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Exhibition Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I

Arguing Over War

Americans were deeply divided over how to respond to the Great War and expressed a diverse range of views on the conflict. President Woodrow Wilson declared U.S. neutrality on August 4, 1914, and many Americans saw little reason to entangle themselves in what they viewed as European quarreling and intrigue. As the war persisted and the destruction spread, many Americans could not ignore the crisis. President Wilson and other leading Americans, like industrialist Henry Ford, attempted to facilitate negotiations for peace to end the conflict in Europe. Americans organized and provided humanitarian aid to war victims, particularly the monumental relief operation led by Herbert Hoover to feed German-occupied Belgium.

But other forces drew the United States toward war. Cultural ties to Britain tended to outweigh those that German Americans and other European ethnic groups had to their ancestral homelands. Although the United States did profit financially from the war as a neutral nation, Great Britain's naval domination of the seas and blockade of Germany and the other Central Powers meant that Americans primarily traded with the Allies during the war. Germany attempted to counter this imbalance with the widespread use of submarines, the first time these weapons had been extensively deployed in war. German submarines sank merchant ships engaged in what Americans viewed as peaceful trade and killed American passengers on British ocean liners, most notably the Lusitania. As the war raged on in Europe, to many, including eventually President Wilson, the conflict became a matter of principles: whether to uphold the freedom of the seas, to make the world safe for democracy in the face of autocracy, or to establish a new world order ensuring permanent peace and governed by rational law. The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.


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