The First World War occurred in Europe in 1914 and lasted for almost five years. This global conflict had many reasons and consequences. Historians throughout the world still discuss causes of the Great War. The main goals of this paper are to analyze aspects that led to the war and evaluate America’s contribution to resolving this conflict.
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Nationalism, Imperialism, and Militarism
Increasing military power, nationalism, and imperialism resulted in the First World War. Aggressive national pride often elicits murderous hatred of other countries (French, 2014). Nationalistic groups cultivated belligerence throughout Europe. Pan-Slavism was a movement in Eastern Europe that emphasized common ethnic characteristics among several Slavic nations. This movement united some countries in order to achieve political goals together. Pan-Slavism was initiated in the mid-nineteenth century by various scientists, writers, and artists. Followers of this movement cultivated a sense of national identity through folklore. Similar nationalistic groups occurred in German-speaking states. Pan-Germanism was aimed at uniting all people who spoke German. This movement is rooted in the war of liberation that took place at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Pan-Germanists wanted to create one powerful nation that would include Germans, Austrian, and Scandinavians.
Another important aspect was that national leaders failed to restrain militarism. A race for armaments that had begun at the end of the nineteenth century reached a critical point prior to the war (French, 2014). This race caused anxiety, suspicion, and hate in regular people across Europe. Imperialism contributed to the beginning of the First World War as well. Two major empires were Britain and France at the time. However, Germany tried to become even more powerful. Therefore, these countries fought over resources on which their development depended directly. Also, they strived for new markets and territories.
Another cause of World War I was alliances. Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy formed the Triple Alliance at the end of the nineteenth century. These countries agreed to support each other in case of war. However, it made other countries feel threatened as the Triple Alliance had become very powerful. Leaders of France, Britain, and Russia understood that they would not be able to confront it separately. Subsequently, these countries united into the Triple Entente. They had a similar agreement and could not fight against one another. However, establishing these alliances eventually led to the Great War. When the conflict between Germany and France took place, other countries had to join the war.
Germany and France were long-time competitions as France strived to return its territories. In addition, a naval arms race increased the tension between Britain and Germany. Austria-Hungry and Russia fought over the Balkans, and Italy constantly argued with Austria-Hungry about the Italian population that lived on the Austrian territory. The alliances themselves did not cause the Great War. However, the combination of various factors that included the poor relationships between two alliances led to it.
Declaration of War by the United States
When World War I began in 1914, Americans decided to remain neutral. Most citizens wanted to stay out of the conflict. They supported the policy of isolationism and impartiality. President Wilson even stated: “It is a war with which we have nothing to do, whose causes cannot touch us.” (Thompson, 2015, p.106) His opinion was widely accepted by regular people and officials. Also, many ethnic groups like Irish or immigrants from Eastern Europe were set against alliances. In addition, there were many westerners who did not have any relationships with Europeans. These communities supported the tradition of non-involvement in the political life of other countries.
However, the cultural connection between Americans and Britons was very strong, and many citizens felt empathy with them. Also, Britain had very close economic relationships with the United States, and later it led to increasing tension between America and Germany. In 1915, Germany announced that it would attack all vessels that entered the area around Britain. In the same year, a private American ship was sunk by a German cruiser. Later, the ocean liner Lusitania was attacked by the German navy. Among approximately 2000 passengers who died in this accident, 128 were Americans. These attacks changed public opinions in the United States as people became more aggressive toward Germany. Subsequently, it aggravated diplomatic relations between them, and the United States declared war on Germany in 1917.
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When the United States joined World War I, their army was small and inexperienced. However, at the end of the war, the U.S. military forces controlled the largest part of the Western Front. The United States lent its divisions to French, British, and Russian allies. They collaborated in various combat operations against the Triple Alliance (Maier, 2015). Many historians state that without American troops on the Western Front, Germany would have defeated the army of the Triple Entente. By 1918, Britain and France had not had enough resources to continue the war. Russia had to come out of the war due to inner political and economic problems. Had Germany won on the Eastern Front, it would have transferred more than a million soldiers to the Western Front. Therefore, America’s contribution to the war was critical.
During and after the war President Wilson played a crucial role. Although he initially kept the United States out of the conflict, Wilson eventually declared war on Germany (“The Treaty,” n.d.). He also organized the economy, so the country could provide essential provisions to the allies. By the time the war was close to the end, President Wilson had suggested his plan for future peace. He was sure that problems in international relations led to the war. Wilson outlined fourteen points that could make the world safer. He promoted demilitarization, freedom of the seas, and establishing the League of the Nation. Wilson made great efforts to implement his ideas. However, the United States refused to join the league. Subsequently, Wilson’s political inflexibility led to the defeat of the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson’s plan was too idealistic, and European leaders refused it. Various ethnic groups in the United States also contributed to the failure of the treaty. Constant disputes among German, Italian, and Irish Americans worsened the situation. The effect that the defeat of the treaty had on America’s role in the world was very significant. The United States was isolated from other countries. They did not join the League of Nations and refused immigrants during the 1920s. Moreover, the United States even excluded Asians and Europeans. These factors reduced their role on the world stage during the period between 1920 and 1940.
The First World War is a complex and controversial phenomenon. The roles of the major participants and their historical background are the key aspects that contributed to the development of the war. There are many reasons that led to the conflict, and they are closely interrelated. However, this work demonstrates that the difficult relationships among great powers and nationalistic ideas that occurred across Europe were the main contributors.
French, D. (2014). British strategy and war aims 1914-1916 (RLE First World War). New York, NY: Routledge.
Maier, C. S. (2015). Recasting bourgeois Europe: stabilization in France, Germany, and Italy in the decade after World War I. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
The Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. (n.d.). Web.
Thompson, J. A. (2015). Woodrow Wilson. New York, NY: Routledge.