On This Day

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President Wilson announces the break in the official relations with Germany in a speech before Congress on Feb. 3, 1917.

On This Day: U.S. Breaks Relations With Germany Prior to Entry Into World War I

February 03, 2012 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Feb. 3, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson announced that the United States was breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany after it had reinstituted its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. The U.S. would declare war on Germany two months later.

U.S. Entry Into World War I

In February 1915, just over six months after the outbreak of World War I, Germany announced that it was implementing a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare to enforce a naval blockade of Britain (which was a response to a British naval blockade of Germany). It declared the area around the British Isles a war zone and warned that it would strike any merchant ship attempting to enter the area.

German leadership hoped that cutting off shipments of food, supplies and munitions from the U.S. and other neutral countries would cripple Britain’s war effort. However, the policy presented the risk of provoking the U.S. into entering the war.

In May 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the British liner Lusitania, a passenger ship that was likely transporting munitions. Nearly 1,200 passengers, including 128 Americans, were killed, outraging the American public.

President Wilson wrote three notes to German leaders calling for an end to attacks on Americans citizens. In September 1915, Germany, hoping to avoid U.S. entry into the war, ended unrestricted submarine warfare, forbidding its U-boats from attacking neutral ships.

In March 1916, however, a Germany U-boat torpedoed the French passenger ferry Sussex, which was carrying some Americans. Wilson issued an ultimatum threatening to sever diplomatic relations if Germany continued attacking civilian ships. On May 4, Germany issued the “Sussex pledge,” in which it promised that it would not attack passenger ships and that it would only attack merchant ships if there were definitely weapons aboard.

Germany’s policy remained in place until January 1917, when German military leaders introduced a plan for a naval offensive that they believed could win the war for Germany before the U.S. could enter the war.

On Jan. 31, Germany Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, who opposed the plan over fears that it would draw the U.S. into the war, announced that unrestricted submarine warfare would be re-instituted the following day.

Hollweg’s announcement prompted Wilson to end diplomatic relations with Germany three days later. In an address before a joint session of Congress, he declared that the he did “not desire any hostile conflict with the Imperial German Government,” though he did pledge to “use any means that may be necessary for the protection of our seamen.”

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

On April 2, 1917, Wilson issues 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.”

Congress declared war on Germany four days later.

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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