Wilson at War and the American Entry into the First World War

Much has been written in recent months about whether or not President Obama should take action in trouble parts of the world. Be it in the Ukraine against Russia, or in the Middle East against ISIS, or his position on Israel's recent war in Gaza, the President has had a lot of conflicting advice from the public sphere. We offer a short story of another President under public pressure to act, President Woodrow Wilson during the First World War.

The United States did not enter the First World War until April 1917. While you might think of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May 1915 as the cause behind the American intervention in the war, it was less an immediate cause and more a symptom of unrestricted German submarine warfare. Germany agreed to restrict its submarine warfare (no longer targeting any and all vessels that might be carrying supplies for the Allies) after the American reaction to the Lusitania. Only in January 1917 when Germany restarted unrestricted submarine warfare, as they believed that either the Americans would not enter the war or they that they would be too slow to decide victory or defeat, did the United States begin moving more explicitly towards intervention. The Lusitania, though a symbol of supposed German brutality to the Allies, was one ship among many sunk by the Germans, at least to the man in charge of the American direction on the war, President Wilson. Wilson sought to defend American lives and their economic interests without necessarily becoming involved the tangled mess of European affairs. At the same time, he had to balance domestic concerns to win the election of November, 1916.

So 1916 was much more tumultuous for American politics and public opinion than 1915. On March 14, 1916, President Wilson had launched the “Mexican Expedition” under General John Pershing to punish Mexican outlaw Pancho Villa’s incursion into American territory and killing of American citizens. Villa, who deserves a blog post on all his own, had crossed the American border and raided American towns. Wilson was pressured to respond to the violation of American territory. Many wanted a firm response, and in an election year Wilson had to be careful of voters' opinion. The preparedness voter wanted America to be ready to defend itself, the South West voter wanted Wilson to defend their states, the Catholic voter demanded action against revolutionary Mexico for its crimes against the Church, and Wall Street wanted reassurance that Wilson would protect their investments. By hunting down Villa, Wilson assuaged peace supporters by still keeping America out of the Great War and satisfied those demanding military action of some kind.

Unfortunately, this grand gesture against Mexico failed to achieve its purpose. There were no plans in place to arm and supply the expedition's 4,800 troops on such short notice. They eventually formed and crossed the border in chase of Villa but little result. Included among their ranks was the young future American General of the Second World War, George S. Patton, who took the first steps in establishing his army reputation. From March until July the American soldiers fought in Mexico but could not capture Villa. Troops would only be fully withdrawn by January 1917, but the action effectively ended in the summer. The “Preparedness crowd” ridiculed Wilson for bluffing the extent of American readiness.

Wilson’s efforts to allay those opposed to neutrality by intervening in Mexico only exasperated them and demonstrated America’s inability to project its international influence. It was in this context that a German U-boat arrived in Baltimore that July to consternation and admiration!

On 7 July, 1916, an unarmed U-boat the Deutschland commanded by Paul König appeared in Baltimore's harbour. In its cargo hold was millions of dollars worth of dyes, medical supplies, gemstones, and mail. The British dominance of the seas meant that the blockade against Germany was almost impossible to circumvent – but the U-boat was capable of eluding the British surface ships. Germany desperately required supplies from the neutral America for the war effort, and the Americans for their part needed German dyes for its blossoming consumer culture.

Prior the outbreak of the war, Germany was one of the sole producers of coal-tar dyes. For the American fashion industry, these dyes were crucial to colouring the fabric of their clothing. Worse, coal-tar products were also used in explosives, so the fashion industry also had to compete with the much more profitable explosives industry in trying to secure a limited supply. The resulting dearth of dyes had vastly increased their price, making the visit of the Deutschland an extremely profitably one, but had an impact on American fashion as well. During the war years Americans were told that whites were in fashion because that's the only thing stores and customers could afford.

The crew of the U-boat were welcomed in Baltimore with avid fascination. Boats of reporters met them coming into the harbour and they were feted by Baltimore socialites as visiting celebrities. Crowds met the crews' first steps on American soil and Captin König described his days in Baltimore as one continuous festival. One news report states that Americans sang “Deutschland Unter Alles” upon their arrival, a play off of the German anthem, “Deutschland Uber Alles.” Deutschland Unter Alles translates to Germany below everything rather than over – but fitting for the cross-Atlantic submariners.

They sold their cargo and filled their hold with new wares. Within a week, they had dipped back under the ocean to return home with millions of dollars worth of metals needed for the German war effort, avoiding an Allied effort to capture them on their departure. The Deutschland and its crew is known as the world's first “Merchant U-Boat.” König had a ghost-written account of his wartime voyages written in 1918, titled Voyage of the Deutschland: The First Merchant Submarine. They returned to the United States again on 2 November 1916, but their arrival was in a far different context.

It was a presidential election year in 1916 and Wilson was facing Republican candidate Charles Hughes on 7 November. Both in July and in November, just like the Mexico situation, Wilson was in a precarious position. If Wilson condemned the German arrival, he risked angering a significant voting bloc of German-Americans in the Mid-West and those who wanted peace. If he supported its arrival, then of course intervention supporters would be angered. Wilson had few good options and many bad ones. The Republicans were trying to sway the German vote and attack Wilson over his action in Mexico. Wilson took the middle road. He championed his slogan, “He kept us out of the war” with Germany and Mexico, but still pushed for military preparedness. Wilson shrewdly supported both non-military and military action, pleasing voters from both sides of the question.

Wilson won the election by a slim margin. His victory was not assured until the very last votes were counted on the West Coast. He won the state of California by a mere 3,800 votes out of a million cast. In the end he won by only 3.1% and it was one of the closest elections in American history. A month later in December, Wilson asked for the war aims of the Allied and Central Powers. Germany, fearing American siding with the Allies, believed it was worthwhile to restart unrestricted submarine warfare if their intervention was a given anyways. Which, in turn, pushed the American President to declare war in April 1917 after the publication of the Zimmerman telegram, a telegram sent to Mexico providing German support for a Mexican war against the United States. By then, it was clear that the United States had to protect its interests and choose a side in the war.

The political issues that Wilson had to deal with were quite different than those today. There is a vastly different international context to Wilson's Mexico and Germany and Obama's Ukraine and Russia, or the Middle East. It would be nice to take a lesson from Wilson's actions (which might be, please both sides and then do what you want), but it is difficult to compare the pressure of actual wartime to only the possibility of war today. Instead it might be useful to remember though elections are important, at the end of the day, a leader of a country must make their own decisions according to national interests, not voter interests.