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American Entry Into World War One

The Weekly Standard’s Fractured History and the Reality

The Sinking of the Lusitania, 1915 Painting. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Sinking of the Lusitania, 1915 Painting. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
By Stephen J. Sniegoski • Unz Review • April 24, 2017

It was one hundred years ago this month that America entered World War I, which began July 28, 1914.[1] On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress and requested it to declare war on Germany. The Senate would vote in favor of war on April 4 and the House would follow suit on April 6. This essay critiques a recent article in The Weekly Standard by Geoffrey Norman, who has written articles on multiple topics in a number of mainstream journals in addition to neocon ones.[2] His article represents the conventional neocon thinking on World War I and since they have been major players in shaping American foreign policy—especially in the Middle East—Norman’s piece is of significance in understanding their foreign policy Weltanschauung. Moreover, this essay will try to bring out what appear to be the causes of American entry into the war.

For Norman, Germany was the villain in World War I, and largely because of its ruthless nature would have been a serious threat to the United States if it had won the war and expanded its power. He writes that during the German invasion and occupation of Belgium “civilian hostages were rounded up and executed by firing squad as a way to keep the populace terrified and docile. Germany was, from the beginning of the war, the aggressor.” Although British propaganda exaggerated German atrocities in Belgium, historians in recent years have concluded that the invading Germans did kill significant numbers of French and Belgian noncombatants. According to Alan Kramer in the International Encyclopedia of the First World War, “from August to October 1914 the German army intentionally executed 5,521 civilians in Belgium and 906 in France”[3] Kramer goes on to write, however, that “Essentialist claims about unique German ‘barbarism’ would be mistaken. . . . The Russian army committed many acts of violence during the invasion of East Prussia in August/September 1914. Germany denounced the Russians for having devastated thirty-nine towns and 1,900 villages and killed almost 1,500 civilians. Research by Alexander Watson has confirmed these figures, and he concludes that 1,491 German civilians were deliberately killed in executions and individual murders. Given the smaller population of East Prussia (about 1.7 million people in the areas invaded by the Russians) this was directly comparable to the intensity of violence against civilians during the invasion of Belgium in August/September 1914.”[4]

Killing civilians, however, would have nothing to do with determining the aggressor. Historians, however, have differed on the primary culprit for the war and have spread the responsibility to many of the major combatants.[5] Furthermore, it should be stressed that the German killing of Belgians would not come close to equaling the hundreds of thousands of German deaths resulting from the British starvation blockade, which will be discussed next.[6]

The United States had historically claimed its right as a neutral to be able to trade in non-contraband goods with belligerents and with other neutrals. The exact definition of these neutral rights, however, was not universally agreed upon. The United States had traditionally taken an expansive view of its rights as a neutral, which had, in the past, caused it to clash with the European powers, especially during the wars taking place during the era of the French Revolution and Napoleon.

In 1909, an effort had been made to define and codify the existing rules of wartime trade. These rights were incorporated in a legal document developed at the International Naval Conferences in London in 1909, which became known as the Declaration of London. The Declaration contained a number of features that were very favorable to neutrals. It was signed by all major countries that would fight in World War I, but it would only be ratified by the United States. Although Britain played a major role in the Conference, and the House of Commons would ratify the Declaration, the House of Lords rejected it on the grounds that it was unfair to major sea powers. Britain’s rejection dissuaded the other signatories from ratifying.

Nevertheless, shortly after the war began, U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan asked the major belligerents to abide by the Declaration of London. Germany and Austria said that they would conform contingent upon the Entente Powers doing likewise. Britain stated it would observe the requirements of the Declaration, though with certain modifications. Very soon, however, it would reject part and then almost all of restrictions embodied in the Declaration that applied to activities it deemed necessary to prosecute the war. This entailed seizing all goods that were helpful to its enemies, which would ultimately encompass preventing food from reaching the German civilian population. This was an obvious effort to starve the German people into submission–essentially Britain was making war on the civilian population, the prevention of which was a fundamental reason for having rules of warfare. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914 and one of the framers of the scheme, admitted that its purpose was to “starve the whole population — men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound — into submission.’”[7] Norman even acknowledges this goal as he writes: “The Royal Navy ruled the seas—the surface of them, anyway. And its blockade threatened to starve Germany.” But while he is aghast at German actions that killed many fewer people, the starvation blockade does not engender any negative response from him whatsoever. In his obliviousness to the immorality of the British blockade, Norman is quite similar to Woodrow Wilson. Political scientist Robert W. Tucker points out that despite the Wilson administration’s concern about German activities that caused civilian deaths, “neither Wilson nor his advisors had expressed any qualms over the moral implication of the blockade.”[8]

Many aspects of the British blockade diverged significantly from the traditional interpretation of maritime law. For example, the Declaration of Paris of 1856 (still in force in 1914) held that a blockade to be legal had to be an effective close blockade, which would entail the stationing of a group of ships off an enemy port or coast. Declaring areas of the ocean that were entry ways to the enemy’s coast to be off-limits, as Britain did, failed to constitute a legitimate blockade.[9]

In regard to visiting and searching ships for contraband, which was allowed by international law, the British likewise took a questionable approach. The traditional way was to engage in this activity at sea. The British, instead, took the ships to their ports to search because it required a long time to search large modern ships during which the British warship would be vulnerable to attacks by submarines.[10]

Britain also inhibited neutral trade with Germany (and other neutrals) by applying the doctrine of “continuous voyage,” which meant that it would have the right to interdict goods brought to a neutral port by sea that were intended, in its opinion, to be sent to Germany by land. Heretofore, international law had only applied the concept of “continuous voyage” to a trip that went solely by sea. Furthermore, traditional international law only applied “continuous voyage” rules to absolute contraband—goods whose sole purpose was for warmaking—whereas the British applied these rules to almost every type of good.[11]

Another questionable step taken by Britain was the mining of the North Sea, which was the entry way for ships to reach neutral and German ports. To avoid possible destruction, merchant ships had to stop at a British port where they would get an Admiralty pilot to lead them through the mine fields. While there the ships would be searched and stripped of goods.[12] Although the neutrals, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, protested this practice, the United States refrained from joining them.[13]

The United States did protest many British violations of America’s neutral rights. Sometimes the British would yield on relatively insignificant points. And the British would compensate Americans for some losses. However, the United States never warned the British that their failure to comply with American demands would have drastic consequences. And ultimately the United States would tacitly acquiesce to the British position, which was often far different from what had traditionally been considered legitimate and what the United States had demanded in the past regarding its neutral rights.

Legal scholars Edwin Borchard and William Potter Lage point out that the U.S. made it known as early as December 1914 that it would give Britain wide latitude in determining its maritime policy. A U.S. note protesting the British violations of international law stated: “that the commerce between countries which are not belligerents should not be interfered with by those at war unless such interference is manifestly an imperative necessity to protect their national safety, and then only to the extent that it is a necessity.” Obviously, Britain could argue that everything it did during the war was absolutely necessary for its safety.[14]

It was the issue of German submarines that ultimately brought the U.S. into the war. Norman does little to explain why Germany would have to rely heavily on the submarine and simply looks upon its use as a justification for the U.S. entering the war. For example, he writes with some astonishment that “neutrality was the Wilson cause, even after a German submarine torpedoed the liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915. The ship sank in 18 minutes, and of the 1,198 passengers who drowned, 128 were Americans.” But it is not self-evident why the United States would consider such an attack as a justification for war. The ocean liner was a British ship; German submarines did not sink American ships. The German embassy had placed a warning in a New York newspaper that the Lusitania would be traveling into a war zone and was liable to be attacked by a German submarine. Unbeknownst to the passengers, the ship was carrying war munitions, a charge made by Germany that the British government did not fully acknowledge until 2014.[15]

Wilson considered the taking of lives by submarines as abhorrent, and thus put their use on a totally different level from the maritime violations by the British surface navy. Tucker quotes Wilson’s reference to this issue in his war address in 1917: “’Property can be paid for’, Wilson declared, ’the lives of peaceful innocent people cannot be.’”[16] Most Americans agreed that killing civilians was inhumane. As mentioned earlier, however, Wilson’s distinction did not actually apply since the British starvation blockade violated traditional international law by starving German non-combatants. Sinkings by submarines, however, understandably received more media attention than the slow deaths from starvation and this was heightened by the pro-British bias in most of the media.[17]

Making the submarine issue especially explosive was Wilson’s firm defense of the neutral right of American citizens to travel unmolested on Allied merchant ships. Tucker points out that this was the “only issue of diplomatic consequence to arise between Germany and the United States, it led America to the point of war with Germany.”[18]

It is not self-evident why Wilson, if he truly sought to avoid war, held that American citizens should have the right to travel unmolested on belligerent merchant ships when they could travel in safety on U.S. ships. Germany even offered to extend this safety to neutral and perhaps even a few belligerent liners that flew the American flag.[19] Certainly this met the needs of American travelers, but Wilson would not accept it because it violated principle—that is, the right of neutrals to travel on belligerent merchant ships, even armed belligerent merchant ships.

Wilson’s inflexibility on this issue is hard to justify since he was willing to alter other traditional maritime strictures to propitiate Britain, and the submarine was a new weapon for which the maritime rules had not been developed. Given the nature of the submarine (which will be discussed shortly), the logic of Wilson’s approach would essentially preclude German submarines from attacking a non-military British ship because there might be Americans aboard. It should be pointed out that American lives would also have been lost, if ships with Americans aboard had attempted to traverse the North Sea mine fields without first stopping at a British port.

Not having a surface navy comparable to that of Britain, Germany had to rely on submarines if it were to have any military impact at sea. Wilson demanded that the German submarines adhere to the traditional rules of cruiser warfare that would require a submarine to surface and fire a warning shot before searching the enemy merchant ship, or attacking it, if it tried to flee. Furthermore, before launching a torpedo, the submarine was expected to provide for the safety of the crew and any passengers. The submarines of the day were quite fragile, and could be destroyed by one shot from a naval gun, or rammed and sunk by a merchant ship. Many British merchant ships were armed and the British Admiralty had ordered them to ram German submarines. In essence, if submarines were to follow the rules made for surface warships, they would be largely ineffective.

Germany offered to follow the traditional rules of cruiser warfare if Britain disarmed its merchant ships. Britain refused to do this and the United States, though considering the matter, did not put pressure on it to do so. However, according to the traditional maritime rules of war, armed merchant ships could be treated as warships.[20] Nevertheless, the Wilson administration refused to apply this traditional interpretation on the grounds that the British intended to use those weapons only for defensive purposes. The leading World War I revisionist historian of the interwar period, Charles Callan Tansill, writes that if Wilson “had taken any decisive action against the admission of armed British merchantmen into American harbors, and if he had warned American citizens of the dangers that attended passage on belligerent vessels, America might well have been spared the great sacrifice of 1917-1918.”[21]

As it was, there were a few significant incidents in which German submarines would sink belligerent merchant vessels—the Arabic in August 1915 (two American lives lost) and the Sussex on March 24, 1916 (with four American casualties). To these, the Wilson administration would protest vigorously and get the Germans to make concessions. As a result of breaking relations in the Sussex case, Germany promised to stop unrestricted submarine warfare toward merchant ships of all countries, and relations were restored.

The unanimous view of Wilson by historians (as far as I know) is that in regard to the war in Europe, he made his own decisions and did not rely on the views of his advisors. Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that three of his key advisors on the subject—his closest associate, Colonel Edward House (who had an honorary title but did not hold an official government position); counselor of the State Department and later Secretary of State, Robert Lansing; and Ambassador to Great Britain, Walter Hines Page—wanted the U.S. to pursue an even more favorable policy toward Britain than Wilson, and all supported America’s entrance into the war considerably earlier than Wilson. Although Wilson did not automatically accept the opinions of his advisors, it would seem highly likely that their pro-British views affected his own thinking since in a number of areas they were more knowledgeable than he. Nonetheless, it is not apparent that he even wanted to enter the war, though his bias toward Britain would ineluctably lead in this direction. Moreover, the fact that Wilson won the election of 1916, campaigning on the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” indicated that it might not be politically feasible to go to war. Certainly, a significant part of the Democratic Party was against war.

There was one major figure close to Wilson who dissented from the pro-British viewpoint, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. A leader of the Democratic Party, Bryan had been its candidate for president three times. And as an ardent opponent of war, Bryan believed that the U.S. should balance its firm line toward Germany on submarines with an equally strong stance toward Britain on America’s neutral rights. Moreover, he wanted the government to warn Americans that they would travel on belligerent ships at their own risk and to ban armed merchant ships from American ports. Wilson rejected all these measures on the grounds that they would violate America’s neutrality. Bryan resigned rather than sign a second harsh note regarding the Lusitania sinking in 1915 and Lansing would replace him as Secretary of State, which meant that the U.S. would become even more pro-British.

What Norman leaves out in his presentation are the economic factors that likely played a significant role in leading the United States to war. Some writers during the interwar period, both popular and professional historians, focused almost solely on America’s economic connection—American trade and loans– with the Allies as the cause of American involvement in the war. Greedy American banking interests—especially the House of Morgan, which served as the agent for the British and French in floating loans—and munitions makers were especially blamed, and this theory was pursued by the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry (April 12, 1934–February 24, 1936), commonly known as the Nye Committee since it was chaired by staunch non-interventionist Senator Gerald P. Nye.

America was in an economic depression when the war began in August 1914. “It was the rapid growth of the munitions trade which rescued America from this serious economic situation,” writes Tansill.[22] And soon the Allies, especially Britain, became dependent on many types of goods from America—food, raw materials, and manufactured goods—which directly, or indirectly, aided their war effort. The American economy boomed, and those who benefited were not only a few bankers and “merchants of death” but also average American workers and farmers. But on the negative side, America’s now-booming economy was dependent on the war, not peaceful trade. Germany also sought goods from the United States but such trade was largely prevented by the British blockade.

It stands to reason that if the general American public materially benefited from the war trade—and would conceivably suffer severely from its elimination—it was politically necessary to continue a policy that benefited the Allies. America was essentially serving as a supply base for the Allied war effort, whereas Germany and the other Central Powers had to rely almost exclusively on their own populations and territory for their war needs. Obviously, Germany realized that this situation would be apt to lead to its defeat if the war dragged on too long.

Selling munitions by private companies, as opposed to governments, was traditionally considered legal for neutral states. However, Wilson could have been given the power by Congress to ban the sale of munitions and armaments, which it had done in 1912 regarding Mexico during its civil war, but Wilson did not request this authority and Congress did not grant it. Tansill maintains that because of the strong desire of the American people to stay out of the war it would have been politically feasible for the U.S. to have taken this position early in the war before the U.S. economy began to depend on this trade.[23]

Also, it became apparent that the warring countries would need loans to cover the cost of the war trade. Bryan, with Wilson’s approval, however, banned loans to the warring powers although neutrals were traditionally allowed to engage in this activity. However, Bryan allowed “credits,” and soon, owing to the realization that the warring parties did not have the funds to directly cover purchases, allowed what were essentially loans under the guise of “credits.”[24]

Credits and loans differed significantly from the fundamental trade of goods in their effect upon the parties involved. Tansill noted that “[a] loan to any of the belligerent nations would make the American investors partisans of the country whose bonds they had bought.” Tansill continues: “It is obvious that Secretary Bryan did not appreciate the strength of the economic ties that would be forged between the United States and the Allied Governments by the extension of large credits by American bankers to these same governments. He seemed unaware of the fact that there is little difference between credits and loans. These credits that had been authorized would bind the most articulate class in America to the Allied Powers.”[25]

In the end, it was America’s favoritism toward Britain and its Allies that caused Germany to accept war with the United States. America was not only serving as a supply base for the Allied war effort but was prohibiting Germany from making effective use of the submarine, its only way of competing with Britain at sea.

At the beginning of 1917, German naval and military leaders argued that even though unrestricted submarine warfare would almost guarantee an American declaration of war, for a long period of time it would be unlikely that a belligerent United States could do more damage to Germany than it was already doing with its benign neutrality toward the Allies. This was especially due to America’s lack of a large standing army which it would need to develop. Furthermore, German financial experts had calculated that the U.S. supply of munitions to the Allies was already at its peak so that its entrance into the war would likely cause this to decline significantly. Not only would unrestricted submarine warfare reduce the war supplies reaching the Allies but the U.S. as a belligerent would need to divert a significant proportion of its war production to its own expanding military.

While the German naval leaders presented the unrestricted submarine warfare as a virtual panacea to bring the war to a close, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg questioned this claim, maintaining that it would be best to work for a compromise peace. In the end, the submarine warfare option was largely seen as a desperate gamble. Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the German Army’s chief of staff, stated at the conference where these plans were solidified on January 8, 1917: “We are counting on the possibility of war with the United States, and have made all preparations to meet it. Things cannot be worse than they now are. The war must be brought to an end by the use of all means as soon as possible.”[26]

Embellishing his own interpretation, Norman appears to get the time sequences confused as he writes: “Then Russia quit the fight. The German troops fighting on that front could be sent to fight the French and the British. It was, the Germans believed, an opportunity to win the war in early 1918. So they decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.” Germany’s decision on submarine warfare on January 30, 1917 was made long before Russia left the war. While the Tsarist regime was overthrown in mid March 1917 (Western calendar), its replacement, the Provisional Government, continued the war — even though the Russian army was disintegrating as many soldiers refused to fight — until the Bolshevik Revolution in early November (Western calendar). And even after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, which officially removed Bolshevik-ruled Russia from the war, large numbers of German troops remained in the East as an occupying force.[27]

Norman acknowledges that the war did not achieve a good outcome. But he emphasizes that this was “was not a result of America and its allies being too tough. They—and especially Wilson—had been too idealistic, too naïve. Wilson seems to have believed his own high-minded rhetoric and denied the evidence in front of his face.” This allegedly obvious evidence was the evil nature of Germany, as Norman recaps Germany’s alleged war crimes: “Germany had been the aggressor nation in 1914. Had invaded Belgium and murdered that country’s citizens for committing war crimes when they resisted. Had imposed ruthlessly tough terms on Russia in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Was ready to ally itself with Mexico in a war with the United States. Whatever it took to win Germany’s place in the sun—that was what the German rulers were willing to do.”

Having earlier dealt with the “rape of Belgium” and “war guilt” issues, it should now be noted that the territory the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk removed from Russia was inhabited largely by a number of non-Russian ethnic minorities—Ukrainians being the major one–and if this were a crime, it is odd why the United States today, and especially the Weekly Standard, condemn Russia for interfering in this very same region. Furthermore, Germany’s offer to align with Mexico against the United States was contingent upon the United States going to war against Germany. This tactic was hardly irregular since Britain was offering all types of territorial bribes in secret treaties—territory that belonged to other countries—to entice other countries and groups to make war against Germany and/or some of the other Central Powers.

Denying that the peace settlement imposed on Germany was too harsh, Norman contends that “a persuasive case can be made that if Wilson had been more ruthless at any point, the first war might have been won sooner and another one prevented. Only two of America’s wars have been bloodier than Wilson’s. Both the Civil War and World War II ended with total defeat and more or less unconditional surrender. And things were settled pretty much once and for all.”

Norman’s argument here is a standard defense for the failed wars that the neocons have advocated. For example, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not the cause of the disaster that has emerged there but instead was the result of an improper occupation, for which a number of scenarios have been presented. Regarding World War I, however, there are many factors that could have precluded the success of a more ruthless peace—British/French rivalry; the opposition of the American people; the inability to maintain such a situation; the effect this would have in generating more support for Leninist Communism, to name but a few. However, discussing these would require an entire new essay, and the fact of the matter is that the U.S. did not enter the war to destroy Germany.


[1] This was the date that Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The major powers—Britain, France, Germany, and Russia—became involved at the beginning of August.

[2] Geoffrey Norman, “Woodrow Wilson’s War, One hundred years later, idealism still isn’t enough,” Weekly Standard, April 3, 2017,

[3] Alan Kramer, “Atrocities,” International Encyclopedia of the First World War,

[4] Kramer, “Atrocities.”

[5] For views by recent historians that reject the exclusive German guilt thesis, see Paul Gottfried, “Sleepwalk to Suicide,” American Conservative, January 21, 2014,

[6] “Blockade of Germany,” Wikipedia, In December 1918, the National Health Office in Berlin determined that 763,000 persons had died as a result of the blockade by that time. A study done in 1928 put the death toll at 424,000.

[7] Quoted in Ralph Raico, “The Blockade and Attempted Starvation of Germany,” review of The Politics of Hunger: Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919 by C. Paul Vincent, Mises Daily Articles, May 7, 2010,

[8] Robert W. Tucker, Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality 1914-1917 (Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 2007) , p. 97.

[9] Charles Callan Tansill, America Goes to War (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1938), p. 216.

[10] Wayne S. Cole, An Interpretive History of American Foreign Relations, revised edition (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1974), p. 288.

[11] Edwin Borchard and William Potter Lage, Neutrality for the United States, second edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), pp. 15-16, 68-69.

[12] Justus D. Doenecke, Nothing Less than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2011), p. 47.

[13] Tansill, p. 177.

[14] Borchard and Lage, p. 34; Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1914, Supplement, The World War. Document 559,

[15] “Did Britain doom the Lusitania?,” BBC History Magazine, May 2015,

[16] Tucker, p. 142.

[17] Note that the deaths, including alleged deaths, caused today by Assad’s bombings in Syria cause far more concern than the many more deaths caused by Saudi bombings and blockade, supported by the United States, in Yemen.

[18] Tucker, p. 142.

[19] Tucker, p. 143.

[20] Borchard and Lage, p. 87.

[21] Tansill, p. 258.

[22] Tansill, p. 55.

[23] Tansill, p. 64.

[24] Doenecke, pp. 44.

[25] Tansill, p. 83.

[26] Patrick J. Buchanan, A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America’s Destiny (Washington: Regnery, 1999), p. 206.

[27] According to Timothy C. Downing in his article “Eastern Front” in the International Encyclopedia of the First World War: “The [German] occupation of Ukraine tied down thirty or forty divisions that might have enabled the Spring (Ludendorff) Offensives of 1918 to find success.”

April 24, 2017 - Posted by | Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Militarism, Timeless or most popular | , ,

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