I Want YOU

Woodrow Wilson’s ambition was not merely the United States win the Great War, but to win the role to make the peace after the war. To do this America would have to mobilize as it had never done before. It would have to build a citizen army the size of the other allies.

Universal male conscription was part of life in Europe, even in democracies such as France. Men were expected to serve as citizen soldiers part-time from age eighteen through their early forties. Over there, submitting to the draft was a part of upstanding citizenship. Wilson at first believed that volunteers would provide the men needed to fill out the Army. But no stampede to the recruiting station took place after April 6th. 73,000 men had volunteered for the U.S. Armed Forces in the six weeks following the declaration of war with Germany.

Decision to Draft

Wilson needed a national plan to build an army to fight in Europe. To do this he turned to the War Department, which crafted a plan for a draft. There had been a draft in the latter half of the Civil War in both the Union and Confederate States. It was unpopular then, being seen as unfair and easily gamed. Military service in the healthy economy of 1917 was not much more popular.

Uncle Sam - I Want You

Uncle Sam – I Want You Recruitment Poster

The plan was ambitious and far-reaching, as was the Army captain at the War Department who wrote it. It called for all able bodied men between the age of 21 and 30 to register for the draft. Registrations would be taken by local draft boards that approximated voting districts, over four thousand of them. This draft was harder to game, it included legal residents as well as citizens of the United States. You could not buy your way out of the draft.

Congress debates

The plan went to Congress. While it was clear that the war required a huge army and needed it fast, drafting it was gong to be complicated. That was because America had become complicated. A large part, about fourteen percent, of the U.S. population in 1917 was born elsewhere. Many more native-born Americans were born to immigrants. Many of them were from Germany or nations within the Austrian or Ottoman empires, now at war with the United States.

While America was rapidly becoming the world’s leading industrial nation, it depended upon agriculture as well. American workers were organizing and finding new power in the labor movement. There was a Socialist member of Congress. Many labor unionists felt the war pitted worker against worker, and nationality mattered little when it was the same economic class getting shot on both sides of no man’s land.

Forging an Army

Congress had to consider all of these factors and more as they debated the Selective Service Act of 1917. Shall it send factory workers or farmers? Foreign or native born? Must you agree with the war to fight in it? From where in the United States will this Army come? Ultimately, to what America will it return? (A summary of the act and its impact is here)

Congress initially passed the Selective Service Act one hundred years ago, on April 28, 1917. Its goal was to draft one million men, although the reality of the war showed that even an army that size was not sufficient. Creating a new army would go on to effect every part of America, bringing a shared experience to a wide band of its diverse but militarily untested manhood, the Americans.

All men between the ages of 21 and 30 were called to register for the draft on June 5th, 1917.


There’s a War to be Won

April 1917 found the United States ill prepared for war. For the first two years of the war in Europe, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson resisted enlarging the armed forces as he tried to mediate between the belligerents. In 1914 the U.S. Army numbered just 98,000; much of it in overseas commitments such as the Philippines.

By the time of the Mexican Border crisis, Wilson was ready for a modest increase in the size of the Army. The National Defense Act of 1916 brought the Regular Army to 127,000 strong and the National Guard to 181,000 (on paper, at least) by April 1917. But this still made the U.S. Army fourteenth in the world in size. Twelve of the thirteen larger armies were already mired in the war; four of them as adversaries of the United States.

Pre-World War I U.S. Army Recruitment Poster
Pre-World War I U.S. Army Recruitment Poster

American military policy through the end of 1916 was dedicated to protecting its borders and coastlines, plus its interests in the Caribbean basin and the Pacific. By 1917 there were 12,000 soldiers stationed in Hawaii and about 5,000 U.S. military personnel defending the Canal Zone. Under President Wilson, U.S. military forces briefly occupied Nicaragua (1914), Haiti (1915) and the Dominican Republic (1916). He also occupied Mexico’s largest port, Veracruz, in 1914.

U.S. Marines were also sent to Cuba in 1917. By the end of the year there were two thousand Marines operating outside of the base at Guantanamo.

America’s largest overseas commitment was the Philippines. The U.S. Army drew a successful counterinsurgency campaign to completion there by 1914. By 1917, there were 14,400 American troops in the Philippines. In fact U.S. forces would remain there for three more decades.

Men Wanted for the United States Army – Poster from 1914

Situation on the ground

The Army was not prepared to fight in Europe. In April 1917 it had 127,588 men. The National Guard had mobilized 80,446 men. Machine guns were a rarity in the Army of 1917, the inventory being about 1,500 of them.  The British had introduced tanks to the world in September 1916 but by the following April, the U.S. Army hadn’t yet studied them. Although American chemist James Bert Garner had invented the gas mask in 1915, the U.S. had no poison gas capability or gas masks in early 1917.

At Sea

The United States Navy was in a similar situation. It had warships, but they were undermanned. Because of the lack of men and ammunition, the Navy did not practice gunnery very much in peacetime. However when war came to the Atlantic, the Naval Act of 1916 enlarged the Navy through an ambitious program adding ten battleships, sixteen cruisers and dozens of destroyers and submarines. But in a war against German submarines, destroyers and patrol craft were needed most.

Navy recruiting poster

And in the Air

The first landing and the first takeoff on a ship of a powered aircraft were both on U.S. Navy ships. Yet the Navy only had 54 airplanes. The Army Aviation Section had 224 airplanes, but few of them were fit for combat. By mid-1916 the Aviation Section (later called the Army Air Service) was enlarged and plans were made to develop new aircraft and the pilots to fly them. (More on U.S. preparedness here.)

US Army Air Service Recruitment Poster - Join the Air Service Learn-Earn
US Army Air Service Recruitment Poster

On the Border of War

When the United States went to war with Germany in April 1917, conflict was already part of life along its border with Mexico. The Mexican Revolution reached a high point late in 1915, when the Wilson Administration recognized Venustiano Carranza as president. But Carranza’s former compañero, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, was having none of it.

Francisco (Pancho) Villa reward poster
Francisco (Pancho) Villa reward poster

The Border War

Villa, who sometimes went over the U.S. border to buy weapons and evade rival Mexican troops, nursed a grudge. The U.S. helped his rival Carranza and now he sought revenge. On January 11, 1916, Villa stopped a train in Northern Mexico, removed sixteen American mining engineers from the coaches, and shot them. He had already shot at Americans in border clashes, but on March 6, his men attacked the U.S. Cavalry barracks and the town of Columbus, New Mexico. 6,600 U.S. Army soldiers went into pursuit from San Antonio the next week. Their leader was Brigadier General John J. Pershing.

General Pershing crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico, 15 March 1916
General Pershing crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico, 15 March 1916

It was the beginning of a 400-mile incursion into neighboring Mexico. It lasted eleven months and grew to fourteen thousand U.S. troops. After many battles with the Villistas and even attacks from President Carranza’s men, Pershing was recalled. The mission was risking war with Mexico. They never caught up to Villa. The U.S. expedition returned to Texas on February 5, 1917. (Wilson and his Secretary of State on the crisis can be read here.)

Mobilizing the Guard

While the regular U.S. Army was off fighting in Mexico the National Guard, a new creation, was holding the fort in the Southwest. Guard units from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and as far off as Massachusetts were mobilized and sent to protect the border. A total of 140,000 Guardsmen from fourteen states mobilized for the emergency, although none fought in Mexico.

Photo of the 2nd New York Infantry Regiment preparing to depart for the Mexican border.
Photo of the 2nd New York Infantry Regiment preparing to depart for the Mexican border.

The border war showed how badly stretched the regular U.S. Army was in 1916-1917. But it also revealed a new ability in its National Guard. While protecting the border, Guard units were brought into conformity with national training and discipline standards. They became familiar with new equipment and tactics. Officers were required to coordinate with other units in complex arrangements. Commanders learned to lead larger forces. In the days to come, time spent in the Southwest would mean something.

For the border states themselves, the emergency was no quasi-war. Dozens of border incursions and battles occurred between 1915 and 1917. Civilians were killed. The entire Texas National Guard had been serving on the border from May 1916 until March 1917 when it was finally ordered off the line. During the emergency it was not completely out of the question that events would result in a wider war. Texas newspapers speculated what help President Carranza was getting from Germans in Mexico City. Some published rumors of German advisers in Villa’s army. (An excellent summary of the Border Crisis is here.)

Deployment and Redeployment

Just a week after the Texas and Oklahoma National Guard units returned from their long deployment, they deployed again. The crisis with Germany ran into the present one with Mexico. Texas and Oklahoma guardsmen headed back to the border. This time they wouldn’t be back until October. By then the whole world had changed.

In 1914 people in the Southwest may have felt that the war in Europe was too far away to be a concern. In April 1917, they wondered if this was to be the new front line.

Meanwhile, on April 10th, eighteen tons of black powder exploded in an ammunition factory in Pennsylvania. As had happened before, the initial explosion touched off dozens of secondary ones, hindering rescue efforts. Most of the workers at the Eddystone Artillery Factory were women and girls. Hundreds were injured and burned. 139 were killed.

The war was only four days old.


New York Times April 12, 1917 Eddystone, Pennsylvania Munition factory explosion
New York Times April 12, 1917

The Sum of Their Fears

The 65th Congress hit the ground running. It had gone into session early; one day after Inauguration Day, March 4th (January inaugurations did not take place until 1937). President Wilson had already spoken to the Congress twice in March 1917 to ask it to arm U.S. Merchant vessels against German submarines. Such action had become necessary after Germany announced on January 31 it would once again target neutral ships approaching the British Isles or France.

Germany Reaches Out to Mexico

The Congress already had a full plate. On February 28th, American newspapers printed the Zimmermann telegram. (You can read it here.) The telegram had been sent in code from Berlin on January 19th. Its author, Arthur Zimmermann, was the German Foreign Minister. In it he instructed his ambassador in Mexico City to encourage Mexico to attack the Southwestern United States. This was only to be, Zimmermann continued, in the event of America’s declaration of war against Germany. Germany would repay the favor by financing Mexico’s war of reconquest and sending arms.

New York Times Zimmermann coverage

The interception, decoding and publication of the telegram is a spy story only Ian Fleming could write if it hadn’t really happened. Consequently it created a firestorm in America. Relations with Mexico could not have been worse in 1917. A sizeable U.S. force had just returned from an eleven-month long incursion that took it 400 miles into Mexico seeking to capture revolutionary and bandit Pancho Villa. Villa and his men had raided border towns in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona; the most famous attack being on Columbus, N.M. on March 6th 1916.

1917 Zimmermann telegram cartoon
Zimmermann Telegram Cartoon

The U.S. expedition, led by then Brigadier General John J. Pershing, failed to apprehend Villa. As a result, the entire Southwest was on edge. National Guard units were posted there to meet the threat; and the U.S.-Mexico border was becoming militarized.

Suspected Sabotage

The rest of the country, though officially at peace, did not escape violence. On July 30th, 1916 the Black Tom munitions depot in Jersey City exploded, damaging the nearby Statue of Liberty and shattering windows in Times Square in Manhattan. Although it was not immediately clear who detonated 100,000 pounds of TNT at Black Tom, the explosion was  deliberate. Because of this Americans feared foreign spies, but were already looking to their immigrant neighbors with suspicion.

The hidden hand of sabotage apparently struck again on January 11, 1917 when a munitions factory in present-day Lyndhurst, New Jersey exploded. By the time President Woodrow Wilson asked a special joint session of Congress for a declaration of war against the German empire on April 2, many Americans felt as if the war had already come to them.

Damage to Lyndhurst munitions factory
Damage to Lyndhurst munitions factory

What was in 1914 an overwhelmingly neutral American public had in thirty months changed to decidedly pro-war. Fears of hostile saboteurs, a potentially disloyal immigrant population from Middle Europe, and the loss of Americans aboard the Lusitania had changed public opinion. The revelation of the Zimmermann telegram changed things materially.  The possibility of Imperial German bases on the Gulf shore of Mexico and Imperial Japanese bases on the Pacific shore, however remote, had made this far-off war a near thing indeed.

War Declared

The U.S. Senate voted for war on April 4th, with 82 votes in favor. The House followed in the early hours on April 6th, with 350 members voting for war against Germany. The threat, and even the reality, of hostilities with powers orchestrated by Germany had moved the United States into war. But on the other hand, some Americans responded to President Wilson’s appeal to a “peace without victory” or more accurately a victory of law, human rights and democracy over aggression, tyranny and empire. It was a significant and fateful moment in the American experiment. (More from journalist David Smith in today’s edition of The Guardian here)

U.S. WWI declaration from the Chicago Daily Tribune

P.S. The telegram the United States didn’t get? The one from Mexico explaining that German telegram…

Mr. Wilson’s Speech

One Hundred years ago today President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. The war had been raging for more than thirty months across the globe making it, as it was called, the Great War. Or the World War: taking conflict into Southwest Africa then East Africa, to the Sinai Peninsula, the Gallipoli Peninsula and to the Falkland Islands. But so far there was nothing great about it except for its insatiable demand for lives.

The readjustment of Europe
The Readjustment of Europe

It was the loss of life, American lives, which brought Mr. Wilson to the Capitol to speak to Congress for the fourth time in three months. In December 1916 the German High Command debated resuming unrestricted submarine warfare against the Entente Powers. The Entente had its own very effective surface blockade of Germany, making no doubt that if the neutral world was going to trade, it was going to trade with Britain and France.

Trade with the Entente, specifically Britain, had brought the United States out of recession by 1915. American ships were plying the waves toward all ports as a neutral nation in the first years of the war. American ships bound for Germany were boarded and turned back by the Royal Navy, which brought friction between the two Atlantic powers. Germany, however, had its submarines. In February 1915, it announced it would use them around the British Isles, even on ships from neutral nations.

Submarines strike

But it was the sinking of a British ship, RMS Lusitania, and the 128 Americans who went down with it that brought America to the brink of war with Germany in May 1915. President Wilson warned Germany that it was the right of Americans, and all neutrals, to travel in commercial vessels without fear of surprise attack by submarines. He then warned Germany that the next unprovoked attack would signal hostilities. However, it was the loss of another British liner, SS Arabic, and three more American lives that August which caused the U-boats to stand down.

Sixteen months later Germany announced the resumption of submarine attacks effective February 1, 1917. Wilson already spoke in Congress of his resolve to arm American merchant vessels with US Naval gunners. Five American ships were lost in March alone. On just the day before Wilson’s speech, German submarine U-46 torpedoed another American vessel, SS Aztec, off the French coastTwenty-eight aboard the Aztec died, including one of the US Navy gunners protecting it, Boatswain’s Mate First Class John Eopolucci. BM 1CL Eopolucci was the first American serviceman to die in Europe in World War I.

Wilson Addresses Congress

A clearly exasperated President Wilson stood before a joint session in the well of the House on April 2nd. (You can read the speech here.) He laments the innocent lives lost and the degradation of law among nations. We should not be surprised that he thought submarines were an abomination; murderers unwilling to show themselves even as they strike. “The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind.”

Wilson addresses congress April 2, 1917

Wilson, before and after the speech, was an idealist. He wants supranational instruments and assemblies to preserve a law-abiding, democratic world. But on April 2 he comes to the conclusion that the world is on fire; and the fire is imperial German aggression. It must be put out. The United States must go to war to put it out.

In asking for war, Wilson is turning his back on a key American principle of not entering European conflicts and alliances. This notion was as old as the republic itself, part of its DNA. (More on that by journalist David M. Shribman here.)

Above all, Wilson is arguing for a new role for America in a new century. Recently the United States had surpassed Great Britain as an industrial power. A transcontinental power, it was building a two-ocean navy with the goal of becoming a Pacific power. Was the United States ready to step up to becoming a world power?

It was up to Congress.

Interestingly, Wilson addressed the room as “Gentlemen”, overlooking Rep. Jeannette Rankin who that year had become the first woman member of Congress. Wilson should have been more inclusive in his remarks. The Republican from Montana voted against the war.