When war erupted in August 1914, most Americans saw no reason to join the struggle among Europe’s imperialistic powers. No vital U.S. economic interests were at stake. Indeed, the United States had good commercial relations with the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, and Russia and the Central Powers of Germany and Austria Hungary. But a combination of factors like financial commitments, neutrality rights, cultural ties with Britain, and German miscalculations that would finally draw the United States into the war on the Allied side in April 1917. New military technology, some of it devised in the United States, made warfare more deadly than ever before. Every soldier carried a long-range, high velocity rifle that could hit a target at 1,000 yards, a vast technical improvement over the 300-yard range of the rifle musket used in the American Civil War. The machine gun was an even more deadly technological innovation. Its American-born inventor, Hiram Maxim, had moved to Great Britain in the 1880s to follow a friend’s advice: “If you want to make your fortune, invent something which will allow those fool Europeans to kill each other more quickly.”
These innovations changed the nature of warfare by giving a tremendous advantage to soldiers in defensive positions. Once the German advance into France ran into fortified positions, it stalled. For four bloody years, millions of soldiers fought from 25,000 miles of heavily fortified trenches that cut across a narrow swath of Belgium and northern France. One side and then the other would mount an attack across “no man’s land,” only to be caught in a sea of barbed wire or mowed down by machine guns and artillery fi re. Trench warfare took an immense psychological toll; thousands of soldiers suffered from shell shock (now known as post-traumatic stress disorder). “I got quite used to carrying shell-shocked patients in the ambulance,” British nurse Claire Tisdall recalled. “It was a horrible thing . . . rather like epileptic fi ts. They became quite unconscious, with violent shivering and shaking.
Many politically aware Americans refused to support either side. “It would be folly for the country to sacrifice itself to the clash of ancient hatreds which is urging the Old World to destruction,” declared the New York Sun. Progressive-minded Republicans, such as Senators Robert La Follette of Wisconsin and George Norris of Nebraska, vehemently opposed American participation in the European conflict. Virtually the entire political left, led principally by Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party, condemned the war as a conflict among greedy capitalist and imperialist nations. A. Philip Randolph and other African American leaders wanted no part of a struggle among white nations. Newly formed pacifist groups, such as the Women’s Peace Party, mobilized popular opposition to the war. So did two giants of American industry, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford. In December 1915, Ford spent half a million dollars to send one hundred men and women to Europe on a “peace ship” to urge an end to the fighting.