America and the Great War

The complex American experience in World War I marked a turning point in the nation’s history

By Margaret E. Wagner

The Great War, the War to End All War, the World War and World War I — all have described the bitter conflict between Allied nations and the Central Powers that convulsed the globe between August 1914 and November 1918. This first modern war eradicated empires, ignited the Russian Revolution, reconfigured the world map — and marked a turning point for the American nation.

Though the United States remained neutral for nearly three years, the war affected it immediately. The nation’s stock markets closed for months. Thousands of American travelers stranded in Europe had to be rescued. Disruption of international trade caused vital tariff revenues to plunge, deepening an ongoing recession. Losses turned to soaring profits after trade resumed and private U.S. financial institutions began granting loans to belligerent nations, which used them to pay for an ever-increasing volume of war goods ordered from American industries.

A tightening Allied naval blockade of Germany that drew sharp complaints from Washington made evenhandedness in the distribution of American resources impossible. Germans complained as American goods bolstered the Allied war effort. Americans protested Germany’s counter-blockade of Britain, conducted by submarines, the only effective naval resource that Germany then had.

Inundated with reports of destruction, deprivation, and German atrocities in occupied lands, from August 1914 onward the United States sent great waves of humanitarian aid overseas; Americans living in Europe established hospitals and ambulance corps and some American men joined combatant armies, the vast majority of them fighting for the Allies.

Meanwhile, President Woodrow Wilson waged a diplomatic offensive. Leader of a nation whose population included millions with roots in belligerent countries, like most Americans he also believed that the United States should not become entangled in foreign quarrels. Rather, as the most powerful neutral nation and one with an exceptional democratic history, America should facilitate a negotiated peace and then guide Europe into a more enlightened postwar era, one in which a League of Nations would prevent future wars. Wilson’s diplomacy broadened the scope of U.S. involvement in international affairs. “We are participants, whether we would or not, in the life of the world,” he declared in May 1916.

By then, events were moving the country toward belligerence. Anger over Allied affronts paled beside resentment of Central Powers espionage and Germany’s submarine warfare. The May 1915 sinking of the British liner Lusitania that killed 1,198 passengers, including 123 Americans, was only the first of repeated U-boat-generated crises. The domestic debate between those opposed to any U.S. military buildup and those advocating greater preparedness grew more heated as Americans contemplated a fundamental question: Could their country remain aloof from what was increasingly seen as a struggle between the democratic principles espoused by the Allies and the militarism and autocracy of the Central Powers? On April 6, 1917, two months after Germany broke earlier pledges and resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States entered the war.

Unprepared for the ferocious demands total war immediately imposed, the country struggled through 19 tumultuous months as an active combatant associated with the Allies. Despite stumbles and setbacks, mobilization bordered on the miraculous. Presidential and congressional authority increased as the federal government established new wartime agencies, passed war-related legislation, circulated propaganda, raised taxes and sold bonds, investigated epic problems in military procurement — and, with the aid of civilian vigilance societies, suppressed dissent in ways that gave rise to the modern civil liberties movement.

Women replaced war-bound men in business, industry, and agriculture and established civilian organizations engaged in war work. The tiny 128,000-man U.S. Army and the nation’s ill-trained National Guard grew into an imperfectly trained but eager force of 4 million men, 72 percent of them draftees. Some 20,000 women officially enlisted in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. By 1918, more than 20 million additional men had registered for the draft, a well of future soldiers the Central Powers could never match.

“Farmerettes” temporarily replaced male farmworkers. Here they march in support of a war bond drive (c. 1917).
In 1917, after a bloody race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, black Americans marched in silent protest in New York City.
Insignia of the greatly expanded American army, 1919

Nearly 2 million soldiers and U.S. Marines — as well as supporting civilians — served overseas. About a million American troops engaged in combat. Through Belleau Wood and Chateau Thierry in June 1918, in the Aisne-Marne Offensive in July, and in the subsequent St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives, General John Pershing and the doughboys of the American Expeditionary Forces became a decisive factor in the Allied victory. Their efforts and those of millions at home earned President Wilson a central place at the peace table.

In 1920, as the nation reeled from a disappointing peace and postwar violence, new president Warren G. Harding promised a “return to normalcy.” But there could be no going back. The United States had emerged from the war the world’s leading economic and a premier political power, with demonstrated potential for projecting military might abroad. As the last U.S. occupation troops returned from Germany in 1923, Americans were beginning to grasp the character and implications of the nation’s new influence and increasing power.


Margaret E. Wagner is a senior writer-editor at the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress preserves and provides access to the most comprehensive collection of World War I holdings in the nation. Explore the Great War at loc.gov/wwi.