In the decades before World War I the
World War I was of immense economic benefit to the United States. For example, the export of gasoline and other refined fuels rose from 20 million gallons in September 1913 to 23 million gallons in September 1914. The export of fuel oil rose dramatically from 36 million to 58 million gallons in that same time frame.2 The export of corn rose from 41,409,000 bushels in 1914 to 50,668,000 in 1915. An even more impressive figure was the export of wheat and flour, which rose from 104,967,000 bushels in 1914 to 332,465,000 in 1915.3 The American shipbuilding industry also profited from the war. Although tonnage dropped from 600,000 tons in 1914 to 300,000 in 1915, it rose steadily thereafter all the way to a staggering 3,500,000 tons in 1918.4 Closely related to shipbuilding was the rise in steel production in the United States. Although total steel production fell from 28,329,700 tons in 1910 to 25,606,100 in 1914, it rose all the way to 49,010,100 tons in 1918, almost twice that of 1914.5 The yearly value of American exports rose from $294,664,000 in 1914 to $353,091,000 in 1915 and climbed to $799,098,000 in 1918.6 Figures such as these led Washington to favor increases in neutral non-contraband trade with the belligerent nations. The main obstacle to this was that each side would accuse the United States of favoring the other. This could lead to attacks on American merchant shipping or at least seizure of vessels pending prize court hearings. For Washington to undertake such a course of action would require constant and delicate diplomatic correspondence with both sides. It would also require modernized shipping to increase the chances of the merchantmen arriving safely at their ports of destination.
The United States had constructed a modern fleet in the years leading up to 1914. This seemed to work to Great Britain's advantage. At the time Britain had an empire 140 times its own size, covering nearly a quarter of the earth's surface and embracing some 400 million people in Great Britain and abroad. This empire was far too large for the Royal Navy to control and, beginning as early as the Monroe Doctrine a century earlier, London allowed the United States to take on more and more of the responsibility of protecting the Western Hemisphere. The British felt comfortable with the situation because, aside from some U.S. difficulties with Japan, Washington's policies generally did not threaten bringing Great Britain into war with any major power. By the same token, Washington favored this arrangement with the United States because friendship and commerce between the Atlantic powers seemed to involve no future military obligations outside of the Western Hemisphere. On the surface it seemed a foundation for peace and economic cooperation.
Unfortunately the British would sometimes take their friendship with the United States for granted, considering the Americans as their junior Anglo-Saxon cousins. Tending to forget that the United States had grown from a population of 3 million at independence to nearly 100 million in 1914, London on occasion still thought of the United States as a branch of the British Empire. Common language, economic ties, and a common culture and history fueled this prevailing belief. Even American innovation, while held by the British as a threat to their own well-being, was accepted as a manifestation of Anglo-Saxon genius.7
It was true that the United States was Great Britain's greatest trade partner. Before the war,
When the war began President Wilson quickly made an official proclamation of neutrality. This statement outlined acts forbidden by laws and treaties of the
International law also dictated that neutral governments were forbidden from supplying belligerent nations with arms, munitions, or monetary aid. This was unfortunate because enforcement of restrictions on neutral trade of military items would be left up to the belligerent powers. It was a recipe for an escalation of the naval war in the
These problems of distribution and finance began to correct themselves a few weeks into the war, although the
The Wilson Administration refused to grant ship subsidies, but found other ways to support American trade. A bill was introduced in Congress in August 1917 to allow foreign-built, American-owned merchant ships to fly the American flag. Critics of the bill attacked it as inadequate to solve the shipping shortage and dangerous to neutrality. They pointed out that the belligerent nations might conveniently decide to fly the American flag aboard all of their ships. The
This new law brought only a few Standard Oil tankers and other vessels under the American flag and hardly solved the shipping shortage. Two subsequent and unsuccessful attempts to strengthen the merchant marine led
The decision to arm American merchant vessels was dangerous to
1. Thomas Frothingham, The American Reinforcement in
the World War (New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1971),
2. John Bach McMaster, The
3. Benjamin J. Hibbard, Effects of the Great War Upon Agriculture in the United States and Great Britain
(New York: University Press, 1919), p. 51.
4. J. Russell Smith, The Influence of the Great War Upon Shipping (New York: Oxford University Press, 1919), p. 265.
5. Douglas Alan Fisher, The Epic of Steel (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1963), p. 297.
6. Smith, Influence Upon Shipping, p. 92.
7. David R. Woodward, Trial By Friendship: Anglo-American Relations, 1917-1918 (Louisville, Kentucky: University
Press of Kentucky, 1993), pp. 5-6.
8. Phillip C. Jessup, Neutrality: Its History, Economics, and Law, Volume 4 (New York: Columbia University Press,
1936), pp. 54-55.
9. Frederick C. Luebke, Bonds of Loyalty: German-Americans and World War I (Dekalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois
University Press, 1974), pp. 118-19.
10. Alice M. Morrissey, The American Defense of Neutral Rights, 1914-1917 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1939), p. 6.
11. Ibid., pp. 9-10.
12. Ibid., pp. 11-12.