The United Statesâ 1917 entry into World War I represents one of the crucial turning points in American history. Its significance, however, scarcely exceeds modern Americaâs collective ignorance of it.
The war began for corporate America long before it started for the common man. Within two months of the conflictâs August 1914 beginning, Charles Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel, one of the worldâs largest arms merchants, took a profitable trip to London. There, he secured orders from the British government for millions of artillery shells, as well as ten 500-ton submarines. Though the construction of such foreign vessels broke the law, Bethlehem proceeded with it and the Wilson administration did not stop them. The company earned $61 million in 1916, more than its combined gross revenues for the previous eight years.
"The Bethlehem story is a pithy summary of the evolution of the United States into a branch of the British armament industry during the thirty-two months of its neutrality," writes historian Thomas Fleming in his powerhouse bookÂ The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I. "Wilson talked â and talked and talked â about neutrality and apparently convinced himself that he was neutral. But the United States he was supposedly running was not neutral, in thought, word or deed, thanks to Wellington House (the engine of British government propaganda) â and the international banking firm of J. P. Morgan in New York."
By the time America declared war on Germany, Morgan was having a bang-up war of its own. The company had already loaned Britain and France $2.1 billion (around $30 billion by 2004 standards), and had cleared $30 million â around $425 million in 2004 dollars â in profit.
Fleming summarizes a very effective partnership: "As British and French orders for ammunition and other war materiel filled the books of U.S. companies, the pressure for financial assistance to pay for them grew more and more acute." In other words, the more intense the fighting, the more arms, ordnance, and supplies the British and French ordered from American manufacturers, and the more money they borrowed from American banks.
WAR DRUMS IN AMERICA
The well-publicized May, 1915, German sinking of the British ocean linerÂ LusitaniaÂ is typically cited as one of a series of outrages to which President Woodrow Wilson reacted with restraint and patience. Eventually, so the story goes, even Wilson, a devout, peace-loving man, was forced to make war upon the Germans in order to protect the people and land of America. Yet few in America at the time suggested the nation should go to war because of the sinking of "a British ship flying a British flag." In fact, that British ship carried over four million rifle cartridges and 1,250 cases of shrapnel shells â destined for use against German soldiers.
"A ship carrying contraband should not rely on passengers to protect her from attack," wrote Wilsonâs own Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan. "It would be like putting women and children in front of an army." Bryan presciently feared that Wilsonâs orders to balloon the size and firepower of the American military would multiply the chances of the country finding a war in which to involve them.
It is interesting to note what was and what was not told the American passengers who perished on theLusitania,Â which embarked from New York. They were told by the Germans, in full page newspaper ads in theÂ New York TimesÂ and elsewhere, that boarding a British ship heading into the war zone would place them at risk. They were not told by the British that the ship was a virtual floating munitions dump.
For at least one British leader, losses such as the sinking of theÂ LusitaniaÂ were perhaps no great tragedy in the larger context of the war. "It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany," First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill wrote. The more neutral "traffic" the better, he insisted, and "If some of it gets into trouble, better still."
It was the first of two World Wars in which Churchill would exert the full strength of his being to drag America into the conflict in order to preserve victory for the British.
Overlooked by most "popular" historians is the brutal toll taken on the men, women, children, and aged of Germany by actions given the antiseptic term "naval blockade." Hundreds of thousands of Germans starved to death or perished due to other malnutrition-related maladies during the war because Britain and her allies would not let supplies and food into Germany or even into Europe in many cases. Hundreds of thousands of others suffered serious or debilitating illnesses. This was the context in which the Germans launched their submarine warfare against ships traveling into British waters.