The Latest VOA Special English
Archive of VOA Special English
American History: German Sub Attacks Push Wilson Into War

2010-10-13

Photo: loc.gov
The German submarine U-36 near the ship Batavia V in April 1915

BOB DOUGHTY: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.

There was one main issue in America's presidential election of nineteen sixteen. That issue was war. Europe was in the middle of what is now remembered as World War One. It was the bloodiest conflict the world had ever known.

Most Americans wanted no part of the struggle in Europe. They supported their country's official position -- neutrality. This desire was the main reason President Woodrow Wilson won re-election. People gave Wilson their votes because they hoped he would continue to keep America out of the war.

This week in our series, Larry West and Maurice Joyce tell more about the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.

LARRY WEST: Like most Americans, Woodrow Wilson did not want war. He feared that entering the conflict would cost the United States many lives. Wilson read the reports from European battlefields. The news was unbelievably terrible. By the end of nineteen sixteen, several million men had been killed, wounded, or captured.

At the Battle of Verdun, French forces stopped a German attack.

The cost was high on both sides. More than seven hundred thousand soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. The Battle of the Somme followed. Britain lost sixty thousand men on the first day. By the time the battle was over, losses for both sides totaled more than a million.

Trench warfare during World War I
loc.gov
Trench warfare during World War I

Germany also was at war on its eastern border, with Russia. Losses on that battlefront, too, totaled more than a million men.

MAURICE JOYCE: At the time of America's presidential election in nineteen sixteen, Germany seemed to be winning the war. Its losses were terrible. But the losses of its enemies -- The Allies -- were even worse. German forces occupied much of northern France and almost all of Belgium. German and Austrian soldiers also held parts of Russia, Italy, Romania, and Serbia.

Germany was winning on the battlefield. The Allies were winning at sea. A British blockade cut off almost all German trade with the rest of the world. Even food shipments were blocked. As a result, Germany faced mass starvation. It urgently needed to break the blockade and get food.

LARRY WEST: This situation finally forced Germany to make the decision that would bring the United States into the war.

It decided to use its submarines to break the British blockade. The submarines would attack any ships that came near Britain or other parts of Europe. This included ships from neutral countries, like the United States.

Earlier, Germany had made a promise to the United States. Its submarines would not attack civilian ships unless warning was given and the lives of those on the ships were saved. Now Germany was withdrawing that promise. It said unrestricted submarine warfare would begin immediately.

German ruler Kaiser Wilhelm said: "If Wilson wants war, let him make it, and let him then have it."

MAURICE JOYCE: President Wilson immediately broke diplomatic relations with Germany. He still hoped the two nations would not go to war. He left that decision to Germany. If German submarines sank American ships, Wilson would have no choice but to declare war.

Most American shipping companies feared attack by German submarines. Throughout the early part of nineteen seventeen, they kept their ships in home ports. They wanted protection. So they asked for permission to arm their ships. At first, President Wilson refused to seek such permission from Congress. He did not want to do anything that might cause Germany to declare war. Then he received secret news from Britain.

British agents had gotten a copy of a telegram from Germany's foreign minister to Germany's ambassador in Mexico. The telegram said Germany was planning hostile acts against the United States. Wilson acted quickly. He began putting guns and sailors on American trade ships.

LARRY WEST: It did not take long for the worst to happen. Within days, a German submarine sank an unarmed American ship, the Algonquin. Then three more American ships were sunk. Many lives were lost.

President Wilson no longer had a choice between war and peace. There would be war. Wilson called a special session of Congress. Members of both the Senate and House of Representatives gathered in one room. They stood as the president walked quickly to the front. He stood silent for a moment before speaking. This is what he said:

MAURICE JOYCE: 'I fully understanding the serious step I am taking, I advise that the Congress declare the recent acts of the German government to be, in fact, nothing less than war against the United States.

President Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to declare war on Germany in April 1917
loc.gov
President Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to declare war on Germany in April 1917

"It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war. But right is more precious than peace. And we will fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts -- for democracy, for the rights and liberties of small nations, and for the belief that a worldwide union of free people can bring peace and safety to all nations."

LARRY WEST: President Wilson's emotional speech brought tears to the eyes of many of the lawmakers. They felt the great seriousness of his request.

Outside, crowds lined the street to cheer Wilson as he returned to the White House from the Capitol Building. He sat in his car and shook his head sadly. "Think of what it is they are cheering," he said. "My message today was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems they would cheer that."

On April sixth, nineteen seventeen, Congress approved a declaration of war against Germany.

MAURICE JOYCE: The Allies -- Britain, France and Russia -- welcomed American involvement.

The war was going badly for them. It had been very costly in lives, money, and supplies. Allied shipping was suffering heavy losses from German submarine attacks. A British naval blockade had greatly reduced food shipments to Germany. Now, Britain itself faced dangerously low supplies of food.

Allied representatives went to Washington to explain what The Allies needed. They needed supplies -- especially food -- immediately. They needed money to pay for the supplies. They needed ships to get the supplies from America to Europe. And they needed American soldiers.

LARRY WEST: President Wilson and Congress worked together to organize the United States for war. Congress gave Wilson new wartime powers. He soon formed a council to build ships, improve industrial production, and control national transportation. He formed an agricultural agency to increase food production and food exports. And he formed an information committee to build public support for the war.

Wilson's efforts succeeded. The Allies quickly got the ships, supplies, and money they requested. Most important, they soon got American soldiers.

MAURICE JOYCE: Allied military leaders said only about a half-million troops were needed from the United States. But American officials decided to build a much larger army. Before long, large numbers of American soldiers were crossing the Atlantic Ocean. They would fight the Germans at the western battlefronts of Europe.

The extra strength they gave the Allies would play a major part in helping defeat Germany. That will be our story next week.

(MUSIC)

BOB DOUGHTY: Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Larry West and Maurice Joyce.

You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and images at 51voa.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.

___

This is program #158