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Exhibition Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I

Arguing Over War

Americans were deeply divided over how to respond to the Great War and expressed a diverse range of views on the conflict. President Woodrow Wilson declared U.S. neutrality on August 4, 1914, and many Americans saw little reason to entangle themselves in what they viewed as European quarreling and intrigue. As the war persisted and the destruction spread, many Americans could not ignore the crisis. President Wilson and other leading Americans, like industrialist Henry Ford, attempted to facilitate negotiations for peace to end the conflict in Europe. Americans organized and provided humanitarian aid to war victims, particularly the monumental relief operation led by Herbert Hoover to feed German-occupied Belgium.

But other forces drew the United States toward war. Cultural ties to Britain tended to outweigh those that German Americans and other European ethnic groups had to their ancestral homelands. Although the United States did profit financially from the war as a neutral nation, Great Britain's naval domination of the seas and blockade of Germany and the other Central Powers meant that Americans primarily traded with the Allies during the war. Germany attempted to counter this imbalance with the widespread use of submarines, the first time these weapons had been extensively deployed in war. German submarines sank merchant ships engaged in what Americans viewed as peaceful trade and killed American passengers on British ocean liners, most notably the Lusitania. As the war raged on in Europe, to many, including eventually President Wilson, the conflict became a matter of principles: whether to uphold the freedom of the seas, to make the world safe for democracy in the face of autocracy, or to establish a new world order ensuring permanent peace and governed by rational law. The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Humanitarian Aid
For or Against War

Humanitarian Aid

As long as the United States remained out of the war, humanitarian assistance offered an alternative response to the international crisis. Neutral Belgium invaded and occupied by Germany and other war-ravaged countries faced food shortages and the threat of starvation. At the urging of the U.S. embassy in London, Herbert Hoover—then a forty-year-old mining engineer and wealthy business leader—organized the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). Designed to feed all of Belgium, it was the largest humanitarian relief operation to date. Relief efforts later expanded to occupied northern France, and by 1918 the CRB had delivered three million tons of food, largely averting starvation in the occupied territories.  Americans also undertook much smaller voluntary relief efforts for suffering peoples within the Central Powers’ territories including Germany, Austria, Hungary, Armenia, and Syria.

Commission for Relief in Belgium

Herbert Hoover to Mr. E. Francqui, June 15, 1915. Typescript letter. Brand Whitlock Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (014.00.00)

For or Against War

With the world around them at war, Americans' debate over the conflict often centered on the issue of military preparedness and the wisdom of making loans and selling arms overseas. Many feared that a large army would threaten American democracy and that an expanded arsenal would menace other countries. This fear of militarism also reinforced antagonism toward Germany, a well-armed and authoritarian monarchy. Preparedness advocates, however, believed that defending the country's security and borders outweighed other considerations, especially as the revolution in Mexico made the United States seem unready to defend itself. Some war opponents believed the greed of munitions makers, bankers, and others who stood to profit from war might draw Americans into an expanded conflict. Peace activists, pacifists, and others dreaded the inevitable loss of lives and drain on the economy that going to war would bring.

Sinking of the Lusitania

"Lusitania Extra—No. 3—Lusitania is Sunk: Giant Liner Blown Up—Report All Saved," Boston American, May 7, 1915. Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00)