Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Total War and the Ludendorff Offensive of 1918

On the Western Front a hundred years ago, a furious and decisive campaign was in progress.  The great German Spring Offensive, often and rightly called the Ludendorff Offensive, was well into the process of launching about three million combat troops against the Allied lines. The Offensive would last from March 21 to July 18, 1918. The combined butcher's bill for both sides in the three-month struggle would amount altogether to over a million and half men killed, wounded, captured, or missing. The twin objects of the German assault were  to break the stalemate and end the war. The attack achieved the former, briefly, but its ultimate failure led to the Allied victory.
German Unit during Operation St. Michael
   Significantly, the battle was a product of the total war idea and the omnipotent state that had matured during the war. In 1916, the civilian leadership of Germany invited the successful Eastern Front team of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his "Quartermaster," General Erich Ludendorff, to take control of the High Command. The two had accepted on the condition that they would be given wide-ranging powers in civilian affairs as well as military. In August 1916, the High Command announced a total war plan dubbed "the Hindenburg Program"--largely shaped by Ludendorff--which introduced "total war" in myriad forms. Economic and industrial intervention became absolute. The state both operated and controlled industrial output, manipulated the economy to focus predominantly on war production. The accelerated the closing of "inessential" firms. Industries--though technically still privately owned--were centralized and conglomerated around favored companies. Inflationary finance was maximized, as were confiscation and other forms wealth transfers to the government.
     Workers lost most of the vestiges of autonomy, being ordered to work where needed. Labor forces were "recruited" in the occupied territories and used as forced labor. Civilian leaders with reservations about the powerful military industrial complex--to borrow a term coined much later--looked on helplessly as a new clique of favored industrialists, high-ranking military staff officers, and enthusiastic bureaucrats intervened at every level of the economy and society. Inflationary policies, government intervention, and the British Blockade caused the price of food and other essentials to soar. The regime sponsored books and pamphlets which extolled the virtues of an extremely low-calorie diet. Accidents and injuries in munitions plants and other factories climbed, as machinery wore out, and as various groups of Germans unaccustomed to factory work found themselves working on production lines. Labor strikes multiplied in factories across Germany, but the regime suppressed them in short order.
     Certainly, even at this late period of the war, German production of shells and other military essentials likewise climbed. But many wondered how long the whole system could last, and they were right to wonder. As Ludwig von Mises demonstrated  in his postwar analysis of the war in Nation, State, and Economy, the remarkable productive capacity of Germany did not result from the command economy, but from the previous structures of capitalism on which the command economy fed (see the "War and Economy" section of this great book, in particular).
General Erich Ludendorff
  The Hindenburg Program and the "silent dictatorship" that ran it would have a huge impact on the world to come. Although historians tend to associate the term "total war" with Hitler and Goebbels ("Wollt Ihr den totalen Krieg?!"), the Third Reich planners would base many of their policies--and to a surprising extent, their military tactics--on the Hindenburg/Ludendorff model. More immediately, in 1917 Lenin looked at the Hindenburg Program admiringly from Switzerland and once in power praised the program as the appropriate model for the Bolshevik state.
   As the executive leader of the High Command, General Ludendorff had originally thought of building up impregnable fronts in the West and elsewhere, to wait for the right moment to negotiate with the weakening Allies. But the whole total war program seemed to energize him. Other factors likewise contributed to his plans for an all out roll of the dice.
    Nineteen Seventeen saw numerous Allied attempts at breakthrough on the Western Front: the Nivelle Offensive centered on the Chemin des Dames area, the British fierce but isolated battles of Vimy Ridge and Messine Ridge, and the slogging and costly campaign at Ypres called Passchendaele. Yet after relentless assaults, a substantial portion of the French army had mutinied during the Nivelle Offensive in the spring, and the Passchendaele battles were, if a technical success, an exhausting drain on the British army. Significantly, British troops also mutinied at the British training base at Etaples in September 1917. A month later, the Bolshevik Revolution touched off the final collapse of the Russian army, with enormous results detrimental to the Allies. Attempting to declare a policy of "no war, no peace," the Bolshevik regime found itself forced to the negotiating table at Brest-Litovsk, signing a peace in early March 1918 which took Russia definitively out of the Entente and resulted in the loss of one third of the European parts of the former Russian Empire.  Most ominously for the Allies, over half a million German troops from the Eastern Front were now freed up to fight on the Western Front.
   In the midst of the slaughters of 1916 and 1917, peace feelers and peace initiatives were floated on many sides, including a plan by the Pope. These trial balloons sometimes accelerated indirect communications among two or three belligerents at a time and numerous neutral powers. Yet by late 1917, the High Command strongly opposed making any concessions to the Allies in exchange for peace. German diplomats still took part in talks, but all discussions stalled on the intransigence of the total war planners, who had already opted to re-start unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917.
    The entry of the Americans in April 1917 also contributed to Ludendorff's decision to risk all on one throw of the dice. For one thing, the entry of the United States did much to limit the possibility that the British and French would consider negotiating. Before April 1917, British leadership was increasingly doubtful about the possibility of winning the war outright and was therefore open to some peace feelers. But after American intervention, victory seemed secure enough to ignore most diplomatic initiatives. Contemplating the situation, one British field marshal commented, “with the vast potential supply of men in America there should be no doubt of our winning.” On the American side, Woodrow Wilson had converted from would-be arbitrator of the war to the leader of a belligerent power, and his view was that Prussian-German militarism would only disappear in a total victory. Entente war diplomacy thus no longer needed to consider the possibility of a negotiated peace.
 At the same time on the other side of the Western Front, the corollary to Ludendorff's total war plans was the need for outright, total victory. Hence, once the Americans intervened, Ludendorff and his High Command planners came to see only one path: an all-out assault that would break up the stalemate and win the war if successful. Could German troops be transferred rapidly from the East and organized on the Western Front before the Americans could get troops into the front lines? Ludendorff's staff  looked at the coming race and prepared for an overwhelming breakthrough before substantial American forces could get into the trenches. The Ludendorff Offensive was the result.
  By utilizing most of available manpower and most of available supplies, Ludendorff determined to create five huge assaults, one after the other.  The first one alone (Operation Michael) would involve three German armies comprising something over 800,000 troops. The other four assaults would follow in stages. Each assault represented a "total" effort. In the first five hours of the first wave alone--in the early morning of March 21, 1918--the German artillery fired 1.1 million shells on a forty mile front. “We make a hole,” Ludendorff insisted, “and the rest will take care of itself.”

Tired British Troops Guard Exhausted Captured Germans, 1918
 The obvious flaw in this all-out plan was that if the gamble failed, depleted Germany would face defeat. At one with many of his generation of leaders as a kind of Social-Darwinian Romantic--one might even say Wagnerian--fatalist, Ludendorff staked all on the coming battles. But his reliance on the totality of the state was likewise a piece of his "all or nothing" plan.  In February 1918 Prince Max of Baden asked Ludendorff what would happen if the operation should fail. Ludendorff replied: “In that case Germany will go under.”
     The American presence in the Allied camp altered the dynamic of the war in many ways. Even before American entry, of course, the United States was serving as the banker and auxiliary armory of the Entente. Once in the war, the United States was an enormous financial resource: in its nineteen months at war, the United States would spend 17.1 billion in 1913 dollars on the conflict. This was somewhat below Britain (23 billion) and Germany (almost 20 billion), and more than France and Russia combined. And all of them had been at war since 1914. By means of war production, continued loans, and mobilization of its own version of a "military industrial complex," the most powerful economy in the world represented an enormous material factor.
  But financial and industrial might notwithstanding, the most immediate issue attached to American entry for both sides was, as seen above, American troops. In fact, from the moment John G. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) reached France, he faced enormous pressure from the British and French to send Americans into battle quickly and piecemeal, even as replacements in their own armies. Pershing refused the piecemeal plan of using Americans as British and French replacement troops, though he allowed a limited injection of American companies and regiments with the other Entente armies for the purposes of mastering the routines of Western Front warfare. Some American units fought on the Western front as early as December 1917, but for the most part, the hard-nosed Pershing stood up to British and French demands. Meanwhile, he carried out the task of building the American First Army, but it would not be combat-ready as a unit until late summer 1918.
  So did the AEF make a difference in the total war struggle in the spring of 1918? The answer is yes. The first Spring Offensive German attacks did not reach all their objectives, but they broke through at many points, and indeed came as close as thirty-five miles from Paris. On April 11, the normally phlegmatic British commander on the Western Front, Sir Douglas Haig wrote a "Special Order of the Day" which sounded dire. The order concluded with these famous lines: "There is no other course open to us but to fight it out.  Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement.  With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.  The safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment."
American Attack, Cantigny, Early Morning, 28th of May, 1918
  With catastrophe looming, Pershing relented. He did not send individual American troops to the British and French, but he sent divisions to plug gaps where needed and provide fresh troops for counterattacking German advances. On May 28, the American First Division counterattacked German salient at Cantigny. The American Third Division linked up with French colonial (Senegalese) troops on their right and regular French troops on their left on May 31, making its stand on the banks of the Marne at the extreme point of the bulge made by the Germans, at Château Thierry, earning its permanent nickname, "The Rock of the Marne." Meanwhile in June, a few miles away from Chateau Thierry, the U.S. Second Division carried out a successful counterattack at Belleau Wood. In these and other sectors of the front, 250,000 American troops arrived at the front during the waves of the Spring Offensive.

British Lewis Gun Team at Hazbrouk, April 1918
 I am not suggesting that the experienced British and French were not doing the majority of fighting on the Allied side, or that, simplistically, American troops won the war on their own. Yet the presence of capable American forces allowed both British and French to concentrate forces at points of greatest need. The Americans were, most importantly, fresh to the battle. In the Marne stand of early June, one observer witnessed a French officer delivering the order to retreat to an American unit just digging in against the German onslaught. The U.S. Marine captain replied: “Retreat, Hell. We just got here!”
By July the German army showed clear signs of  exhaustion. Lack of fuel, supplies and troop replacements hamstrung the tired German divisions. And nearly a half a million troops had been lost by June 6. The Allies, it is true, lost as many--even more--but the mobilization of new troops by the Entente changed the ratios entirely: as Germans troop totals sank, Allied troop totals rose.
   Hence, in the course of July 1918, the momentum on the Western Front shifted to the Allied side. Ludendorff had used up his resources and worn out his divisions. Moreover, the total war state that he had created began to fracture. Successful Allied counterattacks in July led to the "black day of the German army" on August 8 when the British went on the offensive at Amiens and gained eight miles back from the Germans. What followed was a continuous Hundred Days of Allied offensives on much of the front during the last three months of the war. The German army did not break, but by the time rational civilian leaders were able to begin discussing negotiations with the Allies, their negotiating position was nearly non-existent. Ludendorff had been correct about one thing: when the plan failed, Germany "went under." But along the way, the total war thinking of Ludendorff and his planning elite had not only created a model for much worse to come in the twentieth century. In this way and others, the Ludendorff Offensive shaped the modern world.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Deeper Forces and the Great War from January to June, 1917

A hundred years ago, the First World War was reaching its crisis. Though we tend to think of the war in terms of stalemate and attrition, the war was a complex web of human activities and human choices that seemed anything but static to most of the millions of participants. An illustration of this idea, in the broadest sense, can be seen in trends and events during the first half of 1917, just one hundred years ago. Taken as as a whole, the first six months of 1917 represents a startling shift in the shape of the war. As the fine historian René Albrecht-Carrié put it, the deeper forces emerged. The huge battles of 1916 and the resulting alterations in the size and scope of the state in all belligerent societies combined with profound events in international affairs--above all, American entry--to create an entirely new dynamic of a war that is still not done with shaping the future. As evidence, we might contemplate briefly just some of the changing components.

Since 1914, the war had been fought on many fronts besides the vast Eastern and Western Fronts. To add to these, in August 1916, Romania's entry into the war opened a new war
Romanian 105mm howitzers at the Battle of Mărăști, 1917
front involving forces from Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Russia, as well Romania. As the commander of Germany's army, Paul von Hindenburg, sized things up just before Romania joined the war, "It is certain that so relatively small a state as Romania had never before been given a role so important, and, indeed, so decisive for the history of the world at so favorable a moment." Romania came in on the side of Entente shortly thereafter but faced disaster. Combined Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian, and German forces handed the Romanian army defeat after defeat until the front stabilized in January 1917. But much of Romania was now in the hands of the Central Powers, and the Romanian army had lost a large part of its army, certainly the majority of the 300,000 military deaths (and an equal number of civilian deaths) the country would suffer before the end of the war. Still, Romania's contribution no doubt helped substantially in delaying Entente collapse on many other fronts.

In Russia, the strains of the vast 1916 Brusilov Offensive had depleted Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and other armies in numbers that prefigured the Eastern Front battles of the Second World War. The 1916 Russian offensive was counted as a victory, but it was a Phyrric one. The half a million Russian casualties it cost brought the Russian wartime total to almost six million killed, wounded, or missing soldiers by early 1917. Russian industry still produced shells, but the economy was increasingly a shambles. Corruption was rife. The famous and sordid dynamic of Nicholas, Alexandra, and Rasputin had weakened the war effort both in perception and in reality. The murder of Rasputin on December 30, 1917, did little to reverse this weakening. The relationship between the parliament (the Duma) and the High Command (headed by the Tsar) worsened. Famine threatened in many areas. Mutinies and desertions were increasing drastically by early 1917. It was in this context and at this moment that crowds poured into the streets of Petrograd, starting a chain of events which ended with the February Revolution and the abdication of the Tsar in March. The new
Students and soldiers firing on police in Petrograd
during the February Revolution
Provisional Government pledged itself to continue the war effort, but observers in all countries had doubts--especially since the Russian Caucasus army facing the Turks had disintegrated the moment the news of the February Revolution reached it. On the other hand, strategists of the Central Powers began to revive their early visions of a victory in Russia followed by a concentration of forces in the West. To many German leaders it now seemed possible to achieve a delayed and attenuated version of the failed Schlieffen Plan at long last.

It was on the heels of these events that the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Of course, the United States had been neutral in the official sense before April 6. But in fact, American loans, goods, and shipping had been a major component of Allied war-making since 1915. Equally important, the United States as a "neutral" had impacted the shape of German naval policy and the maintenance of the British Blockade of Germany by means of Woodrow Wilson's pressure on the Germans to curtail their policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.  

From April to June 1918, the exact nature of the American contribution was yet to be worked out, but it was immediately evident that without the hindrances of official neutrality, the efforts the Americans would be crucial, if they materialized in time.

Robert Nivelle in 1916
And even the promise of American intervention came none too soon for the Entente powers. The French launched the murderous "Nivelle Offensive" in the center of the Western Front three days after American entry. Nivelle had managed to sell to Allied leaders an updated theory of offensive-mindedness with the promise of a total victory against the Germans in France within a few days. The method--throwing away Henri Petain's proven system, "artillery conquers, infantry holds"--was, simply, one furious attack after another. The result was the "French Mutinies." Beginning in early May, frontline soldiers in many, perhaps half, of French divisions simply refused to go over the top in these suicidal attacks. Desertions grew, but for the most part, French poilus disobeyed orders and held their positions instead of charging across No Man's Land to attack impregnable German positions. Self-preservation by means of "informal truces" had meant survival throughout the war for many soldiers in all armies, but this widespread mutiny represented something far more serious. Further, in Italy, a Nivelle-like offensive on the Isonzo Front produced a similar plunge in morale, with desertions and mutinies beginning in June 1917. Likewise, the failure of the Russian Kerensky Offensive of
The ruined village of Soupir, one of many such in the wake of
the Nivelle Offensive
June 1917 reignited the wave of mutinies in the Russian army, rendering it incapable of further offensive operations. As for Britain, a sizeable mutiny at the brutal British training base at Etaples would break out in September 1917, with much less effect on the front itself. Still, Allied leaders were faced with the irony of an enormous diplomatic victory in the form of American entry--but potential Entente military collapse before the United States could mobilize.

Artillery preparation for the Canadian attack at Vimy Ridge
It is true that the Entente had some important successes during the first half of 1917, almost all of them by British and Empire units. The Arras Campaign (in particular the Canadian assault at Vimy Ridge and the Messines battle in the Ypres sector) made gains that were large by Western Front standards. But these victories were local, and in their primary mission (to divert Germans from the larger Nivelle offensive) unsuccessful. They never came close to any breakthrough, and the Germans would recapture much of the gained territory in 1918.

Finally, the specter of a collapse of Entente fighting morale in 1917 took shape as all the home fronts (Entente and Central Powers alike) developed fissures, above all in the vital area of war production. The sheer pressure of manpower shortages in the face of accelerating munitions needs had led to increasing hours, dangerous working conditions, food shortages, and government repression of many kinds in the munitions factories of all the countries involved. Strikes had occurred in the workforces of all belligerent societies since 1915, but now strikes skyrocketed everywhere in extent, intensity, and violence. Again, these social fractures affected all belligerents, but since the Entente governments were simultaneously facing exhaustion and mutiny on so many fronts, the situation was indeed dire. 

Under these conditions the entry and war mobilization of the United States, the fourth most populous country on the globe and the world's strongest economy, could hardly be anything but pivotal after June 1917.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

"These Deeply Momentous Things": United States Intervention into World War I (No. 6)

The United States Declares War: April 6, 1917

On this day--April 6--a hundred years ago, the United States declared war on Germany.

The history of America's entry into the Great War is complex and profound. It has intrinsic drama, no matter what one's attitude about the rights and wrongs of U.S. participation in the war--and there have been many.  
     Wartime Allied propaganda had Americans believing the Germans were solely guilty, and that the conflict was a war for democracy, when the most autocratic country in Europe, Russia, was on the Allied said. American entry, of course, was a necessity.
     Revisionist history in the twenties and thirties written by Barnes, Peterson, Borchard, Millis, and other American historians seemed ironclad in making the case that the United States was not "forced" to war, that American intervention led to higher death totals and a settlement that in many ways unhinged the world. In these works, Wilson's decisions often looked misguided or plain wrong.
     Yet from the late thirties, and with more momentum after World War II, American historians fell back on a positive interpretation of Wilson, the Man of Peace who was forced to War, with all the ancillary propositions that followed.
     Again, from the early sixties, the New Left historians--William A. Williams, Gabriel Kolko, Gar Alperovitz, and others--resurrected much of the old revisionist critique but with a more socialist and often Marxist spin.
     And a number of historians and others, especially psychologists.... and Juliette George, wrote more critical works about Wilson's state of mind and his motives.
     But the picture of the upright and moral Man of Peace struggling with the necessity of war never disappeared in a long list of biographies, above all the Wilson studies by Arthur Link.  
     Still, to tell the truth, the old sort of diplomatic history was abandoned a while back by academic historians, and direct issues like intervention have long since lost "relevance" within the halls of academe. It is true enough that in the many recent diplomatic studies that critique the "world systems" from a Marxist or other determinist direction, there has been some interest in the role of "capitalism" in the direction of state foreign policies. And, too, outside of the guild of academic historians, some economists, sociologists, and political scientists have been interested in detailed studies of specific episodes of international relation, and in specific questions of the of the kind suggested by Leopold von Ranke in the nineteenth century--all related to "what actually happened." (A notable exception here is Justus Doenecke's 2011 full-length study of Intervention.) 
     But the war is still relevant for a broader public. It was, after all, the primal event in the history of a terrible century. And in almost any telling of the history of World War I,  American entry intensified the war and reshaped the world in ways that made it anything but safe for democracy.
     In the current series of short essays, I have thrown out some general considerations and discussed some specific events. It is now time to recount briefly the dramatic last few weeks.
     The forty days before American entry were tempestuous. Once the Germans announced resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, on February 1, 1917, Wilson became increasingly bellicose, preparing bill after bill that aimed at military expenditures and "preparedness" and carrying measures of war security, even war hysteria, that anticipated wartime repression, spying, and information control.
     The news of these measures found a public almost, but not quite, ready for war. The Midwest and West were largely opposed to American entry. Many of the populist remnants, and indeed the agrarian and anarchist socialists rejected participation in the war since it was a war of the kind of "interests" Wilson had long railed against. The war was extremely unpopular among Irish immigrants and their children (few of whom seemed to have love to spare for the English) and among immigrants whose national origin was in the lands of the Central Powers. Then, too, a large number of women's associations rejected the war for a variety of reasons, as did Christian pacifists. Though many Progressives were in fact much more openly bellicose than Wilson himself, a number of Progressive intellectuals and activists opposed American intervention vehemently, including public intellectual Randolph Bourne and social theorist and activist Jane Addams.
     Yet as H. C. Peterson pointed out in his massive 1930s study of the propaganda against neutrality, the national press had already begun to lay the groundwork for intervention after the British cut the transatlantic cable from Germany to the United States in August 1914. The Entente essentially controlled the bulk of war news from the beginning.
     The German submarine policy resulted almost immediately in a string of torpedoed American carriers of war goods. At the same time, the famous--or infamous--Zimmermann Note chiefly served to crank up the steam for "preparedness" and war with the public and with the government itself. The note was an instruction from the Foreign Office in Berlin for the Ambassador in Mexico to approach the Mexican government about entering the war in alliance with Germany. The whole scheme was conditional on American entrance into the war. The quid pro quo for Mexico allying itself with Germany would agree to Mexico's reconquest of "the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona." (View a copy of the original German Foreign Office draft of theZimmermann Note, in German--for a full translation, see the World War I Document Archive.)
     The British had intercepted the message somewhat earlier, saving it as a trump card. They handed it to Ambassador Page in London February 23. Wilson released the text to the press five days later. Though the United States was already threatening Germany with war, the German note was largely seen as unfair, underhanded, and evil. Since the United States had invaded Mexico twice in the previous three years, the Mexicans didn't dismiss the Note out of hand. But after careful assessment, rejected the offer. As with other political decisions related to the war (including the reinstitution of the unrestricted submarine policy), the German record in the was not stellar. Ironically, Arthur Zimmermann, whose name we associate with the note and who was the top permanent official in the German Office, was one of the first contacts Colonel Edward House had made in Europe back in 1914, as Wilson's personal envoy. In any case, with American ships being sunk by U-Boats, the Zimmermann note was the most important straw that broke the camel's back in the USA.
     Politically, a small remnant of anti-intervention congressmen fought a desperate battle in the last weeks before intervention. Among them, Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, a Progressive himself, was foremost. "Fighting Bob" was the leader of Senate opposition to President Wilson's nearly complete departure from neutrality after the 1916 election. In particular, La Follette organized a coalition of Senators who opposed Wilson's Armed Ship Bill, sent to the Senate in late February 1917. The bill proposed arming American ships carrying war goods to Europe, asserting the rights of the neutrals to sail into war zones with full rights of the sea, including the right to engage hostile ships. To La Follette and his colleagues, "The Armed Ship Bill Meant War," and La Follette used this phrase in a position pamphlet published in late March 1917. La Follette charged that the administration tactic was to flood Congress with very large appropriations bills so close to the end of the session that Congress would never have time to deal with all of them with sufficient attention. As La Follette described it, "In the last hours of the 64th Congress, all of these bills [arrived], including finally the Armed Ship Bill, which reached Congress 63 hours before its recess and claimed sweeping discretionary power involving warlike acts."
     This small band of Senators organized a filibuster that defeated the passage of the Armed Ship Bill in early March 1917. The President, who rarely took opposition well, branded the Senators as a "little group of willful men" who, "representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible." If Wilson was wrong in assessing motive and wisdom, he was right in that they were certainly in the minority. Both parties had now become war parties. Henry Cabot Lodge and other prominent Republicans demanded an immediate declaration.
     From London, Ambassador Page informed Wilson that British gold reserves were nearly exhausted: "Perhaps our going to war is the only way in which our present preeminent trade position can be maintained and a panic averted."
     In the last days of March, Wilson weighed his options. His closest advisors had long since advised war. Wilson spoke with Colonel House on March 27 and asked if House thought he should address Congress and ask for a declaration or simply declare a state of war and request "the means to conduct the conflict." House, of course, advised the non-Constitutional route. On March 29, Wilson put the whole proposition of war to the Cabinet, which unanimously supported intervention. Some of the cabinet officers hoped to limit intervention to naval and supply assistance, and some even to financial aid. Wilson departed the meeting thoughtfully, telling his Cabinet officials "I think that there is no doubt as to what your advice is. Thank you."
     In the following days, Wilson made his decision and called a joint special session of Congress for April 2. The New Jersey governor had originally been chosen by House and others in part because he was a fine orator. In the biggest speech of his life, , he pulled out the stops.
     America, Wilson said, had been forced to war by the German submarine campaign on civilian ships, whether armed or not. During the course of this, Germans had killed Americans. He did not mention that these American ships were sailing through a designated war zone, or that many of them were carrying supplies and armament for the Entente powers.
     Wilson outlined a series of war measures to be taken immediately, including the introduction of conscription to enlarge the army to 500,000, at the same time increasing loans and subsidies to the Allies while reorganizing society for war. And he added,

"While we do these things, these deeply momentous things, let us be very clear, and make very clear to all the world what our motives and our objects are.... We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states."

In the end, he said, the United States was forced to fight:

"The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them."

     No doubt by the time Wilson began his speech, most national representatives had already made up their minds. The Senate voted for the declaration on April 4. Only six voted against: La Follette, Harry Lane, George Norris, William J. Stone, Asle J. Gronna, and James K. Vardaman. Eight senators abstained. The war resolution passed in the House at three in the morning on April 6. The vote was 373 to 50.

     The United States was at war.