Was Germany to blame for the decision by the United States to enter World War I?
Germany certainly invited the United States into the war in Europe by virtue of its hostile acts directed against the United States, but it is arguable whether the United States was determined to enter the war – or, more precisely, President Woodrow Wilson – irrespective of the triggers for more direct U.S. involvement.
Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, was seemingly pursuing two entirely contradictory policies with regard to the war in Europe at the same time. Whether this was a textbook case of “doublethink” or a serious display of diplomatic intrigue on Wilson’s part is a matter of debate, but his simultaneous pursuit of official neutrality while materially supporting Britain and France would certainly have left German leaders highly dubious of American intentions. On one hand, as the attached eNotes essay points out, Wilson “emphasized the necessity of establishing ‘a peace that will win the approval of mankind,’ a peace based on ‘an equality of rights’ and on the ‘principle that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed’.” On the other hand, he conveniently ignored British provocations – mainly the use of the British Navy to obstruct U.S. trade with Germany – while condemning in the strongest terms German submarine activities in the Atlantic Ocean.
Which brings the discussion around to Germany’s not inconsiderable role in facilitating U.S. entry into the war. Wilson had been critical of German submarine activities in the Atlantic, which threatened U.S. as well as other countries’ shipping. It was Germany’s decision to remove all restraints on its submarine warfare, though, which culminated in the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania on May 7, 1915, which began America’s more determined movement towards war on the side of the Entente, as American public opinion, previously overwhelmingly supportive of neutrality, turned hostile towards Germany. The “final straw,” however, was what became known as “the Zimmermann Telegram.” In January 1917, German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann sent a telegram to his country’s ambassador to Mexico, in which he suggested approaching the Mexican government with a proposal:
“We [the Germans] shall endeavor . . . to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.” [Text of the telegram is available at www.archives.gov/lessons/zimmermann/]
Unfortunately for the Germans, the content of the telegram was intercepted by British Intelligence and forwarded to President Wilson in Washington, D.C. When the existence of the Zimmermann Telegram became known, the American public became even more determined to enter the war on the side of Britain and France.
While Wilson had felt increasingly certain that American neutrality could not be assured indefinitely, the combination of German submarine warfare and the Zimmermann Telegram – both German initiatives – facilitated U.S. entry into the war.