Woodrow Wilson was first elected president in 1912 and re-elected in 1916. During his first term, and up to April 1917, when he asked Congress to authorize the United States’ entry into the Great War, a large number of events influenced the American public’s opinion about their country’s role in the conflict. The change in opinion was more gradual than sudden. While not everyone endorsed U.S. military action, Wilson’s proposed strategy did enjoy widespread support. On April 2—four days after the president presented his proposal—Congress voted to declare war on Germany; on December 7, 1917, they similarly voted to declare war on Austria-Hungary.
When the war between Britain and Germany began, most Americans saw it as a European conflict. Because there had been no attacks on American property or territories, popular sentiment did not perceive the war’s relevance. Following reports of German atrocities in Belgium in 1914 came the sinking of a British passenger ship, the Lusitania, in 1915, after which anti-German sentiments increased in the United States. Both public and private concerns accelerated anti-German propaganda, and discrimination against German Americans included verbal and physical attacks.
Although the United States was technically not in the war until 1917, the country was involved in the hostilities in several ways before then. U.S. financial support, largely through loans, was crucial to Britain and France’s ability to purchase munitions, materials, and supplies including food. Despite his anti-war stance, Wilson supported the U.S. build-up of equipment, especially ship building.
In 1917, when German attacks on U.S. ships began, opinion changed considerably. Britain had instituted a naval blockade of Germany, which sparked harsh retaliation. In the U-Boat campaign, German submarines relentlessly targeted all North Atlantic traffic, which included U.S. vessels. American opinion was also swayed by news of the Zimmerman Telegram, in which Germany secretly offered to support Mexico in reclaiming territories that the U.S. had taken during the Mexican-American War. This was considered an attack on U.S. sovereignty, and helped turn the tide toward support for the war.