World War I Poster

Photo above: World War 1 Poster, 1917, James Montgomery Flagg. Courtesy Library of Congress.

World War I - United States Involvement

For the first three years of World War I, the United States tried to remain neutral and broker peace. That was the goal of President Woodrow Wilson. The U.S.A. remained neutral through the second year of the war, 1915, even after one hundred and twenty-eight Americans died during the German attack on the passenger ship Lusitania. The public was divided on the United States joining the fight, but eventually after provocations in 1916, Wilson decided to actively join the war, sending troops to Europe during 1917 and 1918.

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  • Battle Timeline

  • World War 1 and the U.S. Position on the War

    Sinking of the Lusitania, World War I


    June 28, 1914 - The Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is killed by Yugoslav Nationalist Gavrilo Princip, igniting a series of events and alliances that would lead to war one month later. Two alliances were engaged; the Allies (Russia, France, and Great Britain) and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). And they were ready for war, with an arms race between Great Britain and Germany leading to a fifty percent increase in defense spending among European nations in the years leading up to conflict.

    Other nations would join as the fight continued, but at the beginning of World War 1, the United States considered itself neutral, with President Woodrow Wilson providing the role of peacemaker through negotiator Colonel Edward Mandell House. Neither side at the beginning of the war wanted peace.


    May 7, 1915 - As House and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan attempted to broker peace, the stretch of American neutrality became strained when the British ocean liner Lusitania was sunk by the torpedoes of the German U-Boat U-20 with one hundred and twenty-eight Americans succumbing, including women and children. There had been warnings from the German embassy about a voyage on the Lusitania prior to the attack, but the ship left New York for Liverpool with 1,962 on board despite the possibility of attack by German submarines, who had stepped up their war zone activities in previous months.

    Despite the attack, President Wilson still maintained a position against joining the battle, but forced Germany to abandon its position of attacking passenger ships, violating international law or incur the possibility of the United States joining the fight. Germany also claimed that the Lusitania was carrying munitions, which it was, and had the right to attack. Great Britain thought the U.S. should join the fight. The U.S. wanted an apology, compensation, and a change in German policy. The change in policy occured on September 9, 1915, but would not last through the end of the war.


    Casualties on both sides of the war continued to mount, with Great Britain and France sustaining a higher number than their counterparts. In February of 1916, Germany attacked the French defensive position at Verdun. The battle lasted until November with between 700,000 and 975,000 casualties on both sides. The British and French went on the offensive in the Battle of the Somme. Its first day, July 1, saw Great Britain endure the greatest number of casualties in its history, 57,470 killed and wounded in one day.

    In the United States, the flagging effort to gain peace, as well as the Lusitania incident, was causing Woodrow Wilson to alter his position, considering the possibility that the United States had to join the war to gain the peace and save the world for democracy. Public opinion in America was still divided through 1916, although two incidents would continue to erode the position of neutrality.

    July 30, 1916 - The Black Tom Affair. German agents destroyed American munitions being built for use in World War I at Black Tom, New Jersey. Black Tom was an island next to Liberty Island where the Statue of Liberty was located. It housed factories and warehouses where munitions destined for the Allies were stored. One thousand tons were housed there on July 30 when German agents caused the explosion, $20 million in damage, including damage to the Statue of Liberty, other buildings, and seven deaths.


    January 11, 1917 - The second incident happened in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. The Kingsland explosion occurred at another munitions factory where a Canadian company made arms for Great Britain and Russia, three million shells per month. A fire started, four hours later five hundred thousand shells had exploded and the entire plant reduced to rubble. There were no casualites. It was assumed that German agents were to blame for this destruction, although a subsequent commission after the war concluded otherwise and Germany admitted no part in the attack. They did pay $50 million in reparations in 1934.

    Wilson had begun to prepare for war with his Preparadness Movement in 1916, wishing to augment the size of the American army, which was considered weak by Germany and the Allies. A compromise at first saw less of an increase than he wanted, prompting Germany to step up its efforts for war against the United States. In 1917, Germany abandoned its submarine policy of only attacking defined military vessels, and started to engage in unrestricted submarine attacks. It also sent a letter to Mexico, the Zimmermann Telegram, which urged our southern neighbor to attack the United States, with Germany's help, in exchange for Germany later giving Mexico back Texas and other southwest states if they won. Mexico actually thought about it, but eventually decided they could not win.

    The United States would declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917, and the Austria-Hungary Empire on December 17, 1917.

    Note: Image above: Photograph of drawing of the sinking of the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland made for the New York Herald and London Sphere, 1915. Courtesy Library of Congress. Casualty and troop strength numbers from Wikipedia Commons via various sources.

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