Germany 1917-18

Poster advertising U.S. war bonds


The United States's first large-scale combat intervention was against Germany in World War I. Quite early in the war and well before American entry, the dominant view of U.S. elites in both major parties both echoed and extended the rhetoric of Britain and its allies that Germany's policy was one of “militarism”: the German regime itself was “that form of government in which one man sets his will above the will of the people,” a “mediaeval autocracy” which, in the words of a former secretary of state, was opposed to “the cause of civilization.” This view was shared by Wilson himself, whom his closest adviser found “as unsympathetic with the German attitude as is the balance of America,” opining to a journalist some months later that “the Government of Germany must be profoundly changed.” From then until Congress declared war, almost three years later, Germany's categorization as an American enemy did not change: “a selfish and autocratic power” with whom “we can never have a friend; and that in the presence of its organized power, always lying in wait to accomplish we know not what purpose, there can be no assured security for the democratic governments of the world.”


At first, the U.S. pursued a policy which, although formally neutral, penalized Germany and aided its British and French foes. Britain imposed a trade embargo on Germany which, with very little U.S. protest at its infringements of neutral rights, ended up choking off American exports of food, cotton, and other resources to Germany. Meanwhile, the U.S. permitted all belligerents – which, in practice, meant Britain and France – to purchase munitions from the U.S. and, later, to borrow significant sums of money from New York banks. When Germany, in response to the British embargo, began to use submarines to attack British merchant vessels on which Americans might be sailing, the U.S. vigorously objected that submarine warfare of this sort was a flagrant “violation of many sacred principles of justice and humanity.” Protests (including by the secretary of state) that these and other measures were one-sided were met with with accusations of disloyalty and anti-Americanism. Over the next year, the U.S. tightened the screws, issuing an ultimatum to Germany in 1916 to restrict submarine warfare or face the severance of diplomatic relations. A year later, when Wilson was safely reelected and antiwar voices had been further stilled or intimidated, the trap snapped shut: the Germans, now foreseeing that the U.S. would enter the war, decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Wilson, outraged at what he considered the breaking of a promise, broke diplomatic relations, armed U.S. merchant ships, and, after several of the latter were then sunk, called on Congress to declare war. What followed was a comprehensive mobilization of American resources, with an eye toward large-scale combat operations against Germany.


Almost from the moment that war was declared, the United States was confronted with a gap between the policy instruments it was preparing and the war aims it espoused. The latter were far-reaching, and implied logically that Germany's political system should be reconstructed along nonmilitarist lines. However, to do this, Germany would first have to be evicted from the territories it occupied, a massive task in which France, Britain, and a number of their allies were already engaged. For the U.S. even to participate in combat in German-occupied territory, it would have to raise, train, and equip an army, then send it to Europe for use alongside the armies which had for almost three years been fighting. This meant that the U.S. would be very much a minor player until such time as it had the troops in place and that even then, it would have to coordinate with the Entente forces. Although Wilson tried to preserve a certain freedom of maneuver by insisting that U.S. military units remain independent, by not endorsing territorial agreements between his co-belligerents (he called the U.S. an “associated power” rather than an “allied” one), and by making the U.S. into the coalition's major creditor and supplier, he never was in position to do more than cooperate with the British and French. Since their war goals were focused primarily on Germany's actions toward other states, the U.S. had in the end to settle for military victory rather than a political reconstruction of Germany. This can be seen clearly in the negotiations by which the war was ended. When the Germans contacted Wilson in the autumn of 1918, he repeated in each of his replies to them his original demand that the German “military masters” no longer “speak for” Germany, making it clear that “the constituted authorities of the Empire who have so far conducted the war” lose power as “a condition precedent to peace”; otherwise Germany would have to “surrender.” Wilson's demands were in fact milder than the majority opinion among leaders of both political parties in the U.S., who wanted Germany either to surrender unconditionally or else be invaded and occupied. However, the Allies ignored the issue of Germany's regime, and the armistice (and for that matter, the peace treaty the next year) which finally was signed, although sweeping and punitive on territorial and other issues, said nothing about Germany's domestic political and economic arrangements.1


1) Page to Bryan, 10 September 1914, FRUS 1914 , Supplement: 100; “The Peril of German Militarism,” New York Times , 6 September 1914; New York World , 5 August 1914; Root in interview, 7 August 1914; both quoted in Link (1960: 9); House, diary entry 30 August 1914 (Seymour 1926: vol. 1, 293); Wilson interview, 14 December 1914, quoted in Link (1960: 53); Wilson address to Congress, 2 April 1917; Bryan to Gerard, 13 May 1915, FRUS 1915 , Supplement: 395; Wilson, Flag Day speech (14 June 1917); Wilson, Fourteen Points Speech (8 January 1918); Lansing to Oederlin, 8, 14, 23 October 1918, FRUS 1918 , Supplement 1, vol. 1: 343, 359, 383; also Karp (1979: pt. 2); Schwabe (1985: 47-58, 95-117); Knock (1992); Stevenson (2005). Significantly, the Germans had an understanding of the U.S. concern over the nature of their regime and tried several times in the course of the negotiations to address that issue. In the end, although the emperor abdicated and fled the country at the armistice, the German army stayed intact and was used in the touch-and-go months which followed to crush revolutionary outbursts.