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BIG IDEA: Americans did not want to participate in World War I, but eventually chose to join the fight after it appeared Germany was inciting Mexico to attack the United States.

World War I was not originally a war that involved the United States. It started in Europe between the major European powers. Over the few decades before the war began, the Europeans had settled themselves into two groups. The Central Powers included Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. The Triple Entente was made up of the United Kingdom, France and Russia. The alliances were intended to provide support in case of attack, but they also had disastrous consequences.

The war began because the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary was murdered.  Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia, which asked for help from Russia.  Austria-Hungary asked for help from Germany, and then Russia turned to its friends France and the United Kingdom.  By August of 1914, the major powers found themselves going to war.  Most historians see it as a terrible mistake – a time when politicians failed to think calmly and take the time necessary to avoid doing things they couldn’t later undo.

All wars are terrible, but World War I was especially bad.  Modern technology meant that armies could bring machine guns, gigantic cannons, land mines, barbed wire and poison gas to the battlefield.  Humans were no match for these potent defensive weapons and inventors had not yet found ways to counter them.  The result was a slaughter.  Millions of men climbed out of their trenches and marched into a wall of bullets.  Also deadly were submarines called U-Boats, which the Germans had mastered.

For the first few years of the war, the United States remained neutral. Although most Americans supported the British, French and Russians, they did not want to join the fighting.

Eventually, however, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war because of a combination of factors. The Germans began attacking American ships that were carrying supplies to trade with the United Kingdom and France. Probably the final straw was that Americans learned of a plot to convince Mexico to attack the United States. The idea probably had no chance of success, but it made Americans angry enough to join the war.


BIG IDEA: World War I had profound impacts on the United States. Although there was never any fighting on American soil, it led to the expansion of the government, new opportunities for women and African Americans, as well as regrettable restrictions of the freedom of speech.

Americans were enthusiastic about joining the army. For many recent immigrants and their children, joining the fight was a way to demonstrate their love for their new country. A draft was implemented. There were a few conscientious objectors.

Anti-German feelings were common. There were many German immigrants and they faced discrimination. Schools stopped teaching German and German foods were renamed at restaurants.

The federal government gained in both size and power during the war. Business leaders and government officials collaborated to set prices and organize railroad schedules in support of the war effort. Future president Herbert Hoover organized the food industry and the United States fed both its own people and the people of Europe during the war.

To pay for the war, the government raised money by selling liberty bonds.

One of the dark sides to World War I were laws passed to limit First Amendment freedoms.  The Espionage and Sedition Acts made criticizing the government and the war effort illegal.  In the case of Schenck v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld these restrictions.

The war effort was good for organized labor. Labor unions worked closely with government officials who wanted to avoid strikes. It was during the war that the 8-hour workday was implemented. Pay went up as well.

Women took some jobs in factories and supported the war effort as nurses and secretaries.

For African Americans, the war was a chance to demonstrate their bravery in battle. Although they served in segregated units, African Americans were fighting against both Germany and discrimination back home. During the war, the need for factory workers in the North increased and thousands of African American families moved out of the rural South to the cities of the North to find work. This Great Migration significantly changed the racial makeup for the country.


BIG IDEA: America joined World War I at the very end and American troops saw limited fighting, but President Wilson took a key role in the peace negotiations afterward. The Treaty of Versailles that formally concluded the war included his idea for a League of Nations, although the Senate refused to ratify the treaty and the nation moved toward isolationism in the 1920s.

The United States entered the fighting in the last year of World War I. Germany had been suffering under a terrible blockade and was short on food and supplies. Russia had already exited the war and was in the middle of a civil war. American commanders refused to let their troops be split up and insisted on fighting together as one large group. They were still a tiny fraction of all the men on the battlefields of Europe.

The end of the war came on November 11, 1918.  The European powers had lost millions of men in battle, as well as civilians.  A flu pandemic swept the world in 1918 killing millions more.

President Woodrow Wilson went to Europe after the war had finished to negotiate a peace deal. He believed it was an opportunity to forge an international system for a lasting peace. He described his vision for a peaceful world in a speech entitled the Fourteen Points. The most important of these was the creation of a League of Nations in which future conflicts could be resolved without war.

The result of the negotiations was the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson succeeded in getting the Europeans to create a League of Nations, although they also imposed a harsh punishment on Germany. Germany was forced to admit that the war had been their fault and pay enormous reparations. This punishing element of the treaty would be used later by Hitler to blame Germany’s problems on its neighbors.

Wilson’s efforts to join the new League of Nations faced a major challenge. The Constitution gives the Senate the authority to ratify all treaties signed by the president. One element of the League of Nations was a commitment by every nation to defend any nation under attack. In theory, this would deter nations from going to war since they risked punishment from the entire world. In reality, Republicans in the Senate feared that this would mean the United States would be forced to join wars that were not really its business.

When it looked like the Senate was going to reject the Treaty, Wilson travelled the nation giving speeches to build public support. This also failed and the Senate voted against the treaty. Without the United States, the League of Nations was seriously weakened. It is possible that if America had been at the table, World War II might have been avoided, but we can never know.

By rejecting the Treaty of Versailles and membership in the League of Nations, the United States also rejected Wilson’s dream of internationalism. Instead, for the next twenty years the nation pursued a policy of isolationism.

In keeping with that new idea, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, cutting off almost all immigration from Europe and ending immigration entirely from Asia.

A fear of foreigners and dangerous foreign ideas swept the nation. With the success of the communist revolution in Russia, a Red Scare started. Immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted in a deeply flawed trial that many saw as evidence of a national eagerness to root out dangerous ideas.