It’s May 1917, and the United States has just entered the Great War. Visiting Allied war leaders ask President Wilson for an immediate commitment of American troops. General Pershing is named commander of the American Expeditionary Force and departs for Europe. The United States enacts the first draft law since the Civil War. Included is a provision authorizing the president to organize volunteer divisions such as the one former President Roosevelt wants to lead, but the President says he will not exercise that authority. Americans are asked to subscribe to a “Liberty Loan” to finance the war effort. President Wilson urges press censorship, but a bill giving the president censorship authority fails to pass Congress. The Allies confront the Central Powers in the Balkans; Italy launches another attack against Austro-Hungarian forces on the Isonzo. United States Navy warships arrive in Great Britain to assist the British with convoy escort and other duties.
Two events in April 1917 foreshadow the superpower alignment of the remainder of the Twentieth Century: the United States enters the Great War, meaning to make the world safe for democracy, and Lenin returns to Russia, intent on leading a Bolshevik revolution. In Washington, the President’s request for a declaration of war is the first order of business for the newly elected 65th Congress. War is declared, the Navy is mobilized, German ships in American ports are seized, and suspected German spies are detained. Congress authorizes a $7 billion war loan, most of the proceeds marked for the nations already fighting Germany. The president issues a proclamation to the American people, telling them they must “speak, act and serve together” in support of the war effort. British and French emissaries visit the United States to participate in an International War Council. Both houses of Congress enact draft legislation. On the Western Front, an Anglo-French offensive is launched under the command of General Robert Nivelle, the new Commander-in-Chief of the French Army. The Canadians capture Vimy Ridge, but the offensive as a whole is a costly failure, ending with mutinies in the French Army and the replacement of Nivelle by General Philippe Petain. In a journey facilitated by the German government, Lenin travels from Zurich to Petrograd’s Finland Station. Upon arrival, in what would become known as the April Theses, he calls for the overthrow of Russia’s new Provisional Government.
It’s March 1917, the last month of neutrality for the United States and the last month of his reign for the Tsar of All the Russias. In the United States, publication of the Zimmermann Telegram triggers a political firestorm. Pacifists and isolationists at first denounce it as a forgery perpetrated by Great Britain, but Zimmermann himself acknowledges authorship and American public opinion begins to swing in favor of war. The House of Representatives passes the Armed Ships Bill, and seventy-five senators sign a manifesto in support, but a filibuster prevents it from coming to a vote. President Wilson denounces the filibusterers as “a little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own,” and orders that merchant ships be armed anyway. The Senate adopts its first rule limiting debate. Three American merchant ships are sunk by German submarines; twelve Americans die. The Federal Reserve Board revises its advice to member banks: loans to the Allies are now encouraged. The Cabinet unanimously recommends declaring war on Germany, and President Wilson calls Congress into special session. In Russia, Army mutinies and demonstrations in the streets of Petrograd force Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate; he is taken into custody and replaced by a Provisional Government. Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky set out for Russia, Lenin from Switzerland and Trotsky from New York. In Mesopotamia, the British Army occupies Baghdad. Alexandre Ribot succeeds Aristide Briand as Prime Minister of France. The inventor of the Zeppelin dies.
In February 1917 the World War comes to the doorstep of the United States. Following Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, President Wilson severs diplomatic relations with Germany but stops short of declaring war. Announcing the diplomatic break to a joint session of Congress, he adheres to a policy of “armed neutrality” and declares that the United States will not go to war in the absence of an “overt act.” As the submarine threat causes American shipping to grind to a halt, President Wilson proposes legislation authorizing the arming of merchant ships. The month ends with another major step toward American belligerency as Great Britain, which has intercepted and decoded the Zimmermann Telegram, delivers it to the American Government and President Wilson releases it to the press. German submarines torpedo and sink two British ocean liners, taking the lives of two Americans. In Mesopotamia, the British Army drives the Turks out of Kut-Al-Amara. German forces in France begin a withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. Mata Hari is arrested in Paris.
It’s January 1917. As a New Year dawns, a global war of unprecedented scope and destruction is at the top of the political agenda in every major country, belligerent or neutral. Great Britain, ruler of a world-wide empire, has a new Prime Minister. Russia, a major Entente power, is in political turmoil following the murder of Grigori Rasputin, a confidant of the royal family, by monarchists who feared his influence. Russia’s offensive against Austria-Hungary has ended in stalemate, as have the German siege of Verdun and the Anglo-French attack on the Somme. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, whose nephew’s murder two and a half years ago led to the outbreak of the war, has died; the new emperor is his grand-nephew Charles. The United States, the largest and most important of the neutral nations, has just elected Woodrow Wilson to a second term under the slogan “He kept us out of war.” One of his first acts after the election was to asked the warring powers to state their war aims, asserting that the two sides’ stated objectives “are virtually the same.” Germany has proposed a peace conference to be held in a neutral country, but has declined to state its position in advance, leading the Entente nations to denounce its proposal as a “sham.” German military leaders, increasingly in the ascendant, are pressing for a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare.
In December 1916 a new cabinet assumes power in Great Britain. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who has led the government since 1908, is replaced by David Lloyd George, and Arthur Balfour replaces Sir Edward Grey as Foreign Minister. Germany, in diplomatic notes and in a speech in the Reichstag by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, offers to open negotiations with the Entente in a neutral country. A few days later President Wilson sends notes to the belligerent nations asking for their views regarding terms on which the war might be ended. Germany responds by repeating its offer to negotiate, but refuses to state its terms. The Allies have not yet replied to the American notes, but reject the German offer as a “sham.” On the Western Front, French forces at Verdun attack the besieging Germans and push them back to positions near the lines from which they began the siege in February. In the Balkans, German troops occupy Bucharest. Grigori Rasputin, the influential mystic and religious adviser to the Tsar’s family, is murdered in Petrograd. In Greece a civil war rages between the king and his government.
In November 1916 the American presidential campaign draws to a close with speeches by President Woodrow Wilson and former President Theodore Roosevelt at Cooper Union, by Wilson and his Republican challenger Charles Evans Hughes at Madison Square Garden (still in those days on Madison Square), and by President Wilson at his New Jersey estate Shadow Lawn. After the election the outcome is unclear for days, but eventually is decided in favor of Wilson when the final tally in California narrowly goes his way. Jeanette Rankin, a Republican, becomes the first woman elected to the United States Congress, but the Democrats retain control of both houses. Meanwhile the World War continues in France, on the Isonzo River, in the Balkans and in Salonika. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary dies in Vienna at the age of eighty-six. Germany proclaims a new Kingdom of Poland. The British and the French fight the last battles of the Somme offensive and at Verdun. The Federal Reserve Board warns its member banks not to buy unsecured British notes.
At the National World War I Museum‘s “In the Know” speaker series, I recently spoke on the tight race between Woodrow Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes in the presidential election of 1916.
When he was first elected in 1912, Wilson commented to a friend “it would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” Four years later fate had intervened, and he was running for re-election on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Spoiler alert: President Woodrow Wilson defeats challenger Charles Evans Hughes in one of the closest elections in American history.