World War I

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World War I

World War I was an international conflict primarily involving European nations that was fought between 1914 and 1918. The United States did not enter the conflict until April 1917, but its entry was the decisive event of the war, enabling the Allies (Great Britain, France, Italy, and Russia) to defeat the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria). The leadership of President woodrow wilson led to both the conclusion of hostilities and the creation of the League of Nations, an international organization dedicated to resolving disputes without war.

The war began on July 28, 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. During the late nineteenth century, European nations had negotiated military alliances with each other that called for mutual protection. The Austria-Hungary declaration of war triggered these alliance commitments, leading to the widening of the war between the Allies and Central Powers.

During the next four years, the war was fought primarily on three fronts and on the Atlantic Ocean. The western front was in France, where Germany was opposed by France, Great Britain, and eventually the United States. The eastern front was in Russia, where Germany and Austria-Hungary opposed Russia. The southern front was in Serbia and involved Austria-Hungary and Serbia.

In August 1914 Germany invaded Belgium and then moved into France. German forces were unable to achieve a decisive victory, however, ever, and the war soon became a conflict of fixed battle lines. French, British, and German soldiers lived and fought in trenches, periodically making assaults on the enemy by entering the "no man's land" between the two sets of trenches. The use of machine guns, tanks, gas warfare, and artillery in these confined battlefields generated unprecedented human carnage on the western front.

Though Germany had more success on the eastern front, neither side had sufficient economic and military strength to achieve victory. In 1916 and early 1917, Wilson sought to bring about negotiations between the Allies and Central Powers that would lead, in his words, to "peace without victory." Wilson's efforts at first appeared promising, but German military successes convinced the Central Powers that they could win the war.

Germany's use of submarine warfare proved to be the key element in provoking the United States' entry into the war. In 1915 a German submarine had torpedoed without warning the British passenger steamship Lusitania off the southern coast of Ireland. Nearly 1,200 persons died, including 128 U.S. citizens. Popular feeling in the United States against Germany was intense, leading to calls for declaring war on Germany. Wilson, however, sought a diplomatic solution. Though Germany rebuked his call for assuming responsibility for the tragedy, it did not sink any more passenger liners without warning. Wilson abandoned his peacemaking efforts when Germany announced that unrestricted submarine warfare would begin on February 1, 1917. This meant that U.S. merchant ships were in peril, despite the fact that the United States was a neutral in the war. Wilson broke diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3 and asked Congress later that month for authority to arm merchant ships and take other protective measures. In mid-March German submarines sank three U.S. merchant ships, with heavy loss of life. Wilson called a special session of Congress for April 2 and asked for a declaration of war on Germany. Congress obliged, and on April 6, 1917, Wilson signed the declaration.

The United States immediately moved to raise a large military force by instituting a military draft. It took months, however, to raise, train, and dispatch troops to Europe. The first 85,000 members of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), under the command of General John J. Pershing, arrived in France in June 1917. By the end of the war in November 1918, there were 2 million soldiers in the AEF.

Germany realized that U.S. war production and financial strength reduced Germany's chances of victory. In March 1918 Germany launched its last great offensive on the western front. U.S. troops saw their first extended action in the Battle of the Marne, halting the German advance on June 4. During the second Battle of the Marne, U.S. and French troops again stopped the German advance and successfully counterattacked. The Allies began pushing back the German army all along the western front, signaling the beginning of the end of German resistance.

Wilson renewed his peace efforts by proposing a framework for negotiations. On January 8, 1918, he delivered an address to Congress that named Fourteen Points to be used as the guide for a peace settlement. The fourteenth point called for a general association of nations that would guarantee political independence and territorial integrity for all countries. In October 1918 Germany asked Wilson to arrange a general Armistice based on the Fourteen Points and the immediate start of peace negotiations. Germany finally capitulated and signed an armistice on November 11, 1918.

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles ended World War I and imposed disarmament, reparations, and territorial changes on Germany. The treaty also established the League of Nations, an international organization dedicated to resolving world conflicts peacefully. Wilson, however, was unable to convince the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty, because it was opposed to U.S. membership in the League of Nations.

World War I also saw the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The specter of a worldwide Communist movement generated fears in the United States that socialists, anarchists, and Communists were undermining democratic institutions. During the war, socialist opponents of the war were convicted of Sedition and imprisoned. In 1920 the federal government rounded up 6,000 Aliens who it considered to be politically subversive. These "Palmer Raids," named after Attorney General A. mitchell palmer, violated basic civil liberties. Agents entered and searched homes without warrants, held persons without specific charges for long periods of time, and denied them legal counsel. Hundreds of aliens were deported.

Further readings

Macmillan, Margaret Olwen. 2002. Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. New York: Random House.

May, Christopher N. 1989. In the Name of War: Judicial Review and the War Powers Since 1918. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press

Murphy, Paul L. c1979. World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States. New York: Norton.


Communism; "Fourteen Points" (Appendix, Primary Document); Socialism.

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