HIS 204 – U.S. Foreign Relations
September 18, 2013
There are multiple factors that lead to the American declaration of war against Germany on April 6, 1917, but the most predominate factor is Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare on neutral and civilian vessels. Woodrow Wilson and U.S. Congress’s decision to declare war was a two-year process of what Wilson later referred to as acts of “relentless and indiscriminate warfare” by Germany. These two years consisted of American warnings to Germany and Germany’s continued neglect, beginning with Wilson’s first address to Germany on May 13th, 1915 and reached it’s boiling point on February 1st, 1917 with Germany’s continuation of unrestricted submarine warfare. This paper will layout chronologically the order of events that led the U.S. to declare war on Germany and why these events are the most important factor for America to declare war on Germany.
From March 28th to May 7th, 1915, there were four ships experienced German aggression that were either an American vessel or transporting American civilians. The Falaba was a British passenger steamer that was sunk by a German U-boat on March 28th. The Falaba was carrying an American passenger Leon C. Thrasher, who drowned during the sinking of the ship. On April 28th, the Cushing, an American naval vessel was attacked by a German fighter plane. On May 1st, another American naval vessel, the Gunflight, was attacked, this time by a German U-boat. And the most significant event of this group was the sinking of the British steamboat, the Lisitania, which resulted in nearly 1200 deaths, 128 of which being American citizens. These acts of German aggression toward civilian vessels horrified Wilson, combined with the aggression to American vessels, these acts caused Woodrow Wilson’s first address to Germany on May 13th, 1915. Wilson’s objective was for the German Government to understand that these actions were impairing the United States’ freedom over the seas. Wilson also stated that the United States’ Government believed such acts were “so absolutely contrary to the rules, the practices, and the spirit of modern warfare.” This is the first of many messages to the German Government.
On July 21st, 1915, President Wilson sent a message, again in protest, to the German’s naval war behavior. This message had an understanding element to it. Wilson expressed understanding to the German’s conditions based on the war but he again stressed “The rights of neutrals in time of war are based upon principle, not upon expediency, and the principles are immutable”. Wilson continually addresses the right to the seas, to the neutral parties of the war, but this did nothing to alter the actions of the German Navy and continued to sink ships with no warning, such as the Sussex. These actions led to the United States Government to give the German Government an ultimatum to cease the unrestricted submarine warfare of the German Navy or the American Government would have no other option but to “sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire altogether”.
The United States Government’s declaration sparked a reply from the German Government stating that the German Government agreed with the United States, and always had in theory, and had ordered their navy to restrict their use of submarine warfare by sending fare warning to vessels in question and even search these vessels. Only vessels that failed to comply with their warning or German Naval orders would be sunk, this later known as the Sussex Pledge. But the German Government argued that due to the stressful situations of war, mainly the British blockage of Germany, which they viewed as violating international law by starving their civilians, the German Government was hesitant to restrict the use of submarines because they were so effective. The United States Government responded, sternly, on the 5th of May 1915, by stating, “responsibility in such matters is single, not joint, absolute, not relative”. The United States did not want a justification nor an excuse; they just wanted unrestricted submarine warfare to cease. The Germans never replied to this letter.
The United States Government made their position on the German’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare very clear, several times. And yet on January 31st, 1917, the German Government decided on the continuation of the use of unrestricted submarine warfare as a German Naval tactic to cease “all navigation, that of neutrals included.” Germany argued that they were only meeting “the illegal measures of her enemies”.
I believe that the United States Government had no choice at this point but to declare war on Germany. The German Government had been warned several times to cease unrestricted submarine warfare and knew the ramifications of failing to cease, and still chose not too. This conscious decision is evident in the German U-boat Conference on August 31st, 1916 and in the Zimmerman Telegram. Woodrow Wilson felt like the united State was justified in using military action at this point, although he does not really specify what that meant, in his addresses to congress on February 3rd, and February 26th, 1917, after the notification of the German Government’s intent to continuing use of unrestricted submarine warfare, and especially in his war message to congress on April 2nd, 1917. In all three addresses Wilson makes it very clear and almost speaks exclusively that the cause of the United State’s entry into the war would be and was the violation of international rights via unrestricted submarine warfare. He begins his war message to congress by stating that the German Navy was going to remove “all restraints of law or of humanity and use its submarines to sink every vessel that sought to approach either the ports of Great Britain and Ireland or the western coasts of Europe or any of the ports controlled by the enemies of Germany within the Mediterranean”, then continues his address by explaining why these acts are worthy of United States involvement in the war. Wilson uses a two-pronged approach to justify a declaration of war, combining the American peoples rights to the high seas and also a universalistic goal of “the ultimate peace of the world and the liberation of its peoples”. I believe that unrestricted submarine warfare was the most predominate factor of the United States joining the war because it is obvious to me that Woodrow Wilson believed unrestricted submarine warfare was the most predominate factor in his several addresses to congress during this time, most notably, his war address. Although, according to Senator McCumber in 1919, in an interview with the President, Wilson thought the United States would of joined the War even without the act of unrestricted submarine warfare. But, Justus Doenecke argues, and I agree, that the president would of tough time bringing the United States into the war without the acts of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans.
However, I do believe another major factor was the interception and decoding of the Zimmerman telegram. The Zimmerman telegram, or note, was a message from Arthur Zimmerman, the Foreign Secretary of Germany, to Heinrich Von Eckardt, the German Ambassador in Mexico. The message was for Von Eckardt to try to pursue the Mexican Government to join the Central Powers and to stage an attack on the United States, if the U.S. decided to join the war. Mexico would receive military and financial benefits from German and it’s allies if they agreed on joining, and they would also receive the lost land in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona back from the United States. This message was intercepted and decoded by British Intelligence and immediately thought it could be used to sway the U.S. into joining the war. After British Intelligence could prove it was genuine, the British Government passed the message to the U.S. Embassy, which hastily passed it one to Woodrow Wilson. Once Woodrow Wilson made the Telegram public on March 1st, 1917, the American public was outraged and caused increased support for joining the war. I believe the Zimmerman note was a major factor for the United States joins the war because it was the straw that broke the camels back if you will. I believe the Zimmerman note pushed America over the edge, especially the American public.
The combination of continued unrestricted submarine warfare and the release of the Zimmerman note to the American public was more than enough for the United States to enter the war. But in saying that, I do not believe the Zimmerman note, or any other factor for that matter, without Germany’s continual acts of unrestricted submarine warfare, would have been enough to drive the United States to declaring war on Germany. I think the Zimmerman note was more effective to convince the American public to go to war, more so than it was at convincing the American Government to go to war. I believe that even without the interception and decoding of the Zimmerman note, the United States Government would of eventually still declared war on Germany because unrestricted submarine warfare because the German Government would of forced the United States to act militarily in the defense of their people.
 Woodrow Wilson. Remarks before Congress concerning the German attack on the unarmed Channel steamer Sussex, Washington D.C., April 19th, 1916.
 Rodney Carlisle. Sovereignty at Sea: U.S. Merchant Ships and American Entry into World War I
 Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s First Lusitania Note to Germany. May 13th, 1915.
 Woodrow Wilson. Protest to Germans. July 21st, 1915.
 U.S. Government. Declaration to the Imperial German Government, April 18th, 1916.
 German Government. Germany’s Response to U.S. Ultimatum Regarding Use of U-Boats. May 4th, 1916.
 United States’ Government. Government of the United States replied to Germany regarding U-Boats. May 5th, 1916.
 German Ambassador to the U.S. Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff. German statement to the United States Government regarding unrestricted submarine warfare. January 31st, 1917.
 Woodrow Wilson. Address to Congress, Washington D.C., February 3rd, 1917.
 Woodrow Wilson. Address to Congress, Washington D.C., Fedruary 26th, 1917.
 Woodrow Wilson. “Wilson’s War Address to Congress.” Speech given to the United States’ Congress, Washington D.C., April 2nd, 1917.
 Justus Doenecke. Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I. (Lexington, KY, USA: University Press of Kentucky, 04/2011), 303.
 Arthur Zimmerman. Telegram to the German Ambassador in Mexico, January 16, 1917.
 Dr. Thomas Boghardt. The Zimmermann Telegram: Diplomacy, Intelligence and the American Entry into World War I. November 2003.
 Fitzpatrick, Vale. Failed Diplomacy: The Zimmerman Note. Resources 4 Educators.