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Woodrow Wilson | Article

Wilson and WWI

Woodrow Wilson hoped not to spend too much presidential time on foreign affairs. When Europe plunged into war in 1914, Wilson, who like many Americans believed in neutrality, saw America's role as that of peace broker. The sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania by a German U-boat helped to shatter that hope.

Woodrow Wilson, 1918. Courtesy: Library of Congress

Wilson demanded an apology from Germany and stayed his neutral course as long as possible. Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare, however, was an intolerable affront to America's dignity and honor. At the start of 1917, British intelligence intercepted the Zimmerman telegram, a secret German communication to Mexico promising United States territory to Mexico in return for supporting the German cause. On April 2, 1917, Wilson finally asked Congress for a formal declaration of war.

The task Wilson faced was how to mobilize an unprepared America. The government could ask for volunteers and institute a draft to build up the army. But convincing Americans to support the war and feel the will to fight was more difficult. The war effort required propaganda. Wilson launched the Committee for Public Information (CPI), employing a legion of artists and the formative Hollywood film industry to churn out pamphlets, movies and posters depicting Germans as the savage Hun. James Montgomery Flagg drew his famous image of Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer -- the classic "I Want You" army recruitment image. Anything German became suspect - be it a last name, sauerkraut, or Beethoven.

As 1917 came to a close, the European Allies, their forces depleted, faced a German offensive designed to win the war before the American troops could arrive. On the Eastern Front, Russia compounded the problem. An ally under the Tsar, it now collapsed in revolution. Its new Bolshevik government sued for peace with Germany. Making matters worse, the Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin ordered published the Tsar's secret treaties, agreements on how Germanyís possessions were to be divided. To many it was evidence that the war was not about democracy, only the expansion of the Allied countries's imperial ambitions.

To counteract this impression, Wilson brought forth his Fourteen Points, a program for a world without imperialism or secret treaties, where self-determination and democracy would flourish, and where the voices of weak nations would be heard as loudly as those of the strong. In Wilson's imagined future, the league of Nations - a global covenant among nations - would peaceably settle future conflicts.

To President Wilson, the tens of thousands of American troops who crossed the Atlantic to fight alongside the Allies were the battering ram for his Fourteen Points. When Germany, its forces in disarray, offered to end the war on the basis of Wilson's world changing plan, his representative, Colonel Edwards House, made the president's position clear to the Allies. They could accept the armistice terms, or America would consider a separate peace with Germany. War-weary, the European Allies gave in.

Celebrations erupted around the world as the bloodiest war in the history of mankind came to an end on November 11, 1918.

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