World War I: When American Failure to Build Up Arms Resulted in War

Although this is not exactly the 100th anniversary (sorry, I wasn’t writing this particular blog in 2017), the U.S.’s entry into World War I is roughly 102 years in the past. Thus, I figured it was appropriate to write some about it from the American perspective. In 1915, the people of the United States looked wearily upon a Europe in full-scale war. Woodrow Wilson was eager to stay out of the conflict, but he had a prominent foe who wanted to use the “bully pulpit” once more to get his agenda through: Theodore Roosevelt. Unlike Wilson who tried to maintain unarmed neutrality, Roosevelt regarded Germany as the bad actor in the conflict and wanted the United States to build up its navy to prepare for war. He, with former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General Leonard Wood, campaigned for increased military training in response to the threat of war. This plan would require every 18-year old man to spend six months in military training and subsequently be assigned to reserve units. The problem the movement had was that its advocates tended to be wealthy and didn’t make efforts to reach out to working class voters. This lent to the perception that the preparedness movement was elitist and contributed to opposition from Democrats and Socialists. Additionally, the movement had the support of bankers and industrialists who made steel (Bethlehem) and gunpowder (DuPont), which resulted in populists claiming there was a corporate conspiracy to reap profits through war. Senator Robert La Follette (R-Wis.), a leading leftist, claimed that there was an unnamed “world-wide organization” dedicated to “stimulating and fomenting discord in order that it may make profit out of the furnishing of munitions of war” (Kazin, 95). Peace activists like Jane Addams of Hull House took to the streets to protest conscription and arms buildups, and President Wilson remained wary of the idea of a standing army when the United States was not officially at war.

Image result for Woodrow Wilson

Poor Woodrow Wilson couldn’t catch a break here. He was thought by different groups to be too weak and a warmonger.

Although the Preparedness Movement’s proposal for universal military training failed as did Theodore Roosevelt’s big navy proposal, they took matters into their own hands and set up their own training camps in which 40,000 men participated and ultimately made up the bulk of the officer class during World War I. The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, started turning American opinion against Germany and although Wilson finally gave way in 1916, legislation passed to this end came too little and too late to stop war. It turns out the efforts of peace activists had backfired: on February 1, 1917, Chief of Staff of the German Navy, Henning von Holtzendorff, figuring the United States was too weak for its participation in the war to be effective, resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. Both passenger and merchant ships with American flags were now targets of U-boat attacks. Although von Holtzendorff realized this would mean war with the United States, he didn’t think the nation a major threat given its lacking military strength. Apparent American weakness had encouraged German aggression. This action combined with the exposure of the Zimmermann Telegram that promised Mexico Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico if they allied with Germany in the event the U.S. goes to war produced a popular American demand for war.

On April 4, 1917, the Senate voted to declare war on Germany by a vote of 82-6. The dissenters were three Republicans (Asle J. Gronna of North Dakota, Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, and George W. Norris of Nebraska) and three Democrats (Harry Lane of Oregon, William J. Stone of Missouri, and James K. Vardaman of Mississippi), all affiliated with the progressive wings of their parties. Two days later, the House voted to do so on a vote of 373-50. One of the “nay” votes was the first woman to serve in Congress, Jeanette Rankin (R-Mont.). This vote would ensure she didn’t win an election in the next year, as did her vote against participation in World War II in 1941. Powerful Democrat Claude Kitchin of North Carolina, a future Minority Leader, also voted against, stating “I am unwilling by my vote to-day for this nation to throw away the only remaining compass to which the world can look for guidance in the paths of right and truth, of justice and humanity, and to leave only force and blood to chart the path for mankind to tread” (Gamble). Although the Allies prevailed, the conflict would cost approximately 116,516 American lives (modest compared to other nations), resulted in a disillusionment with extensive involvement in world affairs, and shaped the international politics of the 20th Century.


Gamble, R. Claude Kitchin (1869-1923). North Carolina History Project.

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Kazin, M. (2017). War against war: The American fight for peace 1914-1918. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Von Holtzendorff’s Memo, 22 December 1916.

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