Early 1900's: An Age of Idealism
The early 20th century was a period of "adolescence" for American Industrialization and Imperialism. The Spanish-American war provided the United States with the overseas territory whereby it could begin to be defined as a traditional imperial power. Yet, the United States was not the most powerful nation in the world. This title fell to the mighty British Empire. The phrase "the sun never sets on the British Empire" was coined due to the fact that the British controlled territory across the entire globe. The British colonial economy was dominant and its navy ruled the seas. The world's true powers of the day were
the British and and the French (with the Japanese and the Germans quickly gaining ground). The United States was an infant amongst the Imperial powers of the day.
The key characteristics of an Imperial power are the possession of overseas territories, Industrial power, a robust economy, and a dominant naval force. By the early 20th century the United States was well on its way to joining the ranks of the elite Imperial powers of the world. The US Industrial sector was expanding into new markets in Central America, South America, Africa, and Asia. The territory of the United States reached into the edge of the Pacific rim with the Philippines and Guam. The Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary laid claim to Latin America as its primary sphere of influence. The US navy and its Battleships had become a major force on the high seas. However, not all facets of the America were comfortable with the US becoming a
major Imperial power. The concept of "manifest destiny" laid the groundwork for the expansion of US industrial and military might, but there were powerful forces that were calling for the United States to remain isolated from the conflict and tension of Europe and its Imperialistic powers. Yet, the Presidents of the early 20th century (Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson) had placed America on a course that made involvement in Europe's "Great War" inevitable. The question of the day in the United States was not would the United States become involved, but when and to what extent.
The onset of World War I can be compared to a large forest fire. As in a forest fire it is not the actual accelerant that is cited for causing the fire. Rather, it is the combination of the environmental factors as a whole that enable the forest fire to occur. The direct cause (or spark) of the outbreak of World War I was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. The environmental conditions that made the war inevitable among the major European powers were industrial competition & imperial competition, strong nationalistic currents, and the Alliance system. Thus, the assassination of the Archduke set off an International fire that eventually consumed the United States.
Technically, the US was neutral at the onset of the "Great War". The people of the United States were torn between which faction to support - the Triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) or the Grand Alliance (Germany, Austria, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire). The late 19th and early 20th centuries ushered in thousands of immigrants from Europe. As a result, their was a great deal of conflict and uncertainty surrounding the potential involvement of the United States. In the end the power and influence of the US industrial and financial sectors pulled the United States directly into the conflict. The US became a major financier of Britain and France. Thus, the US inevitably sided with Britain and France to ensure that the war loans could be
recouped after the war.
The official reasoning behind the US decision to enter the war centered on the sinking of the USS Lusitania and the subequent unrestrictred submarine warfare by the German U-boat fleet. In 1917 the United States mobilized its forces and entered the Great War. Many historians believe that the introduction of the United States into the war sped up the defeat of the Grand Alliance. Over the course of less than two years the United States mobilized over 4 million soldiers and endured over 300,000 casualties with 117,000 killed.
World War I was the "war to end all wars". It brought together the cosmic forces of industrial competition, imperialism, and nationalism. The war brought to an end on November 11, 1918. The formal document that drew the war to a close was the "Treaty of Versailles". The treaty was spearheaded by the President Woodrow Wilson of the United States. Wilson envisioned a post-war world that would be goverened by the rules of diplomacy rather than war. This set of ideals was articulated via the "14 Points". The cornerstone of this plan was the creation of the "League of Nations". The League was designed to create a forum for nations to come together to resolve their issues peacefully.
However, the potential success of the League Nations depended on the membership of all of the powerful nations of the day - including the United States of America. Although the President of the United States authored the covenant of the League of Nations the support of the American public was not guaranteed. One must remember that it took three years to enter the war. The bloodshed and horror of World War I left a bitter taste in the mouth of the average American. Many believed that the United States was drawn into the war as a direct result of the strong alliances that existed amongst the European nations prior to the war. Many in the US were wary of joining another alliance system that could potentially involve the country in the angst and turmoil of
another country thousands of miles away from the shores of America. Thus, the United States Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles and one of the most powerful countries in the world was absent from the League of Nations.
The Treaty of Versailles would prove to be a significant, yet ineffective peace document. The treaty was written by the victors to punish the losers - Germany. As a result, the treaty was drafted in such a manner that the losers of the war, the Germans, were punished harsly for their role in the War. The Allies motives were quite clear. Both France and Great Britain had accumulated massive war debts to the United States. In an effort to reapay their debts France and Great Britain forced Germany to pay damages for the war known as reparation payments. This decision would prove costly for the two countires as it later provided the political fuel that enabled Adolf Hitler to rise to power in the 1930's. Further, the Germans were handed a set of
strict penalties and constraints:
1) Germany had to accept blame for starting the war
2) Germany was to concede German territory
3) Germany was limited to a small 100,000 security force
4) Germany had to pay the allies millions in "reparation" payments
The Treaty of Versailles destroyed the morale, the economy, and stability of Germany. What was initially created to prevent Germany from becoming a dominant military power that could threaten the security of Europe ultimately led to the Rise of the Third Reich.
The period betwen the two wars was one of dramatic social, political, and economic change. Each character in the theater of World War I was left with a variety of daunting social, political, and economic challenges. The question that faced the US was: Isolationist or Internationalist? The US has long been protected from foreign wars by its two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Yet, the Age of Industrialization ushered in a new, and unforseen, Era of increased economic interdependence. The battle lines were drawn as a reaction to the horrors and struggles of World War One. The prevailing tendency of the period was to withdraw and isolate the US from "foreign entanglements". The cartoon below depicts this dilemma not only in the US, but the