The sinking of the
After Wilson threatened war Berlin backed off its submarine warfare policies, promising to refrain from attacks on passenger ships and to provide warning before torpedoing other vessels. For the time being, the United States stayed out of the war. Wilson said there was such a thing as being "too proud to fight." He saw his country and himself as the last hopes for a mediated end to the European war.
The Allied powers, meanwhile, were trading freely with the United States, confident that if Americans ever fought it would be on their side. They hoped to bring about United States intervention against Germany. German naval policy had brought
about a great diplomatic setback. All Berlin could do now was try to keep the United States out of the war.2
In hindsight it is easy to see that Berlin should have paid closer attention to the diplomatic repercussions of prior submarine attacks, such as the Falaba and Gulflight. Had the Germans understood how the death of Leon C. Thrasher overshadowed British ignorance of American neutrality, they might have taken more precautions to prevent the Lusitania incident from happening. But the incident did occur and Washington had, as a result, placed Germany on a sort of probation.
That probationary period lasted until the beginning of 1917. The worsening economic situation in Germany brought about by the British naval blockade, the stalemate on the Western Front in 1916, and the notion that Germany could bring Britain to her knees before a militarily unprepared United States could offer decisive military assistance, led Berlin to scrap its promises regarding submarine attacks. On January 9, 1917, Kaiser Wilhelm II, acting on the insistence of Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff (the real powers in Germany), officially authorized German submarines to attack neutral as well as enemy ships in the war zone. The policy was announced to the world on January 31 to go into effect the next day. This was the "Unrestricted Submarine Warfare" declaration.3
The German declaration destroyed Wilson's last hopes for a mediated end to World War I. Washington now faced a crisis with Berlin. The prospect loomed that German submarines would force the United States into that horrible war. Angry over the German policy of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare as well as the discovery of the Zimmerman Telegram (a proposal for an alliance between Germany and Mexico in the event of an American intervention) Wilson went to the Congress on April 2 for a declaration of war. Four days later, on the 6th, the United States formally declared war on Imperial Germany. From then on most Americans united behind the war effort. Even the Bryan Democrats, who had earlier supported impartial neutrality, accepted the futility of trying to stay neutral.4
The war would drag on for more than a year before Berlin accepted defeat and agreed to an armistice. The armistice signed at Compi�gne on November 11, 1918, ended the fighting and cleared the way for the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Woodrow Wilson's failed hopes for a mediated end to the war no longer mattered, for now he could pursue his ultimate dream of a post-war league of nations.
The question of whether a mediated settlement could have been reached can never be determined with absolute certainty. Had the Germans listened to American warnings after the Falaba incident and avoided the Lusitania problem a whole host of other things still could have drawn the United States into war. The fact remains, though, that both sides might have favored mediation after the terrible 1916 battles on the Western Front that bled them white with casualties in the millions. After April 1917 any hope of this was gone for the Allies saw a chance for victory with fresh American troops and equipment.
1. Colin Simpson, The Lusitania (Boston:
Little, Brown and Company, 1972), p. 10.
2. James L. Stokesbury, A Short History of World War I (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1981), p. 113.
3. Lloyd E. Ambrosius, Wilsonian Statecraft: Theory and Practice of Liberal Internationalism During World War I
(Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1991), pp. 81-82.
4. Ibid., p. 87.