Fears Grow that U.S. Unprepared, Should War Come.
American Military Seen as Dangerously Weak.
Special to The Great War Project
(20-23 October) Serious tensions are growing between Imperial Germany and the United States.
In Washington, the stance of the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson toward expanding national military preparedness is shifting dramatically.
The American Ambassador to Germany, James W. Gerard, meets with Kaiser Wilhelm at Potsdam, in Germany on October 22nd a century ago.
The Kaiser is hostile and aggressive, writes historian Martin Gilbert. He “spoke angrily of the United States financial help for Britain and France and protested that ‘a number of submarines’ built in America had been escorted to Britain by ships of the American navy.”
The Kaiser warns the US ambassador: “America had better look out after this war. I shall stand no nonsense from America after the war.”
But there are some issues the Kaiser steers gingerly away from. He is especially careful to avoid the subject of the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania back in May in which 128 American passengers perished.
The Kaiser tells Gerard, he would “not have permitted” the ship to be torpedoed if he had known about it, and that “no gentleman would kill so many women and children.”
Such proclamations have little effect on German-American relations, which continue to decline. To the contrary, writes historian Arthur Link. “The one central reality of American national life between the sinking of the Lusitania and the final settlement of the Arabic controversy in October 1915 was the ever-present possibility of war with Germany.”
The Arabic is another passenger liner carrying Americans that is sunk by a German U-boat in 1915.
Every decision that President Woodrow Wilson and his colleagues make during this period is affected if not controlled by this fact, writes Link.
There is growing fear in the United States that if war should come, the country is not prepared. “Editors and publicists took up the preparedness theme with such obsessive vigor,” reports Link, “that their outpouring swelled into a mighty flood of words by the end of the summer of 1915.”
“The discussion begun and the challenge raised by the advocates of military expansion could no longer be ignored by the leaders in Washington.”
Adds Link: “Indeed, by this time the President and his advisers were busily at work upon their own plans to augment the national security.”
It is a reversal for Wilson that “occurred with a suddenness that confused his friends as well as his political foes.”
In May “the President was unwilling to approve any increases for the army,” reports historian Link. “Yet only two weeks later the President issued a statement calling for steady additions to the navy’s strength.”
Then in July the President issues an order to work on plans “for an adequate national defense.”
“This was easily the most important decision on domestic policy that Wilson made during the year 1915.”
Why this shift in Wilson’s stance? “This controversy with Germany has probably definitely settled one thing,” writes Colonel Edward House, Wilson’s closest confidante, “and that is the question of preparedness. Our people are thoroughly aroused by the necessity of this.”
Wilson is aware of the growing unease in the U.S. about the deteriorating relations with Germany. “Here was a movement,” writes Link, “with monstrous potentialities for evil… Agitation by demagogues, yellow journalists, and sincere extremists had had an open field and had already convulsed the people with warnings of invasion and subversion.”
“Uncontrolled and unchanneled, the agitation could only culminate in national disaster.”
Wilson knows just how weak and understaffed the U.S. military is at this moment a century ago. “He doubted,” Link writes, “that there were enough troops available even to cope with an armed uprising of German sympathizers, if one should occur in the event of hostilities.”
“That the military resources of the United States were dangerously weak was certainly one of the lessons that he had learned during the great submarine crisis.”