Wilson's Fourteen Points
As America sent its men overseas to fight, President Woodrow Wilson continued to make a moral case for its involvement in the war.
Wilson was a progressive and an idealist. At the same time, he was deeply prejudiced against African Americans, and for years was strongly opposed to voting rights for women. These contradictory attitudes were not unusual for the time.
In a speech to Congress on January 8, 1918, Wilson laid out fourteen concepts that summarized U.S. war aims. Some were specific to the war: Germany was to evacuate Russia, leave Belgium and return territory taken from France in their 1870 war. Italy’s borders would be adjusted to encompass all Italian speakers (at Austia-Hungary’s expense). Austria-Hungary was to leave the nations it had occupied. It would also offer self-government to its minorities, as would the Ottoman Empire. An independent Polish state would be established.
On a broader scale, Wilson wanted to address the issues he believed had led to the outbreak and expansion of the war. He proposed an end to secret treaties, freedom of the seas, free trade, reductions in armaments and greater rights for colonial peoples. To enforce these principles, he proposed the creation of a global “association of nations.”
Wilson’s speech came to be known as the “Fourteen Points.” They were embraced around the world as American idealism at its best, and were adopted by the Allies as the central message of their wartime propaganda.
However, Wilson would ultimately find it difficult to turn his ideals into reality, even in his home country.
Defeating the U-Boats: The U.S. Navy
In early 1917, German submarines were sinking one in every four ships that sailed from British ports. German leaders were confident that they could minimize the U.S.’s contribution to the Allies by preventing supplies and troops from crossing the Atlantic.
The U.S. Navy had a sizable fleet, and was building more ships. However, it lacked the smaller vessels needed to fight submarines and to escort merchant ships, and was undermanned.
It quickly shifted its ship building program to focus on destroyers and submarine chasers. The U.S. declaration of war automatically placed the Coast Guard under Navy command, expanding its ranks. Also, since the Army had priority for manpower, the Navy expanded its recruiting to include women in support roles, freeing up more men for sea duty.
To combat the submarine threat, the British and U.S. started grouping merchant ships in convoys and protecting them with escorts. Submarine sinkings dropped dramatically.
The U.S. Navy helped ensure that tens of millions of tons of supplies reached Europe. Two million U.S. troops safely crossed the Atlantic; only 637 were lost to German submarines. 431 sailors and coast guardsmen were killed and 819 wounded in carrying out this vital duty.
An Independent Army and a Race Against Time
The first troops of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) landed in France on June 26, 1917. Over two million Americans would arrive in Europe by the end of the war.
The AEF was commanded by General John “Black Jack” Pershing, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and commander of a 1916 raid to hunt Mexican guerilla leader Pancho Villa. On July 4, Pershing led a parade of U.S. troops through cheering crowds in the streets of Paris. The Americans marched to the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the Revolutionary War, where they declared that the U.S. had come to repay its old debt to France.
An Independent Army
Pershing and his staff began preparing the AEF for battle. In earlier negotiations, the British and French had pressed to use American troops to fill in their depleted ranks. President Woodrow Wilson and Pershing refused, insisting on organizing the AEF as an independent force under American command.
The Americans were assigned to the area around Lorraine, in the east of the Allied lines. Pershing’s staff set up camps to house the troops, training programs to prepare them for combat, and communications and supply networks.
American industry had just begun to shift to full wartime production, so U.S. units were mostly supplied with Allied equipment, especially tanks and airplanes. American troops learned Allied trench combat techniques, but Pershing insisted on additional training in marksmanship and maneuver warfare, as he intended to get the Germans out of their positions and into the open.
At first, the arrival of eager, fresh Americans provided a much-needed morale boost to the exhausted Allies. However, this early optimism faded a bit when it became clear that the new arrivals were not ready to fight. Many British and French troops became resentful of the well-fed and well-paid doughboys, who had yet to prove themselves under fire. America’s fighting men would have to earn respect in combat, not just from the enemy, but from their allies.
On October 21, 1917, units from the U.S. Army’s First Division entered the front lines near Nancy, France. Two days later, Robert Bralet became the first U.S. soldier to fire a shot in the war when he discharged a French 75mm gun at the German lines. On the night of November 2, James Gresham, Thomas Enright and Merle Hay became the first U.S. soldiers to die in combat when Germans raided their trenches near Bathelemont, France.
Through the end of 1917 and into 1918, the AEF continued to grow and train. Pershing planned to spend 1918 building up an overwhelming force and then to attack and win the war in 1919.However, the Germans had other plans.
A Race against Time
Germany had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 knowing it would likely provoke the U.S. to enter the war. However, it believed that it could defeat the Allies before enough Americans arrived to make a difference. After Russia’s departure from the war and Austrian/German victories on the Italian front, Germany began moving men to the Western Front for its own effort to win the war.