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April 1917: the end of American neutrality in WWI

Despite President Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to remain neutral, the United States declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917. Initially, the American public largely supported neutrality. But by 1917, many Americans strongly supported the war, believing that it was the responsibility of the United States to protect the right to freedom and democracy around the world.

In this excerpt from The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America, historian Michael S. Neiberg captures the American public’s opinion on WWI through the lens of writer Mary Roberts Rinehart. Often referred to as the “American Agatha Christie,” Rinehart was well-known for her mystery novels and regular contributions to The Saturday Evening Post. Using the magazine as a platform, Rinehart shared why she—as a mother and an American—supported America’s entry into WWI.

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s journey since 1914 perhaps best represents the mood and the moment of April 1917. She had been one of the first Americans to urge a more assertive posture toward the war. Two years earlier, Rinehart had written that although she supported the United States taking a more active pro-Allied stance in the wake of the Lusitania tragedy, she was glad that her sons were then too young to fight if it came to war. She had hoped then that the war would end before she had to face the prospect of a son going off to fight the war that she had advocated.

Now, in 1917, her older son was old enough to fight, and Rinehart took to the pages of the Saturday Evening Post to explain not just her support for a war that nevertheless terrified her, but why she would not want her son to try to evade the military service that might kill him. “If in this war we allow the few to fight for us, then as a nation we have died and our ideals have died with us,” she wrote. “Though we win, if we all have not borne this burden alike, then do we all lose.”

Although her article was ostensibly about the roles of citizens and motherhood in time of war, it highlighted many of the themes that had been running through American thoughts on the war since 1914. Writing in late March 1917 she told her readers, “We are virtually at war. By the time this is published perhaps the declaration will have been made.” America, she believed, was “the last stand of the humanities on earth, the realization of a dream and the fulfillment of an ideal.”

Mary Roberts Rinehart circa 1914 by Theodore C. Marceau. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Britain and France both shared parts of that ideal and had had a foundational role in creating it. Since 1914, they had been fighting for “the ideal on which my country was founded.” Under the domination of the Prussians, imperial Germany now threatened those values, not only in Europe but in America itself, for it “had broken loose something terrible, something that must be killed or the world dies.”

America should have awakened to these realities in 1915, but it did not. Now it had to face them under far more adverse conditions, having lost two precious years to get ready. Since the sinking of the Lusitania, the American people, she noted, had gone to church on Sundays and given thanks to God that “we were out of it” when they should have been listening to the warnings of those saying that the United States had to get ready for the looming crisis on the horizon. Instead, Congress had “refused to listen to talk of preparation” and the American people had refused to force them to do so. As a result, millions of young men, including her own son, would now go into history’s most devastating war without the training and equipment that they needed.

Rinehart concluded with two more observations based in America’s experiences since 1914. In the first she reiterated her belief from her tour of the Western Front that the United States must make war on the German government, not the German people. “There is no great hatred of the enemy, however much we abominate the things the German government has driven an acquiescent people into doing.” The United States should therefore not fight to destroy Germany, but to liberate it from the brutality of a regime that threatened to destroy civilization itself. Second, she wrote that she had no worries at all about the loyalties of the Germans living inside the United States. German-Americans “are not Huns or Vandals. The German we know has come here to escape the very thing that has wrecked the Old World…In coming to this Land of the Free he has followed an ideal as steadily as back in the Fatherland his kindred are following the false gods of Hate and War.” The war itself, however, would put such views to the test.

No one put the American experience of 1914–17 into sharper focus than Rinehart had, perhaps not even President Wilson in his eloquent declaration of war speech on April 2. As millions of Rinehart’s fellow Americans understood, the United States had drifted to “the verge of war, in an uncertain attitude” that was neither enthusiasm nor resignation. It was rather the acknowledgment that they no longer had a better choice and that by failing for so long to confront reality they had put themselves in an even more dangerous position. Noble impulses like charity, neutrality, and mediation had all run their course and war stood as the only option remaining. What Samuel Price called “the beastly passions for blood” would now put an end to the indescribable interval of uncertainty. The nation, and the world, would never be the same.

Featured image credit:”The American Army in France during the First World War” released by the Imperial War Museum. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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