On April 6, 1917, the US Congress declared war on the German Empire, officially entering World War I and injecting fresh bodies, capital and resources into European trenches. Three days before on April 3, President Woodrow Wilson, finally reversing his position after three years of fence sitting, asked Congress to declare war on Germany. While many students learn that the Lusitania’s sinking caused the US entry into WWI, it seems unlikely that it is the sole cause as the sinking took place almost two years earlier. If not the Lusitania, what caused the United States to enter the war after two years of neutrality?
President Woodrow Wilson was sworn into office in 1913. An academic and intellectual man, Wilson believed a president should be individually capable of leading the nation, and often acted unilaterally or with just a few close advisors. He was also a man of strong conviction, who valued morality and ethics, both of which dictated his decision making throughout his presidency. Certainly, Wilson’s unique brand of leadership was one of the many contributing causes of the US entry into the war.
During Wilson’s first term in 1914, he appointed William Jennings Bryan, a prominent pacifist, as Secretary of State. Bryan spent much of the fall of 1914 away from Washington; inexperienced in foreign policy, he perhaps failed to recognize the significance of both his position (as well as his absence from it) and the war in Europe. Bryan’s absence left the State Department and US foreign policy in the hands of the more conservative, but similarly inexperienced Counselor of the State Department, Robert Lansing, who made a series of small, but collectively significant decisions.
The first among Lansing’s decisions involved Germany’s usage of US radio towers. Before the war began, the British cut all cables coming out of Germany, leaving the Germans to rely on US cables for diplomatic uses. When the British complained that the Germans were using these radio towers for military purposes, the United States required everyone using its towers to provide the US Navy with copies of messages. Since the Allies still had access to their own cables, only the Germans had to give their messages to the US Navy. Other decisions included the US approval of British merchant vessels to remain armed while maintaining non-combat status, and the reversal of Bryan’s loan ban to belligerents. Lansing’s individually ordinary decisions in 1914 eventually amounted to a full tilt of US policy favorable to the Allies.
In 1915, the war escalated, and Germany announced a submarine blockade of the British Isles in February in response to the Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany. Alarmed, the United States reacted by stating it would hold the Germans to a “strict accountability” for any damage to US citizens or property resulting from submarine attacks. In formulating this response, Lansing and Wilson failed to explain the phrase “strict accountability.” After the Lusitania sank in May, Wilson echoed the “strict accountability,” warning to Germany, which eventually complied and ordered its submarines to avoid passenger ships. Unfortunately, Wilson and Lansing had opened the United States up to uncertain escalation by holding fast to their “strict accountability” policy. Bryan, still strictly neutral to both sides, opposed Wilson and Lansing, believing their response to be unfairly harsh on the Germans. In June, Bryan resigned in protest, leaving Lansing in charge of the State Department.
More importantly, the US approach to German submarine blockade showed the failure of the US government to understand the submarines’ role, capabilities and limits. In formulating the “strict accountability” response, Wilson and Lansing demanded German submarines follow outdated sailing laws. Meanwhile, submarines relied on launching surprise attacks and remaining undetected. Following the old laws, which required clear identification from all belligerents, would have meant certain defeat for the submarines. By enforcing the old laws upon new weapons, the inexperienced Wilson and Lansing issued an early ultimatum on Germany without even realizing.
Even though the Lusitania’s sinking did not directly lead to the US entry into the war, it did significantly deteriorate US public opinion against the Germans. Economic competition between the United States and Germany had soured the two nations’ relations in previous years. This was further eroded by Germany’s brutal invasion of Belgium. It didn’t help that American newspapers relied on anti-German newspapers in England for all their German news. This was a far fall from the early years of the war, when the public stood behind Wilson’s neutrality, as evidenced in his electoral success in 1916.
In 1917, Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking five US merchant ships in March alone. This marked a significant turning point in the war. After years of neutrality, US public opinion turned decisively against Germany. Wilson and the rest of the government had no choice but to go to war, especially in the context of the “strict accountability” policy. Wilson was also influenced by his morality, which held that the United States should fight against evil. For the president, Germany’s brutal actions in the war was a bridge too far and would have to be addressed.
If the story behind the US entry into WWI tells us anything, it is the significance and presence of synergy in international affairs. Many of the actions and events before 1917 were seemingly small and rather meaningless on their own. Wilson’s unilateral approach, Bryan’s absence, German submarine warfare, or even the sinking of Lusitania was not individually significant enough for the United States to enter the war. However, added together, all these happenings made the eventual US entry somewhat inevitable. While we now have the convenience of hindsight, we can still learn from history that in international affairs, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Today, when such affairs grow increasingly complicated, global leaders ought to evaluate events in broader contexts, and think strategy rather than tactics and small wins.