The Yanks are Coming!
World War I was triggered when a young Serbian nationalist, hoping to avenge Austria-Hungary's seizure of his country, shot the visiting Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, to death in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
The complex causes of the war lay deeper, in the competition among the great powers of Europe for dominance in military might and colonial empires. Countries divided themselves into two armed camps, creating alliances whose members pledged to support each other in the event of war. On the one side was the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy; on the other was the Triple Entente of France, Britain, and Russia.
Since the assassinated archduke was the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, when that country responded to the assassination by declaring war on Serbia, Germany joined in. Russia, Great Britain, Belgium, and France entered the war on the side of Serbia, and Europe's fragile peace was broken.
Many Europeans, inspired by intense patriotism and years of building their military strength, welcomed what they thought would be a short, victorious war. Instead, it turned into the bloodiest war that the world had seen. Fought on a global scale, the "Great War" ultimately took the lives of 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians.
Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck: "The great European war will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans." (June 28, 1914)
A Distant War
When the world went to war in 1914, the U.S. remained neutral, even though its sympathies and the majority of its trade relationships were with the Allied powers of Britain, France, and Russia. Most Americans wanted to stay out of the European war, and President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 partly on his record of keeping the country out of war.
Within the United States, opposition to the war was particularly strong among German- and Irish-Americans (who wanted to block an American alliance with Britain) as well as many women's, Christian, and labor groups. While some Americans thought war with Germany was inevitable, most were content to watch from afar and contribute to the needs of European soldiers and refugees.
The war was good for the American economy, as the Allies borrowed billions from American banks and government, and spent much of that money in the U.S., purchasing food, raw materials, and manufactured goods they needed to fight. Connecticut industries went into high gear to produce munitions, and by the end of 1915, Bridgeport alone was supplying two-thirds of the small arms and ammunition used by the Allies.
The Last Straw
Officially neutral but sending billions of dollars of war goods to Britain and its allies, the United States moved closer to war. Germany, whose ports were blockaded by the British navy, retaliated with submarine attacks intended to stop goods from reaching Great Britain. Submarines known as U-boats engaged in a new kind of warfare, attacking ships by surprise and often abandoning the shipwrecked survivors.
In early 1917, Germany resumed U-boat attacks on vessels approaching British waters, and sank several U.S. merchant vessels, in an attempt to starve Britain into submission. Americans were also outraged when they learned that Germany was trying to form an alliance with Mexico against the United States.