The U.S. Political Context of Wilson's Decisions for War
An interlocking set of anti-German and pro-British biases shaped and guided President Woodrow Wilson's policies towards the belligerents of World War One from the war's very beginning. These biases existed in the nation at large and were shared by Wilson personally. In his address to the nation of August 19, 1914, Wilson urged that America be "impartial in thought as well as in action." Contrary to this publicly stated claim, however, he embarked on a three-year course of action which favored Allied war interests at almost every turn, culminating in U.S. intervention in the war on the side of the Allies in 1917. The reasons for the existence of these biases are complex and varied, and I will touch on some of them here.
Pro-British sentiment in America had been steadily building since the early nineteenth century. This was partially due to the growing influence of racial ideology, which portrayed America and Britain as Anglo-Saxon partners in a "trans-Atlantic community of English-speaking people" (Hunt, Traditions, p 28). Powerful U.S.-British ties already existed due to America's initial British heritage, and were strengthened through intermarriage among the two nations' elite circles. In the decades leading up to 1914, Great Britain seemed to anticipate the intensification of conflict between the imperial powers of Europe. Accordingly, "London carried on a long-standing campaign to cultivate the U.S. as an international power" (Hunt, Redefining, p 6). British leaders set about resolving most disputes with the U.S., and most importantly, conceded authority to the U.S. regarding Latin American affairs.
By contrast, the U.S. increasingly viewed Germany as a "threatening competitor" (Fry, p 3) in the decades leading up to WWI. The Venezuelan crisis of 1902-03, in which German, Italian, and British ships blockaded that country's main harbor, was seen as an opportunity for the Germans to further their empire-building aims by establishing a presence in the Caribbean. Racial ideology combined with American distaste for the autocratic nature of the German state as forged by Bismarck to ensure that "by the turn of the century, Americans increasingly pictured them (Germans) as latter-day Huns, prone to the aggressive, even brutal behavior characteristic of a militaristic and autocratic system" (Hunt, Traditions, p 29).
A survey of American newspaper editors conducted for Literary Digest magazine in November, 1914 revealed that "189 editors favored the Allies, only 38 Germany, with 140 not yet clearly committed" (Hunt, Redefining, p 6). This pro-British bias on the part of the nation's press was evident even before news of the German "rape" of Belgium and such incidents as the sinking of the Lusitania occurred. Later, in late 1916 and early 1917, the press would eagerly lead the charge towards war. As Senator George Norris (R-NE) pointed out in his April 4, 1917 speech opposing U.S. involvement in the war, "a large number of the great newspapers and news agencies of this country have been controlled and enlisted in the greatest propaganda that the world has ever known, to manufacture sentiment in favor of war." Norris singled out U.S. economic interests who were profiting from the Allied war trade as being responsible for this pro-war propaganda effort.
From 1914-17, U.S. companies conducted more than $12 billion worth of trade with the Allies, compared with less than $1 billion with the Entente powers (Hunt, Redefining, p 7). Furthermore, by 1917, U.S. banks had directly loaned $2.3 billion to the Allies, and only $27 million to Germany (Hunt, Redefining, p 7).
President Wilson himself was an Anglophile, identifying much more strongly with the British than the Germans. In a December, 1914 New York Times interview, Wilson revealed his views on the geopolitical aims motivating the two belligerents. "It seems to me that the government of Germany must be profoundly changed," Wilson said, before implying that in contrast to Germany, Britain would be the preferred victor because she had no further empire-building desires.
Wilson further betrayed his own pro-Allied sentiment by the steps he took in acquiescing to the British blockade of the continent. He strongly condemned Germany's use of submarine warfare, writing that it "disregarded rules of fairness, reason, justice, and humanity." However, he registered only weak protests against Britain's violations of international law by disguising their vessels with neutral flags. Finally, his closest advisers, Col. Edward House and Sec. of State Robert Lansing, were virtually committed to U.S. intervention on the Allied side. Time and time again, the actions both took in their official capacities were in service of this overriding goal.
Thus, the general anti-German, pro-British sentiments and elite economic interests in the nation at large found echo at the highest levels of American policy making. It is little wonder that the U.S. eventually entered the First World War on the side of the Allies, only that it took as long as it did.