Memory  /  Debunk

Five Myths About World War I

The United States wasn't filled with isolationists, and it wasn't exactly neutral before 1917.

The United States was neutral, in fact as well as name, until 1917.

America was an “exemplar of peace,” according to the title of the first chapter of Margaret E. Wagner’s forthcoming history of the United States during the war, sponsored by the Library of Congress. The keepers of Woodrow Wilson’s post-presidential home in Washington echo that conventional wisdom: His “primary goal at the outset of the European war .?.?. was to maintain American neutrality and to help broker peace between the warring parties.” In August 1914, Wilson called upon Americans to be “neutral in fact as well as name,” and in 1916, he ran for reelection on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Wilson hoped, at some point, to mediate an end to the carnage.

But his private sympathies were never in doubt. A German victory, the president told his closest adviser when the war began, “would change the course of our civilization and make the United States a military nation.” So the federal government did little to prevent U.S. businesses from selling goods and lending money to Britain and France. Bethlehem Steel made arms for the Allies, and the investment house of J.P. Morgan and Co. served as the British government’s exclusive purchasing agent in the United States. By war’s end, the total cost to king and country came to $3 billion; J.P. Morgan collected a tidy 1 percent commission on every sale. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy was blockading the North Sea, making it all but impossible for American firms to do business with Germany — a disparity Wilson complained about briefly and only in the mildest terms.

Myth No. 2
Americans who actively opposed going to war were isolationists.

There is no myth more powerful than the notion that most Americans resisted intervention because they wanted to remain aloof from the problems besetting the rest of the world. In 1952, journalist Walter Lippmann recalled that “the isolationists were the party of neutrality and of pacifism.” More recently, Wilson biographer A. Scott Berg reflected that the president was “speaking to an isolationist nation” when he asked Congress to declare war in April 1917.

But both writers ignore the internationalist creed and connections held by the key leaders of the antiwar coalition.