It was called the “War to End All Wars” or as we know it, World War I. The conflict of unprecedented scale raged across the globe amongst 32 nations. At this time, nationalism became the driving force to many nations’ policies. Meanwhile, this period of history conceived the massive political alliances established as balances of power in Europe. Eventually, the fragile peace shattered and the world went to war that would topple empires and create nations. The United States’ stance of neutrality was violated, and it entered as a key player in the conflict. The circumstances and impact of America’s role in the Great War led to the defeat of the Central Powers and resulted in the establishment of the US global hegemony.
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The basis of the complex political web resulting in the Great War was in the conflicts of imperialism at the end of the 19th century. The politics of the era was defined by European powers competing economically as well as for colonial influence. Small regional conflicts in Northern Africa, Middle East, and the Balkans became a position of contention. Each country began massive militarization which led to immediate mobilization at the spark of the conflict in 1914. Conscription was enforced, and the military industry made tremendous technological leaps in the years leading up to and during World War I (Strachan, 2014).
However, the most volatile concept of international politics that sparked the conflict was irrational nationalism in most European nations. Pan-Slavism emerged as a nationalistic force in Eastern Europe, backed by the Russian Empire who saw these nations as part of a Slavic brotherhood that required its protection. Nationalism in Germany closely allied with the Austria-Hungarian Empire became fanatically militaristic, seeking to rediscover the glory of the Prussian Empire and Otto von Bismarck respectively. In France, the rise of nationalism was directed against Germany and the recovery of the Alsace-Lorraine region (Strachan, 2014).
Fearing encirclement by the Triple Entente of Russia, France, and Britain, Germany built the Central Powers alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy. Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia in 1908, sparking massive outrage in Serbia which eventually led to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. The Central Powers declared war on Serbia leading to Russia coming in to protect its Slavic neighbor, thus giving a reason for France and Britain to enter the war along with any of its small European allies and colonies.
One concept theory is based on a Marxist ideology of uneven and combined development which takes logically explains the socio-political origins of the war. The non-linear convergence of causality threads affected a shift in European policymaking towards gestalt tactics. The impact of the war on radical historical contingency cannot be denied (Anievas, 2012).
With the European powers being pulled into the war, the United States declared its absolute neutrality. Many groups expressed non-interventionist opinions, mostly because many felt this was solely a European conflict. The high number of immigrants or their descendants from European ethnic groups also advocated for neutrality as they felt it would bring the nationalistic conflicts of Europe to America.
If the United States joined the war on either side would have ultimately created tension with the ethnic groups of the enemy heritage. Many rural farmers, as well as suffrage groups, adopted stances of neutrality; however, later they advocated for involvement as work in the wartime industry gave them a platform to lobby for their demands. Woodrow Wilson won both his elections on slogans of neutrality and peace. He believed that Europe would see the destruction of war and quickly come to senses about creating peace. Until then, he urged Americans to be “impartial in thought, as well as action” (Keene, 2014a).
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The war in Europe created growth in the American industry, as orders flooded from the troubled continent. Once again practicing neutrality, the US traded with both sides of the conflict. However, there was more sympathy towards the Triple Entente as the Central Powers led by Germany was portrayed as evil by various propaganda.
Germany and Britain were at intense naval warfare with each other, aimed specifically to disrupt Atlantic trade and supplies coming in. Britain blockaded German ports which in turn increased American trade with the Entente threefold. Germany began practicing unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking non-friendly ships heading towards Britain or France. Despite repeated warnings from the United States, the warfare continued, eventually leading to the sinking of RMS Lusitania carrying 127 Americans in May of 1915 (Keene, 2010).
A sequence of actions by Germany enraged the American public since the start of the war. In addition to the sinking of ships with innocent, neutral citizens; Germany, and its allies committed atrocities in occupied nations. The final straw was the intercepted Zimmerman Telegram to the embassy in Mexico, proposing an alliance in case the United States enters into the war. Public sentiment was still hesitant of war, however with Zimmerman publicly confirming the authenticity of the telegram, many demanded action. In January of 1917, Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress asking to declare war on the Central Powers. Although the US struggled with creating a force to be able to fight in Europe, it nevertheless created many reforms for the military and government (Keene 2010).
With Russia exiting the war to deal with domestic problems, the Allied soldiers were losing ground, tired of years of deadly conflict. America’s entrance made a strong impact providing fresh troops and supplies. Continuous blockade and massive gains by the Allied forces severely affected German morale. The Allies began the Hundred Day Offensive pushing the Central Powers on the Western front. With the signing of an armistice on November 11th, 1918, World War I came to an end (Keene 2010).
The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 led to the signing of The Treaty of Versailles. The victorious European powers felt that punishing Germany was the correct route: assigning moral guilt, financial reparations, and taking away territory. Wilson blamed the war on the failure of international diplomacy, which he was determined to improve by designing the Fourteen Points. Future conflict could be prevented by reducing armaments and secret diplomacy, respecting trade and borders, and curbing nationalism. To encourage dialogue, Wilson advocated for the creation of an international diplomatic organization later known as the League of Nations (U.S. History, 2016).
When Wilson was calling for entry into the war in 1917, he realized that the only way to ensure the US post-war global influence was to be present at the negotiating table when things were decided. Although Europeans did not approve of his liberal and humanitarian ideologies, the League of Nations was agreed upon in the Treaty of Versailles. However, back in the United States, the Treaty was never ratified as isolationism prevailed in public opinion, especially after the devastation of the war.
Many felt like it would allow foreign influence and control, eventually entangling the United States into another European conflict. Wilson saw it as his biggest failure. The League of Nations existed but lacked enforcement and investment from major global powers.
Meanwhile, the US post-war economy boomed driven by developed industry, increased spending, and the nation now having access to colonial markets relinquished by European powers. War brought an influx of capital to the country as Europe continued to pay off military contracts. The United States became the financial powerhouse of the world, increasing its political and economic influence (Keene, 2014b).
Anievas, A. (2012). 1914 in world historical perspective: The uneven and combined origins of World War I. European Journal of International Relations, 19(4), 721-746. Web.
Keene, J. D. (2010). United States in the First World War. Malden, VA: Blackwell.
Keene, J. D. (2014a). Americans Respond. Geschichte und Gesellschaft, 40(2), 266-286. Web.
Keene, J. (2014b). What did it all mean? The United States and World War I. [email protected], 22(1), 120-136. Web.
Strachan, H. (2014). The Oxford illustrated history of the First World War. Oxford University Press.
U.S. History. (2016). The Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. Web.