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WWI: America's Entry and Russia's Exit

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  • 0:07 World War I in Global Context
  • 1:32 American Involvement…
  • 4:54 Russia's Exit from World War I
  • 7:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about America's entry into World War I in 1917, and Russia's exit from the war between 1917 and 1918. We will learn about what led to these developments, and how they affected the course of the war.

World War I in Global Context

In this lesson, we will take a look at America's entry into World War I in 1917 and Russia's exit from it, taking place throughout the winter of 1917 to 1918. Before we get into the specifics of this, however, let's review the systems of alliances that made up the opposing sides. When war broke out in 1914, France, Great Britain, and Russia were allied with one another, making up what is called the Triple Entente.

The Triple Entente is often referred to as the Allied Powers, or just the Allies. Other countries, like Canada and Japan, also joined the Allies, but for the sake of simplicity, we tend to focus on only the major powers involved. Opposing the Allies were the Central Powers, composed of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria.

Originally Italy had an alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary under the Triple Alliance, but when war broke out, Italy basically wimped out and opted to remain neutral. Then, a year later, Italy flipped sides and joined the Allies. So, for most of World War I, it was France, Great Britain, Italy, and Russia against Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire. Now let's look at how the United States became involved.

American Involvement in World War I

When World War I first broke out in 1914, isolationist sentiment was strong throughout the United States. While there may have been some sympathy for the plight of Great Britain and France, most Americans felt neutrality was in their best interest. After all, why should America become involved in a European war? This war had nothing to do with the United States; that was the mentality most Americans shared. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson campaigned in 1915 with the slogan 'He Kept Us Out Of War.'

Two important events, however, began to change public opinion toward American intervention. The first was the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915 by a German U-boat, U-20. Although the RMS Lusitania was a British liner, over 100 Americans lost their lives. The sinking of the Lusitania, along with Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, outraged Americans. What is unrestricted submarine warfare? Basically, it's the policy of attacking merchant and other non-military vessels without notice.

A second critical event influencing American public opinion toward intervention was the interception of the Zimmermann telegram. The Zimmermann telegram, or the Zimmermann note, was a telegram sent in January 1917 from Germany to Mexico, inviting them to join the Central Powers. In return for Mexican collaboration, Germany would assist them in re-conquering portions of the American Southwest, like Texas and New Mexico.

The telegram, named after German State Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Arthur Zimmermann, was intercepted by the British, and passed on to the United States. The telegram also indicated Germany would resume unrestricted submarine warfare, which had been temporarily halted in order to not offend the U.S. The news of the Zimmermann telegram outraged Americans and incited further waves of anti-German sentiment.

The continued sinking of American vessels by German U-boats was the last straw. Amid growing support for American action, President Woodrow Wilson petitioned Congress for a declaration of war against Germany on April 2, 1917. After legislation passed both houses of Congress, the United States formally entered World War I alongside the Allies on April 6, 1917. Unlike in World War II, public support for war was by no means universal. Many Americans still had reservations about entering World War I.

The American soldiers sent to Europe to fight alongside the Allies were called the Allied Expeditionary Forces, or the AEF. The AEF participated in a number of late-war battles, including the Second Battle of the Marne and the Meuse-Argonne offensive. American intervention in World War I was a tremendous morale boost for the Allied Powers.

Russia's Exit from World War I

Imperial Russia suffered staggering losses throughout World War I. While many in the Russian Empire initially greeted the war with enthusiasm, within a few years it had become highly unpopular. Food shortages, riots, and general unrest led to Tsar Nicholas II falling out of favor with the Russian people.

In early March 1917 (February according to the Russian Julian calendar), the situation came to a head in the February Revolution. Large-scale demonstrations swept over the then-capital city of Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) as peasants, workers, and even soldiers protested the rule of the Tsar. As the city devolved into anarchy, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate the throne. Following his abdication, a provisional government was installed.

Many leaders of the provisional government favored withdrawing from the war and securing a peace. Increasingly, radical factions of the provisional government, like the Petrograd Soviet and the Bolsheviks, called for an immediate end to the war. Just so we are clear, the Petrograd Soviet was basically a loose coalition of Petrograd labor unions that acted as a sort of city council. The Bolsheviks, of course, were a Marxist political group who were followers of Vladimir Lenin; they were composed primarily of industrial workers.

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