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World War I “German policy after January 1917 forced the United States to declare war.”

Research Paper 1: World War I: “German policy after January 1917 forced the United States to
declare war.” Assess the validity of this statement. (Stay within the time period of January 1917
– April 1917)
Siyuan Sun
February 3, 2019
Spring A 2019
AMH 2020_11YG
In the beginning of 1917, two and half years after World War I erupted, the Central
Powers and the Allied Powers were fighting vehemently, while the United States was keeping
neutrality, a position that the vast majority of Americans favored. However, the United States
formally declared war on Germany on April 4, 1917. During the period of January 1917 to April
1917, German policy absolutely forced the United States to declare war. The unrestricted
submarine warfare, the Zimmermann Telegram, and killings to innocent Americans are series of
incidents caused by Germany which directly resulted in the participation of America in war.
Despite all this, according to my analysis from financial and political perspectives, German
policy was not the only thing that implicated the United States in war; great economic interests
and an outstanding international status were also significant motivations for America to join the
On January 31, 1917, German announced that unrestricted submarine warfare to British
would be effective the next day, which meant they would sink all ships that entered the war zone
around Britain without warning, regardless the ship was neutral or otherwise. This action
severely hurt the relationship between the United States and Germany, because it reminded
Americans of the sorrowful memories about the Lusitania Tragedy. On May 7, 1915, a huge
British ocean liner named Lusitania was sunk by Germany in submarine warfare. 1,198 people
were dead on board, including 128 Americans. In the United States, both civilians and politicians
were outraged, including Theodore Roosevelt who wanted to declare war on Germany. Even
facing tremendous pressure from entire society, President Woodrow Wilson still insisted that
America should keep in a neutral position. On May 4, 1916, German issued the Sussex Pledge,
which would prevent tragedies like the Lusitania from happening again by promising that
passenger ships would not be targeted anymore. This “implied the virtual abandonment of
submarine warfare” (Shi p.991).
The pledge was generally honored until the announcement of the unrestricted submarine
warfare. The unrestricted submarine warfare revealed that Germany was not afraid of war with
America. Even though Germany did not directly declare war on America, it was still an
enormous threat to American lives and properties. Due to the tragedies happened in the past two
years, there is no doubt that German were taking the risk that they may injure or kill more
Americans. At that time, with the persistence of President Wilson, America was still sticking to
neutrality. Wilson just offered to mediate an end to the war in Europe and tried to obtain a
“peace without victory” (Shi p.994). In spite of past promises, Germany constantly threatened a
country trying to maintain neutrality, which equaled a provocation to America. Therefore, “On
February 3, 1917, Wilson told a joint session of Congress that the United States had broken
diplomatic relations with the German government” (Shi p.994). The unrestricted submarine
warfare enraged American and disappointed Wilson. An outcry of this policy and a request of
joining war were increasingly growing in American society, especially after the Zimmermann
Telegram was disclosed to the world.
The Zimmermann Telegram, which showed that Germany attempted to drag America
into the war, demonstrated its conspiracy, and helped generate support for the United States
declaration of war on Germany in April. In January 1917, German Foreign Office issued a secret
diplomatic communication which was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence. The
telegram aimed at inciting Mexica to provoke a war with America: “…we make Mexico a
proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous
financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory
in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona” (Zimmermann). The telegram was showed to the secretary
of the United States Embassy in Britain and later posted on American newspapers on March 1.
This newfound publicity of the contents enraged Americans, especially after German Foreign
Secretary Arthur Zimmermann publicly admitted the telegram was genuine on March 3. Even
though Germany mentioned “we shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of
America neutral” (Zimmermann), the Zimmermann Telegram revealed that German was ready to
spread the flame of war to America. Germany’s promise to reward Mexico with American land
was considered an attack against American territorial integrity. After this violation of national
dignity, the voice for declaring war on Germany was pushed to a higher point in America. This
was the key event that turned the American public from neutral ground at home to the trenches
of Europe.
What strengthened the determination of Americans to join the war was the killings to
their innocent citizens. “In March 1917, German submarines sank five U.S. merchant vessels in
the North Atlantic” (Shi p.995). At that time, America was not involved in the war, but
Americans were still losing their lives and properties to accidents caused by Germany. This was
not acceptable to American public and government and was the last straw for President Wilson
to make a final decision.
On April 2, 1917, President Wilson petitioned Congress for a declaration of war against
Germany. “The Imperial German Government has committed repeated acts of war against the
people of the United States of America . . . the state of war between the United States and the
Imperial German Government, which has thus been thrust upon the United States, is hereby
formally declared” (Wilson). Only two days later, on April 6, the war resolution passed by a vote
of 82 to 6 in Senate. Before this, a neutrality was always kept in American attitude and stance on
World War I since the war erupted in Europe. Even though the deaths of 128 Americans in the
Lusitania Tragedy set off a wave of appealing to declare war against Germany, President Wilson
still kept America from war and wished for a peace in Europe to maintain global political
landscape stable. On the contrary, German policy after January 1917 was constantly challenging
Americans’ bottom line. With the Zimmermann Telegram revealed and the number of dead
Americans increasing, the prestige and dignity of the United States were trampled repeatedly.
Therefore, America had to declare war on Germany, even though it is not wanted by President
Wilson who made appeals for world peace. Thus, it can be seen that the United States was pulled
into World War I by Germany.
Although German policy directly caused the participation of the United States in war,
there were also other underlying reasons pushing American troops to the battlefield in Europe.
Since the war started in Europe, gunfire burnt cropland; bayonets bled farmers; cannonballs
collapsed factories, and bullets killed workers. Agriculture and industry had been severely
hammered, which caused the demand for food and war supplies to increase dramatically in
countries engaged. On the other side of the world, the United States was away from the flames of
war, an incredible economic boom was generated by selling war supplies to the Allies. War
consumes money so fast. Allies, especially British and France, were so short on finance, that
they needed loans from America. At the beginning of the war, only short-term loans to desperate
Allied countries could be approved by President Wilson to maintain trade. As the war raged on,
demand on finance and war supplies kept growing. Soon afterwards, all restrictions on loans
were removed. “American investors would eventually advance over $2 billion to the Allies
before the United States entered the war, and only $27 million to Germany” (Shi p.988). If the
Allied Powers lost this war, they need to pay huge reparations to the Central Powers, possibly
even lose their nations, and most likely America would not get their money back again.
Therefore, American did not want Allied Powers lose. This was one of the reasons why President
Wilson appealed for peace: if both sides ended the war without victory, all loans from American
are still valid; if one side won, there is a big chance that the lost side cannot afford loans. But
neither side wanted to give up, therefore the only way to end this war was fight until one side
win. In addition, the new Russian government did not want war anymore because the February
Revolution had broken out in Russia in February 1917. As an important role in the Allied
Powers, if Russia quit this war, the Allies were less likely to win. So, to minimize possible
losses, America needed to join the war to ensure the Allies do not lose.
Before the United States joined the war, the Allied Powers and the Central Powers had
fought for two and half years. Both sides were suffering great losses, and the war came to a
deadlock. At this point, if America join the war to fight against Germany, the Allies will have
much greater chance to win, and the United States would become the greatest contributor to this
victory. This would help America obtain a higher international status, increase political clout
worldwide, and claim reparations from conquered countries.
Therefore, German policy forced the United States to declare war. However, this was not
the only reason why America joined the war, the underlying reason was that American could
directly benefit from this war.
Works Cited
Shi, David Emory and George Brown Tindall. The American: A Narrative History. Upper Saddle
River, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016. Print.
Zimmermann, Arthur. The Zimmermann Telegram, 1917
Wilson, Woodrow. United States declaration of war on Germany, 1917