The Coming of World War I

In the early 20th century, tensions mounted between the strongest nations in Europe. Britain and France had established worldwide empires, but Germany was rapidly becoming a strong industrial power. Major countries were building up their armies and navies. Although many of the royal families of Europe were related to each other, there was a general sense of hostility. When an Austrian leader was shot during a visit to Bosnia in June 1914, major countries began to prepare for war. Austria-Hungary and Germany declared war on Russia in July 1914. Soon other nations joined one side or another. World War I had begun. The United States stayed out of the fighting for the first three years of the war. But the United States faced serious problems that were caused by the war in Europe.

Disagreement About the War

Public opinion in Iowa and around the nation was divided. Many Iowans had migrated to the United States from Germany and Ireland. They, of course, had strong ties to their relatives in the old country. The Irish had long resented being controlled by Great Britain. On the other side, Iowans who had come from Great Britain and Canada supported the alliance between Britain, France and Russia. Most Iowans at the start of the war wanted to keep the United States out of the fighting. They saw the conflict as a struggle between European royal families who had selfish motives.

The major problem for the United States concerned the rights to trade with warring countries. Both sides wanted the food and manufactured goods that America could produce. Both sides also wanted to prevent American goods from reaching the enemy. Prices for farm products rose sharply, and Iowa farmers increased their output. Britain had the strongest navy and kept American ships out of German ports. In response, Germany built submarines that could torpedo supply ships and prevent goods from reaching Britain and France. The United States as a neutral country claimed the right to trade with anyone, but in wartime, that was difficult.

America Enters the War

In 1915 a German submarine sank a British ship, the Lusitania, off the coast of Ireland, killing 128 American citizens who were onboard. German claimed the ship was carrying "contraband of war" and therefore Germany had the right to attack. The United States strongly protested, but German attacks did not stop. Finally in February 1917 Germany announced that its submarines would sink any American ships sailing near the British or French coast. Several ships went down and American lives were lost.

At the same time a secret German telegram became public. Germany promised the Mexican government they would get part of the southwestern United States in exchange for Mexican assistance in defeating the United States. Americans were outraged.

In April President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany and her allies. American soldiers were soon on their way to Europe as allies of Britain and France.


America is often thought of as a nation of immigrants. How did this notion of a nation of immigrants effect America's role in World War I? Does this characteristic still impact our foreign relations today?

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