Robert Lansing and American Neutrality, 1914-1917

By Daniel M. Smith | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX
CONCLUSIONS

INTERPRETATIONS of the factors and events underlying the American entry into the war on April 6, 1917, have ranged from single causality to more complex explanations. One of the earliest interpretations of the causes of involvement was the "submarine theory," which contended that an America trying to preserve neutrality was forced into the conflict by the German violation of neutral rights and lives. Subsequently, the "revisionist" school of the 1930's attacked the submarine-neutrality theory, supplanting it with explanations stressing the biased character of American neutrality, the extent of economic and financial entanglement with the Allies, and the culminating actual involvement in the struggle, partly to save the embattled Entente and partly because an enraged Germany finally struck back at her covert antagonist. Finally, in recent years, some writers began to view intervention as a means of protecting the national interest by ensuring an Allied victory and maintaining the Atlantic community.

While space precludes anything more than a cursory presentation and evaluation of these interpretations, some tentative conclusions can be essayed. The revisionists at least have been responsible for a critical reëvaluation of the neutrality-submarine thesis. Their work demonstrated that the United States had been neutral only in a formal or technical sense, that in actuality the American interpretation of international law and practice rather consistently favored the Allied Powers, that the nation's economy was soon closely bound to these Allied states, and that the officials and most of the citizens of "neutral America" were far from neutral in thought and action. On the other hand, the early revisionist suggestion that the country entered the war to save its own economic stake in the Allied cause has been rejected as unfounded. Certainly the majority of Americans were not conscious of national interests as significant in the war; the actual intervention, as far as the public was concerned, came because of violated rights and "inhumane" German acts.

The question of whether the one-sided character of American neutrality caused Germany to retaliate by unrestricted U-boat warfare is still subject to debate. The German decision for unrestricted action was based largely on military exigencies and the desire for a full victory over Great Britain, to be obtained by halting all British imports and

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