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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

The Terrible Human Cost of World War I

Study Guide

Learning Objective One:

Discuss the background leading up to World War I.

The basic factors which were responsible for World War I. The four

  • MILITARISM (Anglo-German Arms Race)

Causes of World War I

Although many Americans wanted to stay out of the war, several factors made American neutrality difficult to maintain. As an industrial and imperial power, the United States felt many of the same pressures that had led the nations of Europe into devastating warfare. Historians generally cite four long-term causes of the First World War: nationalism, imperialism, militarism, and the formation of a system of alliances.



Throughout the 19th century, politics in the Western world were deeply influenced by the concept of nationalism—a devotion to the interests and culture of one’s nation. Often, nationalism led to competitive and antagonistic rivalries among nations. In this atmosphere of competition, many feared Germany’s growing power in Europe.


In addition, various ethnic groups resented domination by others and longed for their nations to become independent. Many ethnic groups looked to larger nations for protection. Russia regarded itself as the protector of Europe’s Slavic peoples, no matter which government they lived under. Among these Slavic peoples were the Serbs. Serbia, located in the Balkans, was an independent nation, but millions of ethnic Serbs lived under the rule of Austria-Hungary. As a result, Russia and Austria-Hungary were rivals for influence over Serbia.




For many centuries, European nations had been building empires, slowly extending their economic and political control over various peoples of the world. Colonies supplied the European imperial powers with raw materials and provided markets for manufactured goods. As Germany industrialized, it competed with France and Britain in the contest for colonies.



For many centuries, European nations had been building empires, slowly extending their economic and political control over various peo- ples of the world. Colonies supplied the European imperial powers with raw mat- erials and provided markets for manufactured goods. As Germany industrialized, it competed with France and Britain in the contest for colonies. xt




Empires were expensive to build and to defend. The growth of nationalism and imperialism led to increased military spending. Because each nation wanted stronger armed forces than those of any potential enemy, the imperial powers followed a policy of militarism—the development of armed forces and their use as a tool of diplomacy.


By 1890 the strongest nation on the European continent was Germany, which had set up an army reserve system that drafted and trained young men. Britain was not initially alarmed by Germany’s military expansion. As an island nation, Britain had always relied on its navy for defense and protection of its shipping routes— and the British navy was the strongest in the world. However, in 1897, Wilhelm II, Germany’s kaiser, or emperor, decided that his nation should also become a major sea power in order to compete more successfully against the British. Soon British and German shipyards competed to build the largest battleships and destroyers. France, Italy, Japan, and the United States quickly joined the naval arms race




By 1907 there were two major defense alliances in Europe. The Triple Entente, later known as the Allies, consisted of France, Britain, and Russia. The Triple Alliance consisted of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.

Germany and Austria-Hungary, together with the Ottoman Empire—an empire of mostly Middle Eastern lands controlled by the Turks—were later known as the Central Powers. The alliances provided a measure of international security because nations were reluctant to disturb the balance of power. As it turned out, a spark set off a major conflict.

The Central Powers or the Triple Alliance:


Austria-Hungary; and


the Triple Entente :


Russia; and

Great Britain 

The development of "international Social Darwinism" started in Europe in the late 1880's and early 90's. During this period, European nations began a game of high stakes imperialism which resulted in colonial possession in Africa, the Pacific, and through indirect economic and diplomatic pressures in Asia and the Near East.

An Assassination Leads to War


That spark flared in the Balkan Peninsula, which was known as “the powder keg of Europe.” In addition to the ethnic rivalries among the Balkan peoples, Europe’s leading powers had interests there. Russia wanted access to the Mediterranean Sea. Germany wanted a rail link to the Ottoman Empire. Austria-Hungary, which had taken control of Bosnia in 1878, accused Serbia of subverting its rule over Bosnia. The “powder keg” was ready to explode.


In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, visited the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. As the royal entourage drove through the city, Serbian nation- alist Gavrilo Princip stepped from the crowd and shot the Archduke and his wife Sophie. Princip was a member of the Black Hand, an organization promoting Serbian national- ism. The assassinations touched off a diplomatic crisis. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared what was expected to be a short war against Serbia of subverting its rule over Bosnia.


The “powder keg” was ready to explode. In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, visited the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. As the royal entourage drove through the city, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip stepped from the crowd and shot the Archduke and his wife Sophie. Princip was a member of the Black Hand, an organization promoting Serbian nationalism. The assassinations touched off a diplomatic crisis. 

Austria was determined once and for all to put an end to the Slavic threat. She presented stringent demands with which Serbia could not comply, save at the cost of her own independence. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared what was expected to be a short war against Serbia. The alliance system pulled one nation after another into the conflict. On August 1, Germany, obligated by treaty to support Austria-Hungary, declared war on Russia. On August 3, Germany declared war on Russia’s ally France. After Germany invaded Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Great War had begun. 

The Fighting Starts


On August 3, 1914, Germany invaded Belgium, following a strategy known as the Schlieffen Plan. This plan called for a holding action against Russia, combined with a quick drive through Belgium to Paris; after France had fallen, the two German armies would defeat Russia. As German troops swept across Belgium, thousands of civilians fled in terror. In Brussels, the Belgian capital, an American war correspondent described the first major refugee crisis of the 20th century.


Unable to save Belgium, the Allies retreated to the Marne River in France, where they halted the German advance in September 1914. After struggling to outflank each other’s armies, both sides dug in for a long siege. By the spring of 1915, two parallel systems of deep, rat-infested trenches crossed France from the Belgian coast to the Swiss Alps. German soldiers occupied one set of trenches, Allied soldiers the other. There were three main kinds of trenches—front line, support, and reserve. Soldiers spent a period of time in each kind of trench. Dugouts, or underground rooms, were used as officers’ quarters and command posts. Between the trench complexes lay “no man’s land”—a barren expanse of mud pockmarked with shell craters and filled with barbed wire. Periodically, the soldiers charged enemy lines, only to be mowed down by machine gun fire.


The scale of slaughter was horrific. During the First Battle of the Somme— which began on July 1, 1916, and lasted until mid-November—the British suffered 60,000 casualties the first day alone. Final casualties totaled about 1.2 million, yet only about seven miles of ground changed hands. This bloody trench warfare, in which armies fought for mere yards of ground, continued for over three years. Elsewhere, the fighting was just as devastating and inconclusive

Learning Obective Two:


Discuss American attitudes and actions. Show how these attitudes

to the United States entering into World War I.


Americans Question Neutrality

In 1914, most Americans saw no reason to join a struggle 3,000 miles away. The war did not threaten American lives or property. This does not mean, however, that individual Americans were indifferent to who would win the war. Public opinion was strong—but divided.




Socialists criticized the war as a capitalist and imperialist struggle between Germany and England to control markets and colonies in China, Africa, and the Middle East. Pacifists, such as lawyer and politician William Jennings Bryan, believed that war was evil and that the United States should set an example of peace to the world. Many Americans simply did not want their sons to experience the horrors of warfare, as a hit song of 1915 conveyed.

“ I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier, I brought him up to be my pride and joy. Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder, To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?”


In November 1916 came the U.S. presidential election. The Democrats renominated Wilson, and the Republicans nominated Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Wilson campaigned on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Hughes pledged to uphold America’s right to freedom of the seas but also promised not to be too severe on Germany. The election returns shifted from hour to hour. In fact, Hughes went to bed believing he had been elected. When a reporter tried to reach him with the news of Wilson’s victory, an aide said, “The president can’t be disturbed.” “Well,” replied the reporter, “when he wakes up, tell him he’s no longer president.”

The United States Declares War

After the election, Wilson tried to mediate between the warring alliances. The attempt failed. In a speech before the Senate in January 1917, the president called for “a peace without victory. . . . a peace between equals,” in which neither side would impose harsh terms on the other. Wilson hoped that all nations would join in a “league for peace” that would work to extend democracy, maintain freedom of the seas, and reduce armaments.




The Germans ignored Wilson’s calls for peace. Germany’s leaders hoped to defeat Britain by resuming unrestricted submarine warfare. On January 31 the kaiser announced that U-boats would sink all ships in British waters—hostile or neutral—on sight. Wilson was stunned. The German decision meant that the United States would have to go to war.


The overt acts came. First was the Zimmermann note, a telegram from the German foreign minister to the German ambassador in Mexico that was intercepted by British agents. The telegram proposed an alliance between Mexico and Germany and promised that if war with the United States broke out, Germany would support Mexico in recovering “lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.” Next came the sinking of four unarmed American merchant ships, with a loss of 36 lives.


Finally, events in Russia removed the last significant obstacle to direct U.S. involvement in the war. In March, the oppressive Russian monarchy was replaced with a representative government. Now supporters of American entry into the war could claim that this was a war of democracies against brutal monarchies.




A light drizzle fell on Washington on April 2, 1917, as senators, representatives, ambassadors, members of the Supreme Court, and other guests crowded into the Capitol building to hear President Wilson deliver his war resolution.


Congress passed the resolution a few days later. With the hope of neutrality finally shattered, U.S. troops would follow the stream of American money and munitions that had been heading to the Allies throughout the war. But Wilson’s plea to make the world “safe for democracy” wasn’t just political posturing. Indeed, Wilson and many Americans truly believed that the United States had to join the war to pave the way for a future order of peace and freedom. A resolved but anxious nation held its breath as the United States prepared for war.

Learning Objective III

Discuss the development of propaganda and suspension of civil liberties during the war.

Until the advent of the Cold War in the 1950s, America traditionally maintained a relatively small standing army. Whenever war broke out, it was necessary for the country to mobilize—to recruit (and sometimes draft) troops, to train them, and to produce the arms, equipment, and supplies needed to fight. In other words, the US needed bodies, money, and time.


When Congress and the President declared war on Germany in April, mobilization took on extreme urgency. The government’s overarching task was to persuade Americans to invest in the war, both financially and emotionally. The financial contributions would be made by purchasing war bonds—loans to the federal government to be repaid at some future date, with modest interest. The emotional investment meant believing in the cause and demonstrating that belief through volunteer service (men for the military, women for the nurse corps), displays of patriotism, and through shared sacrifice.


To accomplish this feat, the U.S. government in 1917 felt compelled to promote a singular message, and to stifle any opposing message. The latter was done through new laws that put constitutionally questionable limits on free expression, and is discussed in another next section. The former—putting out a singular message, was done primarily through new government organizations, especially the Committee on Public Information, and the U.S. Food Administration.


George Creel was by all accounts a man of two faces. In private, he was personable, funny, and gregarious, one of the best story-tellers of his day, a truly likeable personality. In public, however, Creel was something of a berserker. His public speeches were so bellicose and bitter that once he was said to have been shocked to read in the newspaper the next day what he had said. Too outspoken and tactless, even his critics had to admit that Creel had energy and imagination. Although Congress authorized a budget of $1,250,000, Creel was heavily subsidized by the chief executive’s “President’s fund”. With near limitless cash at his disposal, Creel soon cranked up a massive propaganda machine.


Since the Great War took place before the advent of electronic mass media (which started with radio only a few years after the war), Creel relied heavily on visual forms of media. Posters were especially effective. An army of artists “rallied to the colors,” as Creel put it, and were put to work under the “Division of Pictorial Publicity”. Artists such as James Montgomery Flagg, Charles Dana Gibson, Harrison Fisher, and Joseph Pennell churned out patriotic works that even today are artistically stunning. (The patriotic efforts of artists were also evident on the huge catalog of songs published by private music companies during the war in the form of sheet music). Flagg’s iconic Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster remains today one of the most recognized patriotic images in America.

Creel also mobilized America’s advertising industry, including newspapers, magazines, and public advertising. Although the country had just absorbed some 13 million immigrants during the previous two decades, Creel’s campaign was calculated to reach anyone who could understand a picture. And they were everywhere—on billboards, the walls of subway stations, the sides of barns, anywhere an American might travel. Creel referred to his ad campaign as the “battle of the fences.” Creel also made effective use of the presses. Millions of pro-war, pro-Wilson leaflets, pamphlets, and propaganda booklets found their way into American homes, often written by historians and college professors.


Creel’s use of visuals extended to photographic media. He organized a motion picture division and created propaganda films with titles like, “Pershing’s Crusaders,” “America’s Answer,” and “Under Four Flags.” Hollywood took up the cause and was soon producing its own propaganda, and some of the biggest stars of the silent era promoted the Liberty Loan drives at huge public rallies. Creel expanded into still images and eventually sent thousands of photographs to newspapers and companies that made stereoview cards.


In an era when audiences still highly prized public oratorical skills, Creel created an army of 75,000 “four-minute” men (presumably an allusion to the minutemen of the American revolution), who delivered hundreds of patriotic speeches. Initially, these speakers performed at the new mass media phenomenon of the movie theater, where a still slide was shown on the curtain announcing the performance. Soon the service was expanded to reach audiences at lodge meetings, union halls, grange-meetings, churches, Sunday schools, synagogues, even lumber camps. Native American reservations, according to Creel, provided some of the most receptive audiences. The 4-minute men speeches often focused on a specific need. In the spring of 1917, When the bill to create the

military draft was in jeopardy, the minute men focused their energies on “Universal Service by Selective Draft”. At other times it was the Red Cross, the Farm and Garden initiative, Food Conservation, and selling Liberty Bonds. Once, Treasury Secretary McAdoo had President Wilson buy a $50 bond, and then Creel sent the 4-minute men around the country to challenge each American to match it. According to Creel’s own statistics, the 4-minute men delivered 7,555,190 speeches to a total audience of 314,454,514. Given that the total population of the country was around 103,000,000, each American heard an average of 3 speeches during the 19-month war effort.


Creel also marshaled the country's musical talent. He personally prepared a list of songs designed to incite patriotism, and appointed a corps of band-leaders to take charge of motion picture theater orchestras (which, during the era of silent film, often played the film’s score “live” with each viewing of the film) and audiences. Finally, recognizing the need to promote the war effort as an Allied cause, Creel enlisted public speakers from France and England, including war heroes, to tour the country and give speeches to their American brethren.


And Creel’s propaganda did not end at ocean’s shore. His apparatus reached out to encompass all of Europe in what some of his subordinates called “selling America to the World.” He did so by inundating the continent with the speeches and ideas of his boss, President Woodrow Wilson. He specifically targeted the German people, overcoming efforts by the Kaiser to restrict the flow of ideas coming out of America.


By the end of the war 150,000 workers were engaged in Creel’s formidable “enterprise in salesmanship”. Was all of this propaganda effective? To answer the question, consider the words of Secretary of War Newton Baker. Speaking in retrospect after the war, Baker described the overall effect of the Committee on Public Information as “mobilizing the mind of the world.”

Learning Objective IV

Discuss President Woodrow Wilson's role in the peace settlement after WWI. .

Wilson Presents His Plan

Rejection was probably the last thing Wilson expected when he arrived in Europe. Everywhere he went, people gave him a hero’s welcome. Italians displayed his picture in their windows; Parisians strewed the street with flowers. Representatives of one group after another, including Armenians, Jews, Ukrainians, and Poles, appealed to him for help in setting up independent nations for themselves.

Fourteen Points

Even before the war was over, Wilson presented his plan for world peace. On January 18, 1918, he delivered his now famous Fourteen Points speech before Congress. The points were divided into three groups. The first five points were issues that Wilson believed had to be addressed to prevent another war:


1. There should be no secret treaties among nations.


2. Freedom of the seas should be maintained for all.


3. Tariffs and other economic barriers among nations should be lowered or abolished in order to foster free trade.


4. Arms should be reduced “to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety, thus lessening the possibility of military responses” during diplomatic crises.


5. Colonial policies should consider the interests of the colonial peoples as well as the interests of the imperialist powers. The next eight points dealt with boundary changes.


Nearly all of Wilson's points dealt with political, military, or territorial issues. The only economic proposal in the whole list was the vague statement on the removal of trade barriers. This lack of consideration for the economic problems which plagued Europe after the war is considered to be the major weakness of Wilson's fourteen points and the Peace of Paris


Wilson based these provisions on the principle of self-determination “along historically established lines of nationality.” In other words, groups that claimed distinct ethnic identities were to form their own nation-states or decide for themselves to what nations they would belong. The fourteenth point called for the creation of an international organization to address diplomatic crises like those that had sparked the war. This League of Nations would provide a forum for nations to discuss and settle their grievances without having to resort to war.




Wilson’s naiveté about the political aspects of securing a peace treaty showed itself in his failure to grasp the anger felt by the Allied leaders. The French premier, Georges Clemenceau (klDmQEn-sIP), had lived through two German invasions of France and was determined to prevent future invasions. David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, had just won reelection on the slogan “Make Germany Pay.” The Italian prime minister, Vittorio Orlando, wanted control of Austrian-held territory.


Contrary to custom, the peace conference did not include the defeated Central Powers. Nor did it include Russia, which was now under the control of a Communist government, or the smaller Allied nations. Instead, the “Big Four”—Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Orlando—worked out the treaty’s details among themselves. Wilson conceded on most of his Fourteen Points in return for the establishment of the League of Nations.

Debating the Treaty of Versailles

On June 28, 1919, the Big Four and the leaders of the defeated nations gathered in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles to sign the peace treaty. After four years of devastating warfare, everyone hoped that the treaty would create stability for a rebuilt Europe. Instead, anger held sway.



The Treaty of Versailles (vEr-sFT) established nine new nations—including Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia—and shifted the boundaries of other nations. It carved five areas out of the Ottoman Empire and gave them to France and Great Britain as mandates, or temporary colonies. Those two Allies were to administer their respective mandates until the areas were ready for self-rule and then independence. The treaty barred Germany from maintaining an army. It also required Germany to return the region of Alsace-Lorraine to France and to pay reparations, or war damages, amounting to $33 billion to the Allies.




This treatment of Germany weakened the ability of the Treaty of Versailles to provide a lasting peace in Europe. Several basic flaws in the treaty sowed the seeds of postwar international problems that eventually would lead to the Second World War. First, the treaty humiliated Germany. It contained a war-guilt clause forcing Germany to admit sole responsibility for starting World War I. Although German militarism had played a major role in igniting the war, other European nations had been guilty of provoking diplomatic crises before the war. Furthermore, there was no way Germany could pay the huge financial reparations. Germany was stripped of its colonial possessions in the Pacific, which might have helped it pay its reparations bill.



Wilson unwisely ignored the Republican majority in the Senate when he chose the members of the American delegation. If he had been more willing to accept a compromise on the League, it would have been more likely that the Senate would have approved the treaty. Wilson, however, was exhausted from his efforts at Versailles. Despite ill health, Wilson set out in September 1919 on an 8,000-mile tour.


He delivered 34 speeches in about 3 weeks, explaining why the United States should join the League of Nations. On October 2, Wilson suffered a stroke (a ruptured blood vessel to the brain) and lay partially paralyzed for more than two months, unable to even meet with his cabinet. His once-powerful voice was no more than a thick whisper. When the treaty came up for a vote in the Senate in November 1919, Senator Lodge introduced a number of amendments, the most important of which qualified the terms under which the United States would enter the League of Nations. It was feared that U.S. membership in the League would force the United States to form its foreign policy in accord with the League. Although the Senate rejected the amendments, it also failed to ratify the treaty. Wilson refused to compromise. “I will not play for position,” he proclaimed. “This is not a time for tactics. It is a time to stand square. I can stand defeat; I cannot stand retreat from conscientious duty.” The treaty again came up for a vote in March 1920.


The Senate again rejected the Lodge amendments—and again failed to muster enough votes for ratification. The United States finally signed a separate treaty with Germany in 1921, after Wilson was no longer president. The United States never joined the League of Nations, but it maintained an unofficial observer at League meetings


The Legacy of the War


When World War I ended, many Americans looked forward to a return of what Warren G. Harding called “normalcy.” However, both the United States and the rest of the world had been utterly transformed by the war. At home, World War I had strengthened both the U.S. military and the power of government. It had also accelerated social change, especially for African Americans and women.


In addition, the propaganda campaign had provoked powerful fears and antagonisms that were left unchanneled when the war finally came to an end. In Europe the destruction and massive loss of life severely damaged social and political systems. In many countries the war created political instability and violence that persisted for decades. During the war years, the first Communist state was established in Russia, while after the war, militant fascist organizations seized control in Italy, Spain, and Germany.


Appalled by the scale of destruction, Americans began to call World War I “the war to end all wars,” in the hope that humanity would never again be willing to fight such a war. However, unresolved issues in Europe would eventually drag America into an even wider war. The Treaty of Versailles had settled nothing. In fact, some Europeans longed to resume the fight. The ominous shape of things to come emerged in the writings of an Austrian named Adolf Hitler, an angry veteran of World War I: “It cannot be that two million [Germans] should have fallen in vain. . . . No, we do not pardon, we demand—vengeance!”


Two decades after the end of the Great War, Adolf Hitler’s desire for vengeance would plunge the world into an even greater war, in which the United States would play a leading role.