As hostilities broke out between several nations of Europe in 1914, almost immediately, President Wilson declared America’s intent to stay neutral and called on all Americans to remain impartial in thought as well as deed. However, Wilson and the United States found it increasing difficult to remain neutral. The series of events between 1915 and 1917 led Wilson to finally deliver his war message to Congress on April 2, 1917. German submarine warfare had resulted in the sinking of several ships and the loss of American lives. Most remarkable was the attack against the Lusitania, on May 7, 1915, when 128 Americans died. While that ship flew the American flag of neutrality, it also carried several thousand cases of ammunition and shrapnel headed to Britain. After stern warnings from Wilson, the Germans pledged to abide by traditional rules of search and seizure. Increasingly, however, America was drawn to the side of the British. In addition to the historic cultural ties to both Britain and France, munitions shipments to those countries from the United States had increased from around $6 million in 1914 to almost $500 million in 1917. American bankers had loaned the Allies over $2 billion.

On the heels of the German announcement to renew unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, 1917, the British, on February 24, revealed the Zimmerman Telegram. When Wilson released the message to the press on March 1, Americans were shocked and angered. With the support of his entire cabinet, Wilson, who had been reelected in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” reluctantly concluded that war was inevitable. In his speech before a special session of Congress, Wilson, as usual, took the moral high ground and declared that not only had America’s rights as a neutral been violated but that “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Americans must fight “for the rights and liberties of small nations” and to “bring peace and safety to make the world itself at last free.”