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World War I: 1914–1918

American Neutrality and Relations with Germany in World War I

American Neutrality in the Early Years

Wilson's 1914 Declaration of Neutrality was intended to keep the United States out of the conflict in Europe, a position most Americans supported at the time.

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, the United States took a position of neutrality, or a position of not supporting either side in a conflict. This position was supported by most Americans, many of whom were recent immigrants from European countries. The vast geographical distance between Europe and the United States allowed those Americans who were not recent immigrants to feel removed from the conflict. In August 1914 President Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, delivered a declaration of neutrality to Congress. In his speech, he asked that Americans remain "impartial in thought, as well as action" to avoid signaling a preference for one side over the other in the war.

Over the next three years, Wilson would struggle to maintain neutrality in the face of the escalating conflict in Europe. The United States was currently in an economic recession. As the demand for goods caused by the war escalated in Europe, American manufacturers and farmers were eager to step up and provide much-needed supplies. The United States exported to countries that were part of both the Central Powers and Allied alliances, but already-established trade practices favored the Allied nations. In addition, American banks loaned money to nations on both sides of the conflict despite warnings from the secretary of state that these loans would be a violation of neutrality.
A dog tagged "Jingo" howls outside President Wilson's door. Jingoism is an aggressive, warlike patriotism. The dog Jingo represents those howling for the United States to abandon Wilson's official policy of neutrality and enter World War I. Thus far Wilson had limited U.S. involvement to supplying Allied Powers with American products.
Credit: One hundred cartoons by Cesare, O. E/Internet Archive/

Deterioration of U.S. Relations with Germany

The loss of American lives in the sinking of British ocean liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915, helped turn public opinion against Germany and the Central Powers, moving the United States closer to entering the war in Europe.
The Lusitania was a British passenger ship with American citizens aboard sunk by a German U-boat during its transatlantic voyage from Liverpool, England, to New York City in May 1915. The British government had warned of German submarine activity in the area and recommended the ship take evasive action to avoid attack. The ship's captain ignored these warnings, and on May 7, a German U-boat, or submarine, fired upon the Lusitania. The ship sank in just 18 minutes, and 1,198 people drowned, including all 128 Americans. Public outrage in the United States followed, but Wilson did not yet declare war. He instead appealed to Germany to spare the lives of noncombatant citizens and suspend attacks on passenger vessels.
The passenger liner Lusitani a was torpedoed and sunk in just 18 minutes by a German U-boat just off the coast of Ireland, heightening public anger against Germany. Images of the event were used as recruitment tools.
Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, [LC-USZC4-1502]
In 1916 Wilson sent American diplomat Colonel Edward M. House to Europe in an attempt to initiate mediation between the warring allied camps. The attempt was unsuccessful, and Wilson abandoned his efforts to negotiate peace, focusing on his reelection campaign in which he campaigned, in part, on the slogan that “he kept us out of war.” In December 1916 German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg made known the terms of peace that would be acceptable for Germany to end the war. However, the terms were unacceptable to the Allies. A short time after Bethmann Hollweg's proposition, Wilson asked both sides to state what they would need for the war to end. But this was a ruse. Secretary of State Robert Lansing secretly encouraged the Allies to make demands the Central Powers would not accept. Suspecting the United States was in collusion with the Allies, Germany made no concessions or changes to the terms of peace they had announced earlier in the month.

On January 22, 1917, Wilson made another speech asking for "peace without victory." Great Britain privately expressed a willingness to enter negotiations to end the war, but Germany had resolved on January 9 to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare, a military tactic in which submarines fire upon marine vessels without warning with the objective of sinking them. Germany announced these intentions on February 1, 1917, and on February 3, 1917, the United States officially terminated diplomatic dealings with Germany. At the end of February Wilson asked Congress to permit the armament of U.S. marine vessels to protect them from German attack.

Zimmermann Telegram

The Zimmermann Telegram, intercepted and decoded by the British in January 1917, detailed German plans to offer Mexico territory in the American Southwest in exchange for a Mexican ground invasion of the United States.

By the beginning of 1917, the Allied forces in Europe were anxious for the United States to actively participate in the war. The Allied forces were better equipped than the Central Powers in terms of soldiers and supplies, but the German army had a solid hold in France and Russia. The war was at a stalemate—in a situation in which neither side had the opportunity to advance.

In January 1917 German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann sent an encrypted telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico City, Heinrich von Eckardt. The telegram, which would become known as the Zimmermann Telegram, instructed von Eckardt to propose an alliance between Mexico and Germany. Germany knew that because of their reinstatement of unrestricted submarine warfare it was only a matter of time before the United States joined in the war. Germany proposed that Mexico enter the war on the side of the Central Powers and lead a ground invasion of the United States, who was anticipated to enter the war on the side of the Allies. In turn, Germany would help Mexico regain territory yielded to the United States in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War—Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The telegram also instructed the Mexican president to invite Japan to join their alliance.

The telegram was sent to von Eckardt via the German ambassador in Washington, D.C., and was intercepted by British intelligence. British intelligence officers were able to decode the telegram and forwarded a transcript of the decoded and translated telegram to President Woodrow Wilson. On March 1, 1917, the message was published for the American public:

Berlin. January 19, 1917.

On the first of February we intend to begin submarine warfare unrestricted. In spite of this it is our intention to endeavor to keep neutral the United States of America.

If this attempt is not successful we propose an alliance on the following basis with Mexico: That we shall make war together and together make peace. We shall give generous financial support and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona. The details are left to you for settlement.

You are instructed to inform the President of Mexico of the above in the greatest confidence as soon as it is certain there will be an outbreak of war with the United States and suggest that the President of Mexico on his own initiative should communicate with Japan suggesting adherence at once to this plan; at the same time offer to mediate between Germany and Japan.

Please call to the attention of the President of Mexico that the employment of ruthless submarine warfare now promises to compel England to make peace in a few months. (Signed) ZIMMERMANN.

—”Documentary Proof of Teuton Plan to Embroil America with Southern Republic, Offering Southwestern States as Bribe, in Hands of This Government,” The Sun, New York, NY, March 1, 1917, p. 1
Americans were sufficiently convinced that German hostility toward the United States posed an imminent threat, and Wilson declared war on Germany five weeks later with the support of the American people.
The Zimmermann Telegram was intercepted and decoded by the British, who shared an English translation of the decoded message with the U.S. government.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 302025