Germanys Unrestricted Submarine Warfare History Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
On April 6, 1917 the American Congress officially approved a declaration of war against Germany. The Great War had been continuing since 1914, but America with its policy of isolationism had thus far managed to avoid entry. Woodrow Wilson was indeed re-elected in 1916 with the slogan “He kept us out of War.” This would suggest that America’s neutrality was viewed upon positively by the American public. However, public opinion had been increasingly altering since the outbreak of war in 1914, as Germany was seen a lot less favourably for various reasons which will be discussed.
As the war progressed, Germany had decided to use the tactic of stifling all trade across the Atlantic that would benefit the Allies. Any and all ships that were travelling across the Atlantic which carried arms, or anything intended to assist the Allies was deemed to be fair game by the Germans. It was on 7 May, 1915 that the ocean liner Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine. This liner had been carrying 1,198 people, 128 of whom were Americans, all of whom were killed. Public opinion was naturally that of disgust and certain sections even began to call for war. Woodrow Wilson, however, maintained his stance of not going to war. But, he did face a new dilemma. Hugh Brogan writes that, ‘He was still convinced that international law forbade a belligerent to wage war at the expense of civilians and neutrals, or to interfere in any way with a neutral’s legitimate commerce. To acquiesce in German practices was to make a cowardly retreat in the face of a criminal bully. Yet to make effective protests risked a war, a war for which America was in ever sense unprepared.’  Wilson clearly wanted America to remain neutral at this point. The fact that he did not use this incident as a reason to ask Congress for entry into war makes this clear. However, this could be seen as a moment in which it was realised that eventual American entry into the war was unavoidable. A bill approving the doubling of the American regular army was passed in May 1916.  This shows a preparedness on the part of America, almost as if the entry in to the war at some stage was on simmering on the agenda. Stern notes were sent to Berlin, so stern, in fact, that they caused Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, to resign fearing that they might touch off war.  These notes were successful, though, as Germany’s submarine campaign was called off in 1916. This should have meant a feeling of ease in America as they now had no reason to fear loss of civilian life, or any sort of attack for that matter. However, the threat of Germany still remained whilst the war continued. Wilson attempted to mediate and use America’s neutrality as a way of securing an end to the war, and world peace. It was after the war the ideology of “Wilsonianism” would come to be noticed, but it was at this time that he truly began to attempt to achieve world peace, still, however, without military action. On May 27, 1916, he first announced his idea of the League of Nations.  Over the next year, war continued and seemed to be at no potential end. Then, in January 1917, Germany took the decision to restart their policy of submarine warfare. Many ships were sunk and 3 months later America had joined the war. It seemed that resumption of the unrestricted submarine warfare campaign had been the ultimate reason for America’s decision. However, it could be argued that there were several factors all contributing to this decision, with the submarine warfare proving to be the event that tipped America over the edge.
It is important to look at the financial implications upon America that a German victory would have had. Prior to the war, in 1913, the American economy had entered a recession. As the European nations sought to borrow money from America’s powerful banks, Wilson approved a loan of $50 million loan from the Morgan interests to France and in September, 1915 authorised a further loan of $500 million to the Allies. Wilson realised that loans could facilitate trade and perhaps end the recession. By 1917 America had loaned $2.25 billion to the Allies, and but $27 million to Germany.  Two things can be argued out of this fact. The first is that such heavy financial interest in an Allied victory meant that America was determined to see her investments make a return. In fact, over the period of 18 months from September 1915, a further $1.8 billion was advanced by American bankers.  A German victory could cripple the Allies and leave them unable to pay back their vast loans. It can be claimed that America, as soon as she invested so much in the Allies, immediately lost her neutrality. One could argue, too, that she wasn’t neutral from the start, choosing to lend the Allies so much due to her support for them. The point of doubt on America’s genuine neutrality can be expanded upon. The USA, a country of immigrants, was made up largely by those of German, Italian, Irish and British extraction. Those who maintained identification with their ancestry may have found it difficult to remain neutral. Wilson himself should be mentioned. His own background was profoundly Anglophile.  It is not doubted that he wished for America herself to remain neutral, but his affinity with Britain and, thus, the Allies must come in to question when considering his own, personal, opinion and to what that may contribute when under extreme pressure whilst having to make certain decisions regarding the war. It has indeed been noted that Wilson was far from neutral in private. His foreign policy advisor, Edward House, “heard him inveigh against everything German – government and people and what he called abstract German philosophy, which lacked spirituality.  ” This must also be examined when considering the question of whether America’s entry was merely a response to the unrestricted submarine warfare of Germany. To use a rather crude analogy, America’s entry could be seen as a cake with various ingredients contributing to the making of it. When considering this, it is important to mention the Zimmerman Telegram.
This event occurred in early 1917 and it led to further outrage among Americans.  It was only 6 weeks later that the declaration of war from the United States was made. However, it must be mentioned that this does not mean that the telegram was of any more importance than other deplorable German acts, it merely came at the back end of a list. Amongst other things, the telegram contained ideas from Germany to Mexico that they would help to restore the ‘lost territory of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona’ to Mexican ownership. The United States, however, found the idea Mexico could have wrested the three southern states from them in 1917 laughable.  Clearly though this action showed yet more hostility from Germany towards the United States, it would take an obscenely strong and passive country to not grow tired of such continued annoyance and hostilities.
An argument can be made of a certain inevitability of American intervention in the war. Alongside this, one could say that there was no one action to which America had responded, and that a declaration occurred at such a time is mere coincidence as it was destined to happen eventually. There have to be reasons to make such a claim, justifiable reasons for that matter. One reason is to preserve the balance of power, a balance which was in favour of the United States. The preservation of Anglo-American dominance of the North Atlantic,  clearly of great interest to United States, for security and trade reasons. The fact that Wilson and, increasingly so, the American public held such a dim view of the Germans and their war aims could have meant that it was surely just a matter before the intervention of the United States. The more blood shed and lives lost by the Allies, the more the moral reasons for intervention had weight. It became ever-apparent that Britain and France were the force of good fighting the force of evil and needed to be helped. It can also be argued that this was a perfect opportunity for America to begin a movement of establishing themselves as a huge player on the world stage. Britain were already so dependant on American finances for their war effort that physical American action could be seen as a natural progression as the war continued. The fact that they were so much behind Britain financially had already propelled American into a dominant position,  if they were to intervene to a greater extent, did they imagine themselves to be fully ahead of Britain on the world stage? It is important to consider this.
Another reason to argue for inevitability regardless, is to say that America relied on the continuation of its strong Western allies remaining independent and fully democratic. Britain and France are the obvious candidates for this role, the two nations fighting together against Germany. This returns to the balance of power argument, but focuses on Europe as the land, rather than its surrounding areas. A Europe dominated by Germany was one that would have been of great strain to the United States. Ross Gregory writes that there was an assumption that the ‘political and material well-being of the United States was associated with the preservation of Britain and France,’ this assumption, he claims, was ‘unintentionally confirmed with the invasion of Belgium, use of submarines and war tactics in general.’  This ties with the aforementioned argument that the intervention was as a result of the sum of a range of reasons, not just a single event.
The final reason to mention here for the inevitability is one which carries on from a previous paragraph. As mentioned above, the United States had great financial interest in the Allies. It is relevant to reference a speech to the American senate by Nebraskan senator George W. Norris who, on on April 4, 1917, argued against the American declaration of war. The basis of his argument was that the United States would be fighting not for principle, but for profit.  Senator Norris spoke of those who have made millions from the war, and who stand to make millions more if America were to enter the war. He also quotes from a letter written by a member of the New York stock exchange who describes Japan and Canada as more prosperous than ever due to their involvement in the war.  In his final sentence he describes the reason for the declaration of war being a way of preserving the commercial right of American citizens to deliver munitions of war to belligerent nations.  It is plain to see why one would believe that the reasons for war were purely financial. However, this is to ignore accompanying factors and to claim financial reasons as a stand-alone agent in the decision is inaccurate. The majority of the American public were not interested in such things, and it is they who play an important part. Their feeling was one that progressively and increasingly leaned toward a military alliance with Britain and France, for a number of reasons mentioned. To claim financial reasons alone is also a slur of Wilson himself and undermines his integrity; a man who was determined to see just and democratic nations survive, not only for the sake of America, but for the sake of mankind. Surely it can not be claimed that he gave in to pressure of large companies and banks alone? These financial reasons may have contributed to the feeling that the standing of the United States in the world, both morally and materially needed to be maintained,  but so did the fact of the atrocities of Belgium, the threat of America’s important trade with Europe, the Zimmerman telegram, the unrestricted submarine warfare, and Germany’s terror in general.
In sum, there was not one stand-alone reason for American entry. Various factors helped to contribute and create an inevitability of sorts. No one thing was more important than another, but every event and problem added weight to the camel’s back. Wilson himself was am important part of this also, his ideas of a new world must not be overlooked. His desire to to bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free  was very much an important factor in this decision, yet not one of any more standing than others. Unrestricted warfare, again, was a hugely important part of the decision, American citizens’ lives were being taken and the threat of more losses loomed. Yet, this acted as just one of the many cogs turning the mechanism of American entry into World War I and to claim that it is the sole reason can be viewed as inaccurate.
Word Count: 2132
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