Military Preparations for World War I

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The outbreak of World War I in 1914 did not inspire Americans to join the fray. The initial incident, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by Serbians, became quickly lost in the sequence of declarations of war that followed. Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary because it was an ally of Serbia. Germany declared war on Russia because it was an ally of Austria-Hungary. France declared war on Germany because it was an ally of Russia. The British held back but when Germany attacked France through the Low Countries, they were entangled by their treaty commitments to Belgium.

All this must have seemed madness to the typical American, who overwhelmingly opposed sending troops to Europe. Others went farther and opposed any steps toward military preparedness. Opponents to a military buildup came in three varieties.

The pro-Germans recognized that it was very unlikely that the United States would ever be an ally of Germany in the war, so their best hope was to keep America neutral. Philosophical pacifists opposed World War I as they would oppose any war, while socialists viewed the conflict as a callous attempt by capitalists to expand their markets for military materiel.

Oswald Garrison Villard, a New York writer and reformer, represented two of those views at once. His father, Henry Villard, had been born in Germany and had converted to pacifism after working as a war correspondent, a view the son shared. Oswald Villard wrote in the New York Evening Post in 1916 an article entitled, "Preparedness is Militarism:"

Now, the real significance of this is that we have all at once, in the midst of a terrifying cataclysm, abjured our faith in many things American. We no longer believe, as for 140 years, in the moral power of an America unarmed and unafraid; we believe suddenly that the influence of the United States is to be measured only by the number of our soldiery and our dreadnoughts -- our whole history to the contrary notwithstanding.

Simeon Strunsky, an immigrant from Russian who worked for the New York Evening Post as an editor during World War I, put forward the economic argument that enthusiasm for military preparations came primarily from capitalists:

Thus, while New York as a whole is favorable towards arma- ments, the emphasis varies with class considerations. The tone of the individual newspapers is plain evidence. Recall that the Hearst newspapers in New York, as in every city where they are established, appeal to our lowest social stratum when measured by the income-tax scale. It is therefore significant that the Hearst papers should be cooler towards armaments as a reflex of European conditions, than any other New York newspaper. Go up one step further and we find that the Pulitzer papers, and especially the Morning World, appeals predominantly to the small business man, to the retail shop-keeper, the more prosperous of the skilled worker, and the moderately prosperous suburban class. And the World is more outspoken for armaments than the Hearst papers. But the World shows moderation, and that I attribute to the fact I have just mentioned that its public is among the smaller business men and the moderately prosperous sections of the community. It is only when you reach the solid business class and beyond that, the realm of big business and established social position when you reach the public covered by the Times, by the Sun, by the Herald and the Tribune, that you find the militaristic agitation in its most violent form. I believe it is plain that whether in Kansas or in New York, whether sentiment is predominantly against armaments or in favor, class lines cut across the prevailing drift of opinion.

Elihu Root, a prominent Republican and the winner of the 1912 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote in early 1917 that Americans could not hope to protect their liberty without a strong military:

It seems to me that we have reached a point now where we can say that a prudent man a man competent to be a trustee of property will see that it is necessary for us to prepare to defend our rights. For why should not this principle of national ag- gression be applied to us ? Why shouldn`t it be applied to South and Central America and the West Indies? Here we all are, rich, undefended, supine fair game for anybody who wants national evolution.

The phrase "national evolution" recalled its use by the German government in defending its need to start World War I.