France) combined, and its steel production almost equal to the next four countries (Germany, Britain, Russia and France)”.
In 1880 The United States share of world manufacturing output stood at 14.7% by 1913 this had grown to 32%. In 1902 WT Stead wrote a book titled ‘The Americanization of the World’.
Thus, America had much the same problem as Bismarck and Wilhelm II had had to face in Germany; namely clearing a space on the world stage and creating an identity and a role in a world still largely defined by European empires. While ever Americans had the ‘Manifest Destiny’ of establishing their rule over all of America south of Canada and (not always) north of Mexico to occupy them there was no need for the US to have much to do with global politics. The Civil War and ‘reconstruction’ fostered this isolationism. Also many Americans had gone there, or were descended from people who had gone there, to escape the troubles of the old world.
However, in 1890 the census declared that the frontier was closed. The Native Americans of the High Plains had been subdued by the turn of the century and of the contiguous continental landmass only Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona remained as Territories rather than States. The US would now have to engage the world.
Presidents McKinley (1897 – 1901) and Theodore Roosevelt (1901 – 1909) were both willing to exercise American power overseas. In 1823 President Monroe had told British Foreign Secretary George Canning that the American continents “are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers”. In 1897 the US and Britain clashed over Venezuela and control of the Panama Canal. In the event Britain’s redeployment of its navy to guard against Germany defused the situation and in 1902 the two countries signed an agreement in which the British agreed to an American sphere of influence in American continental waters. There was a dispute with Canada over a unilateral redrawing of the Alaskan border and in 1902-1903 Washington mobilised its navy, this time against Germany, again over Venezuela.
As these disputes increased the US took steps to ensure that its military strength could support its new found role. Its army of only 34,000 in 1880 had grown to 164,000 in 1914. Its warship tonnage increased from 169,000 in 1880 to 985,000 in 1914.
This military strength was soon put to the test in defence of the Monroe Doctrine. In early 1898 the USS Maine was sent to Havana to protect American citizens there from the war between the Spanish army and the Cuban rebels. On February 15th the Maine mysteriously blew up and the finger of blame was pointed at the Spanish. America went to war. What one Senator described as a “splendid little war” ended in December that year with the US gaining control of Spanish colonies in the Philippines, the Pacific islands, Puerto Rico, and Cuba until its transition to democracy. The U.S. was now a major power.
Yet, in August 1914, the new world was still reluctant to become involved in the quarrels of the old. Besides, there were 6.4 million German Americans in the US, many of whom were in favour of war against the Allies, and 3.4 million Irish Americans for whom war alongside Britain was unthinkable. President Woodrow Wilson told the German ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff, that “we definitely have to be neutral, since otherwise our mixed populations would wage war on each other”. The Chicago Herald said “Peace loving citizens of this country will now rise up and tender a hearty vote of thanks to Columbus for having discovered America” whilst the Wabash Plain Dealer heartily agreed, saying that they “never appreciated so keenly as now the foresight exercised by our forefathers in emigrating from Europe”.
It seemed as though America was fulfilling the hopes of John Winthrop in 1630 that America would become a “city upon a hill”. Wilson said “Look abroad upon the troubled world. Only America at peace! Among all the great powers of the world, only America saving her power for her own people…Do you not think it likely that the world will some time turn to America and say: ‘You were right and we were wrong’?”. On August 4th he issued a Proclamation of Neutrality, and urged Americans to be “impartial in thought as well as in action”.
Neutrality worked well for the US until the start of the first German submarine campaign in February 1915. Then the sinking of the Lusitania with the deaths of 128 Americans and the Arabic in August brought the US to the brink of war with Germany. Berlin broke off the U Boat campaign in the face of American anger and on November 5th, under pressure from cotton producers whose prices had fallen by 50%, Wilson and Secretary of State Robert Lansing sent a note to London protesting about the blockade of Germany.
The situation was growing more complex as the British began to arm merchant vessels and it became clear that Germany was just biding time before it recommenced the U Boat campaign. Responding to an approach by Sir Edward Grey Wilson sent Colonel House to London late in December 1915 to try to build an Anglo – American drive for a negotiated peace. In January Wilson proposed that the Allies should disarm the merchant vessels if the Germans agreed to give warning and safeguards to the sailors prior to attack. On April 18th 1916 Wilson warned Germany that the US would break off relations if submarine attacks continued and Bethmann – Hollweg agreed. The plan thrashed out by House and Grey that Britain, France and Germany would submit to American led peace talks provided the US agreed to join a post war League of Nations was put before the British government. After some evasion, and with the Allies grand plan for victory in 1916 ready to launch on the Somme and in Galicia, Grey informed Wilson that neither France nor Britain would follow this peace plan.
With the Germans on their best behaviour a wave of anti Allied sentiment swept America. As in 1812 the British search and seizure measures were considered an affront to American sovereignty while the British suppression of the Irish rebels and America’s long standing distaste for Tsarist absolutism combined to undermine the Allies claim of moral superiority. In the 1916 presidential election Wilson ran as a peace candidate and portrayed his Republican opponent Charles Evans Hughes as a warmonger. On November 7th Wilson was re-elected President. In December he said that relations with Britain “were more strained than with Germany” and prompted the Federal Reserve to make a statement which put a temporary halt to Allied borrowing on Wall Street. In January 1917 Wilson told Congress “There will be no war”.
But America had been turning a tidy profit from the war. Much of France’s industrial heartland lay in the area occupied by the Germans and Britain’s industry was wholly unsuited for the demands which the war and Lloyd George’s Munitions Ministry were placing on it so the Allies had to look to America for supplies. On January 15th 1915 the British made the American financier JP Morgan their sole purchaser in the US. In return Morgan promised to “use their best endeavours to secure for His Majesty’s Government the most favourable terms as to quality, price, delivery, discounts, and rebates, and also to aid and stimulate by all means at their disposal sources of supply for the articles required”.
Despite lecturing Europeans on peace the US was turning a tidy profit selling them vast quantities of weapons. Between 1914 and 1916 trade with the Central Powers fell as a result of the blockade from $169 million to $1.6 million but trade with the Allies rose from $824 million to $3.2 billion. By December 1916 40% of British military supplies were coming from the US and of the £5 million per day Britain was spending on the war £2 million was being spent in the US. By April 1917 1 million pounds of smokeless powder a day was leaving American factories for the Allied forces.
By April 1917 Britain was spending $75 million a week in the US and it was estimated that it had only enough credit left for three weeks spending. In other words that was how long the Allied war effort had left. Faced with the prospect of Allied bankruptcy many American creditors began to worry.
Luckily the Germans, demonstrating the diplomatic ineptitude that had done so much to bring the war about in the first place, came to their rescue with two horrendous blunders. Indeed, it is striking how at every end and turn, be it the massacres in Belgium, the sinking of the Lusitania or the execution of the British nurse Edith Cavell, the Germans rarely failed to hand the Allies a propaganda coup and confirm the ‘Hun’ reputation the Allies had fixed them with.
The first blunder came on January 9th 1917 when Germany decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Bernstorff was informed on the 19th and, following his directions but much against his instincts, he informed Wilson that the submarine campaign would begin again on February 1st. This prompted Wilson to finally sever diplomatic links with Germany. When Bernstorff was handed his passport and packed back to Germany he said “I am not surprised. My government will not be surprised either. The people in Berlin knew what was bound to happen if they took the action they have taken. There was nothing else left for the United States to do”.
Yet this still did not mean war. On February 3rd Wilson addressed Congress and said “I refuse to believe that it is the intention of the German authorities to do in fact what they have warned us they will feel at liberty to do…Only actual overt acts on their part can make me believe it even now”. As late as February 26th Wilson could tell Congress that “The overt act which I have ventured to hope the German commanders would in fact avoid has not occurred”.
War became inevitable with the second blunder. On March 1st American newspapers printed details of the Zimmerman Telegram which had been sent to Bernstorff from the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman on January 16th. It was nothing less than a German proposal for an alliance with Mexico against the US. It said that “we shall make war together and together make peace. We shall give general financial support, and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona”. The message had been intercepted and decoded by the British, who realised its significance and promptly passed it on to the Americans.
The Chicago Tribune warned its readers to realise “without delay, that Germany recognizes us as an enemy”. In Cleveland the Plain Dealer said that there was “neither virtue nor dignity” in remaining neutral. Wilson admitted that “armed neutrality, it now appears, is impracticable”. The author Willa Cather said that “Even to those quiet wheat growing people (of Nebraska) the siege guns before Liege were a menace…Something new, and certainly evil, was at work among mankind”. As Robert H. Ferrell wrote, “In the annals of international stupidity during the 20th century, or any other century, this famous telegram hardly has an equal”. Within two weeks the Russian revolution was under way to remove the Tsar and, thus, an obstacle to American involvement with the Allies. Wilson spoke of “The wonderful and heartening things that have been happening in the last few weeks in Russia”.
On the evening of April 2nd Wilson went to Congress to recommend war with Germany saying that “The world must be made safe for democracy”. “We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest to our hearts – for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free”. An eyewitness said that “As the President proceeded in his address, the tension of suppressed excitement grew until it burst all bounds…As the President recommended the declaration of war, applause which seemed universal, rolled through the whole assembly from floor to gallery”.
Later that evening Wilson remarked to his secretary “my message today was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems to applaud that”. On April 4th the Senate voted 82 to 6 in favour of war and on the 5th the House of Representatives backed it by 373 votes to 50. The following day the United States declared war. The panicked money men on Wall Street calmed as the prospect of Allied bankruptcy evaporated. As soon as America entered the war $3 billion dollars was earmarked for ‘Liberty Loans’ to the Allies.