Merchants of Death and American involvement in WWI 1914-1918

Ladies and Gentleman – WWI shaped the 20th century

It is 2017. In case you may or may have noticed there was and will be a series of books written about World War I. Many Historians, Political Scientists, Economists and others that specialize in the knowledge of this conflict are going to write books. Publishing companies know this especially since it has been over 100 years since the conflict began. I have finished reading Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry written by Frank Hanighen and H.C. Englebert. The Merchants of Death book is about the international armament industry of WWI and it attempts to historicize it. The label of ‘merchants of death’ was used to attack industries and bankers who backed WWI and was coined during the 1930s. The ‘merchants of death’ label was used by both left and right wing anti-war politicians during the US Senate hearings in 1936 by the Nye Committee. The Senate wanted to investigate thoroughly how much influence did these armament industries have on Wilson entering the conflict. Though the book was published in 1934, it is still a significant work of history since it is one of the earliest works of literature to demonstrate how heavily involved the munitions industry was in the conflict.

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“Merchants of Death”

 

The First World War, also called the Great War, lasted from 1914 until 1918. The powder keg that led to this conflict was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. This assassination of Ferdinand is sometimes considered to be the official end of the 19th century for many reasons. A main reason is because the conflict destroyed the old ways and has had an impact in world politics as it can be witnessed today. That topic will be a potential blog post in the future. Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist who lived in Bosnia, carried out the assassination with the terrorist organization the Black Hand. The main belligerents in the conflict were the European powers, Austria-Hungary, Russia until 1917 due to their Communist Revolution, Germany and Ottoman Empires; making the conflict a European affair. While WWI ensued, American foreign policy at the time was of neutrality, that meant no involvement in the conflict whatsoever. However, the United States federal government entered WWI because of their interest in ensuring British and French victory, German provocation through their and President Woodrow Wilson’s desire to make the world ‘safe for democracy’. American involvement in WWI is significant because of its impact in domestic politics and shaping the role of the United States as a world power and of President Wilson.

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Newspaper article reporting the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in June of 1914.
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Gavrilo Princip, member of the terrorist organization Black Hand. The young man who started WWI with shooting Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914.
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Map of the Empires before their fall during WWI

One of the reasons the American government became involved in WWI was because of their interest in ensuring British and French victory. American business owners had provided both sides of the conflict with arms and other supplies. At the time the American federal government was explicitly pro-business and would work together. There are many theories as to why America entered the conflict and one of these includes the fact the country was going through a recession. These investors in the international armament industries were known as Merchants of Death.

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Artistic depiction of the Sinking of the Lusitania

Another contributing factor to American involvement in WWI was German provocation. During World War I, the Germans’ policy in naval conflict was known as unrestricted submarine warfare. The Germans sunk many ships regardless of them being involved in the conflict in the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. On May 8 1915, the Lusitania, a British commercial ship was sunken by German submarines killing 158 Americans. This act by the Germans angered the American people. The German government promised to halt unrestricted submarine warfare and did not comply. Although the sinking of the Lusitania did not immediately cause American involvement in WWI but did cause tensions to flare against Germany.

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Zimmerman Telegram, 1917

The Zimmerman Telegram was a telegram sent to the Mexican government in 1917. The German government asked the Mexican government to form an alliance during World War I. If the Germans were to be victorious, they promised to return American territories that were lost by Mexico in the Mexican American War. The Mexican government refused since the country had experienced devastation from a war they fought earlier.

In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, who had been elected for his second term in 1916, with the campaign slogan ‘he kept us out the war’, went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Germany. Wilson cited many reasons for this which included German submarines sinking ships in the Atlantic and the need to make the world safe for democracy.

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President Woodrow Wilson

The conflict impacted domestic policies in America. Americans had been aware of the horrors that were going on in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. American involvement in the conflict was very unpopular and it inspired American dissent. In response to the protests, pamphlets and other anti-war sentiments the government responded with the Espionage Act of 1917. The act made it illegal for any American speaking against its involvement in the war can be imprisoned and/or fined. During times of war, rights of people can be taken away only if it is for the welfare of the country and rhisnis something that has repeated itself even after this conflict. This instance of the American government passing the Espionage Act demonstrates how it became a surveillance state. It is not coincidental that these developments led to the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or FBI that was headed by J. Edgar Hoover.

American involvement during World War I led to the creation of the Committee of Public Information or CPI headed by George Creel. The CPI spread vast propaganda in the mainstream media in order to make American participation in WWI feel justified to the American public. The CPI was also responsible for spreading anti-German sentiments which led to German-Americans being lynched, tarred and feathered as it was done to British tax collectors before the American Revolutionary War.

In 1918, Wilson spoke before Congress where he read his speech the Fourteen Points. The Fourteen Points was Woodrow Wilson’s vision for the world to establish peace after the conflict which will lead to the creation of the League of Nations. The League of Nations was created after WWI to ensure that the terms of the Treaty of Versailles of 1918 and other peace treaties were enforced. It was an intergovernmental organization consisting of many countries that were the victors. Wilson wanted America to become a member of the League of Nations and it needed the permission of Congress. Wilson was met with opposition to this by members of Congress particularly by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge who expressed concerne about American membership to the league. Lodge did not want America to be involved in a conflict if there was no benefit for them.  His main issue was with Article X of the League Charter. Article X asked that if any member of the league was to be threatened, attacked, or in the brink of war, other members would have to defend it. This posed as a problem for Lodge because only Congress can declare war as it is stated in the American Constitution. Lodge and other Congressmen did not want to give that power to the league. Cabot asked Wilson to amend Article X and Wilson refused. America never got to join the League of Nations and the organization crumbled after that.

In retaliation, Wilson who was considered a hero by many people, spent many months campaigning for the League of Nations to be established. Wilson went campaigning across the United States to promote the league and to remove members of Congress who opposed him until he suffered a massive stroke.

American involvement in the Great War was primarily due to economic interests of American businessmen, German government provocation and Wilson’s desire of making the world safe for democracy as he stated in his speech to Congress, the fourteen points. WWI had impacted the United States domestically. The progressive reforms in America had expanded into the international sphere. This was demonstrated when Wilson took the initiative of trying to establish an organization for the greater good of the world.

This 6 April 2017 was the 100th anniversary of American involvement in the Great War. Many American lives were lost unnecessarily because of the interests of the wealthy elitist bankers. 50,000 American lives were lost due to the conflict. Americans had been warned about the interest of bankers and business owners when it comes to conflicts. At the height of the Cold War during the 1950s, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower did warn Americans about the military-industrial complex. Dick Cheney, former vice president of the United States, made billions off of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The munitions industry was and is still a motivation for governments to get involved or create conflicts.