Why did the United States adopt a Policy of Neutrality from 1914 to 1917?
At the beginning of the 19th Century, America was experiencing a rapid growth rate. It therefore concerned itself with its internal issues, rather than the external global issues. The core issues were, solving the unemployment problem, promoting human rights, and regulating corporations. However, this was prone to change as the international issues eminently influenced America. The First World War presented a critical situation for America’s equilibrium. However, America chose not to take sides with any of the warring sides, but carry on its businesses. US President Wilson publicly declared this neutrality policy, and most Americans welcomed it. In this essay, the main reasons behind America’s adoption of neutrality policy will be established. In addition, the effectiveness of this policy will be determined, basing on different events that occurred during the period 1914-1917.
Since the late 19th Century, different countries in Europe had been forming unions and alliances, to enhance their preparedness for war. This saw the Independent German Kingdoms come together in the late 1870’s, and this became the most powerful in the continent. During that time, France highly invested in weapons, in anticipation of an attack from Germany, its long time enemy. The power status of German was a threat to most counties, including Russia, which had to take sides with France, Great Britain, and even German itself, to ensure its safety. The British effort to remain uninvolved in conflict was impossible, owing to its ownership of the most powerful navy in the world. Unrest in Europe was hastened by rebellious provinces of Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman leaders who aimed at expansion of their empire. However, Europe was resistant to war and tried to withhold this for a long time. During this period, the Central powers included Ottoman Turks, Germans, and Austro-Hungarians, while their rivals, the entente powers included France, Great Britain, and Russia (U.S Department of State Web).
The United States of America dissociated itself from these events, even though most of its citizens were generally inclined to England and the Entente powers. Most Americans did not want their county to participate in the war. America therefore distanced itself from these events, and hoped not to get involved in them. Most Americans, as well as their leaders, including the president and the congress then, adopted this perspective. The then president Woodrow Wilson introduced the “neutrality policy,” publicly citing that the USA must remain neutral in the situation, and display impartiality in both actions, and thought. By doing this, Wilson thought that the probability of putting to risk the other US policies would be greatly minimized.
America adopted this policy because they wanted to avoid effects of the war on their county and economy. The neutrality policy upheld the principles of impartiality, friendliness, and fairness. However, the successful implementation of this required the citizens’ loyalty to their nation. Wilson thought that America needed the neutrality concept for the protection of the diverse populations it held, which included people from different parts of the world, and different races. Therefore, neutrality was meant to serve as an instrument for expressing sympathy to the warring nations, since a part of America’s population was chiefly drawn from the warring countries (Tucker 1).
The neutrality policy needed true nationalism. This was expected to be portrayed in the media, through what journalists reported, what politicians said in public, and what ordinary citizens discussed in meetings. This was therefore a collective role by the whole nation. The reason Wilson gave for the neutrality policy is that if America got involved in war, this would result in divisions among its citizens, which would therefore jeopardize the county’s peace and stability. He warned against beaching neutrality by taking sides. To him, America was to uphold its integrity during those tying moments of war, which brought weariness to the souls of humanity. Therefore, being uninvolved would mean that America did not contribute to the perpetration of evil in the world (Tucker 9).
As a neutral state, the USA carried on with their businesses. Trade with merchants involved commodities such as, clothing, food, equipment, medicine, and weapons to both of the warring sides (Willoughby and Willoughby 58). America continued to keep all its ports neutral and open to serve all countries, so long as the purpose was not military oriented. Both sides of power had promised not to violate this condition. However, these countries took advantage of America’s neutrality to seize its merchant ships. Nonetheless, America settled this diplomatically by making them pay for the seized cargo.
With time, the USA faced challenges in maintaining this neutrality. The actions that Germany took in the early phase of the First World War made most Americans to be more inclined to the Entente powers. USA started to trade less with Germany, and impediments were placed on Germany such that they could not receive any goods from other countries. This forced Germany to adopt a sub-marine technology, which disregarded the neutral ships of America. In early 1915, President Wilson employed peace talks, which based on neutrality, between Germany and America, but Germany was unwilling to solve the conflict. Wilson preferred neutrality in this issue, since it was meant to avoid conflict and loss of life of Americans; it was a form of protection (Tucker 14).
In May 1915, a new conflict developed between Germany and USA, when German submarine destroyed a British Ocean Liner, causing 120 Americans to lose their lives, of the total 1 200 lives lost. Still, the Americans, including the congress and President Wilson vowed to remain neutral amid their loss. Wilson announced that America would not retaliate, as peace was a priority to America. Following German’s multiple submarine attacks despite America’s neutrality, Wilson, in 1916, threatened to end all diplomatic relations with Germany. This made Germany withdraw its attacks shortly. Wilson was e-elected as the USA president in 1917, as Americans considered him a man of peace. His top agenda remained forging negotiations to end the war at hand. However, on April 2, 1917, America officially declared war on Germany, before officially joining World War One on April 6, 1917. This declaration marked the end of the neutrality policy in America (Tucker 21).
Conclusively, US president, Woodrow Wilson, declared the neutrality policy adopted by America between the years 1914-1917. Wilson was a peace-loving president who did not want his country to be involved in war. The neutrality policy therefore, mainly served as an instrument to protect Americans from the detrimental effects that war brings. By not taking sides with the warring powers, America would not be caught in the war. This policy was successfully applied up to 1916, before the emergence of major challenges. Specifically, German took advantage of America’s neutrality policy to attack them, knowing that they would not retaliate. This forced USA to breach this policy in order to protect its people. Joining the war meant that the neutrality policy was ineffective, and needed a more effective replacement. Circumstances forced this to happen and Americans had to choose a lesser evil of joining war, rather than watching its citizens killed by attacks from enemies.
Tucker, Robert . “Woodrow Wilson and the Great War: Reconsidering America’s Neutrality,
1914-1917.” University of Virginia Press, 2007.
U.S Department of State. “A Short History of the Department Of State: The
Challenge of Global Conflict, 1913-1945.” 2010.
Willoughby, Susan and Doug, Willoughby. “The USA 1917-1945.” Oxford: Heinemann, 2000.
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