The Great War, as the War was called until it became World War I or the First World War, is best known for the introduction of new weaponry but also for efforts to block imports of food and essential inputs into domestic food production. Both Germany and Britain relied on food imports from the Western Hemisphere as well as materials for their war industries. Hence both imposed a blockade on the other. That in turn triggered the use of German submarines against British and American merchant shipping transporting those goods across the Atlantic. And ultimately the sinking of three British passenger ships, including the Lusitania, off the coast of Ireland without a warning.
Britain had the advantage in Atlantic warfare. The British Royal Naval was superior in numbers to the Imperial German Navy. But German submarines evened the imbalance. Ultimately German submarines were sinking Allied merchant shipping faster than they could be built in Allied shipyards. By the end of the war, the British blockade had reduced German food imports to a trickle. Germans were starving.
In the midst of this oceanic warfare, President Woodrow Wilson, with the huge battlefield casualties in mind, insisted on our remaining neutral, avoiding involvement in this European conflict. The US was divided about entry into the war and their President’s refusal to do so. Nevertheless Wilson began efforts to defend the US from the oceanic war. Congress agreed to issue a series of war bonds to raise the funds necessary to put us on a war footing. Both Houses agreed to co-operate.
Was the US expedition into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa intended to be a diversion from the European War? 4,800 troops led by General John Pershing were gathered at the US-Mexican border for what has been called the Punitive Expedition (March 1916 to February 1917). The author, Patricia O’Toole, does not comment on the motives of the Woodrow Wilson Administration.
Meanwhile back in Europe, the horrific land battles and the blockade of food and materiel were adversely affecting the war-making abilities of Germany and its allies. Wilson took this opportunity to start the negotiation for an armistice and eventually a treaty that would settle land disputes and create the conditions for a lasting peace.
Much against his moralist position, Wilson also made minimal preparations to create an army to send to the Western Front. When Germany ended and then resumed unrestricted submarine warfare against the British merchant marine, Wilson asked the Senate for authority to support Britain and its Allies in this “war to end all wars.” Still he held back on full participation in this European War.
But then the Zimmerman Telegram. Germany’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, sent a telegram to his Mexican counterpart, seemingly offering to help Mexico regain territory lost in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 – upon American entry into the European War on the German side. (The contents of the Zimmerman Telegram had been disclosed by the British.)
According to O’Toole this was a false promise. But it put additional pressure on President Wilson to end his policy of neutrality. War was declared in April 1917.
But by 1917 American banks were making huge loans to both Britain and France, funds that were used, in large part, to purchase munitions, raw materials, and food from Canada and the US. In 1917 a revolution in Russia led to her signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans and exiting from the war in March 1918.
Despite his earlier position, Wilson understood that border adjustments after the war would be at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. This drove the Turks into an even greater resistance to a settlement in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The dumbest, most damaging political blunder he had ever made – so Wilson confessed, – was to call for a Democratic Congress to be returned in the 1918 election despite the unanimity that had been shown by Democrats and Republicans to his neutralist policy. His injection of partisanship into his quest for Congressional support was the first of several mistakes in his building a peaceful post-war Europe. The ultimate the payback was the Senate rejection of the Versailles Treaty.
Throngs cheered President Wilson when he arrived in Paris on his way to Versailles. O’Toole argues that his involvement in the treaty-making was a miscalculation. His triumphant sweep into France seemed to be making peace over the heads of the delegates already assembled at Versailles. He did his best, but Post-War Europe would have to live with the reparations imposed on Germany, with numerous territorial adjustments, and sadly with the war guilt clause. Germany was forced to accept full responsibility.
Patricia O’Toole’s The Moralist; Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made is centered on individuals. That is an unusual approach. Historians most commonly talk about forces: economic, material, diplomatic, how these forces motivated behavior, and the mistakes that were made as a result.