America on the Eve of World War One
The 42nd Parallel.
The almost universal reaction of Americans to World War One was a determination to stay out of it. Let the old, corrupt European monarchies (and France) kill themselves; meanwhile America was skyrocketing toward boundless wealth and prosperity. America’s industrial growth in the late 19th century was more astounding than anywhere else, even Germany. By 1913 America had quadruple as many railways, double as much coal production, and more pig iron than any other great power, and its population, near 100 million, only lagged behind Russia’s colossal 170 million. However, most American production was for its vast home market.
Nevertheless, Americans were content to grow richer still from the war. East coast banks extended liberal lines of credit to Britain and France, and by 1917 they had collected most of their gold reserves. New York, not London, was becoming the global center of finance. Investment and employment thrived. Without German competition, steel production, shipbuilding, and chemical making soared, and farmers savored a vast increase in in demand for wheat, which rose from .70 cents a bushel before the war to $2.20 in 1917.
Banking and free trade on the sea enormously favored the Entente over the Central Powers, however, and this began serious problems between the U.S. and Germany. American foreign policy jealously guarded its neutrality but also free trade. Yet strong peace lobby protested to any move to a war footing, while German and Irish-Americans held a natural proclivity for the Central Powers. Woodrow Wilson campaigned, and won, his reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of the war.”
But even the most ardent pacifists, and Wilson’s cabinet held few of those, could halt Germany’s incredible string of provocations. The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 resulted in the deaths of several American passengers. Then, in 1917, the renewed German unrestricted submarine campaign deliberately targeted American vessels. Eight US ships were sunk in February and March 1917. Germany’s feeble promises of goodwill were not helped by such zany schemes as Arthur Zimmerman’s proposal to invite Mexico into a war against the United States.
The German generals, however, had decided to gamble against the Americans. The U.S. had phenomenal industrial capacity, certainly, but it was also astoundingly unprepared for war. The tiny American military only had 145,000 men, no more than Britain in 1914. Moreover, it had just embarrassed itself on a year-long wild goose chase in Mexico, eluded at every turn by the revolutionary warlord Pancho Villa.
If the submarine sinking did not stop immediately, America would certainly enter the war against Germany. But by the time the Yanks had recruited, equipped, and shipped an army over to France, it would be mid-1918 at least. Russia was failing, the British and French were taking as good as they were giving on the Western Front, over 147 British merchant ships had been sunk over the last few weeks alone - if Germany played its cards right, it could starve Britain to submission, win the war in the East, and knock out France with its unified army, all before America’s endless manpower entered the war and made Allied victory certain. It was to be a race against time.