World War I starts, America watches and worries

On this day in 1914, World War I started with Austria-Hungary’s war declaration on Serbia. But in the United States, most Americans were concerned about a conflict they had no intentions of entering.

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William Jennings Bryan, Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt (far right), June 1914

In the following days, most of Europe became involved in the conflict that eventually claimed at least 16 million lives and was a direct cause of World War II.

But in the United States, where foreign-born immigrants and their children made up 33 percent of the population, neutrality in the European conflict was a popular position, although there were obvious concerns among the large European immigrant community.

One big advocate of neutrality was President Woodrow Wilson. The former Princeton president and native Virginian also was expecting a tough 1916 presidential campaign, after he defeated a split Republican ticket in 1912.

On August 4, 1914, President Wilson addressed the subject of neutrality, when he issued an official response to the European war.

The President issued an official proclamation of neutrality, signaling the U.S. government would use its statutory powers to make sure its citizens remained neutral (at least in theory). Two weeks later, Wilson addressed Congress on August 19, 1914 and publicly repeated this position.

Link: Read Wilson’s Remarks

“The effect of the war upon the United States will depend upon what American citizens say and do.  Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned,” he said.

Wilson did acknowledge that America was a nation of immigrants. “The people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war.  It is natural and inevitable that there should be the utmost variety of sympathy and desire among them with regard to the issues and circumstances of the conflict,” he said.

“Such divisions amongst us would be fatal to our peace of mind and might seriously stand in the way of the proper performance of our duty as the one great nation at peace, the one people holding itself ready to play a part of impartial mediation and speak the counsels of peace and accommodation, not as a partisan, but as a friend,” Wilson said, hoping the United States could act as a peace broker.

By April 1917, Wilson’s message of neutrality changed to one of war. The German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and a German plot to enlist Mexico as an ally were one of several factors that swung public sentiment toward intervention.

While Wilson could ask Congress for a war declaration, it was up to the lawmakers to approve the action, under their Article I Constitutional powers.

Wilson had just started serving his second term, defeating Charles Evans Hughes, who resigned from the Supreme Court to challenge Wilson.

“I have called the Congress into extraordinary session because there are serious, very serious, choices of policy to be made, and made immediately, which it was neither right nor constitutionally permissible that I should assume the responsibility of making,” Wilson told a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917.

“With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the government and people of the United States,” Wilson stated.

In order to help with the war effort, Congress passed two controversial measures that would affect personal freedoms after the war: the Espionage Act and the Sedition Acts.

The Sedition Acts, in particular, were used to arrest anyone who criticized the U.S. government. More than 1,000 people were jailed under the Sedition Acts and they even withstood a Supreme Court decision until Congress repealed them in late 1920.

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