Rutgers Logo Rutgers University
Eagleton Institute of Politics - 60th Anniversary
Eagleton Institute of Politics


E-Gov: Archive of American Politics

World War I

Camp Dix
View of Camp Dix in New Jersey, one of primary camps established for training of troops.
Image Source: Library of Congress

When Congress approved President Wilson's request in April 1917 for a declaration of War against Germany and its allies, the U.S military capability was so weak that the Germans had little fear that American participation would greatly affect the stalemate in Europe. In April 1917, U.S forces numbered 5,791 officers and 121,797 enlisted men, and the War Department could immediately organize and ship only 24,000 troops with enough ammunition for only a day and a half of heavy fighting. The poorly-trained National Guard consisted of 181,620 officers and men, of whom 80,446 already had been called to federal service. See Michael McCarthy, "Lafayette, We Are Here: " the War College Division and American Military Planning for the AEF in World War I", Don Mabry's Historical Text Archive.

Mobilization for the American war effort included a draft of all men between the ages of 21 and 31 authorized by the Selective Service Act signed by the President on May 18. By the end of the war, some 24 million men had registered with local draft boards, about 23 percent of the U.S. population, and some 4 million were mobilized, with about half that number sent to the battlefields in France where 57,000 were killed.

Patriotic fervor for the War was strong following Wilson's decision, but vocal opposition continued. The Espionage Act, signed by the President on June 15, made it a crime to say anything that would discourage enlistment in the armed forces and also set penalties for those who disclosed information on ship movements or other actions affecting mobilization. Senator La Follette of Wisconsin, one of the six Senators who voted against the war resolution, also opposed the draft and argued that wealthy individuals and corporations should pay the costs of a war that he contended was mainly for their benefit. Pro-war newspapers and groups supported resolutions introduced in the Senate to expel him for treason, but La Follette eloquently defended the right to dissent in a famous speech delivered on the Senate floor in October. See Robert M. La Follette, Senate Speech on Free Speech in Wartime, October 6, 1917.

American intervention in the war also split organized labor and minority activists. Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party's presidential candidate in 1916, was sentenced under the Espionage Act to ten years in prison for interfering with recruitment in a speech delivered on June 16, 1918, in Canton, Ohio, in which he described the war as a class struggle:"Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder.... And that is war, in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles." Debs's conviction was upheld in 1919 by the United States Supreme Court in its decision in Debs v. United States; he served over two and a half years in prison (during which time he received over a million votes as the Socialist Party's 1920 presidential candidate) until President Harding commuted his sentence to time served on Christmas Day, 1921. A. Philip Randolph, the African-American civil rights and labor activist, urged resistance through his Harlem-based newspaper, The Messenger, editorializing that "no intelligent Negro is willing to lay down his life for the United States as it now exists." Yet more moderate labor leaders actively backed the decision to send troops to Europe. Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, also established the War Committee on Labor to cooperate with the government, arguing in a speech, "In addition to the fundamental principles at issue, labor has a further interest in the war. This war is a people's war -- labor's war. The final outcome will be determined in the factories, the mills, the shops, the mines, the farms, the industries, and the transportation agencies of the various countries. That group of countries which can most successfully organize its agencies of production and transportation, and which can furnish the most adequate and effective agencies with which to conduct the war, will win.

The U.S. declaration of war in April also came shortly after the Russian participation in the war collapsed with the fall of the Tsarist government. On March 2, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne following civil unrest and dissension within the military over the course of the war, with a Provisional Government initially taking control until the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin seized power on the night of November 6-7. The new Bolshevik government promptly opened peace negotiations in December with the Central Powers comprised of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria. After the Russians rejected the terms of the German peace offer, the Germans renewed their attacks on Russia the following February, resulting in the Russians being forced to accept the German terms in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty signed on March 3, 1918, in which Russia surrendered control of the Ukraine, Finland, Poland, the Caucasus, and the Baltic provinces. Germany then was able to shift more of its forces to fight on the Western front against the American, French and British troops.

The first American troops arrived in France in June 1917, but their presence would not be fully felt until 1918, when the the infusion of soldiers, weapons, ammunition, aircraft and other supplies would become important factors in the decisive shift on the battlefield, which first saw the German spring offensive repulsed, followed by Allied advances that led to mounting German losses. In the fall, the German lines broke under both ground and air attacks, and poltical pressure grew within Germany for an end to the conflict. In October, Germany and Austria send peace notes to President Wilson requesting an armistice, and Turkey signed a separate peace at the end of the month. On November 11, two days after the abdication of Kaiser Wilhem II, an armistice was signed. The Germans and their allies had hoped that the peace would be framed on the relatively moderate terms that Wilson had outlined in his Fourteen Points Address delivered to Congress in January 1918, in which he called for a peace of reconciliation based on democracy and self-determination for the disputed regions in Europe, without annexations or indemnities, as well as the establishment of postwar League of Nations to resolve future disputes without war.

In December, Wilson became the first President to leave the country while in office when he left for France aboard the S.S. George Washington to open the Paris Peace Conference. Wilson was greeted with enthusiastic crowds, who viewed his 14 points as providing a framework for future peace. His moderate stance, however, was largely rejected by British Prime Minister Lloyd George and French Premier Georges Clemenceau, who sought to punish Germany and destroy any potential for German rearmament. While Wilson was able to to soften some of the more extreme punitive measures proposed by the British and French and also gained their support for the creation of a League of Nations, he was unable to persuade the British and French to resist imposing harsh sanctions on Germany. Wilson headed home in February, allowing others to work out the details of the agreement, later returning to France to sign the final accord as the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. In addition to endorsement of the formation of the League of Nations that was incorporated in the document, the Treaty provided that Germany accepted responsibility for starting the war; surrendered Alsace-Lorraine to France; demilitarized the Rhineland; placed the Saar industrial region under French control for 15 years; ceded land to Poland; gave up its overseas colonies; restricted its armed forces to 100,000 personnel; and paid $33 billion in reparations to the Allies. The harsh terms of the Treaty, particularly the damage its provisions caused to German national pride and to the German economy, have been cited by leading historians as key factors contributing to the rise of the Nazis during the 1930s.

Support for the ratification of the Treaty in the Senate was undermined by major political mistakes of the President in his reltions with the Republicans. In the 1918 election, he had actively campaigned against Republicans in an unsuccessful effort to maintain Democratic control of the Congress, and subsequently had failed to include Republicans in the peace negotiations. Since the Republicans now controlled the Senate (by a 49 to 47 seat margin) and the treaty required a two-thirds majority for ratification, bi-partisan support for the Treaty was essential.


Henry Cabot Lodge
Henry Cabot Lodge
Image Source: Library of Congress

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts led the Republican opposition; he objected primarily to the commitments that the Treaty would impose on the U.S. to participate in peacekeeping efforts of the League of Nations, arguing that the provisions would undermine the authority of the Congress to declare war and the sovereignty of the nation to pursue its own foreign policy interests. Lodge was only willing to accept the Treaty if reservations were imposed limiting the authority of the League of Nations. While Wilson was willing to accept modifications to the Treaty that clarified some of the issues relating to U.S. sovereignty, he rejected Lodge's proposals as so weakening the proposed League of Nations that it would be unable to fulfill its mission.

In an attempt to generate public support for his position, Wilson launched a speaking tour of the western states, traveling over 8,000 miles and making over 40 speeches. After delivering a speech on September 25 in Pueblo, Colorado, he collapsed, and was quickly returned by train to Washington, where he suffered a severe stroke in the White House on October 2 that paralyzed his left side. Access to the president and news of his true condition was closely guarded by his wife Edith, who evidently made substantive decisions issued in his name during the most critical period of the Senate debate over the Treaty. On November 19, the Senate rejected the Treaty with the Lodge reservations by a 39-55 vote and then also rejected the original Treaty by a vote of 38 to 53.

For the next three or four days the White House was like a hospital. There were all kinds of medical apparatus and more doctors and more nurses. Day and night this went on. All the while the only answer one could get from an inquiry as to his condition was that it 'showed signs of improvement.' No details, no explanations. This situation seemed to go on indefinitely. It was perhaps three weeks or more before any change came over things. I had been in and out of the room many times during this period and I saw very little progress in the President's condition. He just lay helpless. True, he had been taking nourishment, but the work the doctors had been doing on him had just about sapped his remaining vitality. All his natural functions had to be artificially assisted and he appeared just as helpless as one could possibly be and live.

Account of period immediately following President Wilson's stroke by White House usher Irwin Hood Hoover, "President Wilson Suffers a Stroke, 1919," EyeWitness - history through the eyes of those who lived it, (2002).

In February 1920, the Senate voted to reconsider the Treaty shortly after England and France declared that they would be willing to accept the Lodge reservations. Wilson, however, continued to reject the reservations, and the Treaty again failed in a 49-35 vote on March 19. A joint resolution approved in May by the Congress ending the war was vetoed by the President. It would not be until after Wilson left office that U.S. participation in the war officially ended, when President Harding signed in July 1921 another joint resolution passed by the Congress, which was followed by the ratification of separate treaties with Germany, Austria, and Hungary.

Wilson's health prevented him from taking an active role in the 1920 campaign, which Republican Warren G. Harding would win in defeating Democratic candidate James M. Cox. The Republicans also gained substantial Congressional majorities. In the House, their margin of 237 seats to 191 for the Democrats during Wilson's last two years in office grew to an overwhelming 300 to 132 in the 67th Congress sworn in as he left office. In the Senate, the narrow 49 to 47 majority the Republicans gained in 1919 went to a comfortable 59 to 37 balance in 1921. Wilson retired to Washington, D.C., where he passed away in 1924.



The World War I Document Archive >> Brigham Young University Library

American Leaders Speak: World War I and the 1920 Election >> Library of Congress

Wars and Conflict: World War I >> BBC

Educational Tools

Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan: The Zimmermann Telegram >>
National Archives & Records Administration

What are we Fighting for Over There? Perspectives on the Great War >> Library of Congress

The Paris Peace Conference >> C.T.. Evans, Northern Virginia Community College

Woodrow Wilson's Stroke: Should Disability Have Been Declared? >> Constitution Center