Understanding the American Past: American History and Its Interpretation

By Edward N. Saveth | Go to book overview

How We Got into World War I

by WALTER MILLIS [ "How We Entered the Last One," from The New Republic, July 31, 1935. Reprinted by permission.]

To John Bach McMaster, writing in 1918, the explanation of American intervention in the First World War was relatively simple. A follower of Wilson, McMaster believed our entrance into the war was both motivated and justified in the light of Germany's waging unrestricted submarine warfare, which the historian considered to be both inhumane and illegal.1

By the mid- 1920's, however, this point of view which reflected faithfully Wilsonian idealism, was engulfed in a wave of post-war disillusionment. Harry Elmer Barnes's Genesis of the World War ( 1926) contrasted our tolerant attitude towards illegal seizures by the British of American shipping with our intolerance of German submarine warfare. He concluded that our condoning of the actions of the British was indicative of over-all sympathy with the allied cause. Three years later, C. Hartley Gratton, who had been a student of Barnes's, attributed American involvement to our economic ties to the entente cause, propaganda, and inept statesmanship. Under the circumstances, argued Grattan, the Germans had no alternative but to resort to the submarine.2

Charles Seymour, in 1934, affirmed the thesis that Germany's use of the submarine was the reason for our intervening, documenting this point of view from some of the unpublished papers of Wilson's adviser, Colonel House, and from what survivors of the intervention crisis told him. The following year, Walter Millis's The Road to War was less analytical of why we fought than the selection reprinted, here, but as a background account the book is very valuable.

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