America’s momentous entry into World War I
The Great War proved a major turning point of the 20th century
One hundred years ago, April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I. More than 53,000 Americans lost their lives on the battlefields in that horrific European conflagration. Disease alone added another 60,000 wartime deaths. More than 204,000 others were wounded, many of them maimed with terrible disfigurements. In total, some 15 million people lost their lives in World War I.
The late entry of the United States into the war — it had been raging since 1914 — was a major inflection point in 20th century history. While America’s involvement in the war indisputably assured the Allied victory over Imperial Germany by November 1918, it left a road of ruination, blood and destruction that even today is difficult to internalize.
Not only did those bloody battlefields soak up American lives en masse but also they reminded a restive America that President Woodrow Wilson, who had been first elected in 1912, was not infallible. Despite an almost obsessive zeal, he was unable to gain passage in the United States Senate of the Treaty of Versailles even as he was being lionized across Europe as a colossus of victory. That failure in the Senate prevented the United States from entering the League of Nations, which the president viewed as his own legacy of international diplomacy and a fitting close to the war.
Wilson said he wanted “peace without victory,” and just as the war came to its close that November, congressional elections were underway. The president unsuccessfully appealed to the American people to support his global efforts and to return a Democratic Congress to Capitol Hill. Republicans made up the new majority in both houses, and Wilson soon found himself eager to lead with few willing to follow.
Against the best counsel of his closest advisers, Wilson traveled to the Paris peace conference anyway. Everywhere he went he was the subject of standing ovations and sizable crowds, an utter disjunction from how he was viewed at home.
Wilson returned to Washington and lobbied for the Versailles Treaty, which contained his vaunted idea of a League of Nations. Almost all aspects of the treaty reflecting what became known as “Wilsonism” were eviscerated and the Senate twice rejected the act that would have formally ratified the treaty.
Just two days after his powerful speech to a joint session of Congress, in the early morning hours of Good Friday, April 4, 1917, the House of Representatives passed the resolution 373 to 50. Wilson signed the resolution, which would direct 50,000 Americans to their demise.
Wilson had supreme confidence that America needed to get into the European conflict and leverage the country’s strength to bring it all to a decisive and victorious close. The United States was much larger than any nation in Europe with the exception of Russia. Just as America entered the war, the Russians withdrew amid revolution and revolt.
While the overwhelming majority of the American people believed that European wars were not the business of America, the United States retained its right to trade with any nation at war. But when Germany violated the neutrality of Belgium and propelled itself into unrestricted submarine warfare, it was broadly viewed as a violation of international law.
In March 1917, Wilson was inaugurated for a second term, and less than a month later, he came to Capitol Hill asking for the war resolution. He said, in essence, the war had already come to America because of Germany’s intransigence.
One of the most important benchmarks was reached in August 1918, when plans were firmly in place to use the American First Army as a single unit. At 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Great War ended.
Less than two miles from the White House is the R Street home where President Wilson moved after leaving office, the victim of a massive stroke suffered in 1919. For a month after being stuck down, only his doctor and wife were permitted to see him. Wilson never fully recovered.
In 1913, Woodrow Wilson told a friend from Princeton that it would be a real irony if his administration had to deal in any significant manner with foreign affairs. But during the Wilson presidency, the Great War had in part propelled and codified the upward trajectory of United States of America as the most powerful and dominant nation in the world.
This is why the centennial we mark today matters.