The late 1800s and early 1900s were years of imperialist competition. Imperialist
nations competed intensely for the few bits of land that remained and sought to dominate
or influence other, smaller nations. Germany was particularly aggressive and began
increasing its armed forces, including its navy. Nations were concerned that this
competition could lead to war and began to strengthen their military forces. Great
Britain, in particular, felt threatened by Germany's efforts to increase its navy. Seeking
even greater security, some nations formed alliances that were not always known
For instance, during the late 1800s, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy joined in a
secret alliance called the Triple Alliance. Fearing this alliance, Great Britain, France, and
Russia joined together in the Triple Entente. At the same time, smaller nations sought
protection from larger ones. Russia for example, promised to protect the small nation of
Serbia from Austria-Hungary. In 1908, Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia, which was
next to Serbia. Nationalism was also growing in Europe, even among small nations or
among people who did not currently have a nation, but did have a cultural or ethnic
Meanwhile, the U.S. refused to join any alliance. It maintained its traditional policy
of neutrality in European affairs. Unfortunately, the competitive imperialist climate,
increasing militarism, and the alliance system helped plunge the world into war. On June
28, 1914, a Bosnian Serb who was a pro-Serbian nationalist assassinated the Austrian
Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The Archduke was the
nephew of the Austro-Hungarian emperor and his heir.
Austria-Hungary claimed Serbia was partly responsible for the assassination. With
Germany's support, they issued ultimatums to Serbia, mobilized their armed forces, and
declared war on Serbia on July 28th. Honoring its pledge to protect Serbia, Russia also
mobilized. Germany honored its alliance to Austria-Hungary and declared war on Russia
on August 1st. France then mobilized to honor its alliance with Russia. When they
refused to stop, Germany invaded neutral Luxembourg and declared war on France on
August 3rd. They then invaded neutral Belgium that night in order to pass through it and
attack France. Britain was committed to defend Belgium and declared war on Germany
on August 4th.
France and Britain joined Russia in an alliance called the Allied Powers. Meanwhile
Germany and the Ottoman Empire joined Austria-Hungary in an alliance called the
Central Powers. Within months of the Archduke's assassination most of Europe's
powerful nations were locked in a deadly conflict called the Great War (later renamed
World War I).
When war broke out in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson once again reaffirmed
America's neutrality. He also insisted on America's right as a neutral nation to transport
non-war materials to warring nations. Although both Britain and Germany interfered
with American ships, the deadly attacks of German submarines most angered Americans.
Not wishing to offend the U.S., the Germans limited their attacks for several years. But
in early 1917, the Germans ordered unlimited submarine warfare on any ships in the war
zone, including American ships. Outraged at the continuing attacks, the U.S. declared
war on Germany in April 1917.
With America's entry into the war, President Wilson did not just seek the defeat of the
Central Powers. He also sought a permanent world peace. Towards this end, Wilson
announced in early 1918 his famous plan, called the Fourteen Points. Of particular
significance was the 14th point, which called for the creation of a world confederation
called the League of Nations. By urging the creation of this organization and U.S.
membership in it, Wilson proposed that the U.S. abandon its old policies of isolationism
and neutrality.
In France, much of the war was a stalemate with the troops on both sides dug into
trenches (trench warfare). However, gradually the Allied Powers wore down the Central
Powers. When America entered the war in 1917, it started to provide a large number of
new troops for the Allied side. Meanwhile, the war was causing severe internal political
problems in Russia. The government there was overthrown in a revolution in 1917.
Russia concluded a separate peace with the Central Powers in March 1918. Even with
the withdrawal of Russia from the Allied side, Germany asked for an armistice in late
1918. World War I came to an end.
Soon afterwards, Wilson and the other Allied leaders met in Paris, France to negotiate
a peace treaty (the Treaty of Versailles). Among its provisions was a redrawing of the
map of Europe. The leaders established new nations, such as Czechoslovakia, and
recreated Poland on land taken from Germany, Austria-Hungary, and other defeated
Central Powers. Over the objections of Wilson, the treaty severely punished Germany by
stripping away its colonies and forcing it to pay heavy reparations. But the treaty did
include Wilson's major goal -- the League of Nations.
Much to Wilson's disappointment, America did not support his new internationalist
foreign policy. Many Americans feared that membership in the League would only result
in American participation in more foreign wars. In 1919, the U.S. Senate rejected both
the Treaty and the League. In rejecting the League, the U.S. returned to its traditional
policy of isolationism. America's brief experiment with internationalism ended.