How America Entered the Great War
The policy of the United States government from the very beginning of the Great War in August 1914 was to avoid direct involvement in the fighting. Shortly after fighting broke out President Wilson addressed the following language to the country in a message to Congress:
The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men’s souls. We must be impartial in thought, as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments, as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another. (Sen. Doc. 566, 63rd Cong.)
The Wilson administration was able to successfully sustain a position of neutrality through the first thirty months of the war. This was not always easy. In August 1914, the Allied Powers had proclaimed a blockade of the Central Powers, a blockade which was not conducted according to the recognized rules of naval warfare. This particular issue, while troubling, did not lead to intervention by the United States government. The main disputes were with Germany over how it conducted a campaign against Allied maritime commerce. Because the German High Seas Fleet was unable to exit the North Sea, most of this campaign was conducted by submarines (the U-boats). In conducting this campaign German provocations such as the sinking of the liner RMS Lusitania in 1915, with the loss of over 125 American lives, and the sinking of the passenger ferry SS Sussex in 1916 led to strong notes of protest with the threat that diplomatic relations might be severed. However, in each incident the German government agreed to moderate the techniques used in attacking allied shipping, which averted an open break of relations. Wilson’s 1916 campaign for re-election also helped to moderate the tone of diplomacy with Germany.
The rupture in relations came about after the German government decided to resume the use of U-boats in an unrestricted fashion. This decision was made in January 1917, and was announced at the end of that month. In response Wilson in February broke relations with Germany and called for the arming of American ships, a proposal which Congress did not adopt due to a filibuster in the Senate. Wilson did not, however, immediately call for a declaration of war. Simultaneous to the decision concerning U-boats the German government also sought an alliance with the government of Mexico, which was aimed against the United States. The offer was communicated to Mexico via the offices of the German ambassador in Washington in the form of a cable, the famous Zimmerman Telegram. The British government, which had access to overseas German Foreign Office cable traffic, was able to decode the cable and arranged for the text to be presented to the United States government in late February. A month later Wilson decided, after consulting with his cabinet, to request a meeting of Congress on April 2, 1917, to consider a declaration of war. At the time that he addressed Congress Wilson sought only a declaration of war against Germany and not any of the other Central Powers. The Senate approved the declaration by a vote of 82 to 6 on April 4; approval by the House of Representatives occurred on April 6 by a vote of 373 to 50. In December 1917, Wilson requested, and Congress approved, a declaration of war against Austria-Hungary. The resolution declaring war against Austria-Hungary was adopted unanimously by the Senate, and was approved by the House of Representatives by a vote of 350 to 1.
The documents in this collection present
President Wilson’s address to a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917, requesting a declaration of war against Germany;
his address to a joint session of Congress on December 4, 1917, requesting a declaration of war against Austria-Hungary;
the joint resolution of April 6, 1917, declaring a state of war exists with Germany;
the joint resolution of December 7, 1917, declaring a state of war exists with Austria-Hungary; and
two representative state statutes enacted during the war that placed certain limits on foreigners, among other things.
The addresses were published as Senate and House of Representatives documents. The joint resolutions are published in volume 40 of United States Statutes at Large.
U.S. Address of the President to Congress, April 2, 1917
Address to Congress to Request Declaration of War Against Germany, Apr. 2, 1917
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany.
U.S. Joint Resolution Declaring War Against Germany
Joint Resolution Declaring War Against Germany, Apr. 4, 1917
On April 4, 1917, the Senate passed a joint resolution declaring war against Germany. The House of Representatives passed the joint resolution two days later on April 6, and President Wilson signed it later that day.
U.S. Address of the President to Congress, December 4, 1917
State of the Union Address Requesting Declaration of War Against Austria-Hungary, Dec. 4, 1917
In his December 4, 1917, State of the Union Address, President Wilson requested a declaration of war against Austria-Hungary.
U.S. Declaration Against Austro-Hungarian Empire
Joint Resolution Declaring War Against Austria-Hungary, Dec. 7, 1917
The House of Representatives passed a joint resolution declaring war against Austria-Hungary on December 7, 1917. The Senate passed the joint resolution the same day, and the President signed it that day.
Connecticut Law on Offenses Against the Sovereignty of the State
This Connecticut statute specified offenses against the sovereignty of the state. The statute defined and prescribed penalties for treason, an attempt to kill a president or ambassador, misprision of treason, and assisting or corresponding with enemies. In reaction to the war, in 1917 the state added section 61816, requiring the registration of enemy aliens in the time of war and placed an affirmative duty on some residents to report the movements of enemy aliens within the state.
Offenses against the Sovereignty of the State, tit. LVI., ch. 326, General Statutes of Connecticut (1918).
Full Text PDF, 790KB
Minnesota Law on Crimes Against the Sovereignty of the State
This Minnesota statute specified crimes against the sovereignty of the state. The statute defined and prescribed penalties for interfering with enlistment, and for teaching or advocating against aiding the war effort. The statute also prohibited citizens or subjects of nations at war with the United States from having firearms, explosives, or the ingredients for manufacturing explosives.
Crimes against the Sovereignty of the State, ch. 95, General Statutes of Minnesota Supplement 1917 (1918).
Full Text-PDF, 790KB
Last Updated: 02/27/2017