The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, drawing American forces into one of the most deadly human conflicts in history.
The conflict had been raging in Europe for nearly three years by the time the U.S. entered, and much like today, views on whether the U.S. should go to war over foreign affairs were split.
America’s entry into World War I involved a swing in public opinion towards what many saw as a foreign matter, not relevant to U.S. interests. Former President Woodrow Wilson initially stated that the government would remain neutral throughout the conflict, unless trade was threatened.
There were strong opposing viewpoints regarding America’s role in the war. Many felt the U.S. had a duty to help the British and French fight off German and Austro-Hungarian aggression. Some felt so strongly about the conflict, they volunteered to fight on behalf of the French and British militaries. For example, the famed French air squadron known as the Lafayette Escadrille was comprised of primarily American volunteer pilots.
Other Americans felt strongly that entangling the U.S. in a foreign war was a dangerous move. In fact, Wilson won re-election in 1916 under the slogan “he kept us out of war.”
America’s neutrality allowed foreign bankers and merchants to trade with both sides of the conflict, under what was known as Wilson’s “fairness” policy.
Trade eventually led the U.S. to declare war on Germany in 1917. Germany’s unbridled use of U-boat attacks on neutral shipping, including U.S. vessels, was of grave concern to Washington. The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, which killed 128 Americans, was a major catalyst that helped swing public opinion.
“Remember the Lusitania!” became a popular rallying cry in favor of U.S. intervention, and a useful propaganda tool for U.S. military enlistment after war was declared.
Wilson would eventually ask Congress for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917, citing Germany U-boat aggression and apparent attempts to get Mexico to join its side against the U.S. The Senate voted in favor of the declaration on April 4, while the House would vote in favor two days later.
“The Great War,” as it became known, claimed the lives of more than 116,000 Americans before fighting stopped on November 11, 1918.
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