World War I was one of the bloodiest military conflicts in contemporary history, second only to World War II. Over 16 million people died in that first war, soldiers and civilians alike. World War I was a great tragedy that changed the world forever and paved the way to an even greater one only decades later. This paper will analyze the underlying causes that led to World War I, and it will also assess how America contributed to the war effort and what influence it had on the Treaty of Versailles.
Reasons for the First World War
The First World War began due to a series of chain reactions sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria during his visit to Sarajevo. Six members of the Black Hand, a secret nationalist organization that operated in Serbia, carried out the assassination. This event happened at the worst possible time, when tensions between nations were high, and a single spark could cause an explosion. Franz Ferdinand was not a very popular man, disliked equally by the people, politicians, and government officials of Austria-Hungary. His death, however, was treated as a casus belli, or a reason for war.
In those days, peace in Europe relied entirely on a system of defensive and offensive alliances between different countries, which was exactly why the incident in Serbia grew out of proportion so quickly. Austria-Hungary sent an ultimatum to Serbia, which consisted of nothing but exorbitant demands. When Serbia rejected it, Austria-Hungary declared war. Serbia was allied with the Russian Empire, which stood up to protect its ally. Germany, bound by obligations to Austria-Hungary, then declared war on Russia. Because France was allied with Russia, it had to declare war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. Eventually, the entire European continent was caught in the fires of war (The Causes of World War One, 2009).
There were also significant underlying political and economic issues that had been left unresolved for a long time and that contributed to the escalation of the conflict. France and Germany had been disputing over Alsace and Lorraine, territories which had previously belonged to France but were now occupied by Germany. Meanwhile, Russia and Austria-Hungary were disputing over the Balkans, and Britain was rivaling Germany both in naval military might and in economic prowess. Unable to resolve their issues through diplomacy, the only possible solution left was war (Causes of the First World War, 2016).
State-sponsored propaganda of nationalism, militarism, and imperialism were used to prepare the hearts and minds of the people for the great conflict. Germany’s weltpolitik, or world policy, was aimed to preserve its hegemony over other nations and states. In France, nationalistic ideals were embraced largely due to the German occupation of Alsace and Lorraine. Britain was driven by motives similar to Germany: expanding its sphere of influence and preserving its empire. In Russia and the Balkans, the concept of Pan-Slavism was popular. It was a political ideology that put forth the idea of the unity of the Slavic peoples. Since Russia was the strongest of all Slavic nations, it had extended a protectorate over them. This claim, however, clashed with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which also had interests in the Balkans. When the conflict began, all of these nations picked up arms, each convinced that its own cause was just and right (National Rivalries, 2007).
The USA in the First World War
When the Great War started, the United States initially wanted to remain on the sidelines. It was not bound to any European state through an alliance, and the troubles of a continent on the other side of the world did not concern the American people. President Woodrow Wilson did not want to sacrifice his people to a war that was not theirs to fight, so he declared neutrality. He urged the American people not to fall for provocations and to stay impartial throughout the conflict. However, there were other reasons for such neutrality. The United States wanted to preserve its economic ties to Europe because losing them would threaten the country’s economic development.
Both the Triple Entente—the Russian Empire, France, and the United Kingdom—and the Triple Alliance—Germany, Austria-Hungry, and Italy—wanted the United States to support them militarily and economically. There were many immigrants of German ancestry in the United States, and Germany focused its efforts on making them sympathize with their cause. The British, however, did the same and were much more successful due to the many ties between the two countries, such as language. The American populace was divided and chose sides. Britain sought to thwart American trade with Germany. To do so, they stopped American ships in neutral waters, confiscating the cargo as contraband. President Wilson protested this but did nothing to stop it. As a result, there was a large drop in trade between Germany and the United States, to which Germany responded by using submarines to attack the supply lines between the British Empire and the United States. This attack continued for two years. Between 1915 and 1917, many American ships were either attacked or sunk by German submarines. On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and its allies (US Entry into WWI, 2012).
While the American contingent was not as massive or battle-hardened as their British and French allies, what the Americans brought to the table was morale. The United States managed to build a decent and battle-worthy army from scratch. They had the will and the industrial might to carry out the offensive, and they contributed greatly to the Meuse-Argonne operation. In fact, American participation in the conflict was the last push that forced Germany to surrender.
The Treaty of Versailles
The Treaty of Versailles ended the Great War on June 28, 1919. The document abolished the system of secret alliances and established the League of Nations in an attempt to prevent such a war from ever again happening. President Woodrow Wilson was the one who came up with the idea of establishing the League of Nations. He was shocked by the war and found it hard to believe that such events were possible in the civilized world. In the treaty, Germany was declared the sole nation guilty for the war, and the country had to pay for it in territorial concessions and massive reparations to the winners. It was not a fair agreement, and German anger and resentment grew stronger with time. The Second World War was a direct consequence of the unfair treatment of Germany in the Treaty of Versailles (The Treaty Of Versailles, 2015).
America’s Role in the World in 1920-1930
The Great War brought the collapse of all major empires, leaving a power vacuum that needed to be filled. As Europe was rebuilding, the United States underwent a period of economic growth. The war had paved the way for America to become the world’s new superpower. President Wilson, after the participation of his country in the war, became even more adamant in his goal of keeping America from getting involved in European political affairs. The United States never joined the League of Nations, despite the fact that the organization was founded on principles highlighted by President Wilson in Versailles. Due to his efforts in promoting peace, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920.
National Rivalries. (2007). Web.
The Causes of World War One. (2009). Web.