Terrible Consequences Of First World War Still Afflict American Life Today
Steve Forbes, Forbes.com
ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO today, April 2, 1917, in a dramatic evening address President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. Appropriately, a thunderous rainstorm raged outside. Four days later Congress complied. The U.S. was officially at war with the world's most formidable military power. The future would be dramatically altered, though not in ways anyone could have foreseen.
The unexpected began with the German calculation that the U.S. would have no impact on the ground war in Europe. One high-ranking officer vowed to the Kaiser that not one American soldier would land on the continent. German submarines would see to that! This view reflected the conventional wisdom of the German High Command. Anyway, they reassured one another, the U.S. Army was pitifully small and not well trained. (We had a first-class navy, but that would be of no help in ground battles).
Berlin precipitated American entry into the war when it decided to wage unrestricted submarine warfare against all neutral shipping. No distinction would be made between civilian and military vessels--any ship headed to an Allied port would be torpedoed. Imperial Germany's long-term record of blundering diplomacy continued when, in early 1917, it tried to entice Mexico to go to war against the U.S. in return for much of the territory it had lost in the war with us 70 years before. That revelation and the continuous torpedoing of American ships persuaded a once-reluctant public opinion that we had to enter the conflict.
Germany thought it could starve Britain, which imported most of its food, into submission. Britain responded by inventing the convoy system--protected by destroyers, freighters would sail in groups instead of singly. Even if one ship was sunk, the destroyers would take care of the sub. Britain got all the food it needed, and by the beginning of 1918 the U.S. was sending 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers each week to France. Germany lost the war.
The aftershocks of the Great War on the U.S. were profound. Woodrow Wilson was a utopian, believing the U.S. could show the way to a world of everlasting peace and harmony.