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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·The United States and the European War · The Settlement at Paris·»

The United States at War

Steps toward War.—Three days after the receipt of the news that the German government intended to return to its former submarine policy, President Wilson severed diplomatic relations with the German empire. At the same time he explained to Congress that he desired no conflict with Germany and would await an “overt act” before taking further steps to preserve American rights. “God grant,” he concluded, “that we may not be challenged to defend them by acts of willful injustice on the part of the government of Germany.” Yet the challenge came. Between February 26 and April 2, six American merchant vessels were torpedoed, in most cases without any warning and without regard to the loss of American lives. President Wilson therefore called upon Congress to answer the German menace. The reply of Congress on April 6 was a resolution, passed with only a few dissenting votes, declaring the existence of a state of war with Germany. Austria-Hungary at once severed diplomatic relations with the United States; but it was not until December 7 that Congress, acting on the President’s advice, declared war also on that “vassal of the German government.”

American War Aims.—In many addresses at the beginning and during the course of the war, President Wilson stated the purposes which actuated our government in taking up arms. He first made it clear that it was a war of self-defense. “The military masters of Germany,” he exclaimed, “denied us the right to be neutral.” Proof of that lay on every hand. Agents of the German imperial government had destroyed American lives and American property on the high seas. They had filled our communities with spies. They had planted bombs in ships and munition works. They had fomented divisions among American citizens.

Though assailed in many ways and compelled to resort to war, the United States sought no material rewards. “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves.”

In a very remarkable message read to Congress on January 8, 1918, President Wilson laid down his famous “fourteen points” summarizing the ideals for which we were fighting. They included open treaties of peace, openly arrived at; absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas; the removal, as far as possible, of trade barriers among nations; reduction of armaments; adjustment of colonial claims in the interest of the populations concerned; fair and friendly treatment of Russia; the restoration of Belgium; righting the wrong done to France in 1871 in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine; adjustment of Italian frontiers along the lines of nationality; more liberty for the peoples of Austria-Hungary; the restoration of Serbia and Rumania; the readjustment of the Turkish Empire; an independent Poland; and an association of nations to afford mutual guarantees to all states great and small. On a later occasion President Wilson elaborated the last point, namely, the formation of a league of nations to guarantee peace and establish justice among the powers of the world. Democracy, the right of nations to determine their own fate, a covenant of enduring peace—these were the ideals for which the American people were to pour out their blood and treasure.

The Selective Draft.—The World War became a war of nations. The powers against which we were arrayed had every able-bodied man in service and all their resources, human and material, thrown into the scale. For this reason, President Wilson summoned the whole people of the United States to make every sacrifice necessary for victory. Congress by law decreed that the national army should be chosen from all male citizens and males not enemy aliens who had declared their intention of becoming citizens. By the first act of May 18, 1917, it fixed the age limits at twenty-one to thirty-one inclusive. Later, in August, 1918, it extended them to eighteen and forty-five. From the men of the first group so enrolled were chosen by lot the soldiers for the World War who, with the regular army and the national guard, formed the American Expeditionary Force upholding the American cause on the battlefields of Europe. “The whole nation,” said the President, “must be a team in which each man shall play the part for which he is best fitted.”

Liberty Loans and Taxes.—In order that the military and naval forces should be stinted in no respect, the nation was called upon to place its financial resources at the service of the government. Some urged the “conscription of wealth as well as men,” meaning the support of the war out of taxes upon great fortunes; but more conservative counsels prevailed. Four great Liberty Loans were floated, all the agencies of modern publicity being employed to enlist popular interest. The first loan had four and a half million subscribers; the fourth more than twenty million. Combined with loans were heavy taxes. A progressive tax was laid upon incomes beginning with four per cent on incomes in the lower ranges and rising to sixty-three per cent of that part of any income above $2,000,000. A progressive tax was levied upon inheritances. An excess profits tax was laid upon all corporations and partnerships, rising in amount to sixty per cent of the net income in excess of thirty-three per cent on the invested capital. “This,” said a distinguished economist, “is the high-water mark in the history of taxation. Never before in the annals of civilization has an attempt been made to take as much as two-thirds of a man’s income by taxation.”

Mobilizing Material Resources.—No stone was left unturned to provide the arms, munitions, supplies, and transportation required in the gigantic undertaking. Between the declaration of war and the armistice, Congress enacted law after law relative to food supplies, raw materials, railways, mines, ships, forests, and industrial enterprises. No power over the lives and property of citizens, deemed necessary to the prosecution of the armed conflict, was withheld from the government. The farmer’s wheat, the housewife’s sugar, coal at the mines, labor in the factories, ships at the wharves, trade with friendly countries, the railways, banks, stores, private fortunes—all were mobilized and laid under whatever obligations the government deemed imperative. Never was a nation more completely devoted to a single cause.

A law of August 10, 1917, gave the President power to fix the prices of wheat and coal and to take almost any steps necessary to prevent monopoly and excessive prices. By a series of measures, enlarging the principles of the shipping act of 1916, ships and shipyards were brought under public control and the government was empowered to embark upon a great ship-building program. In December, 1917, the government assumed for the period of the war the operation of the railways under a presidential proclamation which was elaborated in March, 1918, by act of Congress. In the summer of 1918 the express, telephone, and telegraph business of the entire country passed under government control. By war risk insurance acts allowances were made for the families of enlisted men, compensation for injuries was provided, death benefits were instituted, and a system of national insurance was established in the interest of the men in service. Never before in the history of the country had the government taken such a wise and humane view of its obligations to those who served on the field of battle or on the seas.

The Espionage and Sedition Acts.—By the Espionage law of June 15, 1917, and the amending law, known as the Sedition act, passed in May of the following year, the government was given a drastic power over the expression of opinion. The first measure penalized those who conveyed information to a foreign country to be used to the injury of the United States; those who made false statements designed to interfere with the military or naval forces of the United States; those who attempted to stir up insubordination or disloyalty in the army and navy; and those who willfully obstructed enlistment. The Sedition act was still more severe and sweeping in its terms. It imposed heavy penalties upon any person who used “abusive language about the government or institutions of the country.” It authorized the dismissal of any officer of the government who committed “disloyal acts” or uttered “disloyal language,” and empowered the Postmaster General to close the mails to persons violating the law. This measure, prepared by the Department of Justice, encountered vigorous opposition in the Senate, where twenty-four Republicans and two Democrats voted against it. Senator Johnson of California denounced it as a law “to suppress the freedom of the press in the United States and to prevent any man, no matter who he is, from expressing legitimate criticism concerning the present government.” The constitutionality of the acts was attacked; but they were sustained by the Supreme Court and stringently enforced.

Copyright by Underwood and Underwood, N.Y.
The Launching of a Ship at the Great Naval Yards, Newark, N.J.

Labor and the War.—In view of the restlessness of European labor during the war and especially the proletarian revolution in Russia in November, 1917, some anxiety was early expressed as to the stand which organized labor might take in the United States. It was, however, soon dispelled. Samuel Gompers, speaking for the American Federation of Labor, declared that “this is labor’s war,” and pledged the united support of all the unions. There was some dissent. The Socialist party denounced the war as a capitalist quarrel; but all the protests combined were too slight to have much effect. American labor leaders were sent to Europe to strengthen the wavering ranks of trade unionists in war-worn England, France, and Italy. Labor was given representation on the important boards and commissions dealing with industrial questions. Trade union standards were accepted by the government and generally applied in industry. The Department of Labor became one of the powerful war centers of the nation. In a memorable address to the American Federation of Labor, President Wilson assured the trade unionists that labor conditions should not be made unduly onerous by the war and received in return a pledge of loyalty from the Federation. Recognition of labor’s contribution to winning the war was embodied in the treaty of peace, which provided for a permanent international organization to promote the world-wide effort of labor to improve social conditions. “The league of nations has for its object the establishment of universal peace,” runs the preamble to the labor section of the treaty, “and such a peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice.... The failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labor is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries.”

The American Navy in the War.—As soon as Congress declared war the fleet was mobilized, American ports were thrown open to the warships of the Allies, immediate provision was made for increasing the number of men and ships, and a contingent of war vessels was sent to coöperate with the British and French in their life-and-death contest with submarines. Special effort was made to stimulate the production of “submarine chasers” and “scout cruisers” to be sent to the danger zone. Convoys were provided to accompany the transports conveying soldiers to France. Before the end of the war more than three hundred American vessels and 75,000 officers and men were operating in European waters. Though the German fleet failed to come out and challenge the sea power of the Allies, the battleships of the United States were always ready to do their full duty in such an event. As things turned out, the service of the American navy was limited mainly to helping in the campaign that wore down the submarine menace to Allied shipping.

The War in France.—Owing to the peculiar character of the warfare in France, it required a longer time for American military forces to get into action; but there was no unnecessary delay. Soon after the declaration of war, steps were taken to give military assistance to the Allies. The regular army was enlarged and the troops of the national guard were brought into national service. On June 13, General John J. Pershing, chosen head of the American Expeditionary Forces, reached Paris and began preparations for the arrival of our troops. In June, the vanguard of the army reached France. A slow and steady stream followed. As soon as the men enrolled under the draft were ready, it became a flood. During the period of the war the army was enlarged from about 190,000 men to 3,665,000, of whom more than 2,000,000 were in France when the armistice was signed.

Although American troops did not take part on a large scale until the last phase of the war in 1918, several battalions of infantry were in the trenches by October, 1917, and had their first severe encounter with the Germans early in November. In January, 1918, they took over a part of the front line as an American sector. In March, General Pershing placed our forces at the disposal of General Foch, commander-in-chief of the Allied armies. The first division, which entered the Montdidier salient in April, soon was engaged with the enemy, “taking with splendid dash the town of Cantigny and all other objectives, which were organized and held steadfastly against vicious counter attacks and galling artillery fire.”

Copyright by Underwood and Underwood, N.Y.
Troops Returning from France

When the Germans launched their grand drives toward the Marne and Paris, in June and July, 1918, every available man was placed at General Foch’s command. At Belleau Wood, at Château-Thierry, and other points along the deep salient made by the Germans into the French lines, American soldiers distinguished themselves by heroic action. They also played an important rôle in the counter attack that “smashed” the salient and drove the Germans back.

In September, American troops, with French aid, “wiped out” the German salient at St. Mihiel. By this time General Pershing was ready for the great American drive to the northeast in the Argonne forest, while he also coöperated with the British in the assault on the Hindenburg line. In the Meuse-Argonne battle, our soldiers encountered some of the most severe fighting of the war and pressed forward steadily against the most stubborn resistance from the enemy. On the 6th of November, reported General Pershing, “a division of the first corps reached a point on the Meuse opposite Sedan, twenty-five miles from our line of departure. The strategical goal which was our highest hope was gained. We had cut the enemy’s main line of communications and nothing but a surrender or an armistice could save his army from complete disaster.” Five days later the end came. On the morning of November 11, the order to cease firing went into effect. The German army was in rapid retreat and demoralization had begun. The Kaiser had abdicated and fled into Holland. The Hohenzollern dreams of empire were shattered. In the fifty-second month, the World War, involving nearly every civilized nation on the globe, was brought to a close. More than 75,000 American soldiers and sailors had given their lives. More than 250,000 had been wounded or were missing or in German prison camps.

Western Battle Lines of the Various Years of the World War

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