The United States’ entry into World War I in 1917 occurred toward the end of the Progressive Era. The Progressive Era can best be described as a period of social awareness and activism that led to political reforms. Many of the issues being discussed in the political conversation related to industrialization, work conditions in factories, women’s suffrage and immigration. When World War I first broke out in Europe, the United States resolved to remain neutral. However, when it became apparent that Germany was preparing for US involvement in the war, as seen in an intercepted message to the Mexican government promising to restore territories in the American southwest to Mexico in exchange for an alliance against the United States, the US officially declared war on Germany in 1917. By the end of the war, although it had previously resolved to remain neutral, the war became an ideological fight that sought to preserve democracy and other progressive values that were considered increasingly important throughout US politics.
In 1914, as war broke out in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson maintained an official policy of neutrality. The main concern was that the United States was not militarily ready to engage, and there was no immediate purpose for American involvement. During the first few years of the war, the United States granted loans to England and France, both of whom were fighting the Germans in Europe. However, the main foreign policy at the time was non-involvement within the war. Many Americans believed that entering the war in Europe would be unfeasible, and there were also concerns that choosing a side in the war would anger immigrant communities who originally came from Germany and Austria.
Once the Germans identified that the United States was sending non-military aid to England and France, they began to target US ships through submarine attacks. This began to see more calls for action against Germany. The United States also began conducting military preparedness inquiries, in case it became involved in the war. However, the turning point for the war was when a cable was intercepted by the Germans for the Mexican government, which proposed an alliance against the United States. Wilson viewed this as a threat to American democracy, and asked the US Congress to officially declare war on Germany. Congress agreed, and declared war on Germany; later that year, it also declared war on Austria-Hungary, which was allied with Germany at the time.
Although the United States’ entry into World War I was instigated by a perceived hostile action by Germany, with the possibility that Mexico would wage war with German help to reclaim several American territories, the war was also motivated by progressive principles. The United States at the time was facing numerous political issues, but the American public by and large believed in values related to liberty and equality. As it became more apparent that Germany was the instigating force in the war, and because Germany had a monarchic system of government under the Emperor Wilhelm II, the general thought was that unchecked German aggression would result in a curtailing of democratic principles in Europe. The intercepted cable that demonstrated German support for Mexican aggression against the United States made this threat apparent in North America as well. Soon, the prevailing thought was that if the United States did not adequately prepare and defend itself against possible German and Mexican aggression, the very values for which Americans had stood for would be under threat. Thus, the United States’ decision to enter the war was not only a defensive action against a hostile power, but an ideological ideal because it was seen as a way to preserve democracy.
Despite having declared war, the United States was not well-equipped to enter combat. The military was small, and the United States was unprepared to engage in war because its policy of neutrality before 1917 had resulted in a lack of preparedness for wartime operations. However, once war was declared, the United States was able to mobilize in a short period. The mobilization of the US military was based upon concepts of organizational efficiency, which had become a valued concept due to corporations that had grown throughout the Progressive era. The United States was able to establish efficient supply chains, recruit members into the military based on the value of patriotism and the preservation of democracy, and by 1918, the United States had engaged in active combat against the Germans in Europe.
The United States’ involvement in the war is largely credited with boosting the morale of allied troops, and turning the tide against the Germans. Although the United States military lacked experience in the new types of warfare that were introduced in the conflict, such as aerial combat, trench warfare, and the introduction of toxic gas as a weapon, the United States was resilient, and with the combined efforts of the allied powers, were able to halt German aggression. After the war, Wilson believed that the key to preserving democracy and other progressive values in the long term was to establish a League of Nations, his vision for a group of nations dedicated toward democracy would not be realized until after World War 2. Nevertheless, the experience of World War I saw the United States become more efficient and organized, as the government was expanded during this time, and there was a renewed interest in patriotism and other progressive values. Once the war had ended, the United States was on its way toward establishing itself as a world power, and it had succeeded in preserving the values that it stood for.
- Chambers, John Whiteclay. The Tyranny of Change: America in the Progressive Era, 1890-1920. Rutgers Univ Pr, 2000.
- Keegan, John. The first world war. Random House, 2014.
- Kennedy, David M. Over here: The first world war and American society. Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Strachan, Hew. The First World War Oxford University Press, 2003.