Conflict Abroad, Social Change At Home: Introduction

"We must be the great arsenal of democracy".
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Message to Congress, January 6, 1941

To the American public of 1914, the outbreak of war in Europe came as a shock. At first the conflict seemed remote, but its economic and political effects were soon felt. By 1915 American industry, which had been mildly depressed, was prospering again with munitions orders from the western Allies. Both sides were using propaganda to arouse public passions in America, and both Britain and Germany were committing acts against American shipping on the high seas that brought sharp protests from the Wilson Administration. But disputes between America and Germany moved more and more to the foreground.

In February 1915, German military leaders announced that they would destroy all merchantmen in the waters around the British Isles. President Wilson warned that the United States would not forsake its traditional right to trade on the high seas and declared that the nation would hold Germany to "strict accountability" for the loss of American vessels or lives. Soon afterward, in the spring of 1915, when the British liner Lusitania was sunk with nearly 1,200 people aboard, 128 of them Americans, indignation reached fever pitch.

Woodrow Wilson Wartime stresses made for inconsistencies in President Wilson's policies. Although no American President has ever been more dedicated to peace, Wilson, observing German ruthlessness, particularly in submarine warfare, was convinced that a German victory would bring the dominance of militarism in Europe and endanger American security.

On May 4, 1916, the German government pledged that its submarine warfare would be limited in accordance with American demands, and the problem appeared to be solved. Wilson was able to win reelection that year, partly on the strength of his party's slogan, "He kept us out of war." In January 1917 in a speech before the Senate he called for a "peace without victory," which, he said, was the only kind of peace that could last.