American Isolationism and the European Origins of War

A timeline shows important events of the era. In 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo, and World War I begins in Europe; a painting of Ferdinand’s assassination is shown. In 1915, a German U-boat sinks the RMS Lusitania; an illustration of the Lusitania’s destruction is shown. In 1916, Pancho Villa’s forces attack Columbus, New Mexico; a photograph of Pancho Villa is shown. In 1917, Germany sends the secret Zimmermann telegram, Woodrow Wilson delivers the Peace without Victory speech, and the U.S. declares war on Germany; images of the decoded text of the Zimmermann telegram, and of President Woodrow Wilson asking Congress to declare war on Germany are shown. In 1918, U.S. soldiers engage Germans in the Argonne forest, and Wilson issues his Fourteen Points; an illustration of the 369th Infantry fighting in the forest is shown. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles officially ends World War I.

Unlike his immediate predecessors, President Woodrow Wilson had planned to shrink the role of the United States in foreign affairs. He believed that the nation needed to intervene in international events only when there was a moral imperative to do so. But as Europe’s political situation grew dire, it became increasingly difficult for Wilson to insist that the conflict growing overseas was not America’s responsibility. Germany’s war tactics struck most observers as morally reprehensible, while also putting American free trade with the Entente at risk. Despite campaign promises and diplomatic efforts, Wilson could only postpone American involvement in the war.

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