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
Clint Hughes

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

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

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.


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.


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

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.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About the United States in World War I:

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of at least three to four paragraphs that explains why the United States desired to stay neutral during World War I.

Example: Neutrality was favorable for President Woodrow Wilson politically, especially when he was campaigning for his second term in office.

Essay Prompt 2:

In approximately one to two pages, write an essay that describes the reasons why the US ended up getting involved in World War I. Be sure to consider aspects like culture, ethnicity, and language, as well as economic reasons.

Example: The US shared more commonalities with Great Britain than with Germany. Such commonalities included language and government structure.

Poster Prompt:

Create a poster about the sinking of the Lusitania. Design the poster to convince people that the US should become involved in World War I.

Example: Be sure to include the phrase, "Remember the Lusitania!"

Letter Prompt:

Imagine that you are an American in 1917. Write a letter to a friend or family member that describes your reaction to the discovery of the Zimmerman Note.

Example: You can express your outrage and fear over a possible attack from Mexico on the states of the Southwest.

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