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[picture: French troopers driving back Germans, near Marne, 1918]  World War I, or The Great War, began when a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Within two months, Austria-Hungary and Germany (the Central Powers) were at war with Russia, France, Great Britain, and Italy (the Allied Powers). By the time the armistice was signed, November 11, 1918, 20 million people had been killed (including 113,000 U.S. soldiers) and 20 million people wounded. The modern world had never seen such horror (poisonous gas, trench warfare, improved technology and new weapons).

Tensions in Europe were very high before the archduke's assassination. The Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) and the Triple Entente (France, Russia and Great Britain) struggled to maintain a balance of power. However, three elements undermined this fragile co-existence. Both alliances had countries committed to building empires and their competing desire to annex territory in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East increased their distrust of one another. Industrialization allowed a rapid increase in military and naval equipment. And finally, many of the ultraconservative governments faced strong internal challenges from liberals and socialists.

America had a history of noninvolvement in European wars and, during Woodrow Wilson's first term, tried to remain neutral. The Atlantic Ocean separated the U.S. from the war and its large immigrant population (one-third of the U.S. population according to the 1910 census) encouraged Americans not to take sides. On February 19, 1915, Germany announced that it would begin a submarine campaign against all enemy ships. President Wilson said the U.S. would hold Germany strictly "accountable" for its actions. The following month, Great Britain announced that it would blockade all ships carrying goods for Germany, including ships owned by neutral nations that were sailing in the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea. On March 8, 1915, a German submarine sank the Lusitania (which was carrying American weapons to Britain), killing 128 Americans (who had been warned not to travel on the ship).

Pressure on Wilson to keep the U.S. out of the war increased. Wilson demanded that German submarines not sink ships until they had been boarded and searched (an unreasonable request since submarines could easily be sunk and were too small to carry civilian passengers) and he campaigned for reelection with the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War." Germany sunk three more American ships. The British leaked the Zimmerman telegram (a dramatic German scheme to get Mexico to invade Texas and New Mexico) to the American press to pressure America to enter the war.

On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress to declare war, arguing "the world must be made safe for democracy." Wilson reorganized the federal government to coordinate almost every phase of the war: production of weapons and war materials (the War Industries Board), workers (the War Labor Board), and transportation (the Railway Board). Franklin D. Roosevelt, as assistant secretary of the navy, became very involved in ship production and the drafting of sailors. In May 1917, General John Pershing led American troops into horrific battles at Cantigny and Belleau Wood. By June, Pershing joined with British and French troops and helped coordinate an attack along a 200-mile front. The combined allied armies pushed the Central Powers out of the Argonne Forest and back into Belgium and Germany. Germany asked Wilson to negotiate a truce October 16, 1918 and the armistice was signed November 11, 1918. Fighting stopped at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month and is remembered every year on November 11, now called Veteran's Day.

World War I stunned America. Anti-German feelings ran high and inspired a propaganda campaign that often turned into a witch hunt (the First Red Scare). Many Americans rejected the positive view of human nature they held before the war and, reeling from the economic and emotional depression the war inflicted, embraced a foreign policy that would not involve the U.S. in foreign conflicts. The war also spurred a world-wide peace movement and helped U.S. women secure the vote.

ER spent the war in Washington, observing FDR's naval policies, working in a Red Cross canteen for soldiers passing through Washington's Union Station, and lobbying for better medical care for wounded and shell-shocked soldiers. She accompanied FDR on his 1919 tour of French battlefields and, haunted by what she saw, returned to the U.S. determined to work with peace organizations.
 


For more information on World War I, see the following sites: