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Why America Fought

The lessons of World War I

Aug 11, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 45 • By DAVID ADESNIK
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Diplomatic conventions conceived in the age of sail and steam were not readily adjustable to the advent of submarine warfare. In theory, the German Navy had the right to sink any vessel carrying war materiel to Allied ports after conducting an inspection of its cargo and after ensuring the safety of the crew. Observing such conventions entailed tremendous risks for German submarines, since they moved slowly and had thin hulls. Their main advantage was surprise, yet they had to surface in order to inspect Allied cargo vessels. At that point, a cargo ship could ram the U-boat or, if it were armed, direct its fire at a stationary target.

The tension inherent in this mismatch between technology and tradition ensured that submarine warfare would become a flashpoint in German-American relations during the first years of the war. While many U-boats scrupulously followed the rules, some did not. On May 7, 1915, only three months after the onset of submarine warfare, U-20 sank the Lusitania, a British passenger liner, without warning. The Lusitania sank in only 18 minutes, resulting in the deaths of almost 1,200 passengers, among them 128 Americans. Whole families perished. Paul and Gladys Crompton died along with all six of their children, one still an infant.

There was widespread outrage in the United States, yet few calls for war. Publicly, the Germans refused to concede either the immorality or the illegality of the sinking, yet they maintained a commitment to respect the rights of neutrals. Privately, the kaiser expressed deep regret, later telling the American ambassador in Berlin he would have forbidden the sinking if he could have, since “no gentleman would kill so many women and children.” Accordingly, the kaiser issued secret orders to the navy forbidding future attacks on large passenger ships.

For more than a year, heated diplomatic exchanges followed every significant infringement of the rules by a German U-boat. Yet during the entire period of neutrality, only three Americans sailing on American ships lost their lives as a result of a U-boat attack. Another 62 perished while aboard British or other belligerent vessels. According to John Milton Cooper, the most prominent historian of Wilson’s presidency, “the threat of war was in remission” during the latter half of 1916.

The Rupture of U.S.-German Relations

American voters reelected Woodrow Wilson by a three-point margin in November 1916, although a shift of only 4,000 votes in California would have given a majority in the Electoral College to Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes. Wilson’s advocates relentlessly reminded voters, “He kept us out of war.” Yet less than a month into his second term, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany.

On January 31, 1917, the German ambassador in Washington, Count Johann von Bernstorff, informed Secretary of State Robert Lansing that on the following day the German Navy would initiate a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare. In other words, Germany would embark on the wholesale violation of laws of war it had repeatedly acknowledged as binding over the past two years. American ships would be sunk without warning. The announcement came as a shock to Washington.

Although wartime propaganda would later portray Germany as the land of bestial Huns, Americans mostly considered the Reich to be a civilized nation, despite its frequently unbecoming conduct. There was little sense that Wilhelmine Germany was a criminal state run by brutal extremists, like the future Third Reich.

In response to the German announcement, President Wilson embraced a policy of incredulity. He told a joint session of Congress on February 3 that while he had no choice but to sever diplomatic ties,

I refuse to believe that it is the intention of the German authorities to do in fact what they have warned us they will [do]. I cannot bring myself to believe that they will .  .  . destroy American ships and take the lives of American citizens in the willful prosecution of the ruthless naval program they have announced their intention to adopt.

While enraged by the German announcement, both congressmen and newspaper editors overwhelmingly supported Wilson’s policy. 

Armed Neutrality 

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