Nebraska Moments

By Donald R. Hickey; Susan A. Wunder et al. | Go to book overview

20. Gen. John J. Pershing and World War I

World War I (1914–18) was a great watershed in the history of the modern world. In bloodshed and wealth, it was the costliest and most destructive war up to that time. Between fifteen and twenty million people were killed in the conflagration, and four great empires—the German, Russian, Austrian, and Ottoman—either disappeared from the map or were fundamentally reshaped.

The war was touched off by the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne by a group of Serbian nationalists on June 28, 1914. Because of the formal alliance system that existed in Europe, the Great Powers were drawn into the war that ensued. On one side were the Allied Powers— Great Britain, France, and Russia; and on the other, the Central Powers— Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey).

Americans were shocked by the outbreak of war but believed that they were not involved. As a neutral nation, the United States reaped enormous profits from its wartime trade, most of which was with the Allied Powers. This booming commerce was so one-sided that gold and silver flowed into the United States, and for the first time in its history the republic became a creditor nation.

The United States remained neutral until 1917, when Germany initiated unrestricted submarine warfare against all ships trading with the Allies. The United States responded by declaring war on April 6, 1917. The vote in Congress was overwhelming but not unanimous: 373–50 in the House, 82–6 in the Senate. Among those who opposed the decision was Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska, who believed that the only reason the nation was going to war was “to preserve the commercial right of American citizens to deliver munitions of war to belligerent nations.”

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