On This Day

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Library of Congress
President Woodrow Wilson asking Congress to declare war on Germany, April 2, 1917.

On This Day: U.S. Enters World War I Against Germany

February 06, 2012 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On April 6, 1917, Congress declared war on Germany, drawing the U.S. into World War I.

U.S. Entry Into World War I

Since the start of World War I in 1914, the United States sought to stay out of the conflict. In an August 1914 speech, Wilson issued a declaration of neutrality, saying, “The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men's souls. We must be impartial in thought, as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments, as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.”

The majority of Americans supported neutrality, though American businesses and manufacturers did continue trading with warring countries, providing munitions, food and loans primarily to the Allied side.

Over the next two and a half years, the U.S. was gradually drawn into the war by factors including German submarine aggression. In 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the RMS Lusitania, a British merchant ship that was likely carrying munitions, killing 128 Americans. Wilson threatened action against Germany, which pledged to end attacks on merchant ships, but the issue cropped up again in March 16 with an attack on the French ferry Sussex. The Germans again made promises to leave passenger ships alone, but in January 1917 they announced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. This declaration prompted Wilson to break relations with Germany.

Wilson and Congress slowly moved toward declaring war over the next two months. Their decisions were also influenced by the Zimmerman Telegram, a telegram sent by German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman to Germany’s Mexican ambassador promising to help Mexico reclaim U.S. land in exchange for support in the war. The telegram was intercepted by the British and sent to the U.S. on Feb. 24, 1917.

On April 2, 1917, Wilson issued his “War Message to Congress,” calling for U.S. entry into the war. He declared, “It is a war against all nations. American ships have been sunk, American lives taken, in ways which it has stirred us very deeply to learn of, but the ships and people of other neutral and friendly nations have been sunk and overwhelmed in the waters in the same way. There has been no discrimination. The challenge is to all mankind.”

Four days later, the House voted 373-50 and the Senate voted 82-6 to declare war on Germany.

Historical Context: World War I

World War I, originally known as “The Great War,” began in the spring of 1914 and raged through Europe until November 1918. The war cost 9 million lives and billions of dollars in damages. World War I demonstrated the magnitude and destructive power of modern warfare.

PBS’ “The Great War” and the BBC’s “World War One” describe the battles and events of the war and provide commentary from noted historians.

The U.S. Army Center of Military History gives detailed accounts of the U.S. Army’s action during the war, along with a prologue explaining the war prior to U.S. involvement.

First World War.com provides a battle-by-battle history of the war.

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