When the powers of Europe descended into war in 1914, the United States chose neutrality. However, three years later, a simple telegram pushed the country to join in the conflict across the Atlantic.

“In 1914, the United States did not join the World War between Germany and Britain, but stayed neutral for three years, and used the war as an advantage to grow the country’s economic power,” Mark Mengerink, LU associate professor of history, said.

Germany embarked upon a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1915, declaring the area around the British Isles a war zone, declaring that ships, even those from neutral countries would be attacked inside the zone.

“This culminated in the sinking of the Lusitania, a British passenger ship, that killed 1,200 civilians — 128 Americans — that were being transported from New York to the British Isles. This outraged Americans, not just because of the American deaths, but because the immortality that Germans would attack civilians,” Mengerink said.

In the late 1880s, most countries agreed that civilians were off limits during war.

“The Germans did not abide by this,” Mengerink said. “This starts turning a lot of people in this country against Germany, but it was not enough support to allow (President Woodrow) Wilson to bring the country into the war.”

After the attack on the Lusitania, Wilson sent a strong message to Germany stating that if it happened again, the United States would join the war. Germany backed off submarine warfare for a few months, but attacked again on Feb. 1, 1917.

“The United States loses a lot of merchant ships, but does not enter the war until the Zimmerman Telegram is released in 1917,” Mengerink said. “The secret note from the German government to the German Ambassador in Mexico was to get the ambassador to convince the Mexican government to get into the war on the German side (and) attack the United States. It promised (Mexico) large portions of America’s southwest that the United States had taken from them.

“Mexico never considered this. They were still involved in their own civil war and revolution, but that that did not matter for the Americans. The fact that Germany was trying to convince Mexico was enough.”

In April, 1917, America joined Britain and Russia against the Germans.

“As an idealist, Wilson knew at some point the war was going to end, and there were going to be major changes that will come out of this war. With all of the countries that were involved, there was going to be a worldwide significance. Wilson knew that if the United States wanted any say in what the post war looked like, it would have to be a part of the war. There is no country that was going to be a part of the war for years, let someone who did not have any skin in the game, allow them to say what the post-war world was going to look like.”

Wilson believed that WWI was a fight between democracies and monarchies.

In March 1917, the Russian Revolution brought down the Romanov Family, overthrowing the Czar, and replacing it with a semi-democratic system.

“Wilson thought that it wouldn’t look bad to get into the war on (the Russian’s) side because the government is no longer a monarchy,” Mengerink said. “Wilson had ideals about what the post-war should look like. Very little of it will involve monarchies, like England.”

Mengerink said students should know the background and role of the United States in World War I and Wilson’s idea of where America would be after the war.

“By the end of World War I, the United States is the biggest superpower in the world, both economically and militarily,” he said. “The three years that the United States stayed neutral, Europe came for material, food and weapons. What they couldn’t pay for, the United States gave credit.

“That goes back to Wilson’s neutrality, He wanted freedom to trade with anybody. By the time the United States enters the war, the small army was backed by a lot of ammunition and weapons at a producing capacity. It sounds trite, but there is a lot of truth that war is very profitable and makes a lot of money.”

Mengerink says that students need to understand the impact the war had on American society.

“First of all, the size of the government explodes,” he said. “When you get into a war this big, the government has to direct the war, and it’s going to create brand new agencies to run and coordinate the war. One of the things that Wilson does right away, is create a propaganda unit to mobilize the support for the war. The agency convinces America that the war is just, that America has a role to play — support the war by buying war bonds, ration-specific items for troops, and to plant a victory garden.

“The size of the military explodes, which has tremendous implications. The United States get the first draft in this country’s history. Most people don’t think about the draft as an enormous infringement on peoples’ rights. The government comes in and says, ‘You have to serve and you have to fight.’

“The United States is a superpower and, whether we like it or not, we have to be involved in world affairs.  Americans can debate how we should be involved, but not debating whether we should be involved. But that’s not what the United States did after World War I. They said we fought this war, now we are out, and we want nothing to do with Europe but to be able to trade.”

Mengerink  said that in some ways, that led to World War II.

“The thing about not engaging in different areas of the war is that when we aren’t engaged, someone else is,” he said. “Are they friendly towards the United States or not? How much should the United States be involved? With great power comes great responsibility, so will the United States use it’s power for good or evil?”

WWI ended in 1918, and while Wilson proposed the League of Nations, the country never actually joined. As a result, 23 years later, a European war cast its shadow over America once again.

Story by Sierra Kondos, UP staff writer

Learn more about Lamar University at lamar.edu

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