The “Wilsonian” Path to War

President Woodrow Wilson (111-SC-4984; ARC 530713)

President Woodrow Wilson’s campaign slogan throughout his 1916 reelection campaign was “he kept us out of war,” but on April 2, 1917, Wilson reversed course and called on Congress to provide a declaration of war for American intervention in World War I. Although this shift in policy contradicted Wilson’s isolationist principles and firm commitment to American neutrality, the Central Powers had begun to pose a clear and formidable threat to the United States by 1917.

Americans felt the brutal impact of the war even during Wilson’s first term. On May 7, 1915, while engaged in submarine warfare, a German U-boat sank the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner carrying American citizens. The death toll included 114 Americans. Following the sinking, the United States increased its various modes of aid and assistance to the Allies. But Wilson still publicly discouraged anti-German rhetoric in the U.S. and held out hope that he could mediate a resolution to the conflict between the Allies and the Central Powers.

Wilson’s vision of the war began to change by the winter of 1917, when the British government intercepted a telegram sent by German Foreign Minister Author Zimmerman to Germany’s ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt. The telegram was a proposal to Mexico asking the nation to ally with Germany and to attack the United States in return for territory lost in the Mexican-American War. Despite the fact that Mexico rebuffed the German offer, American public opinion turned to outrage once the cable was leaked to the press in March.

Though he had been an ardent isolationist and established a firm neutrality policy during his first term, Wilson indentified that his pursuit of peace necessitated American military action in “the war to end all wars.” In addition to the direct threat posed to the United States by Germany and the other Central Powers, Wilson’s drive to “make the world safe for democracy” was a cornerstone of his decision to include America in the Allied coalition.

Even today, Wilson remains complex and polarizing figure, but his deep deliberation process prior to committing America to an overseas war still stands out.

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