Amer­ica's First World War

The legacy that the United States es­tab­lished for it­self in World War I is not that of a mil­i­tary power but of an in­ter­na­tional ac­tor.

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Economics And Monetary Policy - By Strat­for


As win­ter ended in 1917, the Al­lies found them­selves in a tight spot on the West­ern Front. The Ger­mans had launched their spring of­fen­sive to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on March 21, cleav­ing a pre­car­i­ous gap be­tween the French and British armies. Though the Ger­mans fell short of reach­ing their am­bi­tious plan to pen­e­trate deep into Al­lied lines and shat­ter their co­he­sion, they dealt a stag­ger­ing blow none­the­less: The cam­paign put Amiens – a city just 115 kilo­me­ters (72 miles) north of Paris – in peril and in­flicted se­ri­ous losses on the Al­lied forces. French and British troops tried to re­tal­i­ate in mid-April with the Niv­elle of­fen­sive. But the op­er­a­tion, which lasted un­til May 9, was a catas­tro­phe. Not only did the of­fen­sive fail to meet its ob­jec­tives, but it also dev­as­tated morale, and mass mu­tinies cropped up across the be­lea­guered French army.

To make mat­ters worse, Ger­many had re­sumed its cam­paign of un­re­stricted sub­ma­rine war­fare at the beginning of Fe­bru­ary, with a goal to sink 600,000 tons of com­mer­cial ship­ping per month near the British Isles and in the Mediter­ranean. The strat­egy was a gam­ble for Ber­lin. On the one hand, Ger­many knew that restart­ing its UBoat at­tacks would in­evitably pull the United States, which had kept a neu­tral stance up to that point, into the war. On the other, the Ger­man high com­mand fig­ured it would bring the Al­lies to their knees and clinch a vic­tory be­fore Wash­ing­ton had a chance to com­mit to the con­flict in any mean­ing­ful way. The United States ac­cepted the chal­lenge.

The Spoils of War

From the out­set of hos­til­i­ties in 1914, the United States was di­vided over whether to go to war. Four dis­tinct camps had emerged in U.S. pol­i­tics, each with a dif­fer­ing po­si­tion on the con­flict, from full com­mit­ment to neu­tral­ity at any cost. Nu­mer­ous smaller groups in the coun­try, mean­while, lob­bied to keep the United States out of the war on so­cial, re­li­gious, eth­nic and eco­nomic grounds. But per­haps more im­por­tant, the coun­try was in a po­si­tion to profit off the fight over­seas. The great Euro­pean pow­ers, af­ter all, were pre­oc­cu­pied with the war ef­fort and needed fi­nan­cial and ma­te­rial sup­port to sus­tain it. Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son opted to main­tain the United States' neu­tral­ity, while the coun­try's in­dus­trial out­put con­tin­ued to grow, tak­ing the econ­omy with it; be­tween 1914 and 1917, gross na­tional prod­uct grew by 20 per­cent.

Though Wash­ing­ton was morally op­posed to grant­ing fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to coun­tries in­volved in the war, Wall Street was of a dif­fer­ent mind­set. Amer­i­can banks con­trib­uted hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to the United King­dom and France. At the same time, the United States' neu­tral­ity en­abled it to con­tinue trade with the Cen­tral Pow­ers – Ger­many, Aus­troHun­gary, the Ot­toman Em­pire and Bul­garia. These ties proved costly, how­ever: The British Royal Navy block­ade rou­tinely in­ter­cepted Amer­i­can ships en route to en­emy ter­ri­tory and im­pounded them or sent them back home.

Tak­ing the Bat­tle Un­der­wa­ter

The British navy's prow­ess cre­ated an­other chal­lenge for the United States as well, al­beit in­di­rectly. The Ger­mans, un­able to match the Royal Navy's power on the sur­face of the ocean, turned their con­sid­er­able in­dus­trial ca­pac­ity to the man­u­fac­ture of sub­marines. The ubiq­ui­tous Ger­man U-Boat be­came the blight of Al­lied ship­ping, caus­ing havoc among mer­chant and mil­i­tary ves­sels alike. The United King­dom, an is­land na­tion with an ex­pan­sive em­pire, was par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to these at­tacks, since it de­pended on over­seas im­ports. Af­ter a U-Boat tor­pe­doed and sank the RMS Lusi­ta­nia in May 1915, killing more than a thou­sand pas­sen­gers – in­clud­ing 128 Amer­i­can cit­i­zens – Ber­lin curbed its use of the craft for fear of draw­ing the United States into the fight. Two years later, how­ever, Ger­many had lit­tle choice but to re­con­sider. Al­lied block­ades were tak­ing an in­creas­ing toll on the Cen­tral Pow­ers, and by early 1917, it was painfully clear to Ber­lin that it would lose the war if things con­tin­ued as they were. By lift­ing re­stric­tions on what U-Boats could tar­get,

Kaiser Wil­hem II's mil­i­tary plan­ners fig­ured they could in­flict enough dam­age to turn the tides in Ger­many's fa­vor. Al­though the strat­egy would al­most cer­tainly bring the United States into the con­flict, Ger­man mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers es­ti­mated that it would take Wash­ing­ton more than a year to gear up for the fight, by which time it would be over. What Ger­many didn't know then, of course, was that the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion would knock Rus­sia out of the war later in 1917, a con­sid­er­a­tion that doubt­less would have changed the Ger­man high com­mand's mind. And so, Ber­lin forged ahead with its strat­egy.

The Zim­mer­mann Tele­gram

Still, the coun­try was des­per­ate to keep the United States at bay for as long as possible. To that end, Ger­man For­eign Sec­re­tary Arthur Zim­mer­mann sent an en­crypted com­mu­nique to his coun­try's am­bas­sador to Mex­ico. The tele­gram au­tho­rized the diplo­mat to pro­pose a mil­i­tary al­liance be­tween Mex­ico, Ger­many and Ja­pan – a bold move, and one with a slim chance of suc­cess. The hope was that the part­ner­ship would fore­stall Wash­ing­ton's en­gage­ment in the war abroad by giv­ing it a more press­ing con­cern to deal with closer to home – namely a bel­li­cose Mex­i­can state. It was clear to Ger­many even then, though, that Mex­ico was highly un­likely to de­clare war on the United States. (Con­sid­er­ing that Ja­pan was al­ready at war with Ger­many, get­ting Tokyo on board was even more of a stretch.) But Ber­lin had to try some­thing. And by send­ing an en­crypted mes­sage, it could at least rest as­sured that the in­for­ma­tion wouldn't fall into the wrong hands, since sig­nals in­tel­li­gence was still in its in­fancy at the time.

Or so Ger­many thought. As fate would have it, the trans­mis­sion was in­ter­cepted and routed through the British Ad­mi­ralty's Room 40, home to the best cryp­to­graphic spe­cial­ists of the day. The team there promptly broke the Ger­man code, leav­ing the United King­dom with a valu­able piece of in­for­ma­tion that it could use to great political ef­fect. The last-ditch at­tempt to keep Wash­ing­ton on the side­lines turned out to be a self-in­flicted blow for Ger­many. When British in­tel­li­gence re­leased the tele­gram's con­tents to its U.S. coun­ter­parts – hav­ing waited a while so as to keep its en­cryp­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties un­der wraps – sup­port for the war ef­fort climbed in the United States.

A Dif­fi­cult Choice

And it soared once the Ger­man ad­mi­ralty for­mally is­sued its or­der to re­sume un­re­stricted sub­ma­rine war­fare Jan. 31, 1917. The new spate of U-Boat at­tacks started claim­ing U.S. ships among their ca­su­al­ties – five mer­chant ves­sels in March alone. Fur­ther­more, the re­newed use of sub­marines was a red line for Wash­ing­ton, which had al­ready is­sued a harsh re­buke against Ber­lin in the wake of the Lusi­ta­nia in­ci­dent. When the U.S. pres­i­dent asked Congress to de­clare war on April 2, 1917, he met with lit­tle op­po­si­tion from the govern­ment or the pub­lic. But he un­der­stood that the mat­ter wasn't quite as sim­ple as tak­ing a stand against Ger­man ag­gres­sion. Wil­son was keen to en­sure that his coun­try went about things is the right way, as­sert­ing it­self as a reluc­tant but du­ti­ful de­fender of freedom, lib­erty and democ­racy.

Be­yond the rhetoric, the United States had to make a de­ci­sion: It could ei­ther re­main a by­stander in world af­fairs or it could join the fray. To stand by and do noth­ing would con­demn it to a fate not en­tirely of its own mak­ing, sub­ject to the in­flu­ence of for­eign pow­ers. Should Ger­many win the war, its power and reach would in­evitably spread, en­abling it to dom­i­nate sea-lanes and trade routes. Its ten­drils could even stretch to South and Cen­tral Amer­ica, bring­ing con­flict­ing ideals di­rectly to the United States' doorstep. An Al­lied vic­tory, on the other hand, would give British and French in­ter­ests the up­per hand at the ex­pense of bur­geon­ing U.S. busi­nesses. As an emerg­ing eco­nomic heavy­weight, the United States had no choice but to en­ter the war to de­fend its po­si­tion. On April 6, 1917, the res­o­lu­tion to de­clare war passed with an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity in the House and Se­nate.

It was the sheer ex­tra mass of U.S. mil­i­tary as­sets laid against an ex­hausted stale­mate that made the dif­fer­ence, rather than a shift be­cause of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity or prow­ess.

Mak­ing a Mil­i­tary

Declar­ing war and wag­ing it are two dif­fer­ent mat­ters, though. The U.S. armed forces scarcely grew dur­ing the 1900s, and com­pared with those of most Euro­pean na­tions, they were small, ill-equipped and in­ex­pe­ri­enced. Be­tween its lack of strate­gic fore­sight and fail­ure to in­vest in mil­i­tary af­fairs, Wash­ing­ton had its work cut out for it to build a large, com­pet­i­tive army.

The plan was that the Amer­i­can Ex­pe­di­tionary Force (AEF) would de­ploy to the West­ern Front un­der the com­mand of Gen. John J. Per­sh­ing. But first, Per­sh­ing in­sisted that troops re­ceive an ap­pro­pri­ate level of train­ing. Then came the lo­gis­ti­cal prob­lem of trans­port­ing sol­diers and ma­teriel to the front. Lack­ing trans­port ships, the United States had to use what­ever ves­sels it could get its hands on to start fer­ry­ing per­son­nel to France while in­vest­ing vast sums to build suf­fi­cient in­fra­struc­ture to fa­cil­i­tate pas­sage of lines at ei­ther end. Even with U.S. out­put geared to­ward mo­bi­liza­tion, by June 1917, less than 15,000 Amer­i­can sol­diers had ar­rived in France; it took just un­der a year to de­ploy an­other 1 mil­lion troops.

Once they ar­rived at the front lines, the Amer­i­can Ex­pe­di­tionary Forces' short­com­ings truly came to light. Their Euro­pean coun­ter­parts saw them as cal­low and untested. And hav­ing missed out on the ac­cel­er­ated tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ment that wartime de­mands, U.S. forces had to rely on British and French equip­ment un­til the do­mes­tic war ma­chine could catch up. Still, de­spite pres­sure from the Al­lied com­mands, Per­sh­ing re­sisted us­ing U.S. per­son­nel as ca­su­alty re­place­ments to plug the gaps in dec­i­mated French and British units. In­stead, he wanted his army for­ma­tions to be vi­able in their own right, no mat­ter how many months it took to achieve that goal.

By com­par­i­son, the U.S. Navy was tech­ni­cally cred­i­ble, thanks to a late 19th­cen­tury mod­ern­iza­tion pro­gram that funded the de­sign and man­u­fac­ture of dread­nought-class war­ships. The fleet was not enough to over­come the mis­man­age­ment of Navy Sec­re­tary Jose­phus Daniels, how­ever. Daniels did lit­tle to pre­pare the Navy for war, leav­ing the force un­der­manned and un­der­trained. Be­cause the Navy's role was largely con­fined to mine-lay­ing op­er­a­tions, its lim­i­ta­tions weren't put to the test much dur­ing World War I, though five Amer­i­can dread­noughts were even­tu­ally at­tached to the British Grand Fleet to bol­ster the Royal Navy.

Sur­vive to Fight

Not­with­stand­ing its ini­tial stum­bles, once the United States mo­bi­lized, it was game over for the Cen­tral Pow­ers. Ger­man Uboats con­tin­ued to plague ship­ping for the re­main­der of the war, but the ad­vent of transat­lantic con­voys mit­i­gated the prob­lem and bought the United States the time it needed to get a full mil­i­tary de­ploy­ment to Europe. Even­tu­ally, the con­voys even be­gan to erode Ger­many's pre­cious U-Boat fleet. The United States foiled Ber­lin's plan to starve the Al­lies into sub­mis­sion be­fore Wash­ing­ton could of­fer a chal­lenge. In the process, its mil­i­tary learned to or­ga­nize, scale and trans­port huge amounts of men and ma­teriel across vast dis­tances – a les­son that would pay div­i­dends for the coun­try through­out the 20th cen­tury. But most im­por­tant, the United States had achieved a mile­stone in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, break­ing its iso­la­tion­ism to join in a global war on an­other con­ti­nent in pur­suit of its geopo­lit­i­cal im­per­a­tives.

The legacy that the United States es­tab­lished for it­self in World War I is not that of a mil­i­tary power but of an in­ter­na­tional ac­tor. It was the sheer ex­tra mass of U.S. mil­i­tary as­sets laid against an ex­hausted stale­mate that made the dif­fer­ence, rather than a shift be­cause of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity or prow­ess. De­spite its de­sire to avoid get­ting em­broiled in Euro­pean af­fairs, the coun­try en­tered the con­flict, re­al­iz­ing at last that its po­si­tion as an emerg­ing eco­nomic colos­sus was guar­an­teed and sup­ported by global mar­kets and trade. Al­though the new in­ter­na­tional sys­tem was to re­main frag­ile through a global eco­nomic de­pres­sion and an­other World War, the United States could no longer af­ford to ex­tri­cate it­self from world events. The Great War rep­re­sents the first con­crete step in the coun­try's rise as a su­per­power.

A new crop of Ger­man U-Boats massed in Kiel har­bor in 1917

Ger­man U-Boats claim an­other Al­lied ship, circa 1917

U.S. Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son an­nounces the dec­la­ra­tion of war to the as­sem­bled houses of Congress, April 6, 1917

Amer­i­can troops on the dock­side in Liver­pool Oct. 22, 1918, prior to em­bark­ing for France

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