Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 272nd installment in the series.   

April 4, 1917: U.S. Declares War On Germany 

The first week of April 1917 brought the decisive turning point of the First World War, as the United States finally entered the war against Germany, although no one yet knew with what effect. Was America really prepared to expend her own blood and treasure on a scale anywhere approaching the sacrifices already made by both the Allies and Central Powers? Or would it be a mostly passive affair, with a division or two of American volunteers showing the flag while the U.S. government guaranteed a fresh round of loans (the Allies’ immediate concern anyway)? 

In fact the United States would adopt mass conscription and create a “real” European-style army of over four million men, more or less from scratch, all in a remarkably short amount of time. Entry into the First World War would bring about sweeping changes in American society, already experiencing strain from the war manufacturing boom and resulting inflation. Among other effects, the shift to a war footing brought with it the rapid expansion of the federal government, including unprecedented efforts to shape and monitor public opinion. 

No Recourse 

Following the expulsion of the German ambassador and public outrage over the Zimmermann Telegram, the sinking of a number of American merchant vessels by German submarines at last left President Woodrow Wilson with no recourse: America could endure further insults or fight. 

The commander-in-chief was doubtless aware that, between Germany’s unrestricted U-boat campaign and his own order to arm U.S. merchant ships, many people believed the two countries were already in a “virtual state of war,” as argued by sources as disparate as U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing and German quartermaster general Erich Ludendorff. When Wilson called his cabinet to discuss the situation on March 20, its members spoke unanimously in favor of war; the following day Wilson called Congress to meet on April 2, and there could be little doubt what he meant to do. 

By the time Congress convened, major newspapers had been beating the war drums for weeks, and the general climate was one of patriotic fervor. Wilson himself was jittery in the hours before the speech, according to his friend and confidante Colonel House, who wrote: “The president was apparently calm during the day, but, as a matter of fact, I could see signs of nervousness. Neither of us did anything except ‘Kill time’ until he was called to the Capitol.” 

An anonymous correspondent for the French magazine L’Illustration left behind this account of the preamble to the historic event, as both houses of Congress met to hear Wilson’s address: 

On that evening of April 2, 1917… the House was absolutely jammed. The public galleries had been courteously placed at the disposal of the ladies, and were tightly packed. The Press galleries, too, were overcrowded. Journalists had come from Texas and Alaska to witness the historic moment. Even the Senators’ seats were crowded: some Congressmen, having been authorized to bring their youngest children, were holding them in their arms and on their knees in order that they, too, might witness the great event. 

Finally, the austere figure of Wilson himself strode to the Speaker’s rostrum amid scenes of jubilation rare in that august chamber: 

Everybody was seated when, at 8:39 p.m., the usher announced: “The President of the United States!” At once, in a spontaneous movement, everyone rose, and the room was filled with an immense acclamation, one of those strange American acclamations that include bravoes, howling, and whistles, the latter being not, as in our country, a sign of contempt, but on the contrary a mark of admiration… From an inner pocket of his tail-coat, he pulled a few small sheets of paper on which people in the galleries could distinguish a small handwriting through their opera glasses. 

Beginning in a calm, even tone, Wilson reminded his listeners of the occasion of their last meeting: 

On the 3d of February last I officially laid before you the extraordinary announcement of the Imperial German Government that on and after the 1st day of February it was its purpose to put aside all restraints of law or of humanity and use its submarines to sink every vessel that sought to approach either the ports of Great Britain and Ireland or the western coasts of Europe or any of the ports controlled by the enemies of Germany within the Mediterranean. 

Germany was proceeding with its campaign of unrestricted U-boat warfare despite repeated objections and warnings from the United States government, along with numerous other neutral powers, who rejected this brutal new form of warfare on grounds of human decency as well as the laws of war. While the sinkings obviously entailed major financial losses for American shippers and exporters, Wilson was careful to emphasize the moral transgression: 

I am not now thinking of the loss of property involved, immense and serious as that is, but only of the wanton and wholesale destruction of the lives of noncombatants, men, women, and children, engaged in pursuits which have always, even in the darkest periods of modern history, been deemed innocent and legitimate. Property can be paid for; the lives of peaceful and innocent people can not be. The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind. It is a war against all nations. 

Having painted Germany as what might nowadays be termed a “rogue state,” the president argued that the United States had no alternatives if it were to preserve the national honor: “There is one choice we can not make, we are incapable of making: we will not choose the path of submission and suffer the most sacred rights of our nation and our people to be ignored or violated. The wrongs against which we now array ourselves are no common wrongs; they cut to the very roots of human life.” 

Now, in the speech’s climactic passage, Wilson laid his request before Congress: 

With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the Government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it, and that it take immediate steps not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense but also to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the Government of the German Empire to terms and end the war. 

According to the same anonymous French correspondent, these final words triggered an outpouring of emotion: “The decisive words had now been pronounced… The whole assembly was on its feet. From its throats, an ardent and deep cry – similar to that uttered on August 3rd, 1914 by the French Chamber at the announcement of the German declaration of war – rose into the air… After that, every sentence of the presidential address was greeted by applause…”

Wilson hastened to emphasize that America’s fight was with the German government, not the German people, reflecting the widespread belief that the militarist, undemocratic regime of Kaiser Wilhelm II had plunged the nation into war without consulting its subjects: “We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their Government acted in entering this war. It was not with their previous knowledge or approval.” 

This assertion wasn’t just sugarcoating or empty public diplomacy, but a central tenet of the worldview which led Wilson to seek a declaration of war in the first place. Pointing to the apparent success of the recent Russian Revolution in establishing popular rule, Wilson sought to portray the war as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, civilization and barbarism. 

This rhetoric reflected his own ideals, but also just happened to foreshadow one of the most powerful propaganda strategies employed by the government, and its allies in the press and civil society, to motivate the American people during the war:

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. 

Wilson ended his historic address, asking Congress to declare war for the fourth time in its history, on a charismatic note, at once humble and messianic, frightening and portentous: 

It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts -- for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other. 

With these stirring words ringing in their ears, two days later, on April 4, 1917, the United States Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of war against Germany, by a margin of 82 to six (the six holdouts were an eclectic bunch, and included Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi, an isolationist and notorious racist; George Norris of Nebraska, a left-leaning Progressive Republican who blamed Wall Street for bringing on the war; and Robert LaFollette, the pacifist Republican from Wisconsin, who had opposed even arming merchant ships as a belligerent act, and also had a large number of German-American constituents). 

Two days after the Senate vote to declare war, on the morning of April 6, 1917 the United States House of Representatives also voted to declare war by a margin of 373 to 50. At 12:12 p.m. the war resolution returned to the Senate and was immediately forwarded to the White House, where Wilson signed it at 1:13 p.m. The United States was officially at war with Germany. 

“This Is A Great Day”

The reaction in the Allied powers to the U.S. declaration of war was understandably jubilant, as the world’s largest neutral country (possessing the world’s largest economy) finally swung into action after years of prevarication and delay. 

Mildred Aldrich, an American writer living in a small French village, recorded a typical reaction from a French soldier she had billeted, who wrote: 

Today’s paper brings us great and comforting news. At last, dear madame! At last your marvellous country is going to march beside us in this terrible war. With a full heart I present to you my heartiest congratulations… Here, in the army, the joy is tremendous at the idea that we have behind us the support of a nation so great, and all our admiration, all our gratitude goes out to your compatriots, to the citizens of the great Republic, which is going to enter voluntarily into this Holy War, and so bravely expose itself to its known horrors. Bravo! et vivent les Etats-Unis! 

In her diary entry on April 4, 1917, Aldrich noted: “This is a great day. The Stars and Stripes are flying at my gate, and they are flying over all France. What is more they will soon be flying--if they are not already—over Westminster, for the first time in history.” 

On the other side, the American declaration of war further depressed German morale, but the country had already seen off multiple comers. Furthermore chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his chief collaborator, Erich Ludendorff, remained convinced that the U.S. contribution to the Allied war effort would be mostly financial, and German newspapers reassured the public accordingly (of course not everyone shared their confidence). One German junior officer, Fritz Nagel, recalled the general attitude at the time, as well as the skepticism of the more cosmopolitan industrial elite: 

In April 1917 the U.S. Congress declared war, but the German people were not too frightened. We knew the Americans had a small army and navy and we could not see how these forces could influence the war’s events. It would take years for them to mobilize and by that time the war would be over. The average German knew very little about American history, and while thinking about American soldiers, he visualized an army of cowboys appearing on the battlefield with their funny hats and lassos, like Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. Surely they would not amount to much on the Western Front. But some educated people, especially those in north Germany who knew the United States well, now feared it might be impossible to win. 

Another German officer, Herbert Sulzbach, confided his worries in his diary: “State of war with America. You feel pretty dubious when you consider that this huge, rich country is now going to furnish active support – both troops and equipment – to the British and French. The economic position at home doesn’t seem to look too rosy any more either. But we have to stick it out and win through to a victorious finish.” On April 15 the German government cut the daily bread ration from 1800 grams to 1350 grams (or from four pounds to three pounds) per person per week. 

The APL and CPI

The large margin in the House of Representatives is a fairly safe indication that the measure was broadly popular with the American public at the time, but there were still considerable resistance to U.S. intervention continuing after the declaration of war, including from socialists, pacifist religious groups like the Quakers, some women’s suffrage activists, and various German-American groups. At the same time U.S. entry into the war emboldened hyper-patriotic Americans who had long questioned the loyalty of untrustworthy elements, including immigrants and socialists, and now set out to protect the war effort from saboteurs and troublemakers in their midst.

On March 22, 1917, A.M. Briggs, a Chicago ad exec, formed a national paramilitary and vigilante organization called the American Protective League to monitor pro-German opinion in the American public, prevent sabotage and strikes, break up anti-war meetings, and hunt down German agents. 

The APL received the official backing from U.S. Attorney General Thomas Gregory, and eventually grew to 250,000 members. Other groups with similar agendas included the National Security League and American Defense Society. The country got its first taste of the new nativism on April 5, when pro-war rioters broke up a meeting of the American Union Against Militarism, a socialist group.

The propaganda counterpart of the APL was the Committee for Public Information (CPI), established by Wilson on April 14, 1917 in order to promote awareness of the reasons for America’s entry into the war, generate support for the war effort, and disseminate information about how ordinary Americans can contribute. 

Led by journalist George Creel, the CPI quickly grew into a powerful, well-funded propaganda machine, using every means available to persuade Americans that the war was just and discredit its opponents. Media employed by the CPI included posters, books, pamphlets, movies, gramophone records, music, live theater, and “spoken word,” including the famous “four-minute men,” an army of 75,000 speakers who could deliver a carefully rehearsed speech in favor of some aspect of the U.S. war effort in any public setting (a powerful tool before the widespread adoption of radio). 

One of the main goals of the CPI was inducing compliance with the draft; it would go on to play a key role raising awareness of the “Liberty Loan” public bond sales and convincing Americans to put their savings at the disposal of the war effort, as well as defending unpopular measures like rationing. 

Although propaganda doubtless played a role in shaping public opinion, America’s patriotic fervor was real and widespread. A classic cultural artifact of the era is the song “Over There,” penned by George M. Cohan in a few hours on April 7, 1917, with lyrics concluding:

Over there, over there,

Send the word, send the word over there

That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming

The drums rum-tumming everywhere.

So prepare, say a prayer,

Send the word, send the word to beware -

We'll be over, we're coming over,

And we won't come back till it’s over, over there. 

 See the previous installment or all entries.