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The United States in World War I: Official Position, Isolation & Intervention

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  • 0:08 Overview
  • 1:48 Building Tension
  • 3:20 The Lusitania
  • 4:18 Zimmermann Note
  • 5:20 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Clint Hughes

Clint has taught History, Government, Speech Communications, and Drama. He has his master's degree in Instructional Design and Technology.

The United States' best option was to stay out of World War I. They had nothing to gain from getting involved. So, they tried to stay neutral, but as American interests started to lean toward the Allied Powers, many events happened to give the States the final push to enter the war.

Overview

In this lesson, we are going to look at the buildup to the U.S. entering World War I. We'll see how the U.S. attempted to stay neutral, but the buildup of sympathy towards Britain and outrage towards Germany made staying neutral almost impossible. The sinking of British ships carrying American passengers, such as the RMS Lusitania, pushed the States to the brink of war. Then, finally, the Zimmermann Note pushed the U.S. to declaring war in April of 1917.

Neutrality

So, what is neutrality? It is when you choose to not pick sides. It is an official fence-sitting position. This was where the U.S. wanted to stay from the start of World War I.

The U.S. being physically isolated from Europe was one reason for the U.S. to stay neutral
Map

So, why should the U.S. stay neutral? First was the U.S.'s isolation from Europe. Take a look at the map. Europe is way over here, and the U.S. is way over here. The U.S. was physically isolated from Europe, and things in the States were all good; there was growing industry, and, financially, things were going well. There didn't seem to be an upside to getting involved!

Next, there is the plain and simple fact of the national heritage of people in the U.S. The ethnic diversity in the States meant that picking sides was difficult. When your grandma came to the States from Germany, spoke German and taught you to respect your roots, it is difficult to get behind entering a war against Germany. President Woodrow Wilson felt strongly about maintaining America's neutrality and even used keeping America out of the war as a major platform while running for his second term.

Building Tension

So, why did the States get involved? There isn't one simple answer. It was always obvious that maintaining neutrality would be difficult. To start, there were a lot of sympathies for England. The States may have had a revolution against and other early conflicts with Britain, but over 100 years later, it is important to realize all the common bonds that existed, and still exist today. The U.S. and Britain share a language, which has a huge effect on a perceived cultural connection. They also have similar governmental and legal structures.

Of course, I share a language with a lot of people I don't want to take a bullet for, so there must be more! There was also outrage towards Germany. Remember that common language the U.S. shares with England? Well, that means Americans can read the English stories about the war. The English portrayed the Germans as the big, bad, evil bullies, and that is the viewpoint Americans saw!

As much as people like to believe that wars back in the day were all righteous, and that unlike today, they had meaning beyond money, it cannot be overlooked that the U.S. had financial reasons to support the Allies in WWI. At the beginning of the war, the States had a little more trade with the Allies. By the time the U.S. entered the war, they had a much more vested financial interest in supporting the Allied Powers; they had loaned the Allies billions, and Germany had been loaned merely 27 million.

The Lusitania and Zimmermann Note

German U-boats, or undersea boats, what we call submarines, were a big issue. Subs were not a brand new thing. Submarines were actually used in the American Revolutionary and Civil Wars, but the Germans found a new way to use them. They were sinking British ocean liners. What they were doing was against all the rules of warfare of the day. Technically, if they wanted to sink civilian vessels, they were supposed to rescue all the people. Good luck fitting 1,000 passengers on a German U-boat!

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