As Europe marched to a long anticipated war in the waning days of July 1914, the United States would play the role of neutral observer. For the Americans, the frequent strife of the Europeans was never something with which they sought to involve themselves. Unfortunately, such neutrality cannot be sustained when belligerent nations forcibly transfigure a prudent policy of neutrality into one of weakness and servility.
With the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 combined with the continued policy of unrestricted U-boat warfare by the German Empire that ultimately triggered greater conflict, United States President Woodrow Wilson found his options limited. Wilson had three possible policies to pursue: the first is what he called “armed neutrality” which he rejected as no longer practicable. The second was that of submission to Imperial German criminality which Wilson also rejected. The third and final optionwhich was chosen in the endwas war.
The particularly aggressive acts of unrestricted submarine warfare committed against the United States proved to be the catalyst that launched America into the affairs of continental Europe. Yet, America fought for more than the termination of the German policy. This initial cause for American entry into the war was not the final cause. The Great War, this War to End all Wars, was given a larger purpose.
This larger purpose for war, as well as an explanation of its causes, was grandly defined by President Wilson on April 2, 1917 when he delivered his war message to Congress. It was in this address that he performed one of the most difficult duties of the executive branchasking the representatives of the American people to declare war.
Despite these larger causes for war, unrestricted warfare was disastrous to a neutral nation. Wilson believed that with such a policy in place by Germany, no place in the world would be safe from the discretionary torpedoing of American ships. The stance by the German Empire provided the very definition for what Wilson called the “reckless lack of compassion or of principle.”
Wilson did not believe the German policy to be justifiable despite any reasons forwarded by the Imperial German Government. The causes and effects of unrestricted submarine warfare, however, were not isolated to the United States. “The present German submarine warfare against commerce,” argued Wilson, “is a warfare against mankind” and “a war against all nations.” To respond to this, Wilson asked Congress that America be given the ability to defend herself by entering into a state of war with Germany and her allies-an option, he noted, which had been thrust upon them.
With all the despair that accompanies war, Wilson saw an end to itthis war and the wars to come. America would fight in Europe and combat the forces of autocratic governments and ultimately triumph in the name of liberty. This was how Wilson understood this crusade. There was no inherent interest for the United States, but American entrance into the Great War was a benefit for the whole world. In the end, Wilson puts it best: the United States fights “for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy.” Sadly, there would be a second world war and, like the first, the contest over freedom and human dignity would define its greater objectives.
–Dantan Wernecke is a senior Ashbrook Scholar majoring in History and Political Science.