When the First World War broke out in August of 1914, most Americans were reluctant to get involved in a European conflict. American President Woodrow Wilson issued a Declaration of American Neutrality and set his sights on becoming the peacemaker between the warring nations. Although the United States, given its heritage, had a natural affinity for the British, it also had a considerable population of German background.
American neutrality began to erode with the sinking, by submarine, of the British ship Lusitania in 1915, which led to the deaths of a number of Americans. In 1917, Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic and the United States broke off diplomatic ties. Nevertheless, Wilson remained opposed to American entry into the war. The publication of the “Zimmerman Telegram” turned American public opinion against Germany, however. In this document, Germany offered to help Mexico recover the lands it had lost to the United States in the 1840s in exchange for Mexican support in the war. Continued attacks on American ships led to an American declaration of war against Germany in April of 1917. A number of congressmen and senators, particularly from the heavily German mid-west, opposed the declaration.
The country went on a war footing almost immediately. Although many Americans, especially those of German background, continued to oppose the war, civil liberties were suspended, protestors were jailed, a draft was instituted, industry was forcibly streamlined and put on a war footing, and German-American cultural institutions were suppressed. Hamburgers were renamed “liberty steaks” and sauerkraut “liberty cabbage.” Fortunately, this food nomenclature did not prevail after the war ended. Even the disease “German measles” took a “liberty measles” nickname for some time. These trends seem a little silly today, but they represent a true instance of xenophobic hysteria.
It is a matter of debate whether the large American presence in the war on the side of the British and French actually turned the tide in favor of the allies. It certainly helped. American forces did not enter the war to any meaningful extent until the spring of 1918. In only a few months, more than 100,000 Americans lost their lives, with twice that number wounded. These sacrifices assured that nearly every city and town in the United States that existed at the time has a memorial or statue to commemorate its local citizens who did not return.
The horror of this war, though much less than that suffered by the Europeans, led to new strains of isolationism in American life in the decades that followed. During the war, industries employed women in what had previously been men’s jobs, giving women a taste for freedom and full inclusion in society as never before. The women’s suffrage movement had agitated for votes for women for several generations. Women won this right with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution 1920.
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