When the Archduke of Austria-Hungary was killed in cold blood, igniting the most destructive war in human history, the initial reaction in the United States was the expected will for neutrality. As a nation of immigrants, The United States would have difficulty picking a side. Despite the obvious ties to Britain based on history and language, there were many United States citizens who claimed Germany and Austria-Hungary as their parent lands. Support of either the Allies or the Central Powers might prove divisive.
In the early days of the war, as Britain and France struggled against Germany, American leaders decided it was in the national interest to continue trade with all sides as before. A neutral nation cannot impose an embargo on one side and continue trade with the other and retain its neutral status. In addition, United States merchants and manufacturers feared that a boycott would cripple the American economy. Great Britain, with its powerful navy, had different ideas.
A major part of the British strategy was to impose a blockade on Germany. American trade with the Central Powers simply could not be permitted. The results of the blockade were astonishing. Trade with England and France more than tripled between 1914 and 1916, while trade with Germany was cut by over ninety percent. It was this situation that prompted submarine warfare by the Germans against Americans at sea.
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany. Wilson cited Germany’s violation of its pledge to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as well as its attempts to entice Mexico into an alliance against the United States, as his reasons for declaring war. On April 4, 1917, the U.S. Senate voted in support of the measure to declare war on Germany. The House concurred two days later. The United States later declared war on German ally Austria-Hungary on December 7, 1917.
The first and most important mobilization decision was the size of the army. When the United States entered the war, the army stood at 200,000, hardly enough to have a decisive impact in Europe. However, on May 18, 1917 a draft was imposed and the numbers were increased rapidly. Initially, the expectation was that the United States would mobilize an army of one million. The number, however, would go much higher. Overall some 4,791,172 Americans would serve in World War I. Some 2,084,000 would reach France, and 1,390,000 would see active combat.
The first military measures adopted by the United States were on the seas. Joint Anglo-American operations were highly successful at stopping the dreaded submarine. Following the thinking that there is greater strength in numbers, the U.S. and Britain developed an elaborate convoy system to protect vulnerable ships. In addition, mines were placed in many areas formerly dominated by German U-boats. The campaign was so effective that not a single American soldier was lost on the high seas in transit to the Western front.
The American Expeditionary Force began arriving in France in June 1917, but the original numbers were quite small. Time was necessary to inflate the ranks of the United States Army and to provide at least a rudimentary training program. The timing was critical.
When the Bolsheviks took over Russia in 1917 in a domestic revolution, Germany signed a peace treaty with the new government. The Germans could now afford to transfer many of their soldiers fighting in the East to the deadlocked Western front. Were it not for the fresh supply of incoming American troops, the war might have followed a very different path.
The new soldiers began arriving in great numbers in early 1918. The “doughboys”, as they were labeled by the French were green indeed. Many fell prey to the trappings of Paris nightlife while awaiting transfer to the front. An estimated fifteen percent of American troops in France contracted venereal disease from Parisian prostitutes, costing millions of dollars in treatment.
The African American soldiers noted that their treatment by the French soldiers was better than their treatment by their white counterparts in the American army. Although the German army dropped tempting leaflets on the African American troops promising a less-racist society if the Germans would win, none took the offer seriously.
By the spring of 1918, the doughboys were seeing fast and furious action. A German offensive came within fifty miles of Paris, and American soldiers played a critical role in turning the tide at Chateu-Thierry and Belleau Wood. In September 1918, efforts were concentrated on dislodging German troops from the Meuse River. Finding success, the Allies chased the Germans into the trench-laden Argonne Forest, where America suffered heavy casualties.
But the will and resources of the German resistance were shattered. The army retreated and on November 11, 1918, the German government agreed to an armistice. The war was over. Over 14 million soldiers and civilians perished in the so-called GREAT WAR.
For the United States the human and economic costs of the war were substantial. The death rate was high: 48,909 members of the armed forces died in battle, and 63,523 died from disease. Many of those who died from disease, perhaps 40,000, died from pneumonia during the influenza-pneumonia epidemic that hit at the end of the war. Some 230,074 members of the armed forces suffered nonmortal wounds.
John Maurice Clark provided what is still the most detailed and thoughtful estimate of the cost of the war; a total amount of about $32 billion. Clark tried to estimate what an economist would call the resource cost of the war. For that reason he included actual federal government spending on the Army and Navy, the amount of foreign obligations, and the difference between what government employees could earn in the private sector and what they actually earned. He excluded interest on the national debt and part of the subsidies paid to the Railroad Administration because he thought they were transfers. His estimate of $32 billion amounted to about 46 percent of GNP in 1918.
(Photo credit: U.S. National Archives )