World War I (1914-1918)


Early-twentieth-century war primarily fought in Europe that pitted the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires against Britain, France, Russia, and, in the end, the United States.

In the decades prior to the outbreak of World War I, the nations of Europe vied for economic dominance. Britain began the Industrial Revolution, but its rivals were not far behind. Increased industrial output created a need for more markets. At the turn of the century, Germany, France, and Britain struggled to develop colonies in Africa and Asia. The United States, with its victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898, dominated the Caribbean and was making strides in the Pacific.

The economic struggles of these nations turned into open warfare after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist on June 28, 1914. Diplomatic solutions broke down, and by August 4,1914, all of Europe was at war. Britain, France, and Russia led the Allied powers in opposition to the Central Powers comprising Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire.

Europe was at war, but the United States remained neutral. Initially, it seemed that supplying both sides during the war would create an economic boom for the United States, but in October 1914, the British began a naval blockade of Germany. The British issued an expansive contraband list that all but prohibited American trade with the Central Powers. The British heavily mined the North Sea in November to further ensure that merchant vessels could not reach Germany. The blockade had a detrimental effect on the American economy, and the United States vigorously protested. Britain did not wish to antagonize the United States, but cutting off trade to the enemy seemed a more pressing goal. As a result, the United States quickly settled into a pattern of trading with Britain and France.

Fearing economic strangulation, Germany began using its large submarine fleet to blockade merchants destined for Britain or France. Initially, German submarines surfaced before stopping a neutral merchant, but surfacing made the submarines too vulnerable to the British navy. As a result, German submarines began sinking vessels suspected of carrying military material into Britain or France. The Germans justified the attacks by arguing that the Allied blockade starved the German population, but the United States had a greater interest in its own ships and complained bitterly about German tactics. Because of American pressure after Germany had sunk several passenger ships, notably the British cruise ship Lusitania,, the Germans ended submarine warfare against nonmilitary vessels in March 1916.

The United States continued trading with the Allied powers, and the trade grew despite the 1916 British publication of a blacklist that prevented trade with American merchants suspected of trading with the Central Powers. Meanwhile, the British blockade was having a serious effect on Germany. Faced with food riots and fearing economic strangulation, the Germans announced a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on January 31,1917. The United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3, and after German submarines sank several American merchant ships, the United States went to war on April 6,1917.

The United States sent troops to Europe, but America’s chief contribution came in helping end the submarine threat. German submarines wreaked havoc on British merchant vessels, and the United States helped institute a convoy system that escorted merchants across the Atlantic and greatly reduced the submarine threat.

The United States also made a large financial contribution to the Allied effort and loaned about $10 billion to Britain and France. The United States supplied food, weapons, and munitions for the Allies, but the United States initially had difficulty coming up with supplies. No centralized system for purchasing military goods existed in America. Therefore, the U.S. military had to compete for goods in the open market. Additionally, the government did not order factories to convert to war production, and American labor threatened strikes. To deal with these difficulties the government created the War Industries Board to increase industrial efficiency and the National War Labor Board to prevent strikes by meeting with management and labor.

The cost of war and of supplying the Allies was tremendous. The federal budget skyrocketed from $1 billion in 1916 to $19 billion in 1919, and the national debt grew from $1 billion in 1915 to $24 billion in 1920. The federal income tax, which started in 1913, and corporate taxes funded about one-third of the war, and the American people made up the difference by purchasing bonds known as “liberty loans.” As a result, the federal government owed the bulk of its debt to its own citizens.

Although the United States was just gearing up to fight, Russia was nearly out of the war. Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution took place in November 1917, and the new communist leadership made peace with the Central Powers in March 1918. Even without Russia’s help, the Allies proved victorious and signed an Armistice with Germany on November 11, 1918.

In the ensuing peace process, President Woodrow Wilson represented the United States and pushed for a treaty based on his Fourteen Points. The most famed of these was the idea of creating a League of Nations, an international organization designed to mediate national disputes. However, the Fourteen Points also touched on economic issues and urged an end to colonialism and the removal of trade barriers between nations. Wilson abandoned many of his goals and focused on the League of Nations (which the United States never even joined). In the post-World War I negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles, the Allies forced harsh reparations on Germany.

World War I was a golden era for American farmers as they supplied Europe with food, and the war encouraged industrialization and mass production in the United States. As Europeans struggled to obtain American supplies, the United States managed to double its overseas investments while European investments in the United States diminished. In short, participation in the war and the realization of American industrial capacity earned the United States a position as a world power.

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