The First World War began one hundred years ago this month. In the first four days of August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia, France and Belgium, prompting Great Britain to declare war on Germany late on August 4. A few hours earlier, the US had declared its neutrality in the conflict.
President Woodrow Wilson explained his reasons for remaining neutral in a message to Congress on August 19:
The people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war. It is natural and inevitable that there should be the utmost variety of sympathy and desire among them with regard to the issues and circumstances of the conflict. Some will wish one nation, others another, to succeed in the momentous struggle. It will be easy to excite passion and difficult to allay it. Those responsible for exciting it will assume a heavy responsibility, responsibility for no less a thing than that the people of the United States, whose love of their country and whose loyalty to its Government should unite them as Americans all, bound in honor and affection to think first of her and her interests, may be divided in camps of hostile opinion, hot against each other, involved in the war itself in impulse and opinion if not in action.
Such divisions amongst us would be fatal to our peace of mind and might seriously stand in the way of the proper performance of our duty as the one great nation at peace, the one people holding itself ready to play a part of impartial mediation and speak the counsels of peace and accommodation, not as a partisan, but as a friend.
I venture, therefore, my fellow countrymen, to speak a solemn word of warning to you against that deepest, most subtle, most essential breach of neutrality which may spring out of partisanship, out of passionately taking sides. The United States must be neutral in fact as well as in name during these days that are to try men’s souls. We must be impartial in thought as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.
American neutrality would not last. Beginning in early 1915, Germany used submarines to blockade shipping to Britain and declared that even ships from neutral countries would be targeted. By 1917, attacks on Atlantic shipping had stepped up, threatening American vessels. The US severed diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3, 1917 and declared war on Germany a month later, on April 6.