Category Archives: World War I

War Fever

The dawn of the twentieth century had all the conditions necessary for an outbreak of war fever. The great nations and empires of the previous centuries were struggling to hold onto their power and status. New nations were expanding and seeking empire status in the wake of shifting colonial control and changes in markets. Revolution and nationalistic zeal challenged and destabilized the status quo. War was an opportunity to demonstrate national strength and military superiority. It was viewed as both a means to hold onto power and a means to gain power. War fever spread simply because those with power did not wish to see it dwindle and those without it wanted to gain what they believed was being denied to them. Modern technology made war destructive beyond measure, but technology also helped spread the propaganda necessary to enflame populations and maintain war fever.

During the mid-1800s under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, Germany became a unified nation and strived to become a great industrialized power. Yet while Bismarck sought unification and political strength, Kaiser Wilhelm II longed for military glory and a strong German state which could withstand a simultaneous attack by its neighbors. Leading Germany on a path of militarization, the Kaiser ignited the sparks of flame that would lead to war fever in 1914. In a recent article, Professor Holger Afflerbach wrote that war was both dreadful and “glorious” with soldiers being granted “high social prestige” especially in nations were a militarization movement had taken root.[1] Germany was not the only nation to experience war fever or to glorify the honor of soldiering. Prior to World War I, war had been limited in its scope, at least for the most part. Armies battled armies and the civilian population as a whole was relatively unaffected by combat. Total war was a concept few had experienced directly. Technology and ease in transportation had begun to change warfare during the 1800s, but it would take World War I to bring these changes to public light. So in August 1914, when the call to war was made, men signed up for what they hoped would be a quick, glorious war. The armies of Europe swelled as a patriotic fervor fanned the flames of war fever.

Strangely enough, despite entrenched combat and the undeniable horrors of modern warfare, war fever spread to the United States in 1917. In an age where media was sympathetic to the nation and national causes, little of the true nature of war made it into the far-off homes of U.S. citizens. An ocean away, the horror of war was overshadowed by patriotic notions of rallying around the flag and racing to the aid of allies. In a great crusade to defend democratic liberty, the United States promoted war fever in order to fill its military ranks. In doing so, it demonstrated the value of industrial might in world affairs, and propelled itself to great power status in a world where the traditional balance of power was shifting. Germany had disrupted the balance of power established under the Concert of Europe when it unified and became an industrial force. Fearing its closest neighbors, Germany industrialized and militarized its nation making it a rival, and a threat to European stability and status quo. The United States, on the other hand, feeling less threatened by its neighbors had dedicated its energies to industrialization. Germany recognized the danger the United States posed as a major industrial nation, but calculated that the weak U.S. military structure would hinder a U.S. response to European war. Their calculations were wrong. The United States surprised the world with a rapid response. Due in part to a propaganda campaign which not only ignited war fever but used modern technology to spread it quickly and widely throughout the U.S. population, the United States went from anti-war to pro-war overnight, albeit the actual preparations involved in having an army ready to fight took a bit longer to manage.

War fever was a contagion that benefited from the notion that a limited war produced little disruption to the home front and would grant the nation, and its warriors, prestigious accolades. While World War I would demonstrate the brutality of modern war and introduce to Europe the horror of total war in a modern age, the lessons would not be universally comprehended. Deprivations of war would be greater understood by the end of World War II when aerial bombardment turned the home front into the frontline. The realities of modern war should have eradicated war fever entirely; however, the threat of war fever returned as total war became part of history and the notion of limited war reemerged as a prominent strategy during the Cold War. Much like a viral contagion, war fever could rage for a period and then die down until once again conditions were right for its return.

[1] Holger Afflerbach, “The Soldiers Across Europe Who Were Excited About World War I,” The Conversation, August 4, 2014, (accessed October 24, 2014),

National Defense: U.S. Shores or Foreign Lands

Foreign wars are difficult to avoid particularly if they interrupt the flow of commerce or pose a threat to national defense. In the nineteenth century, the goal was to avoid foreign wars if at all possible. Thomas Jefferson, recognizing the need to address national defense, particularly the defense of U.S. harbors, instigated a policy of using a fleet of gunboats as a means of protecting the coast. While Jefferson argued that the defense of the U.S. homeland was enough, others argued that the U.S. needed to be prepared to protect the seas and U.S. trade interests. While the War of 1812 proved that Jefferson’s gunboat defense was not enough to keep the U.S. out of danger, the public was still of the belief that the United States should focus on the defense of its borders rather than the preparation for future foreign wars.

The desire to protect U.S. borders while avoiding the entanglements of foreign wars was a desire difficult to achieve. Often international conflict disrupted commerce long before the U.S. coastline was threatened. Defensive policies designed to protect the homeland did not always factor in the need to export war in order to protect economic interests from being threatened. By the end of the twentieth century, the protection of strategic national interests was intrinsically entwined with the protection of economic wellbeing – domestic and international. National defense often meant transporting U.S. personnel and equipment to foreign lands rather than keeping them on U.S. shores. However, in 1916 the United States, as during Jefferson’s day, still hoped to protect its national interests by protecting its borders and remaining a neutral trading partner with Germany and with Germany’s enemies. Germany, on the other hand, did not view the U.S. policy to be in the best interest of Germany and acted accordingly.

In the years before the United States entered the war, German U-boats became a clear danger to U.S. trade and the sinking of the Lusitania made it clear that civilian travel was also risky while Europe was at war. The Zimmerman Telegram exposed Germany’s decision to view the United States as a threat, but even before the Zimmerman Telegram and the official entry of the United States into the war, Germany threatened U.S. national defense and economic security. On July 30, 1916 German saboteurs carried out a plot to destroy munitions on an island in New York Harbor. The Black Tom Explosion, as the event became known, was a clear act of war designed to disrupt U.S. military aid to Great Britain. Seven people were killed and the economic costs were valued in the millions. Yet, the United States did not immediately go to war. It would take another war and the dawn of the nuclear age to convince the public that preparing to fight on foreign lands was as vital to U.S. defense as was protecting U.S. shores.

Empires and Keeping the Peace

It is clear that as the European empires struggled to maintain control over their colonial possessions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the United States searched for footholds in the regions formally under European control. In the nineteenth century, the United States expanded westward and southward absorbing territory which had been held, often loosely, by Spain. In some cases, the United States annexed regions which became part of the union. In other cases U.S. businessmen, or filibusters, simply moved in and dominated the local economies. Due to the Napoleonic Wars and political shifts in Europe, little by little, European interests, or the ability to capitalize on the interests, in the Americas dwindled. Even Great Britain, the great empire of the 1800s, intensified its focus on developing colonial markets in Africa, India, and China rather than the Americas. Certainly the United States was not left alone in the Americas, but it was able to expand its sphere of influence, especially economic influence with greater ease during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

While the War of 1812 did not gain the United States territorial holdings in Canada as some had hoped it would, it did establish that the United States was willing to use war as a means to expand, even war with European powers.[1] During the decades following the war, the United States made it very clear to Europe that it intended to be the regional power in the Americas, and that it would not tolerate European interference. Great Britain was actively expanding and defending its worldwide empire, but U.S. Secretary of State John Q. Adams was determined to prevent Great Britain from taking advantage of Spain’s weakened control of territories in the Americas. In a debate with British Minister Stratford Canning in 1821, Adams pointed out that Britain was seeking to gobble up the world markets, even quipping that Britain might have designs on “a piece of the moon.” When the debate circled around to the question of whether the United States still had designs on Canada, Adams replied, “Keep what is yours and leave the rest of the continent to us.”[2]

Shortly after this debate on the expansion of spheres of influence and territorial acquisition, Adams drafted what would become known as the Monroe Doctrine. He encouraged President Monroe to take a bold stand on the issue of European interference in the Western Hemisphere. It did not matter whether it was Great Britain, France, or Russia who had their sights set on a piece of the Americas. The United States declared that it would act to prevent the further exploitation of the Americas by Europe, but that did not mean it would not exploit the Americas for its own benefit. Nor did it mean that it would not seek to spread U.S. political and economic influence beyond the Americas.

During the decades preceding the War of 1812, revolution and independence movements disrupted imperial control, but in the years preceding World War I, a rise in nationalist revolutions set the stage for the demise of the great empires of the previous centuries. Colonialism would be challenged and eventually, after a second world war, eliminated in its previous form. Yet, even as the sun was setting on the colonial system which had helped create the empires of the past, a new colonial structure began to emerge. While the world focused on the war raging in Europe, President Wilson was flexing U.S. muscle in the Americas.[3] Neocolonialism became the policy of a new and emerging empire – the United States. Maybe not an empire in the traditional sense, but an empire in how it used its influence to set economic and political policy favorable to its own national interests rather than the interests of the neighbors it policed. As the great empires of Europe warred and their colonial control declined over the resource rich regions which had once made them powerful, the United States (and later the Soviet Union) expanded a growing economic and political sphere of influence that would rival any traditional empire.  In some cases, the sphere would include a military presence or intervention to keep the peace. This was not necessarily a peace that benefited the citizens in the new nations emerging in the wake of decolonization, as much as it benefited U.S. economic interests; but as the United States would remind itself from time to time, peace even a forced peace, was better than war. When the forced peace protected U.S. economic growth and stability, forced peace would certainly, at least to the United States, be the lesser evil, even if it made the United States seem very much a twentieth century empire.



[1] Walter T. K. Nugent, Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 73-74.

[2] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 134.

[3] Herring, 386.

Injuries, Indignities, and Outrage

On the first day of June 1812, President James Madison delivered an address to Congress apprising them of the “injuries and indignities” affecting the nation. American citizens had been “torn away from their country and from everything dear to them” by a nation who had not declared war on the United States, but who was determined to use U.S. citizens as the “melancholy instruments” of war. [1] Nine days later, Congress authorized a declaration of war and Madison asked the nation to be “vigilant and zealous in discharging the duties” which would be asked of them during the perilous years of conflict. Furthermore he asked that they support “all measures which [might] be adopted by the constituted authorities for obtaining a speedy, a just, and an honorable peace.” [2] Drawn into an international conflict, the United States set out to defeat its adversaries and prove that while it was still only a fledgling power, it would not tolerate abuses to its citizens and national interests.

Entangling alliances and international rivalries ignited another war in 1914. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson hoped to avoid being drawn into the chaotic vortex of European war, but like Madison, he recognized that the actions of others might make war inevitable. Certainly the United States could not sit idly by while the safety of its citizens was threatened.

In a conversation with Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels in 1916, Wilson stated, “I can’t keep the country out of war . . . any little German lieutenant can put us into the war at any time by some calculated outrage.”[3] Wilson, despite running his 1916 presidential campaign on the slogan of “He Kept Us Out of War,” understood the precipice upon which the United States stood.[4]

Earlier in the year, the Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa had attacked and set ablaze the New Mexican town of Columbus. This attack on U.S. sovereignty, on its own, might not have been the indignity that set the nation on a path to war, but when the Zimmerman Telegram was made public in January 1917, it became clear that Germany planned to utilize the animosity between the United States and Mexico as a tool to weaken the ability of the United States to aid Great Britain and France. Wilson could no longer avoid war and plunged off the precipice. While the sinking of the Lusitania had upset many in the United States, the notion that Germany was plotting with Mexico to seize parts of the Southwest outraged the public. The telegram would be the “outrage” that would propel the nation into war.

A policy of neutrality during a time of European conflict had once again failed to keep the United States out of European warfare. The United States could only ignore a limited amount of national injury, indignity, and outrage before it would strike back.




[1] James Madison, “Special Message to Congress on the Foreign Policy Crisis – War Message” (June 1, 1812), Presidential Speech Archive, Miller Center, University of Virginia, (accessed January 21, 2014),

[2] James Madison, “Proclamation of a State of War with Great Britain” (June 19, 1812), Presidential Speech Archive, Miller Center, University of Virginia, (accessed September 19, 2014),

[3] C. H. Cramer, Newton D. Baker: A Biography (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1961), 86.

[4] “1916 Election,” The President Woodrow Wilson House, n.d., (accessed September 18, 2014),

Historical Jouney Begins: The Birth of

Independence and revolution, both in the English colonies and in Europe, had spawned a series of wars; wars that crossed oceans and challenged the sovereignty of nations. The years of 1814 and 1815 saw the end of much of this conflict as the wars tied to the American and French Revolutions finally came to an end. In France, Napoleon Bonaparte was finally, once and for all, removed from power. In the Americas, the United States defended its sovereignty against a mightier foe, proving that independence had not been a fluke or folly. In August 1814, the US capital, Washington, DC fell to the British, but in September the valiant defenders of Baltimore held firm at Fort McHenry with a legend and a national anthem emerging from the smoke of cannon bombardment.

European powers had grown weary of war by 1814 and sought peace. More importantly, they sought for the means to prevent future chaos due to revolution, and they forged a balance of power system that they hoped might maintain European stability and thereby reduce war. One hundred years later, the balance of power so diligently carved out after the Congress of Vienna and the peace negotiations of 1814 and 1815 was shattered as war engulfed not simply a region but the world in its entirety.

As 2014 comes closer to an end, thoughts should rightfully turn to these long ago conflicts. There are lessons to be learned from the causes and mistakes of these wars. Over the next few weeks, I will seek to identify these lessons. I will look at issues of sovereignty, economic strife, population growth and migration, political competition, and the role of empires in forging peace and provoking war. This is my journey, a journey in which I hope to record my thoughts and observations in a format easily shared with others. It is not my goal to create long lectures but rather create a series of short essays that intrigue and inspire the further explorations of history.