Monday, 18 August 2014

The United States entered World War I because of the sinking of the Lusitania right? WRONG

 "Nothing Less Than War" (Justus D Doenecke, The University Press of Kentucky 2011) is "a new history of America's Entry Into World War I".

It is a magnificent book, one which I read with interest and pleasure, and through which I learned so much.

Before I say more, here is my disclaimer. Not only do I admire Justus Doenecke as a writer, lecturer and historian. but I  know him and his wife Carol. They worship at All Angels by the Sea Episcopal Church on Longboat Key - a parish at which I have often preached and presided at the Eucharist.  I respect and like them at this more personal level.

"Nothing Less Than War" is probably the most comprehensive account of all the events which led up to  the American entry into WW I.

For starters the book dispels a myth which is widely held:  America entered the war because of the sinking of the Lusitania. How often I have heard that myth, how often have I parroted it! 

But the Lusitania affair was settled between the United States and Germany long before 1917.

How America  got into that war involves a much more complicated tale which the book relates with skill.

 Justus Doenecke delves deeply into the mine of President Wilson's  idealism; British duplicity; German stupidity, Williams Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt and their rigidity; the congressional quagmire; raging arguments in the press ; polarized public opinion:  and the list goes on.

In short, Doenecke having researched a mass of primary sources, used his skills as an author and historian to meld them into a cogent, readable and (in my opinion) "standard" account of the events of 1914 to 1917.

Don't take my word for it! 

Lloyd Ambrosius - ( the author of "Wilsonianism: Woodrow Wilson and His Legacy"  writes this:  "(the book)  is a substantial contribution to historical scholarship. It offers three major contributions: first, and excellent depiction of public opinion during these years as expressed by the press and by leaders in Congress and various national organisations; second , a comprehensive review of historical scholarship, which is integrated into the narrative throughout the chapters; and third, a clear assessment  of Wilson's leadership within this framework".

In short, Lloyd Ambrosius is saying that Justus Doenecke "did good".


I am neither a historian, nor a scholar but I agree with Lloyd Ambrosius.  Justus "did good": thus my store of information (and maybe knowledge) has been broadened and deepened as a result of reading his marvelous tome.

So, "why did the United States enter the war against Germany?
It was not because of the sinking of the Lusitania!

In short,  it was because in January 1917 "the [German] ambassador to the United States conveyed a message that Germany was about to launch an unrestricted submarine campaign, thereby declaring  total maritime war against all neutrals"  ( quotation from Doenecke's  book page 250).

 ( N.B America was a  neutral country at the time of this German diplomatic message)

So the  German message was the catalyst which caused President Wilson to declare that America was at a state of War with the Central Powers (Germany and her allies).

America, the "sleeping and ambivalent giant",  was awakened to military action in 1917,  when she realised that her neutral vessels were subject to danger and death by the actions of German submarines.

You'll have to read the book to understand all the events and words which led up to that German communique and the eventual American response. It's a complicated tale, which Prof. Doenecke tells well.

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