Woodrow Wilson and World War I

By Clements, Kendrick A. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Woodrow Wilson and World War I


Clements, Kendrick A., Presidential Studies Quarterly


On February 4, 1915, the Imperial German government announced the establishment of a war zone in the waters surrounding the British Isles. (1) In that zone, German submarines would sink Allied ships on sight, and because the Allies frequently used neutral flags to disguise their ships, the Germans warned that neutral ships might also be in danger and would be wise to avoid the zone. The announcement was a direct challenge to the Allies' economic lifeline, but it was scarcely less a threat to neutrals like the United States, for whom trade with the Allies had become an economic necessity.

Considering how important were the American interests that German submarine warfare jeopardized, it might be expected that the United States government would have given the proclamation its fullest and most careful consideration before responding. But that was not the case. For a number of reasons, American leaders were unable to see the implications of the German announcement and to react appropriately to the challenge. Although the technology represented by the submarine had revolutionized warfare, the United States answered the German announcement by demanding that German submarines obey rules that had been developed in the 18th century to govern the behavior of sailing ships. In responding as they did, they surrendered to Germany the ability to decide whether and when the United States would enter the war. Unless the Germans gave up submarine warfare completely, the choice of war or peace lay in the hands of every submarine commander peering through his periscope at a dimly seen silhouette on the horizon.

Little evidence was ever found to support the contention of isolationists in the 1930s that bankers and munitions makers maneuvered the United States into the war, but there can be little doubt that economic and emotional ties to the Allies made a suspension of trade with Britain and France unlikely, no matter what the risks. (2) Those same ties also made it virtually certain that if the United States entered the war, it would do so on the Allied side. Yet it is wrong to believe that because American leaders were sympathetic toward the Allies, they deliberately led the country into war. As Arthur Link pointed out, the evidence is strong that "Wilson tried sincerely to pursue policies of rigid neutrality toward the Entente Allies," that he "was not influenced by considerations of immediate national security," and that "he believed that American interests, to say nothing of the interests of mankind, would be best protected by a negotiated peace without victory." In the end, Link concludes, Wilson's decision for war was the result of his conviction that there was no other means available to protect American rights on the high seas, and his belief that the war was in its final stages and could be brought to a speedier end by American participation. (3)

The weakness of Link's argument is that it accepts too easily Wilson's contention that there was no other way to protect American interests than to go to war. As John A. Thompson has pointed out in a recent biography of Wilson, however, there was an alternative, one that the generation of the 1930s found perfectly acceptable: the surrender of the right of American ships to pass through the war zone. (4) Considering that the United States had few merchant vessels of its own when the war began, and that the British controlled the seas until early 1917, a "cash and carry" policy such as that legislated by Congress in the mid-1930s would have curtailed American trade with the Allies very little and might have made it politically feasible to issue a warning to Americans that they would travel in the war zone at their own risk. Such a policy was in fact considered in the spring of 1915, but only after the government had declared that it would insist on the right of Americans and their ships to travel anywhere on the high seas without regard to the conditions of war. By then, it was too late. …

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