This is not a date that most people today remember but it is likely to be remembered has the most important date and event of the twentieth century. It was the day on which the United States declared war on the Central Powers in World War One and basically decided that Germany and her allies would lose, unless they very quickly won. Germany had in effect only a little over a year to achieve this result otherwise she was doomed to lose.
So just how did that epoch making event occur? In a few words it was the result of truly awesome stupidity, on the part of certain German leaders, directly related to their ignoring of Clauswitz’s dictum that war is a political tool and instead they subordinated politics to military “necessity”.
On February first 1917 the Kaiser as advised by his chief military advisers, who were in effect rulers of Germany, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, launched a campaign of unrestricted submarine campaign against Allied and neutral shipping. This was done despite knowledge that this would almost certainly get the United States in the war against Germany and her allies. So why was it done?
At the time Britain was blockading Germany and her allies in an attempt to deprive Germany and her allies of essential materials. This caused significant distress and hunger in Germany and her allies and led to casting about for a way to retaliate, or counter blockade Britain.
Germany had tried at various times to use U-Boats to take / sink ships that were bringing goods to England during the early part of the war. There had even been various stabs at unrestricted submarine warfare, which led to such disasters as the sinking of the Lusitania, in which over 1100 people died including more than 100 Americans. This incident came close to starting a war between America and Germany and the Germans brought this experiment to an end.
Essentially submarine attacks on ships were a continuation of the old guerre de course, or privatering that European powers had engaged against each other during their past wars. In this case the u-boats were rather vulnerable to being rammed, or blown out of the water if they stuck to the recognized practice of stopping ships and searching them and enabling the crews to escape and then sinking them. This was highly dangerous. With torpedoes and deck guns there was, not surprisingly, a tendency to simply blow the ship out of the water without stopping it. Not only did stopping ships put the u-boat at risk but taking the time to search a ship put the u-boat at risk of being found in the meantime and sunk.
Added to this was the problem that neutral vessels, especially American ships were sending war material to Britain and the other allied powers. Sinking such vessels, especially if you killed a lot of passengers at the same time, ran the risk of infuriating the neutral involved. In the case of the United States this involved infuriating a great industrial / economic power.
The U.S. was in the meantime doing excellent business with the Allied powers in terms of munitions and raw materials for war production. Also U.S. financial institutions played an important role in upholding allied finances and credit.
Not surprisingly the Germans were infuriated both by the Allied blockade and by the fact that America was aiding the allies in many ways. America was officially neutral and certainly President Woodrow Wilson made all the right noises about trying to arrange a sort of peace deal and was apparently fully sincere in wanting peace.
By then it was clear that if anything the Americans were pro-Allied, by reason of cultural and historical ties to Britain, and out of self interest. Although it must be emphasized the U.S. government and people did not want to be involved in a war. And frankly the American government wanted the war to end before it possibly interfered with American interests. A peace that in effect returned things more or less to the situation of early August 1914 before the war started was one that the American government found most appealing.
Americans were emerging only recently from a long term foreign policy direction of trying to isolate themselves from the politics and struggles and internal competitions of the European great powers. Traditionally American policy had concentrated on issues involving the Western Hemisphere with the proviso that America would not interfere with the great European powers if she was left alone in the Western Hemisphere. That had begun to change with such developments has the Spanish American War, which led to the conquest of the Philippines and acquiring of an American colonial empire. Further developments such has the acquiring of the Panama Canal Zone and the building of the Panama Canal, (opened 1914) also signaled a change indicating the emergence of the United States as a world power. In 1905 Theodore Roosevelt mediated the end of the Russian / Japanese war. All this signaled that the U.S. had arrived as a major player on the world scene.
Despite the above America was still profoundly leery of foreign entanglements and isolationism was a powerful force in the United States. Interestingly in the 1916 Presidential elections the main slogan of Woodrow Wilson’s campaign was “He kept us out of war!” Despite the fact that, if anything, Americans in general and Wilson in particular favored the Allied powers America did not want to be involved in the war. Given this how did it happen?
Well it was because America was heavily trading with the Allied powers, in munitions and raw materials and trade in other items. Trade with the Central Powers was virtually impossible due to the British blockade, so that there did not emerge a interest group in favor of keeping up trade with the Central Powers but there did emerge a interest group in favor of unimpeded trade with the Allied powers, which was proving to be highly beneficial to U.S., financial, trade and manufacturing interests. Further there was the simple fact that attacks on U.S. ships were obviously direct threats to the lives of U.S. citizens. Obviously attacks on British ships could be explained and justified on the grounds that British ships were ships of an enemy of Germany and therefore legitimate targets. However what about neutral vessels that were importing into Britain war material? Were they not targets? Here things get dicey if only because such vessels were from powers not at war with Germany and hence not real targets, but they did contain munitions and war material! The further complication that the rules governing such transactions in past wars involving European powers allowed the stopping and searching of neutral vessels bound for belligerent ports, especially with war material and allowed for confiscation of cargoes etc., also specified that crews would be saved and ships sunk only under very rigid circumstances. The existence of deck guns and torpedoes which allowed ships to be sunk on sight were not envisioned by these rules, neither was the fact that the “privateers” in this war, (u-boats), being so vulnerable to being sunk, made sinking ships on sight very tempting. The result was a series of mishaps and diplomatic disasters.
The Lusitania crisis was a prime example. This started after the Germans had declared an unrestricted submarine campaign in the waters around the British Isles. Due to a series of mistakes involving what the Germans thought was the prime purpose of the Lusitania. The ship was sunk by torpedo and over a thousand passengers were killed, including over 100 Americans. The idiocy of large elements of the German press in celebrating this “achievement” didn’t help. It nearly resulted in war between Germany and the U.S. It appears that the Lusitania was carrying war material, which was frankly in violation of the then current war rules. This fact and the fact that Germany rescinded the unrestricted campaign and U.S. didn’t want war prevented war from happening then.
Given the fact that the United States was by 1900 was the greatest industrial power on the planet, with huge financial, trade and raw material resources etc; war with her was an obviously iffy proposition to be engaged in only if there was little choice. Further by 1900 the United States had a larger population than any European power, with the exception of Russia. In effect the United States was second only to the British Empire in terms of overall power world wide. The British Empire was a fairly ramshackle affair that had great difficulty using / concentrating it's power in any one particular area, so that its effective power was less than adding up its resources, population would indicate. It was just common sense not to want war with the U.S.
Here however is where human idiocy / stupidity enters the picture. Simply a look at basic U.S. figures of population, industrial output etc., would have made it clear to any German statesmen that however annoying American trade during wartime with the Allied powers was, under no circumstances should Germany do anything to provoke America into a war. One should never underestimate the power of wishful thinking and sheer dumbness however. Despite the facts Germany's leaders stupidly did in fact provoke the United States into a war! It went as follows.
By the early winter of 1916 the war had entered its third year of bloody stalemate. Millions of soldiers on both sides were dead. Economies were straining at the end of their tether and Germany was going through a period of severe shortages due to the blockade, of food and other materials. The population was angry, and the generals were seeking a way out of the stalemate; for a quick easy solution. The desire to strike back at Britain was very strong so that as the winter went on pressure built up to strike at Britain through a counter blockade enforced by unrestricted submarine warfare.
Here is where the stupidity came into it. The fact is anger and rage are not conducive to clear thinking in terms of policy goals and how to achieve them, and in this case the various German generals, specifically Ludendorff and Hindenburg, who by this time had established what was in effect a Military Dictatorship over Germany dedicated to winning the war, had come to believe that Britain must be driven out the war by the quickest means possible. So various studies had been done and these studies had determined that sinking 800,000 tons of shipping per month for a period of 6 months would reduce Britain to famine and starve Britain of war material. So that Britain would be driven out the war in 6 months. The military studies done by the various elements of the German armed forces, especially the Naval department were characterized by distortion and a huge amount of wishful thinking and stunning over the top optimism of the prospects of unrestricted submarine warfare. Individuals like Admiral Tirpitz pushed for unrestricted submarine warfare with blind optimism and a cavalier disregard for alternatives or the possibility of failure.
In fact it should have been obvious that failure was not simply a distinct possibility it was a virtual certainty. The U-boats of the First World War had very slow underwater speeds, their torpedoes were very poor and their ability to coordinate operations with other U-boats virtually non-existent. Thus the vast majority of ships sunk by U-boats in this war were sunk by the deck guns of U-boats; and the vast majority of ships sunk were sailing alone. Given their technical limitations their ability to damage ships sailing in convoy was very limited. It should have been obvious that should the British convoy ships unrestricted submarine warfare would fail. A few escort or one escort ship per convoy would be enough to sink or drive off U-boats the great majority of time. This was both obvious and clear at the time. Further the time table for this too work was absurdly optimistic even if it had worked.1
At the same time it was clear by the fall of 1916 that Russia was in the process of internal collapse. The possibility of Russia falling apart or leaving the war was enormous, and in fact in February 1917 a popular insurrection overthrew the Tsarist regime and Russia’s ability to prosecute the war already visibly declining disintegrated further. This would give Germany the prospect of transferring troops etc., to the western front and enable them to either attack in an effort to gain victory or to secure a favorable peace.
So given the facts above why under those circumstances did the leaders of Germany embark on this foolish venture? To add America has their enemy just when Russia was collapsing meant replacing one enemy with a far more powerful enemy. The simple fact is many of the German leaders were prey to delusions. The fact that many in the German government thought that America's entry on the side of the Allies inevitable, if only for the Americans to help recover the huge sums they had loaned to the allies, made many people in the German government think that if America entered the war sooner rather than later it would make little difference. Of course this was nonsense the sensible policy would have been to put off American entry into the war has long as possible to the point where American help to the allies would have made no difference. Another delusion was that submarine warfare would work, ignoring the skeptics who pointed out the obvious problems. That American intervention would only add more supplies / financial aid to the Allied war effort. That any American expeditionary force would be small and so forth. In other words a stew of wishful thinking. Further America was simply underestimated and Ludendorff and Hindenburg remained quite happily ignorant of American economic power. It was pointed out that the American army was by European standards absurdly small, but ignored that given American economic power a huge Army could be created in less than two years. It was claimed that U-boats would sink troop ships and therefore prevent any substantial number of troops coming over the Atlantic. These fantasies, which is what they were, clouded clear thinking it was what Ludendorff, Hindenburg and their cortege wanted to hear so they heard it.2
The fact that since the war began the British Admiralty, in a fit of bull headed idiocy had utterly refused to institute convoys for various empty headed reasons had helped to reinforce German delusions about the efficiency of submarine warfare. In fact only if the British refused to institute convoys did the plan have even a ghost of a chance of working and frankly counting on the British being so stupid to the bitter end was foolish in the extreme. The fact that Lloyd George, who became British Prime Minister in 1917, was pressing for adoption of convoys made adoption a virtual certainty. Faced with this constellation of circumstances i.e., Russia leaving the war, unrestricted submarine warfare almost certainly to fail, and the U.S. entering the war if unrestricted submarine warfare was declared. The sensible option would have been not to do so but to sit tight.
The results were predictable, the fact that Germany allowed certain of their diplomats to make foolish moves like encouraging Mexico to attack the United States and offering an alliance with Mexico directed against the United States were mere infuriating icing on the cake. The United States simply did not want war with Germany but with great foolishness German leaders infuriated the U.S. government, citizens and businesses, (by trying to end their profitable trade with the Allied powers). It is by any standards one of the greatest examples of plain stupid policy making in world history.
The effects shaped the world we have today, even more than the Russian Revolution. America entered the war. Britain adopted the convoy system. Submarine warfare, despite the idiotic reluctance of the British Admiralty to adopt convoys, didn’t even come close to driving Britain out of the war.3 It simply failed. Replacing America with Russia ensured allied victory. More than 2 million American troops were sent to Europe and less than 50 were killed by U-boat attacks. The U-boats proved spectacularly ineffective in attacking convoys or sinking troop ships. Germany’s had to attack in the west before American troops arrived en mass. The chances of the attack working were not good and frankly any chance of Germany victory had evaporated by June 1918 and any reasonable chance of German victory had probably evaporated by the time the first German western offensive was launched in March 1918.
After the war both Hindenburg and Ludendorff helped to manufacture the stab in the back legend i.e., that politicians, liberals, Socialists etc., had betrayed Germany and caused the loss of the war. This was nonsense, it was their own single minded and foolish choices has military men that lost Germany the war, but blaming the politicians who had to clean up the mess they created was more psychologically satisfying I guess. This was part of a wholesale campaign by various people within German society to undermine the Weimer Republic. Thus did the men who lost the war for Germany help pave the way for Hitler.
In world terms this marked the establishment of the United States has the worlds predominant power, in finance, trade, culture etc., a dominance that only recently in a very Americanized world has began to fade. It appears that Communism for example, was mainly a bump that disguised the predominant fact of the twentieth century, the large scale westernization of the world through the medium of American power and culture.
And that is why April 6, 1917 is so important.
1. Blair, Clay, Hitler’s U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942, Modern Library, New York, 1996, pp. 9-22. This is a brief section that briefly surveys German U-Boats in World War I.
Fuller, J.F.C., A Military History of the Western World, vol. 3, Da Capo, New York, 1956, pp. 265-275.
Stone, Norman, Europe Transformed 1878-1919, Fontana Books, London, 1983, pp. 355-358.
Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage Canada, Toronto, 1998, pp. 350-360.
Epstein, Klaus, Gerhard Ritter and the First World War, in The Origins of the First World War, Ed. Koch, H. W., Taplinger Pub. Co., New York, 1972, pp. 298-303.
Zechlin, Egmont, Cabinet versus Economic Warfare in Germany, in Koch, pp. 206-214.
Craig, Gordon A., Germany 1866-1945, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978, pp. 378-390.
Hart, Liddell, History of the First World War, Pan Books Ltd., London, 1934, pp. 214-216, 308-312.