The New York Times front-page story of the sinking of the Lusitania. Source: Spartacus Educational at https://tinyurl.com/yd7tpuym.
Make an opening commentary similar to what follows: We’ve spent the last two days examining the causes and several of the actions of World War I. You may have noticed that while Cuba and Haiti joined the Allied forces, the United States had chosen to remain neutral, although the nation did support Great Britain and France through the selling of arms and munitions. However, by 1917, Wilson, who had deliberately kept the U.S. neutral, felt compelled to ask the U.S. Congress for a "Proclamation of War." Today, we’re going to examine the “whys” of Wilson’s decision to enter the war on the side of the Triple Entente.
Distribute or have students access three handouts: background reading and video No. 5: “The Sinking of the Lusitania”; primary source document No. 6: “The Zimmerman Telegram”; and background reading No. 7: “Unrestricted Submarine Warfare.”
Ask students to read the short background information and view "The Sinking of the Lusitania" (estimated time, four to five minutes).
Discuss the following questions:
How did the citizens of the U.S. react to the news of the Lusitania?
How did the German action conflict with U.S. values?
Have students read the Zimmerman telegram (estimated time, five to ten minutes).
Discuss the following questions:
What kind of deal was the German government attempting to negotiate with Mexico?
What did the German government hope Japan, allied with the Triple Entente against the Central Powers, would do to further Germany’s and possibly Mexico’s interests?
Students are asked to read "Unrestricted Submarine Warfare” (estimated time, five to seven minutes).
Discuss the following questions:
How does this article relate to our earlier discussion of the Lusitania?
Following the sinking of the Lusitania and the international outcry, Germany pulled back its U-2s and pledged to allow passenger liners free navigation of the waters. If Germany knew that returning to submarine warfare would anger the U.S. and Germany did not want the U.S. entering the Great War, why would they return to this policy?
Students should, through analysis of the Zimmerman telegram and the contextual background reading on Germany’s 1917 Unrestricted Submarine Warfare Policy, understand two critical events that caused the U.S. to enter World War I, effective April 6, 1917. Students, because of possible confusion caused by the fact that Japan would instigate World War II twenty-four years later with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, should be reminded that when learning about the Zimmerman telegram, the Japanese government pointedly repudiated Germany.
Other events that caused America to eventually enter the war were, despite having a significant number of German-American citizens and immigrants, the cultural and political affinity felt by many Americans for the British and French due to the common language shared by the U.S. and most of the U.K., and liberal democratic traditions all three nations shared. Although in the beginning of the war American business traded with both sides, the British blockade quickly caused a 90 percent drop in U.S.-German trade. U.S. private companies supplied their British and French allies with a vast array of goods both before and after the U.S. entered World War I.
Analyzing Wilson’s War Message
Have students digitally access or distribute primary source document and reading No. 8, "Excerpts: Woodrow Wilson’s War Message to Congress, April 2nd, 1917 and Historians’ Reactions to Woodrow Wilson’s War Message."
Students should then read the three excerpts of Wilson’s War Message and answer all questions. The instructor should then conduct a whole-class discussion on the student answers. Instructors might want to read the speech in its entirety in Appendix 2 (http://tinyurl.com/y8jc22x4) before class so as to briefly reiterate the specific causes of America’s entry into war that students have already considered (estimated time, twenty minutes).
Questions for excerpt 1
What is an autocratic government? Is Wilson asking Congress to declare war on all autocratic governments worldwide?
Is Wilson asking the U.S. to fight for the freedom of all of the world’s people? Was/is such an effort possible?
Questions for excerpt 2
Has a nation in world history ever successfully won a war that resulted in world peace? Defend your answer with evidence if possible.
Interpret what you think Wilson specifically meant in his sentence, “The world must be made safe for democracy.”
Questions for excerpt 3
Is it possible for any nation to achieve all the above objectives in one war? Defend your answer with evidence.
Should the U.S. make war until all nations are democracies? Why or why not?
Historians’ Reactions to Woodrow Wilson’s War Message
Introduce the critique of Wilson’s speech by informing students that a number of historians think the speech set dangerous precedents in the U.S. that negatively impacted U.S. and world history. This perspective is shared by some historians who favored America’s entry into World War I but not some of the broader goals Wilson used to justify the address.
Have students read the excerpt in primary source document and reading No. 8 from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter McDougall (https://www.fpri.org/?p=14654 ).
Discuss the following questions:
In your own words, explain what you think the differences were in the three choices McDougall asserts Wilson could have made.
What does McDougall mean when he argues, “Wilson declared America the world’s messiah”? Should the U.S. be the world’s messiah? Why or why not?
Homework for day four:
Instructors should introduce homework by making these or similar comments: Although Congress overwhelmingly supported Wilson’s request for a declaration of war, not all U.S. citizens agreed with their nation’s direct involvement in World War I. Tonight, you will spend some time acquainting yourself with the opposing viewpoints and the federal government’s reaction to dissent at home.
Visit http://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/capitalism/landmark_schenck.html and read the summary provided for Schenck .v United States. Now visit https://www.oyez.org/cases/1900-1940/249us47 and read this brief summary.
Eugene Debs was undoubtedly the most vocal opponent of the U.S. involvement in World War I and ultimately was sentenced to prison for statements made during a speech in Canton, Ohio. A frequent candidate for president, Debs based his opposition on his Socialist ideology. Debs’s imprisonment was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. To understand more about his opposition to the war and his imprisonment, visit http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/Eugene_Debs.
Be prepared to discuss the Schenck and Debs cases.
Module, day four: Domestic Dissent against World War I and General Reflections on Wilson’s Decision
Class begins with a discussion of the court’s distinction in Schenck between "free speech" and "free speech during time of war."
Discuss the following questions:
Why might the court have reacted to Schenck’s actions as it did?
What are the critical lines in the decision? Debs's speech in Canton occurred in 1918, after the U.S. was already involved in the war. Does that timing have any impact on the court’s decision? How might the general public and the government’s reaction to his speech been impacted by events occurring in other nations? Does our freedom of speech guarantee individuals a right to "petition" for grievances? Assemble in opposition? Under what conditions?
Teachers might also consider having students do a summary writing exercise and ensuing discussion.
You have now examined the historical record of controversial issues related to U.S. involvement in World War I. In 200 words, assess the validity of this statement: The United States had ample reasons for entering the Great War in 1917, and the fight to "make the world safe for democracy" was a continuation of our quest to bring liberty, equality, and justice to the world (estimated time, twenty minutes).
Students speak based on their short free-response essays, and the instructor assists students to reflect upon their thoughts through a discussion involving a reexamination of the introduction to the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, and the first eight amendments of the Bill of Rights.
Final module questions:
How difficult must it have been for Wilson to move beyond his background as a historian and university president to making a decision that would directly impact the lives of two million U.S. armed forces members?
Let’s circle back to our original question: Are there values still worth fighting for when diplomacy fails?
How difficult is that decision for a president? How might the public be encouraged to engage in civil discourse about political and military courses of action?
Editor’s Note: World War I
Instructors may wish to share this document (also below) with students and ask them to reflect on what points that follow probably apply to most wars, what points are specifically applicable to World War I, and how World War I helped change the course of American and world history.
Ten Points for Reflection: The U.S. and World War I
Although American deaths in World War I pale in significance to allies, opponents, and a substantial number of U.S. military personnel that died from disease, the 116,516 U.S. soldiers who died make the war the third leading costly war involving loss of American lives in U.S. history. Only the American Civil War (Confederate and Union deaths combined) and World War II rank higher (Department of Defense). American forces were instrumental in turning the tide of the war as Germany and its allies were defeated. However, World War I did not succeed in making the world safe for democracy: Germany and the Western Powers were at war again twenty years later.
World War I helped spawn the growth of Fascism and Communism in Europe, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. In contrast to the former destructive belief systems, Wilson’s liberal internationalism committed future U.S. presidents in words and sometimes actions to global promotion of democracy, capitalism, and freedom. This U.S. stance has been evidentially liberating for a massive amount of people globally but has caused unintended domestic and foreign negative consequences as well.
World War I was the first conflict where a president orchestrated a massive national government propaganda campaign using mass media, such as more effective print technology and movies previously unavailable. Wilson created the Federal Committee on Public Information that recruited 75,000 speakers (“Four Minute Men”) to give short war aims talks in theater intermissions and other similar events, and printed 100 million pamphlets in several languages, as well as promoted movies supporting the war.
Once the U.S. was in the war, the event created some government-initiated, and private discrimination against German-Americans, then and now, the largest ethnic group in the U.S.* “Hamburger” was replaced by “liberty sandwich” and sauerkraut was replaced by “liberty cabbage.” Public schools in German-American-dominated cities like St. Louis, Missouri, had to stop using German as their primary language, and many German-American families changed their names from German to English.
World War I was by far the most expensive conflict in American history at the time. World War I cost the federal government ten times more than the Civil War. Americans, because of World War I, faced much higher federal taxes than any time since the Internal Revenue was created during the Civil War.
Although both because of the relatively short time the U.S. was in the war, and strong cultural pro-freedom attitudes, the federal government cajoled and persuaded citizens, rather than commanded them, to make economic sacrifices and mobilize for various war efforts. Federal Food Commissioner Herbert Hoover exhorted housewives to be patriotic and observe “Meatless Mondays" and “Wheatless Wednesdays,” and Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo sponsored massive rallies to promote the purchase of war bonds. Nevertheless, the Wilson administration took over the railroads in late 1917 so precedents were set regarding central government control of the economy that would be expanded during World War II.
The federal government initially had relatively low numbers of volunteers for World War I. The Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917, enabled the size of the American army to increase from 200,000 in May 1917 to nearly four million by war’s end in 1918. About two million Americans served overseas.
Government also, through the 1917 Espionage Act and the 1918 Sedition Act, was able to prosecute pacifists, left-wing political groups, and unions that opposed the war.
World War I planted the seeds for improvement in the lives of women and African-Americans in that industrial jobs opened to these groups because of a shortage of manpower due to the war. Although these gains were short-lived when returning soldiers reclaimed jobs, the precedent was set for future social change.
New technology often emerges as a result of war. In addition to new military technology such as the tank, examples of World War I technology that now have widespread use include the zipper, the wristwatch, radio communications technology, daylight saving time, stainless steel, sun lamps, and tea bags.
Sources for this extension:
Evans, Stephen. “10 Inventions That Owe Their Success to World War One.” BBC. April 13, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26935867
Foner, Eric, and John A. Garraty. The Reader’s Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Johnson,Paul. A History of the American People. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.
Neiberg, Michael. “What Students Need to Know about WWI.” Foreign Policy Research Institute. August 29, 2008. http://www.fpri.org/article/2008/08/what-students-need-to-know-about-wwi/
Norman, Geoffrey. “Woodrow Wilson’s War.” The Weekly Standard. April 3, 2017.
Literature, America, and World War I: Willa Cather
Often, reading good literature offers deeper insights at many levels about understanding human feelings, action, and interactions than focusing exclusively on the study of more objective subjects such as political science, history, and economics. Although European authors in several nations produced an impressive body of fiction, poetry, and essays on the war, this was less true in the case of American authors.
Willa Cather is a memorable exception. A native Midwesterner who spent considerable time both in New York City and her home state of Nebraska during the war, Cather penned an essay titled “Roll Call on the Prairies” in The Red Cross Magazine (July 1919) that is available at the link below:
The short, well-written essay is a gem for students since it contrasts the markedly different levels of enthusiasm for the war exhibited by what pundits might label today as “Red States” and “Blue States.”
Cather also won a 1923 Pulitzer Prize for her superb World War I novel, One of Ours (1922). Cather tells the story of Nebraskan Claude Wheeler, who felt trapped by family and fate that the young, intelligent, and educated man considered boring and mind-numbing. World War I gave Claude a cause greater than himself, and his life changed forever because of the war. The novel also illustrates the ethnic conflicts between Anglo-Nebraskans and their Central European neighbors that intensely escalated as the war progressed, especially after the U.S. entered the conflict. The 337-page book is inexpensive and available at http://amzn.com/143828456X.
References and Resources
http://youtu.be/ZmHxq28440c: “A Shot that Changed the World—The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand” is an eight-minute segment on Franz Ferdinand’s assassination by The Great War Project on YouTube.
https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/lusitania This History.com three minute video provides primary source footage of this important event.
http://tinyurl.com/y8jc22x4: This is a link to Woodrow Wilson’s War Message to Congress in 1917.
https://www.fpri.org/?p=14654: This is a link to Walter A. McDougall’s article “The Great War’s Impact on American Foreign Policy and Civic Religion” for the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/capitalism/landmark_schenck.html: This is a short essay on Schenck v. U.S. by Alex McBride for the "Capitalism and Conflict" section of The Supreme Court Series by PBS for Classrooms.
https://www.oyez.org/cases/1900-1940/249us47: This is a brief overview of Schenck v. United States from the website Oyez.
http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/Eugene_Debs: This is the entry on Eugene Debs from the International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-woodrow-wilsons-war-speech-congress-changed-him-and-nation-180962755/ This Smithsonian.com by journalist Eric Trickey that appeared on April 3rd 2017 offers an accessible story of the politics and repercussions of Wilson’s change to war president.
http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=65366: This is Wilson’s request for war against Germany.
Source for Germany’s declarations of war: Horne, Charles F. Source Records of the Great War. Vol. 2. New York: National Alumni, 1923.
Source for “Who Declared War and When”: Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia. Vol. 27, 1983.
Excerpts from “10 Significant Battles of the First World War”: http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/10-significant-battles-of-the-first-world-war
Transcript of the Zimmerman telegram: https://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/The_Zimmerman_Note
Background for the Zimmerman telegram: Alexander, Mary, and Marilyn Childress. "The Zimmerman Telegram." Social Education 45, no. 4 (1981): 266.
Source for “Unrestricted Submarine Warfare” primary source document: www.historylearningsite.co.uk.