This Week in World War I, January 17-23, 1915

America and World War I: Choosing Sides

The entry of the United States in 1917, on behalf of the Allies, into World War I was one of the pivotal events. Suddenly, the industrial might of the United States became fully available to the Allied war effort.

The products of American industry had always been available to the Allies. In fact the period from 1914 on had seen an economic boom in the U.S. as European wartime demand had meant a steady stream of orders across the Atlantic. With America's entry, however, the terms of trade would become considerably more flexible and easier to finance.

2014-12-02-USmunitionsfactory1021.jpg US Munitions Factories Ran at Full Production to Meet European Demand

Backed by American capital, and the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, not to mention the powerful American Navy to protect shipments across the Atlantic, the Allies would gain an important new ally. More importantly was the prospect of millions of new recruits ready to take up arms against the German army.

Such an outcome, however, had never been a foregone conclusion. Even as late as 1915 Americans were sharply divided over the question of U.S. entry into World War I. The role of the Irish-American and German-American communities would play a particularly important role in the debate over intervention. By the turn of the twentieth century, about a third of Americans were either of Irish or German descent. Even today, a century later, roughly 25 percent of all Americans can still claim the same ancestry.

2014-12-02-IrishpicketWhiteHouse1002.jpg Irish Americans Picket the White House to Protest U.S. Support for Great Britain

The United States, long a hot bed of Irish nationalism and an important source of its funding, had a significant Irish-American population with pronounced anti-British views. An equally large German-American community, while not specifically anti-British, was certainly pro-German in its views, and at the very least, was a strong proponent of American neutrality.

While the role of American volunteers in British and French forces was well publicized, the Lafayette Escadrille being the most well-known example, there were a significant number of volunteers for the German side as well. Not surprisingly, since America's subsequent involvement in the war effectively made these recruits de facto traitors, and since the American media was staunchly pro-Allies, they did not receive a great deal of publicity.

2014-12-02-CasperReneeGregory1003.jpg Casper Renee Gregory American Volunteer in the German Army There was an Irish Battalion that fought with the Imperial German Army during the war comprised of both native Irishman and Irish-Americans. Casper Rene Gregory had the distinction of not only being the oldest wartime volunteer in the Germany Army but also an American citizen. The number of American citizens that fought on the German side was undoubtedly less than those that fought for the Allies. It was not a significant number in any case, but there were definitely American volunteers!

The United States had made a declaration of neutrality at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. As the war progressed, Woodrow Wilson had complained to both Germany and Great Britain about their violation of the rights of neutrals.

The British blockade effectively stopped the shipment of American goods to Germany, but this was accomplished without any loss of life and Wilson's protests were relatively mild. On the other hand, Wilson warned Germany repeatedly that the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, and the resulting loss of American lives and property, would be considered a provocation that would cause the United States to abandon its neutrality.

As the war progressed, the German government's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and the resultant loss of American lives; its diplomatic machinations in Mexico to create an anti-United States, German-Mexican alliance; and a Berlin directed campaign of sabotage against U.S. factories and port facilities, caused American public opinion to tip increasingly in favor of the British and French and paved the way for America's eventual entry into the conflict.