When the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany in February 1917, war did not immediately follow. President Wilson hesitated to take that final, fateful step, first asking Congress for authority to arm U.S. merchant ships. Since such a transformation of merchant ships into warships was a belligerent act under international law, the pro-peace forces in the Senate, led by Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin, fought back. For daring to oppose him, Wilson reviled them as “a little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own” who “have rendered the great Government of the United States helpless and contemptible.” For the moment, however, Wilson was stymied.
Then British intelligence produced a bombshell. They intercepted and passed on to Wilson a secret telegram from a foreign-office official in Berlin named Zimmermann to the German ambassador in Mexico City. The note stated that though efforts would be made to keep the United States neutral, if America should enter the war, Germany would seek an alliance with Mexico. For its help, Mexico would regain its lost territories in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
When the Zimmermann telegram was made public, Americans were outraged. Wilson exploited the turnaround in public opinion and issued an executive order stationing units of the U.S. Navy on board U.S. merchant ships. Soon, German submarines began sinking American ships in the declared war zones. Wilson, satisfied in his own mind that the responsibility for aggression lay solely with Germany, went to Congress for a declaration of war.
Wilson’s war speech showed off his great rhetorical skills at their most brilliant. At the same time, it revealed his conception of what our entry in the war meant, as well as the full measure of Wilson’s deviation from traditional American foreign policy:
We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts — for democracy, 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. America is privileged to spend her blood for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.
No longer would the aim and purpose of our foreign policy be to keep our nation safe from attack. Now it was our “privilege” to pour out our blood — and hard-earned wealth — until the whole world was forever free. If that meant that we would be involved in never-ending war and preparation for war, then it was well worth the price, because someday , somehow , the outcome would be freedom and peace for all mankind.
Senator LaFollette rose to reply to Wilson, in a last, desperate try at averting war. He punctured Wilson’s hypocritical plea to help free “small nations”: Were we going to war to free Ireland, Egypt, Cyprus, French Indo-China? He challenged Wilson to put the war declaration to a vote of the people. Finally, he ripped the mask off the movement that, in his view, was pushing the country into war against the popular will: the Eastern money interests.
Congress voted the declaration of war, by 82 to 6 in the Senate, and 373 to 50 in the House of Representatives. One of the antiwar votes in the House was cast by Jeannette Rankin of Idaho, the first woman ever to sit in the Congress of the United States. On December 8, 1941, Rankin would be the only member of Congress to vote against the declaration of war with Japan.
The progressive intellectuals signed on to the war with a vengeance. They realized that war would offer them opportunities unavailable in sober peacetime to fulfill their goal: the extension of the power of government over all of American society.
In all the belligerent countries, this greatest of wars up to this time required the total mobilization of the nation’s resources. Governments were granted powers beyond any they had enjoyed before. The economy was placed under state direction; manpower was directed either into war production or the military services; and public opinion was controlled and manipulated by the state. In this socialization of society, Germany led the way, but Britain, France, and the other warring states were not far behind. Once America entered the war, the same process began over here.
The Lever Act of 1917 gave the federal government jurisdiction over the food and fuel supplies of the nation. Communication lines and the merchant marine were likewise placed under government control. The War Labor Administration was set up, to oversee wages and conditions of work throughout the country. Legislation was passed enabling Washington to take over the railway network of the United States, which occurred in December 1917. The War Industries Board, headed by Bernard Baruch, had the power to intervene in any economic transaction anywhere in the land that it considered might affect the war effort. Loans were granted to America’s “co-belligerents,” mainly Britain and France. After the war, our sister-democracies reneged on the loans — calling us “Uncle Shylock” for even asking for the money back — so this amounted to our first foreign-aid program. In the greatest of the countless affronts to individual liberty, American men were drafted by the millions to fight in a foreign war.
The frenzy of interventionism in the economy broke the mold of old habits and traditions of limited government in America. Bernard Baruch, virtually the incarnation of the new class of politically connected businessmen, was convinced that a new chapter in our history had begun:
The War Industries Board experience had a great influence upon the thinking of business and government. We helped bury the dogmas of laissez faire, which had for so long molded American economic and political thought. Our experience taught that government direction of the economy need not be inefficient or undemocratic, and suggested that in time of danger it was imperative.
Socialists — many of them by now called themselves by the old name “liberal” — were gleeful. They had felt frustrated in their attempt to push their ideas and programs through in peacetime America: the ingrained resistance of the people to giving up their liberties had worked against them. Now John Dewey, the socialist philosopher and educator, looked on with satisfaction as the United States went the way of Germany, Britain, and the other belligerents:
In every warring country there has been the same demand that in the time of great national stress production for profit be subordinated to production for use. Legal possession and individual property rights have had to give way before social requirements. The old conception of the absoluteness of private property the world over has received a blow from which it will never wholly recover. Conscription has brought home to countries which have been the home of the individualistic tradition the supremacy of public need over private possession. No matter how many among the special agencies for public control decay with the disappearance of the war stress, the movement will never go backward.
Like economic freedoms, civil liberties, too, were sacrificed. The Espionage Act was used to stifle any criticism of the war; Eugene Debs, for instance, the leader of the Socialist Party, was sentenced to ten years in federal prison for stating at a convention of his party that it was the bankers who had gotten us into the war. The first government agency for propaganda in our history was set up, known popularly as the Creel Committee, with a staff of hundreds of employees. It sent books, pamphlets, and speakers into every corner of the country, rousing the war spirit and reviling the enemy. The public-school system, of course, proved to be a pliant tool of the government. The state’s propaganda line was spread to tens of millions of school children and their families. Teachers who were insufficiently ardent for war were dismissed. After the war, a national commission on education boasted:
Upon the declaration of war, the school machinery of every State was placed at the disposal of the Federal Government, which found in it a valuable means for the quick dissemination of the information and instruction needed to develop an enlightened and unified public opinion.
President Wilson took up the crusade begun by Theodore Roosevelt against “hyphenated Americans,” warning the “men and women of German birth who live among us” that, “if there should be any disloyalty, it will be dealt with with the firm hand of stern repression.” In fact, Americans of German descent, including Lutheran ministers, as well as Irish-Americans, were mercilessly hounded by federal agents, local authorities, and state-sponsored groups of “patriotic” citizens. Hatred of everything German was fanned to absurd heights, with symphony orchestras, for instance, pledging not to perform works by German composers for the duration of the war.
In Europe, the casualties mounted to staggering heights, especially on the Western Front. Battles like those at Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele claimed hundreds of thousands of dead on both sides. Yet the stalemate continued, as America was raising a vast conscript army of fresh recruits to add to the butchery. Thrones were toppled: in Russia, the Tsarist monarchy came to an end; after a brief interim government under Alexander Kerensky, who refused to withdraw Russia from the war, V. I. Lenin and his Bolsheviks were able to seize power and establish the first communist state.
In January 1918, Wilson addressed Congress once more to lay down the principles of a new world order that would guarantee eternal peace. The speech set forth fourteen points. There would be no more “secret diplomacy”; and freedom of the seas, free trade, and disarmament of all nations would be the order of the day. In Europe, state boundaries would be redrawn according to the principle of the self-determination of national groups. Finally, dearest to Wilson’s heart, there would be established a League of Nations, “a general association of nations . . . under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” A few weeks later, Wilson stressed that the peace conference would see to it that “there shall be no annexations, no contributions, no punitive damages.”
Wilson was promising the peoples of the warring nations, including the American people, a just world order that would “make the world itself at last free” and assure peace for all time. This was the vision he had cherished deep in his heart from the beginning, and it was the real reason for our entry into the First World War. But first Wilson would have to sell it to the canny politicians of Europe.