Find: America’s WWI Neutrality Debate

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WWI political cartoon
When World War I began in Europe in 1914, the majority of Americans wanted the United States to stay out of the conflict. Although there was a vocal segment of the population who favored “preparedness” (a strengthening of the U.S. military), support for neutrality and isolationism was strong. Industrialist Henry Ford even organized a “peace ship” to sail to Europe in December 1915 to try to encourage peace talks between the belligerents. However, despite the United States’ initial neutrality, many Americans personally sympathized with Britain, France, and their allies, and American institutions lent huge sums to the Allied governments, giving the U.S. a financial stake in the outcome of the war.

Public opinion began to shift away from neutrality following Germany’s sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, which resulted in the deaths of more than a thousand people, including Americans. Reports of Germany’s atrocities against civilians in Belgium also changed Americans’ opinions, as did the resumption of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917. The final straw in the shift of American public opinion toward involvement in the war was the discovery of the Zimmermann Telegram, in which Germany encouraged Mexico to declare war on the U.S.

By the time President Wilson declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, many Americans had reversed their position on neutrality and instead supported American intervention in order to—as Wilson phrased it—make the world “safe for democracy.”

This shift in American public opinion was captured in the newspaper articles and editorials of the time. You can find a sampling of them below via clippings from Newspapers.com:

  • December 1914: A quote from President Wilson in support of neutrality
  • December 1915: Editorial in support of Henry Ford’s quixotic “peace ship”
  • January 1916: “Peace ship” satiric comic
  • February 1916: Pro-preparedness, anti-pacifism article
  • May 1916: Editorial defending pacifism and criticizing preparedness parade
  • June 1916: Excerpt from editorial defending neutrality
  • June 1916: Letter to the editor defending pacifism
  • April 1917: Political cartoon about America’s potential post-neutrality role
  • April 1917: Editorial associating pacifism with being pro-German and unpatriotic
  • July 1917: Article tracing President Wilson’s move away from neutrality
  • September 1917: Editorial criticizing the peace movement
  • January 1918: Article about pacifist teachers being fired in public schools

Find more articles from the debate surrounding America’s entrance into World War I by searching Newspapers.com.

22 thoughts on “Find: America’s WWI Neutrality Debate

  1. Industrialist Henry Ford was pro Germany in WW1 and pro-Axis in WW2, a prominent America Firster and egregious anti-semite. He was hardly a neutral observer in either conflict.

    • Lee, please post sites where I may follow up on your comments about Henry Ford.

    • I agree- Ford factories in Germany helped supply Germany with its war machinery. When we bombed those factories Ford sued the US government and recovered millions from the American taxpayer…

    • The idea that the United States was neutral in WWI before the German sinking of the Lusitania is a New York/Hollywood-generated lie. The United states had already been supplying Britain with arms and ammunition for use to kill Germans in WWI, a clear act of war against Germany, for a year before U-20 torpedoed Lusitania. In fact Lusitania herself was carrying 4,200,000 rounds of Remington ammunition from the U.S. to Britain when sunk. Moreover, the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. had fairly published front-page ads in New York and other American newspapers warning Americans not to sail on Lusitania, as Germany had openly declared the waters around the British Isles a war zone. Furthermore, the stories of German atrocities in Belgium in WWI were British lies designed to trick the U.S. into siding with Britain against Germany. Germany’s encouragement of Mexico to attack the U.S. was fully justified by the U.S.’s belligerent acts of war against Germany. (A hundred years later, Mexico has finally started listening.)

      • America has always sold weapons to the murderous tribes of the world, in order that they more efficiently do their murdering and recognizing the value, purchase more. America’s great error is not in joining WW1 and WW2, to aid the survival of kindred nations in Western Europe, her error is in dabbling in first hand tactical killing to accomplish strategic goals of world domination. Looking at the world, America did a pretty good job, and now it is with pharma, technology and food. The next “potato famine” will be ghastly, as mono culture corn and wheat succumb to fast mutating pathogens, leading to world wide starvation. Only the very powerful will survive, at polar opposites of civilization.

      • Funny, the Republic of Ireland was supposedly ‘neutral’ during WWII yet it was allowing German U-Boats to refuel in its ports. How does your argument hold that America was actually at war when all it was doing was supplying its industrial might, just as it did in the early stages of WWII. And this notion that “German atrocities in Belgium in WWI were British lies” – utter crap. There’s no doubt such deeds fed the propaganda machine but it’s also well documented that tens of thousands of Belgians perished at the direct hands of the German forces or from starvation or deprivation of shelter. On a similar note, does Holland in WWII sound familiar? My father witnessed it.

  2. What about the Lafayette Escadrille ?
    They were a group of 7 American pilots that went over to fly for France.

    • You are right. What most of the citizens of our country forget that life is a never ending fight to stay alive. We can sit on our haunches and wait to be killed, or kill not to die. Those are the only two choices in life. No other. The silly people who believe that if we sit and do nothing we will be spared are just that, silly. Just wait a few years and see how life will play the game for you. The worse change is now, we have people within who seek to see their own country defeated. Thinking all the while that because they preach peace they will be spared. Silliness, but they will learn. It is called the surprise to the Dumbos. Just wait and your turn to learn will come.

  3. It seems more than overdue that some talk about WWI gets hot.
    You mention some things that effected the decision to enter the war. There are others; some of then are:
    1) The Zimmerman Telegram with our suspicious Brits involved. Zimmerman encourages Mexico to attack our Texas border, as well as to get Japan to attack us also, Germany makes big promises to encourage this. To beat it all for the only time in my life I saw this …Zimmerman admits he sent the Telegram. In some ways Wilson had no choice
    2) Revolution in Russia. Lenin had hoped that Germany would follow Russia into a Communist revolution…we had to watch closely.
    3) We could make money selling to our new allies
    Also note that Germany took out a good sized Ad in the New York Times warning Americans to avoid the Lusitania because it was carrying war materials…it was.

    Thers should be 50 books on this topic especially now that in April 2017 that Wilson declares war.

  4. Dear Costello, suggest you head to the nearest library and read books. You might be surprised what information you will find in them. Nothing in the article was new or secret. There are books and books on them and even magazine articles. And have been for years.

  5. I”m not a historian.. more of a history hobbyist. The People’s Tycoon is one book about Henry Ford that comes off the top of my head.

    Henry Ford’s became ultra wealthy as near to overnight as anyone not winning the lottery. In my opinion, he was borderline crazy. He was perhaps the greatest self promoter of all time. Through his self promotion, he took credit for and has been given credit for his own assent as well as almost everything by all other pioneers of the Automotive Industry… even at the expense of his family’s reputation.

  6. The Germans had a policy of schrecklichkeit, awfulness, deliberate and violent reaction to any hint of opposition. If a sniper killed a German, they would round up a dozen or so civilians and shoot them to deter resistance. It was bad in Belgium, but even worse in the east. One general had all POWs in a hospital shot because he was going to retreat. This was a deliberate policy and there was some talk after the war of trying the Kaiser. So the viciousness of the Nazis had its origins with the Imperial forces in WW I. The Nazis were far worse, but not the first time Germans had done such things.

    • This total lack of a moral compass really started through out Germany, Russia, and all the Balkans well before WW 1. Actually, Germany probably held on to some sort of civility longer than some. If you read the history of the previous century, the killing is wanton. Also, the Muslims were a problem for them. The fear the Left has of Nationalism and their push for open borders makes sense to them because of this era. They have misread the entire history of the times.

  7. Really any of the major world powers were all capable and committing brutal acts. The United States not long before in the war with the native Indian population or ithe European powers treatment of the local population in places in Africa and Asia. The British empire was probably responsible for the deaths of more people than any nation on earth at the dawn of the 20th century.

  8. Lowell Thomas was working in Arabia and imotalized Lawrence of Arabia as a way toi draw American into the war. One important fact is largly overlooked. Britain promised the revolting Arabs that they woudl be one country with self rule as a reward for their fighitng German’s ally, the Turks. As the same time Britain made that promise, they also entered int a seceret treaty, Sykes-Picout, agreeing France an Britain were going to divide Arabia between themselves and not keep the promise of a united self ruled county there. The Arabs kept their word and took vital points like Acaba and Damascus. At the Paris Peace Treaty, Wilson stood by and accepted the deception perpetrated by Britain and France. Giving the Arabs reason to distrust the US as well as France and Britain, who lied to them. Trouble’s roots sometimes go deep.

  9. I think anyone should watch Benjamin Freedman’s speech at the Willard Hotel in YouTube. He gives lots of answers regarding the topic of the World Wars.
    Watch it.

  10. Check out the detail on WW1 and WW2, far behind the lines are big companies (and people) making huge sums of money and through hidden agenda’s funding both sides to keep the wars going, just to make money. It is and has always been all about money and someone’s or some group’s personal interest, including every conflict thereafter. All the lives lost are just a “cost of business” – shame.

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