World War I

Start Free Trial

Why did the United States enter World War I?

Quick answer:

After remaining neutral since the war's start, the United States entered World War I because Germany continued to wage unrestricted submarine warfare, which resulted in the sinking of American ships. The interception of the Zimmerman Telegram, in which Germany petitioned Mexico to join against the US, was another major factor. On April 6, 1917, Congress decided to declare war on Germany.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The United States entered the war because of the Germans' decision to resume the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, and the so-called "Zimmerman telegram," intercepted by the British, in which Germany floated the idea of an alliance with Mexico. Unrestricted submarine warfare, a desperate effort to counter the British blockade of Germany, would lead to the sinking of American merchant ships heading for England, and had been employed by the Germans before. They abandoned it in the face of US pressure earlier in the war. Its resumption was enough to cause Woodrow Wilson to renounce his stated position of neutrality, as his war speech to Congress demonstrates:

The new policy has swept every restriction aside. Vessels of every kind, whatever their flag, their character, their cargo, their destination, their errand, have been ruthlessly sent to the bottom without warning and without thought of help or mercy for those on board, the vessels of friendly neutrals along with those of belligerents.

While there was significant opposition to the war in the United States, the official position was that the nation could not tolerate such an imposition on its rights as a sovereign nation, to say nothing of the effect of the Zimmerman telegram. American entry into the war broke what had been a bloody stalemate. US troops were instrumental in repulsing a German offensive, and led the way in an Allied offensive, the combined effect of which fatally weakened the German army. Politically, many Europeans hoped that US entry in the war would result in a treaty based on Wilson's Fourteen Points, but the Treaty of Versailles that officially ended the conflict contained few of its provisions.

Approved by eNotes Editorial

Videos

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

World War I is the "Great War", the war to end all wars. The United States wanted the world to know, we were NEUTRAL, but were we really?

Politically, economically and psychologically, we were not isolated by any means. The U.S. did not want to commit to a war, continents away. Let those in war's path do the dirty work, we would make money off of their involvment. It was enevitable and we were doing our part in other ways.

We sold our allies war supplies, remember the Lusitania and so many ships traveling cross-Atlantic?

We made gained ecomonic profits, we did see our young men rally, volunteer and die with our allies, and yes we provided strategic support in many realms.

Did we have a choice? Neutrality in its pure form was not an option. The Industrial Revolution bound the world together. We could not publically commit in 1914, but in 1917 we had little choice due to the losses of our allies.

The United States people saw itself as the "savior" of the righteous, but our politicians had already set us up by involving the U.S. behind closed doors.

This was a war that resulted from Industrialization, Nationalism and Imperialism. The world was changed forever. Larger countries felt a moral duty to defend and profit.

Consider this, the world was in a great depression and the world was left in a greater depression following WWI.

One thing we would never stand for was the "Zimmerman" telegraph event. The Monroe Doctorine would be defended, no matter what the cost.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

While the official trigger was the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and of course the emotional reaction to the Zimmerman note, I think more crucial was the combination of the ideological sympathy of the progressive with the Allied Powers over the Central Powers, and the strong financial incentive for American Capital for an Allied victory, of which they were heavily invested.  President Wilson also believed by entering the war on the side of the allies he could affect the terms of the peace to provide a just and lasting piece, something he did not think he could influence as a neutral observer.  While there was a sizeable population of Americans of german descent in the United States as well as those of Irish descent who were very unsympathetic with the United Kingdom, the overwhelming economic ties in Europe were to the Western Allies over the Central Powers.  Thus the British Blockade of the Central Powers did not cause the same degree of reaction as the German blockade of the U.K. and France.  Submarines were also viewed as underhanded and "sneaky" as opposed to the surface vessels used by the British in their blockade.

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The United States, led by President Woodrow Wilson, did not want to be involved in World War I. When Wilson ran for re-election in 1916, his campaign slogan was "He kept us out of the war" referring to the European conflict that was then referred to as the "Great War." However, by 1917, sentiment was changing with regard to the war.

Although the U.S. had yet to become officially involved in the war, most Americans supported the Allies and saw the Germans as aggressors. Americans felt a connection to Great Britain, in particular, because of cultural similarities. Germany angered Americans with their U-boats sinking American ships suspected of aiding the Allies. With the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, a British cruise ship, 128 Americans were among those who lost their lives. The Germans temporarily halted such actions but in 1917 resumed unrestricted Naval warfare. At the same time, the British intercepted a message, called the Zimmerman Note, asking the government of Mexico to declare war on the U.S., if war broke out between the U. S. and Germany. The note also promised to help Mexico regain the territory of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico if Mexico declared war on the United States. This note was the final push that Wilson needed to turn public sentiment towards war. The U.S. Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Since the beginning of World War I in 1914, the United States, under President Woodrow Wilson, had maintained strict neutrality, other than providing material assistance to the Allies. Even in May 1915, when a German submarine sank the British ocean liner Lusitania, killing 128 U.S. citizens out of a total 1,200 dead, the United States, though in uproar, remained neutral.

In January 1917, Germany announced that it would lift all restrictions on submarine warfare starting on February 1. This declaration meant that German U-boat commanders were suddenly authorized to sink all ships that they believed to be providing aid of any sort to the Allies. Because the primary goal was to starve Britain into surrendering, the German effort would focus largely on ships crossing the Atlantic from the United States and Canada.

The first victim of this new policy was the American cargo ship Housatonic, which a German U-boat sank on February 3, 1917. Although Wilson tried hard to keep the United States neutral, by the spring of 1917, the situation had changed significantly, and neutrality no longer seemed feasible. Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare was taking its toll, as American ships, both cargo and passenger, were sunk one after another. Finally, on April 2, Wilson appeared before Congress and requested a declaration of war. Congress responded within days, officially declaring war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why did the US enter World War I?

As World War I began, the United States voiced its intention to remain neutral, a policy which held widespread support among the American people. Yet in April of 1917, the United States would enter the war on the side of the Allies. This raises the following question: what changed in the preceding time to cause such a reversal?

Famously, one of the critical points of contention between the United States and Germany lay in Germany's use of submarine warfare. What you should remember, however, was that the use of submarines was one of the only resources Germany had to counter British naval superiority. However, this tactic, which relied on the use of surprise attacks, resulted in high death tolls and greatly damaged relations between Germany and the United States. The outcry was so great that Germany agreed to offer warnings before launching these attacks, but, under pressure from the British blockade, this policy would not hold, and Germany would later announce its intention to employ unrestricted submarine warfare.

As if this was not enough, there was another critical turning point that would dramatically shape the United States's attitude towards the war. In January of 1917, British intelligence would intercept the Zimmerman telegraph, a secret communication from Germany to Mexico, involving a potential alliance between the two countries should the United States enter the war. These turning points were critical in shaping American intervention, siding with the Allies against the Central Powers.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why did the US enter World War I?

The decision by the Wilson Administration to enter World War I on behalf of the Allied Powers was motivated by a mixture of high-ideals and economic self-interest. There can be no doubt that President Wilson genuinely believed that American involvement in the war would help to make the world safe for democracy. At the same time, there were other, less altruistic concerns that he took into consideration before making such an important decision.

The increasing aggressiveness of German submarine activity in the Atlantic was having a damaging impact on American exports to Europe. The Germans attacked and sank a large number of US merchant ships, which inevitably caused consternation among American business interests, who became among the most vocal supporters of the United States' entry into the war. Though he didn't want war and had tried his best to keep the United States neutral in the conflict, Wilson could not ignore the growing clamor for action from the American business community.

Nor, for that matter, could he ignore public opinion. The rising tide of civilian casualties was arguably the biggest single factor behind growing support for US involvement in the war among the American people. The German sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania, which claimed the lives of nearly 1,200 people, had a particularly strong impact upon American public opinion, especially because many of those killed were American citizens.

Before long, support for US entry into the war became too strong for the Wilson Administration to resist, and so the United States formally entered the First World War on April 6, 1917.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why did the US enter World War I?

There are two main factors that led the United States to enter World War I after having stayed neutral for so long.

First, there was the fact that the Germans had resumed unlimited submarine warfare.  This had been a point of contention between Germany and the US for most of the war.  The Germans had stopped using the tactic for a time, but started up again in January of 1917.  A number of American ships were sunk in March of that year, leading to the declaration of war in April.   The US felt that this type of warfare was illegal and inhumane.  The government also did not like the fact that it reduced American trade with Britain.

The other immediate cause was the Zimmermann Telegram, which tried to persuade Mexico to enter the war so as to keep the US tied down at home and unable to help the Allies in Europe.  This angered many Americans.  Americans were particularly angered by the fact that the Germans offered to give Mexico land that the US had taken from it in the Mexican-American War. 

These two factors led to the end of US neutrality in this war.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why did the US enter World War I?

The primary events that led to the United States declaration of war against Germany were the Zimmerman Telegram and Germany's announced intention to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.

American sentiment had leaned toward the Allies and against the Central powers for some time. Americans felt a common affinity toward the British because of the common language. Also Woodrow Wilson made no attempt to hide his disdain for persons of German ancestry. He once referred to German Americans as "hyphenated Americans."  Sentiment against the Germans was also intensified after the sinking of RMS Lusitania in 1915; however this was NOT the cause of U.S. entry into the war. After that event President Wilson famously commented "there is such a thing as being too proud to fight."

Following the sinking of the Lusitania Germany had issued its Arabic Pledge (sometimes known as the Sussex Pledge) in which the High Command promised it would no longer sink Allied ships without first giving appropriate warning. Several things changed this: The British often few the flags of neutral countries on their ships, and also rammed German U-boats while pretending to allow boarding. Then too the war was at a stalemate, and the Germans had to do something to move the war effort. This led to their notice on January 31, 1917 that Germany would resume unrestricted submarine warfare the next day.

On February 25, 1917, President Wilson received an intercepted German telegram to the German Embassy in Mexico City that offered to Mexico the "lost territory" of Arizona, New Mexico, etc. (land lost by Mexico to the U.S. in the Mexican American War of 1848) if Mexico would declare war on the U.S. The British had intercepted the telegram, and delivered it to the U.S. in an obvious attempt to secure U.S. entry into the war on the Allied side. On March 17, 1917, Germany sank five U.S. merchant vessels, and President Wilson delivered a war message to Congress on April 2. War was declared on April 6, 1917.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why did the United States enter World War I?  

The United States entered World War I (1914–1918) despite a long history of isolationism. Since its inception, America had stayed out of European wars, so why did it enter WWI in 1917? There are three reasons—one primary and two secondary—why the US joined the conflict: Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare, the Zimmermann Telegram, and President Woodrow Wilson's idealism.

After the commencement of hostilities in 1914, America attempted to trade with both sides. But the British had other ideas. Britain had the world's most powerful navy, and they blockaded Germany. Germany responded to this threat with submarine warfare. Because of the British blockade, American trade with the Allies increased as its commerce with Germany shrunk. In 1915, the Germans sank the Lusitania, killing over one thousand civilians. The Lusitania was a passenger ship that was carrying ammunition for the Allies. In fact, Germany had warned civilians not to travel on ships carrying weapons. In any case, America protested, so Germany suspended unrestricted submarine warfare for two years. The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 led directly to American entry in the war.

The other reasons for American involvement were collateral to the primary cause of unrestricted submarine warfare. In 1917, Germany sent a message to Mexico: the Zimmermann Telegram. It promised Mexico that it could regain territory lost to the US in the Mexican War if Mexico joined Germany in a potential war against America. President Wilson released the intercepted message to the press. His decision to enter the conflict in 1917 was important as he urged Congress to declare war. Wilson strongly believed that US entry into the war was essential for American security and, ultimately, for world peace.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why did the United States enter World War I?  

There are two possible answers to this question.

First, we can look at the actual immediate causes that led the US into the war.  One such cause was the Zimmermann Telegram, in which the Germans tried to get Mexico to enter the war against the US.  Mexico was to be rewarded with the land that the US had taken from it in the Mexican-American War.  This naturally turned American opinion against Germany. More important, though, was the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare.  The Germans badly needed to cut off supplies to England.  They tried to do so by using submarines, which would sink ships without warning.  Germany had promised to stop doing this, but then went back on that promise and sank American ships.  This was the immediate cause of America’s entry into the war.

However, we might also look at deeper, root causes of the US’s entry.  Basically, it was in the economic interests of the US to enter the war.  The country did much more trade with England than with Germany.  The British also owed the US a great deal of money by 1917.  Many historians believe that these economic calculations also entered into the decision to get involved in the war.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why did the United States get involved in World War I?

An excellent answer, the sinking of shipping and the Zimmerman telegram were the overt reasons America got into the war.  The Lusitania incident was the most widely publicized, a little ironic when you consider that the Amercian government and the major newspapers all knew that the ship had been carrying 200 tons of munitions to Britain, thus making the Lusitania a legitimate military target under the laws of naval warfare.  But further shipping losses and the lives of civilian passengers, including both American and other neutral citizens, led to widespread outrage.

The underlying reason for eventual American involvement , however, was the same thing that led Britain into the war.  The British recognized it even before the war began, and President Wilson reluctantly shared the same view; a German victory over France would leave Europe dominated by a militarist power, and that simply could not be allowed.  The long-term consequences would have been too dangerous.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why did the United States get involved in World War I?

Most people in the United States initially did not want to get involved in World War I but several factors pushed the country into the war.  First, most Americans were sympathetic to the British cause.  We had much in common with them such as language and literature.  Most Americans also did not trust Kaiser Wilhelm, who was an autocratic ruler.  The issues that really pushed America into the war included German submarine warfare.  After the Germans sunk the Lusitania, a British passenger ship including 128 Americans, the United States expressed its outrage.  Although the Germans promised in the  Sussex Pledge in 1916 to at least warn ships before shooting at them, they did not keep their end of the bargain and no ships were safe in the Atlantic.  A second reason was the Russian Revolution which allowed Americans to be more comfortable about a war alliance that included Russia. Most Americans had abhorred the autocratic Russian State and did not want to work in an alliance with them.  A final reason America entered the war was the publication of the Zimmerman letter which proved that Germany was taking a strategic interest in attacking with the United States.  It did not matter that Mexico was too torn by internal strife to be interested in Germany's offer, it only mattered that the Germans were interested.  In April of 1917, the United States officially declared war on Germany.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on