World War I Timeline


6/28/1914                                Archduke Franz Ferdinand assassinated 

8/14                                         war starts; immigration to US 1M; 1915 less than 200k; 1918=31k. Sec. of State William Jennings Bryan bans all loans to belligerents--a problem since US annual exports to Europe at war's start are $900M. At war's start, Wilson remarks, "we have to be neutral, since otherwise our mixed populations would wage war on each other." He even writes a message, to be displayed in movie theaters, asking audiences not to express approval or disapproval of war scenes on the screen "in the interest of neutrality." Incidentally, the leaders of England, Russia, and Germany were related, though that was not enough to stop the war.

Britain blockades N Europe, though doing its best not to antagonize US; US acquiesces (arguing with Britain "would be a waste of time," he tells Bryan). Some historians argue that Wilson, a trained political scientist, looked back at fellow Princeton grad James Madison's experience in the War of 1812 and decided not to repeat it. US does, however, play an enormous humanitarian role as a neutral: Herbert Hoover's (the "Napoleon of Mercy") Commission for Belgian Relief has its own flag and cuts deals with belligerents to better fulfill its mission; spends nearly $1B and feeds 9M people/day.

10/14                                       Wilson repeals Bryan's ban, allowing Allies to borrow money on credit rather than use "the clumsy and impractical method of cash payments." US bankers loan $80M in credits to Allies in next 6 months.

2/15                                         Germany announces U-boat campaign around British Isles; Wilson says he will hold Germans to "strict accountability" for any damage to US citizens

5/15                                         U-boats sink Lusitania (killing 1200, including 94 children, among them 35 babies; 128 US citizens) off the coast of Ireland and Arabic (in August), which kills 2 Americans. After Lusitania (which is in fact carrying munitions), TR calls it an act of "piracy" and demands that the US go to war. Wilson reasserts Americans' right to travel, condemns the act as against "sacred principles of justice and humanity," and warns that further sinkings will be regarded as "deliberately unfriendly." Bryan resigns in June when Wilson refuses to condemn the British blockade as well. After Arabic sinking, Wilson gets Germans to promise no attacks without warning on passenger vessels.

2/16                                         Germany announces unrestricted submarine warfare against any armed ship; sinks Sussex in March, injuring 4 Americans; in April, Wilson sends ultimatum to Germany that threatens to break relations unless it calls off the campaign, which is generally regarded as a preliminary to war; “Great Migration” of African-Americans northward begins (c.500K total between 1910-20); about 185K Mexican citizens officially enter US, 1910-20

5/16                                         Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg agrees to Wilson’s demands. London blacklists 80 companies trading with Central Powers (Wilson, privately: London’s act is “altogether indefensible” and "the last straw"); British violently suppress Easter Rising in Ireland. US bankers loan England c. $10M/day and sell $83M goods/week. 

11/16                                       Wilson narrowly re-elected on platform of avoiding entanglement in the war, though June's National Defense Act boosts Army to over 220,000 over five years and National Guard to 450,000; Naval Expansion Act sets building of 4 battleships and 8 cruisers in first year of 3-year plan; US is selling $3B of goods to England and France/year, $1M to Austria-Hungary and Germany; British purchasing agent, Morgan Bank, spends about $3B on British govt’s behalf during war, making itself $30M in profit. Du Pont chemical company of Delaware makes $1.25B during war. Profits and manufacturing mostly centered in N and E, not S and W, which are traditionally isolationist already.

12/16                                       Wilson tries to get both sides to clarify their aims and to let the US negotiate a settlement. He remarks in October that the country could no longer refuse "the great part in the world which was providentially cut out for her." New British PM David Lloyd George, who vows to fight until there's a "knock-out," responds with demands the Central Powers cannot accept, such as destruction of Ottoman Empire; Germans say they will present their war aims only at a general conference to which Wilson is not invited.

1/22/17                                   Wilson speech to Senate calls for “peace without victory” and creation of “community of power” to prevent another war: no nation should impose its authority on another, freedom of the seas, limited armaments, self-determination. "The principles of President Monroe" will become "the doctrine of the world."

US GNP is 20% above that of 1914 (Bourne: “war is the health of the state”; see below), manufacturing output up 40%, mining up 30%. When British cannot pay for purchases (see 11/16), major US firms start to loan them money: US loans $2.5B to French and English, 1915-17, less than $250M to Central Powers. Morgan bankers write to arms manufacturers threatening no more orders unless they underwrite the loans. (A big deal: US Ordnance Corps. orders alone [such as 32 million pairs of shoes] go from $10M annually to $4B annually over the course of the war.) At end of war, European allied powers owe the US $12B ($5B from England, $4B from France). Britain is owed $11B from countries it had loaned to, including $3B to France and $2.5B to Russia. England eventually pays back at 80 cents on the dollar, France at 40, Italy at 24. US gold reserves go from $2B to $4B. Germany paid off its debt in 2010; England is still paying off its debt from WWI.

 2/1/17                                     Germany restarts unlimited U-boat campaign, reasoning that their fleet of 100 U-boats can win the war before US intervention can have an effect; Wilson breaks off relations, privately calling Germany “a madman that should be curbed,” but refuses to declare war in the hope that he can do more to bring about peace as a mediator than as a belligerent.

 2/25/17                                   British leak Wilson the decoded Zimmermann telegram, which attempts to induce Mexico to join war on German side, in exchange for all territory lost in Mexican War; makes it public 2/27 to prevent isolationist filibuster

 3/17                                        Germans sink 5 American ships Mar. 12-21 alone, 600,000 tons of Allied shipping in the month; democratic revolution vs. Czar in Russia

 4/2/17                                     Wilson convenes Congress, calls for declaration of war (House votes 373-50, Senate 82-6; most of 56 “No” votes are Progressive Republican Midwesterners); forms CPI one week later to propagandize for war; also authorizes War Industries Board to regulate industry, War Labor Board to regulate labor, Food Administration to organize feeding of army, urge food rationing at home. Wilson agrees to guarantee loans to British and French.

“War is the health of the state,” wrote radical intellectual Randolph Bourne in 1918.  “It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense.  The machinery of government sets and enforces the drastic penalties, the minorities are either intimidated into silence, or brought slowly around by a subtle process of persuasion which may seem to them really to be converting them....In general, the nation in war-time attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not possibly be produced through any other agency than war.”  

5/17                                         Congress passes Selective Service Act, calling for all men 21-30 to register for draft; baseball promotes enlistment

6/17                                         first American soldiers (“doughboys”) reach France; Congress passes Espionage Act allowing for suppression of antiwar speech (upheld by Schenck v US [1919]); Socialist Party is first to feel its brunt; one man sentenced to three years in prison for claiming war is for J.P. Morgan, not for American people. It remains in effect today; Chelsea Manning, who provided the documents to Wikileaks, was prosecuted under its provisions.

7/17                                        race riots in East St. Louis are first sign of resulting tension from Great Migration

10/17                                       Communist Revolution unseats previous democratic revolution in Russia; Russia pulls out of war in early 1918

1/8/18                                      Wilson first outlines 14 Points to Congress; unemployment rate is 2.4%, down from 15% in 1915; average annual employee earnings up 26% from 1917

3/18                                         last great gasp of German resistance: drive Allied armies to within 50 miles of Paris

5/18                                         Sedition Act criminalizes disloyalty of any sort (upheld by Abrams v US [1919]). (It bans, among other things, "willfully mak[ing] or convey[ing] false reports...with intent to interfere with the operation...of the military or naval forces of the United States...or say[ing] or do[ing] an investor...with intent to obstruct the sale by the United States of bonds or other securities...or willfully obstruct[ing] or attempt[ing] to obstruct the recruiting or enlistment services of the United States...or willfully utter[ing], print[ing], writ[ing], or publish[ing] any language intended to incite, provoke, or encourage resistance to the United States.")

Eugene Debs: "If that law is not the fundamental negation of every principle established by the Constitution, then certainly I am unable to read or to understand the English language." Despite this entirely accurate observation, Debs is arrested and permanently deprived of the vote under the Sedition Act for advocating resistance to the draft, runs for President from jail in Atlanta in 1920 (receiving 913,000 votes), and is not pardoned until 1921.

9/18                                         Allied counterattack pushes Germany back, leading to final breakdown of German forces

11/11/18                                  Germany signs armistice

12/18-2/19                               Wilson in Europe


1/19                                         Seattle general strike

4/19                                         anarchist bombings of major political figures, including Attorney General, Secretary of Labor, several anti-labor senators; front of A. Mitchell Palmer’s house blown in

3-7/19                                      Wilson back in Europe

9/19                                         Boston police strike; steel strike

11/19                                       League of Nations voted down, both with and without reservations


Wilson’s argument for it: we need a L of N to keep peace; we cannot retreat from the world, so we must protect freedom of people and of trade, or help to protect it, by joining a global organization. This may require putting troops in, say, Siberia, to protect people everywhere. “Make the world safe for democracy.”

Lodge: we will not contribute any money to the League, and if we will, it will limit our freedom; we would then be bound by international treaties and limitations. It is our right to decide what we want to do. We do not want the Monroe Doctrine to be limited by this; we should have freedom of action to do what we want in the Caribbean.

Johnson: a Progressive from California.  League will hold us accountable for European aristocratic problems and should not bind us to bad old ways. We should be free to act in free American ways that are not limited by rules and laws like this. We want to be free to be democratic and independent.

McCormick: we may have to depend other countries, whose values we don’t share; we will be lackeys of the British empire; it may open up immigration for people we don’t like, particularly Asians. It will make us part of a “superstate” and tie American hands and destroy our independence and moral superiority and freedom of action.


3/20                                         Senate rejects League again

9/20                                         Wagon-bombing of JP Morgan kills 46