Wilson’s Cabinet Votes for War

But Disagreement on How to Support It.

Thousands Meet, Cheer for War.

Special to The Great War Project

(26 March) Stalemate, bloody and murderous stalemate — that’s the state of play for the contending powers at this moment in the Great War, a century ago.

Even as Russia plunges into political chaos, writes historian Martin Gilbert…

“the war fronts continued to see facing armies unable to gain decisive advantage.”

After months of horrible bloodshed, “the Germans had withdrawn from the Somme in northern France without loss to their new defensive line.”

The British are making progress in Mesopotamia [now Iraq]. After struggling to regroup after the terrible defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, the British go on the offensive.

British troops enter Baghdad, March 1917.

British troops enter Baghdad, March 1917.

Baghdad falls to the British, who then capture the town of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad.

The war also spreads into Palestine. Just inside the border with Palestine, “the British attacked the Turkish positions at Gaza,” reports Gilbert, “but although outnumbering the Turks by more than two to one, they were unable to break into Gaza city.

At this point a century ago, war fever is beginning to build in the United States. On March 20th Wilson holds a cabinet meeting at which all of its members express a desire to enter the war.

Secretary of State Robert Lansing writes, the American action could “determine the destinies of the United States and possibly the world.”

Writes historian Margaret Wagner, “Undoubtedly stirred by the revolution in Russia and the recent ship losses” – the number of American ships attacked and sunk by German submarines continues to grow – all of Wilson’s cabinet members conclude that war with Germany is now inevitable.

Pro-war propaganda.

Pro-war propaganda.

But several in Wilson’s cabinet argue that the best way for the United States to aid the war effort is “support the Allies financially,” writes Wagner, “with naval assistance, and by continuing the flow of supplies.”

“With many others in government and across the land at this time,” reports Wagner…

“they believed the country could not and should not field an army overseas.”

Wilson announces that he will convene a special of Congress starting on April 2nd, when it would “receive a communication concerning grave matters of national policy.”

Writes historian Wagner, “Though a decision for war remained uncertain, the president ordered the U.S. ambassador and American relief workers to leave occupied Belgium.”

Wilson addresses a joint session of Congress.

Wilson addresses a joint session of Congress.

Wilson also orders the navy to establish ways of cooperating with the British navy. Quietly, carefully, Wilson is taking preliminary steps to prepare the U.S. for war.

The head of the U.S. Naval War College is dispatched to London to act as liaison, but covertly, “in civilian clothes,” writes Wagner, “and under an assumed name.”

“When the naval crewmen manning the ship’s guns recognized him,” Wagner reports, “the admiral quickly impressed on them the importance of keeping his secret.”

Support for war among America’s civilian population begins to build.

In New York’s Madison Square Garden, “12,000 cheered for war,” and “more thousands gathered at Carnegie Hall the following day in the first of several mass meetings held to celebrate and support Russia’s turn toward democracy.”

The meeting turns violent. Reports the New York Times, “Clashes between patriots and pacifists break out.” New York’s mayor proclaims the United States is about to go to war “for democracy.”

“Tonight,” he declares, “we are divided into only two classes. Americans and traitors.”