When war erupted in 1914, the United States attempted to remain neutral and was a proponent for the rights of neutral states. Isolationist foreign policy was encouraged by Congress's apprehensions about giving other countries a political door into US policies and the cultural melting pot of the United States' population. In spite of these factors, the United States did enter World War I, as a result of several events.
In an attempt by both the allied and the central powers to involve the Americans, the US was heavily saturated with propaganda. Much of the material had a Pro-British slant which was aided by the connection to Britain as a "cultural brother" and the United States' concern with affairs in Western Europe. While propaganda sympathetic to Germany did also exist, it did not carry much weight with the American public. Germany was seen by most Americans as a dangerous monarchy with autocratic militarist thinking, including a hidden agenda to undermine democracy and US power. There were allegations of industrial sabotage, poisoning water supplies, kidnapping individuals, and engaging in espionage within American labor unions by Germans to keep the United States busy on the home front. These rumors, along with extensive submarine warfare, added to the distrust of the Germans.
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Prior to 1915, German subs had a policy of warning and allowing time to evacuate ships carrying passengers before they sank them. However, in 1915 the Lusitania was sunk without a warning, killing over 120 Americans. One year later, the Sussex was sunk by German U-boats and American citizens were outraged at these direct violations of their neutral rights at sea. At this point, a small percentage of Americans, including presidential hopeful Teddy Roosevelt, demanded "immediate warfare." In 1916 President Wilson took a stronger stance toward foreign affairs by increasing the size of the military and issuing a warning to the Germans:
Unless the Imperial Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government of the United States can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire altogether (1).
The Germans responded by temporally ceasing submarine warfare until 1917 when German Ambassador Berstorff announced the continuation of submarine warfare and ended diplomatic relations with the United States. However, military strategists predicted certain defeat for the Germans if America entered the war at this point. In an attempt to eliminate the threat of American involvement in Europe, Foreign Minister Alfred Zimmerman attempted to provoke Mexico and Japan into attacking the United States with the promise of German assistance after the European front was conquered. A message containing Zimmerman's intent was decoded by the British and sent to the US, further swaying Americans to action. Due primarily to submarine warfare and the Zimmerman note, President Wilson asked Congress for permission to go to war, and on April 6, 1917, congress officially declared it. President Wilson, along with many Americans, justified their involvement as "an act of high principle and idealism...[and]...as a crusade to make the world safe for democracy." (2)
While these are some of the main events, there are many other theories regarding why the US entered into World War I. Some propose that the US was never actually neutral, but had been supporting the British; this thinking gives a different light on the events of submarine warfare with the Germans. The high infiltration of Pro-British propaganda as well as the considerable profits to the hurting economy lead some to believe that it would have been impossible for the US to remain neutral and not engage in the war. Others propose that as German forces crept into the Atlantic and threatened to conquer Britain, the US felt that its defenses and the country's security were threatened, again justifying involvement in the war. In all practicality, it is impossible to pinpoint the entry of the United States to a number of certain events and it was most definitely a combination of many factors. The most important of these events are discussed above, explaining why the United States entered World War I.
(1) Bass, Herbert J., America's Entry Into World War I (Chicago; Holt, Rinehart And Winston, 1964)
(2) Andrea, Alfred J., and Overfield, James H., The Human Record (Boston; Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994)
Andrea, Alfred J., and Overfield, James H., The Human Record (Boston; Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994)
Bass, Herbert J., America's Entry Into World War I (Chicago; Holt, Rinehart And Winston, 1964)
Pope, Stephen, and Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne, The Dictionary of The First World War (New York; St. Marten's Press, 1995)
Venzon, Anne Cipriano, The United States in the First World War (New York; Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995)