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TORONTO, Ont./Troy Media/ – Thanks to two specific First World War events, the days surrounding Easter 1917 were momentous.
One of these events – the successful Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge – is often considered critical to the evolution of a distinct Canadian identity.
But the other event – the entry into the war by the United States – was more significant for the conflict’s ultimate resolution.
On Good Friday, April 6, the United States declared war on Germany, thereby joining a struggle that had been raging since 1914. Although the Americans were late to the party, the resources they brought were important to the war’s eventual denouement.
As late as December 1916, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson actively sought to mediate a resolution of the conflict. Secretary of State Robert Lansing may have been in favour of intervention, but Wilson was reluctant. The imperial practices and aspirations of the Allies, particularly the British and French, weren’t to his taste. And there were domestic political considerations.
Large chunks of the American public wanted nothing to do with foreign wars – American boys weren’t to die for other people’s quarrels. And constituencies such as Irish-American Catholics and midwestern German-Americans would be especially unhappy if the U.S. entered the war.
But Wilson’s mediation initiative came to nothing and Germany’s early 1917 shift to unrestricted submarine warfare tipped the balance of American opinion.
German military leaders like Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff pitched the idea that the British could be forced into submission within six months if their trans-Atlantic supply line was shut down. And the way to accomplish this was through unrestricted submarine warfare on vessels crossing the Atlantic.
Not everyone agreed. German businessman Max Warburg, for instance, thought that sinking American merchant ships would bring the United States into the war, which – given America’s financial and economic muscle – would ultimately prove disastrous for Germany.
However, Kaiser Wilhelm II went along with the military advice. After all, even if the U.S. did intervene, it would be too late to have a practical effect, the argument went. The British would already have succumbed by the time the Americans got their act together.
Thus, with an eye to being prepared, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann cabled his ambassador in Mexico with instructions to seek an alliance in the event American intervention appeared imminent. In return for Mexico going to war with the United States, it would be promised the return of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona after hostilities were successfully concluded.
Unfortunately for Zimmermann, the British intercepted the cable and turned it over to Wilson. He wasn’t pleased. Neither was the American public.
Then, on March 17, German submarines sank three American merchant ships. On April 2, Wilson requested a declaration of war from Congress. He got it on April 6.
So did (as is sometimes claimed) the Americans win the war for the Allies?
For one thing, the actual American contribution, in terms of fighting and dying, was relatively small.
Yes, approximately 114,000 Americans were killed. But horrible as that was, it pales into insignificance compared to the almost 1.4 million Frenchmen killed and the 921,000 from the British Empire (including Britain itself).
And if you look at deaths as a percentage of the male population between the ages of 15 and 49, the contrast is even more stark. An astonishing 13.3 per cent of French males perished, whereas the corresponding number for the Americans was 0.4 per cent.
There’s also the fact that, compared to the battle-hardened Allies, the Americans were tactically naÃ¯ve and thus less effective as a fighting force. Historian Niall Ferguson suggests that their main value was in relieving British and French troops in quiet sectors of the front and in implying to the Germans the inexhaustible manpower available to the Allies.
That was certainly a critical, even essential, contribution. But it hardly amounts to winning the war.
Interestingly, the historical reputation of the man who led the United States into and through the war has declined in recent years. Early polls of historians going back to 1948 rated Wilson fourth among presidents, just below Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt. The most recent poll drops him to 11th place.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit. Pat is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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