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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Lecture LO II

Learning Objective II:


Discuss American attitudes and actions. Show how these attitudes

to the United States entering into World War I.

Americans Question Neutrality

In 1914, most Americans saw no reason to join a struggle 3,000 miles away. The war did not threaten American lives or property. This does not mean, however, that individual Americans were indifferent to who would win the war. Public opinion was strong—but divided.




Socialists criticized the war as a capitalist and imperialist struggle between Germany and England to control markets and colonies in China, Africa, and the Middle East. Pacifists, such as lawyer and politician William Jennings Bryan, believed that war was evil and that the United States should set an example of peace to the world. Many Americans simply did not want their sons to experience the horrors of warfare, as a hit song of 1915 conveyed.


“ I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier, I brought him up to be my pride and joy. Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder, To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?”


In November 1916 came the U.S. presidential election. The Democrats renominated Wilson, and the Republicans nominated Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Wilson campaigned on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Hughes pledged to uphold America’s right to freedom of the seas but also promised not to be too severe on Germany. The election returns shifted from hour to hour. In fact, Hughes went to bed believing he had been elected. When a reporter tried to reach him with the news of Wilson’s victory, an aide said, “The president can’t be disturbed.” “Well,” replied the reporter, “when he wakes up, tell him he’s no longer president.”

The United States Declares War

After the election, Wilson tried to mediate between the warring alliances. The attempt failed. In a speech before the Senate in January 1917, the president called for “a peace without victory. . . . a peace between equals,” in which neither side would impose harsh terms on the other. Wilson hoped that all nations would join in a “league for peace” that would work to extend democracy, maintain freedom of the seas, and reduce armaments.




The Germans ignored Wilson’s calls for peace. Germany’s leaders hoped to defeat Britain by resuming unrestricted submarine warfare. On January 31 the kaiser announced that U-boats would sink all ships in British waters—hostile or neutral—on sight. Wilson was stunned. The German decision meant that the United States would have to go to war.


The overt acts came. First was the Zimmermann note, a telegram from the German foreign minister to the German ambassador in Mexico that was intercepted by British agents. The telegram proposed an alliance between Mexico and Germany and promised that if war with the United States broke out, Germany would support Mexico in recovering “lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.” Next came the sinking of four unarmed American merchant ships, with a loss of 36 lives.


Finally, events in Russia removed the last significant obstacle to direct U.S. involvement in the war. In March, the oppressive Russian monarchy was replaced with a representative government. Now supporters of American entry into the war could claim that this was a war of democracies against brutal monarchies.



A light drizzle fell on Washington on April 2, 1917, as senators, representatives, ambassadors, members of the Supreme Court, and other guests crowded into the Capitol building to hear President Wilson deliver his war resolutio


Congress passed the resolution a few days later. With the hope of neutrality finally shattered, U.S. troops would follow the stream of American money and munitions that had been heading to the Allies throughout the war. But Wilson’s plea to make the world “safe for democracy” wasn’t just political posturing. Indeed, Wilson and many Americans truly believed that the United States had to join the war to pave the way for a future order of peace and freedom. A resolved but anxious nation held its breath as the United States prepared for war.