U.S. Entry into the War to End All Wars

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A Joint Resolution declaring that a state of war exists between Germany and the United States, April 6, 1917. (National Archives Identifier 5916620)

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of U.S. entry into World War I. Visit the National Archives website to learn how the National Archives is commemorating the anniversary. Today’s post comes from Sonia Kahn in the National Archives History Office. 

Two and a half years of American neutrality in the ongoing war in Europe came to an end on April 6, 1917, when Congress passed a resolution declaring war on Germany, thus pushing the U.S. into World War I.

Four days earlier, on April 2, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war on Imperial Germany.

Among his reasons for war was Germany’s failure to comply with its promise to halt unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic. Continued German attacks upon merchant shipping brought Wilson to insist that “warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind.”

Still fresh in the nation’s memory was the May 1915 sinking of the RMS Lusitania, and the ensuing loss of 131 Americans, as evidence of the chaos German submarines could cause.

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President Wilson’s Address to a  Joint Session of Congress asking for a Declaration of War against Germany, April 2, 1917. (National Archives Identifier 2668825)

Wilson also cited the intercepted Zimmerman telegram as evidence that peace had been compromised. (The telegram proposed that Mexico ally itself with Germany in exchange for German assistance in recovering territory ceded to the United States after the Mexican-American War in 1848.)

President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation declaring that a state of war exists between Germany and the United States, April 6, 1917. (National Archives Identifier 299966)

The telegram proved that Germany was a real security threat to the United States and sparked anger that was instrumental in altering American public opinion towards war.

Congress concurred with the President’s reasoning and passed the resolution to declare war against Germany.

On April 6, Wilson issued a Presidential Proclamation declaring war against Germany. The United States had entered the Great War.

Despite the declaration of war in April, American troops did not see battle until late June 1917 with the arrival of the first 14,000 doughboys in Saint-Nazaire. At the time the United States still had an army of fewer than 140,000 men, tiny by European standards.

This changed with the passage of the Selective Service Act in May 1917, which allowed the government to introduce compulsory military service. Less than a year later, in August 1918, more than 500,000 American combat troops had been trained to see action in Europe.

World War I draft registration card for Harry Handcuff Houdini, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 641795)

The multiplying American soldiers stunned the Germans, who did not believe a nation with such a small army when it entered the war could amass so much manpower in so little time.

The onslaught of American reinforcements arriving in 1918 played a role in Germany’s decreased morale and eventual surrender to the Allies following a ceasefire in November 1918.

In the less than two years that the United States engaged in the World War I, the country managed to mobilize more than 4 million men. The nation saw 323,000 casualties with 116,516 killed and even more wounded, taken prisoner, and missing in action—a steep price to pay for the war that was meant to end all wars.

From April 4 through May 3, 2017, the National Archives is commemorating the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I with a featured document display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building.  

World War I Poster “Treat’em Rough! Join The Tanks, United States Tank Corps,” c. 1918. (National Archives Identifier 512447)

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