Why the United States Entered the First World War in 1917?

Lily asked 5 months ago
  • You must mention: German submarine attacks on ships on which American citizens were travelling and the German effort to form an alliance with Mexico. The significant opposition in the US to entering the war and the US endured much foolish German provocation before it entered the war. The idea that the US feared in the spring of 1917 that the Allies were losing has little merit.
    5undergraduate student level, you must do a lot of research about the history fact, because this is a research paper and my pro is so strict about reference.
1 Answers
Expert Staff answered 5 months ago


 Why the United States Entered the First World War in 1917

For three years, America under the leadership of President Wilson did everything possible even when attacked to avoid taking part in the war. In fact, it has been American’s tradition not to be entangled in other country’s conflict since the time of George Washington.   Initially, the public opinion was opposed to the country joining the war, especially, the American citizens from other countries such as the Swedish Americans, German-American as well as people from Ireland.  Religious leaders also joined hand as well as the women to oppose the country’s involvement into to the war.

However, joining the war was the only solution as it was evident that the country faced many threats from Germany; and thus, had to take action of protecting itself as well as restoring democracy in the world, which was only possible by her being part and parcel of the war. Before reaching the decision to enter into the war, there were several incidences that made it clear that there was no alternative. First it’s the 1915 German attack on a British ship that claimed the lives of 128 Americans and the secondly is the Zimmerman letter that was instructing Mexico to initiate an attack on the U.S from the Southern and even though this letter never reached Mexico, it was clear to the Americans the level of threat it faced from its exclusion from the war.

United State’s Isolationist Policy

Since American was granted independence, she has always adopted an isolationist policy which means that the country does not get involved in foreign issues and policies that do not directly affect her. The isolationist policy was first introduced by President Washington in his inaugural speech where he argued that the country will only have the States as the priority[1]. Haggins adds that the same policy was invoked by President Jefferson in his 1801 inaugural speech where he argued that while the country will be in peace, do business and become friends with all the other countries of the world, it will not entangle itself in an alliance with any of these countries. This means that before the World War 1, the isolationist policy was heavily founded in the American culture such that President Wilson was unwilling to break this tradition.

In fact, this was the main reason President Wilson was adamant to ask the Congress to declare war against the Germans and had to wait until a moment when he had enough reasons to back his request. Despite the continuous German attack of the American civilian ships, President Wilson adopted a nonviolent war such as deciding to arm the American commercial ships and arguing that the country was ready to negotiate with German instead of taking arms against Germany[2].It is not until when President Wilson was convinced that the United States Isolationist policy was doing more harm than good to the Country that he sought to react by requesting the Congress to allow the country to retaliate against the Germans.

The First Act of Aggression

 Lusitania and how the british used it to influence the US into world war 1

The first act of aggression against the United States and which though was provoking the latter to retaliate but she did not, was the sinking of the Lusitania, a British ship in 1915.  While it did not directly attack the U.S, the country lost 128 of its citizens when the ship was drowned. Despite the widespread uproar from the Citizens, the United States chose not to take sides. The second act of aggression against the country and which initiated the desire of the United States to retaliate is the declaration made by Germany in the January of 1917 that German’s made it clear that all ships cruising the Atlantic Ocean to Britain would be sunk. This was a reaction toward the Royal Navy’s effort to sink all ships delivering their cargo to Germany. The efforts of the Royal Navy from Britain saw several American ships trading with the German either captured or ordered to go back but when American complained, the Royal Navy stops it aggressive act toward the American ships. Under the advice of Admiral Von Tirpitz, the Germany initiated ship blockade with a goal of starving the British with the hope that the latter would give up the fight. For this reason, Germany concentrated in sinking ship using the Atlantic ocean which was mainly connected the Canada to the United States. This Germany’s approach to war resulted in the drowning of the Housatonic, an American civilian ship delivering cargo to the British. This was in 1917 February 3rd and despite the German violation of the free ship seas’ treaty, still the United States did not retaliate against the Germans.

United State’S Response to German Attack Before World War I

Despite the drowning of its ship, America was not quick to declare war against the Germans and instead opted to protest against the latter’s action of infringing on the international agreements that forbid the attacking of civilians ships 5. Additionally, the U.S viewed the act of killing civilians as extremely archaic, and this influenced the change in the public opinion of Americans on the question of whether the country should join the war. On the other hand, the Germans offered the vulnerability of their submarines as the reason they had to drown the unconfirmed ships as it was risky to confirm if the ships were carrying civilians or the armies. On this note, due to the hostility between the Germans and the British, the British ships were armed with guns. After getting the news, the president argued that it was still possible to negotiate with the Germans for the latter to refrain from sinking American ships. If this act of diplomacy worked out as noted by Colonel White that was termed as foolish and ignorant for the  “two channels; the humanitarian American impulse toward peace and mediation into unconditional support for the British and her allies. 4

Arming American Ships

Initially, since President Wilson was willing to continue preventing his country from being involved in the war, he requested the Congress in Feb 1917 to grant his request of having all American ships armed to handle the Germans submarines.  The request did not go as planned as few senators who opposed the idea made sure that the Congress spent more time than required to approve the request. Despite the frustration with the Congress, President Wilson decided to make use of anti-privacy legislation to issue an executive order that all American commercial ships should be armed.  However, it is the continuous sinking of the U.S ships carrying either civilians or cargo that resulted to President Wilson appeal to the Congress to allow the United States to wage war against Germany, on April 2nd, 1917. Three days later, Congress approved Wilson’s request, and the war was declared.

The Zimmerman Letter

The other reason that accounts for the United States entering WW I is because of the Zimmerman letter. The letter cam from Germany authorizing the Mexicans soldiers to initiate an attack on the Southern border of the United States. In the Telegraph, the Mexicans were promised to have their territory that was under the U.S recaptured and returned to them upon joining hands with the German.5 However, the telegraph did not reach its destination and instead found itself in the hands of the British, who informed the U.S of the planned attack. This prompted the United States to react before the attack as it was evident that it was being targeted; and hence, the only way to protect its citizens is to retaliate. Even though initially, the British did not want to reveal the content of the Zimmerman Telegraph to the United States, as it sought to protect her code breakers who cracked the code as this would mean that the German would be careful next time, the British saw it as the right time to woe America, into the war[3].

Zimmerman letter and the First World War by the US

The German’s telegram to Mexico was therefore delivered to President Wilson and for the next few days, the telegram was circulated by the United States press. Using this approach, the British achieved her goal as it was able to woe the American public to push the country into waging war against the German as a way of protecting them.  The U.S entry into the war faced widespread criticism from both the politicians and the citizens. Hence, when President Wilson finally declared the war, it was an act of protecting its citizens and not joining any of the allies. This is why Wilson when declaring Congress decision to fight the German’s allies said that the intention was to end the war; but, since the only war possible to achieve this was by entering the war, he had no alternative besides entering the war[4].

Lastly, while the U.S joined the war in 1917, most of its soldiers did not participate in the war until one year later. Only a tiny army was involved initially, even though the army grew larger to about five million soldiers. Due to the high amount of American soldiers in the war, American economic and social landscape was affected. Despite its heavy participation in terms of the soldiers and financial expenditure, the U.S was able to come out as the victorious[5]. This is because most of the war did not take place in her land. Also, it suffered few casualties as it only lost 116,000 persons during the entire war which is pretty small compared to other major participants in the war.6


In conclusion, the United States Isolationist policy has played a crucial role in determining how the country interacts with other countries. The policy played a key role in delaying the U.S entry into the war as President Wilson sought a peaceful way out of German’s aggression. For about three years since 1914, the World War was between Germany and British, and they both adopted a policy of ship-blockage trying to starve each other. 7

However, in the process of starving the British, the Germans drowned one of the former’s ships; but, unfortunately, it carried 125 American. Despite these casualties, America did not react until in 1917 when German increased on American commercial ships sinking several of them and even with this high level of aggression, President Wilson opted not to seek for the declaration. It is not until the Zimmerman letter which was a telegraph sent to Mexico by Germany asking the former to attack America’s south that President Wilson saw that the war would not end without America’s involvement. This resulted in American joining the British against the Germans and their allies with the aim of restoring democracy in the world.


[1]Haggins, K. (2012). How had the U.S.A Developed a Policy of Isolation in the Period after the First World War?” page1

[2]U.S Department of State Office of the Historian. (2010). Milestone: 1914-1920. Page 1

5The Telegraph, (2014). The War that Launched the American Century page 1

6Carlisle, R. (2005). The Attack on U.S Shipping that Precipitated American Entry into World War 1. The Mariner, 14(3); 41-66

7Taussig, F. W., & Keynes, J. M. (1920). Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. The Quarterly Journal of Economics p 385

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