This article is an edited transcript of America’s Entry into the First World War – Michael Neiberg, available on History Hit TV.
Public opinion in the United States was heavily influenced by stories of atrocities carried out by the German Army in Belgium. But Germany’s policies around shipping in the Atlantic fell much closer to home for the American people and had a significant impact on the decision to abandon their neutral status in the war.
The Atlantic battleground
The Atlantic was the cause of several crises throughout the war. In 1915, the sinking of the Lusitania by U-20, in which 128 Americans died, caused national outrage. Another crisis erupted in 1916 following the torpedoing of the passenger steamer Sussex. President Woodrow Wilson believed that diplomacy had gone about as far as it could go.
The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare again in 1917 was arguably a sign of desperation on the part of the Germans. They needed to knock Britain out the war, the greatest naval power, which was sustaining France on the Western Front. They wanted to sink all trade but this meant sinking American vessels carrying American crews.
Wilson was faced with the same issue of what to do about it. Diplomacy appeared not to have worked, he was mocked by people on the right for his diplomatic efforts with Germany. Wilson was under a lot of pressure to do something.
British vs German policy in the Atlantic
Britain herself had to be careful not to upset America through its policy in the Atlantic.
The American economy was absolutely dependent on Great Britain. Most American overseas commerce travelled on British ships, protected by British insurance, funded by British credit, and the general sustainment of the global commons for which the Royal Navy was responsible. American trade was intimately connected to Great Britain.
The British were enforcing a strict policy but they were doing it without killing anyone.
Britain prevented trade with Germany by boarding vessels and confiscating goods such as titanium or copper or other warlike supplies. They were also able to write down the name of the company manufacturing those goods and blacklist that company. The British used procedures like this to enforce their policies.
They did also allow some goods to pass across the Atlantic. Cotton, for example, which the Royal Navy and the British Army would have preferred to confiscate, was allowed to go through to Germany more often than not so as not to anger the senators from the American South.
It was a balancing act. The British were enforcing a strict policy but they were doing it without killing anyone. This was not an option for the Germans who only had submarines – you can’t board a vessel from a submarine, you have to sink them.