OTD in History… August 4, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaims US will remain neutral in World War I

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

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On this day in history August 4, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signs a proclamation of American neutrality with the European countries which had just declared war days earlier on July 28. Wilson repeated that the US will remain “impartial in thought as well as in action” in his address to Congress on August 19. Americans supported Wilson’s “policy of neutrality” and keeping the country out of the European war. Neutrality, however, would become more difficult in February 1915 as Germany declared “unrestricted submarine warfare against all ships.” The US was destined to be affected by Germany’s assault by sea, as they traded the most with Great Britain and would continue to do during the so-called period of neutrality.

Germany increasingly attacked US ships trading with and traveling to Great Britain and those with American passengers aboard. In February 1915, Germany hit the William P. Frye, an American ship carrying grain to Britain. The most notable case, however, was the ship the Lusitania hit on May 7, 1915, off the coast Ireland, where 1,198 died including 128 Americans. The British owned ship was traveling with nearly two thousand passengers from New York to Liverpool. Germany claimed they were justified as the ship contained 173 tons of ammunition, but the outcry led to an apology and cessation of the submarine warfare.

Historian M. Ryan Floyd in his book Abandoning American Neutrality: Woodrow Wilson and the Beginning of the Great War, August 1914 — December 1915 argues neutrality was a “paradox created by Wilson’s idealistic aim to bring the belligerents to the peace table and his pragmatic goal of buttressing the US economy between August 1914 and December 1915. During this formative period, the quandary created by his effort to pursue both visionary and pragmatic objectives made his agenda untenable and convinced him to intentionally violate American neutrality.” (Floyd, 9)

Wilson won reelection in 1916, based on his neutrality policy of keeping America out of the war but that pledge did not last long. In 1917, Germany resumed submarine warfare sinking four American ships in March. Historian Robert w. Tucker notes in his book Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality, 1914–1917 “America’s journey from neutrality to war to a failed peace is largely the story of Woodrow Wilson’s journey from neutrality to war to a failed peace.” (Tucker, 21)

Seeing negotiating peace was impossible, Wilson finally took a stand. On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked in a Joint Address to Congress that they declare war deeming it his “constitutional duty” and they obliged, finally the US would enter the war on the side of the allies. Only with the infusion of soldiers and armaments would tip the balance in the allies favor against the Central Powers ending what the world believed then was the war to end all wars.

SOURCES AND READ MORE

Floyd, M R. Abandoning American Neutrality: Woodrow Wilson and the Beginning of the Great War, August 1914-December 1915. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Tucker, Robert W. Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality, 1914–1917. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

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Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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