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[Part III] The USA, The Most Powerful Country in The World: First World War

This is part 3 in our series of articles titled, “The USA, The Most Powerful Country in The World”. If you haven’t already read previous parts then check them out.

RECAP: In fear of the European powers and in a bid to expand its own influence in the Americas, the US adopted Monroe doctrine. But due to lack of a credible navy could not enforce the doctrine. After the civil war, the US underwent a phase of rapid industrialization. Now, the US had a technologically advanced armed forces, which helped in winning the Spanish-American War, gaining many territories, creating an empire for itself.

The extraordinary victory of the US over Spain in the Spanish-American War greatly elevated morale of people of the US. The US was rapidly modernizing its armed forces. It was very clear that the aging European empires would not continue to be the only ones to have a say in the world affairs. They would have to clear the way for the US to become the most powerful country in the world. An opportunity would present itself in the form of the World Wars, which would propel the US from one of the many world powers to being one of the only two superpowers (the US and the Soviet Union).

One of the main reasons for the Spanish-American War was the strategic importance of Cuba in protecting a future canal connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. After the war, The US leased Guantanamo Bay forcefully from the Cubans, which it continues to hold to this date. The US would go on installing favorable (to the US) governments in many Central American countries, using force when necessary. A US-sponsored separation of Panama from Columbia took place in 1903. The US, then did what the French could not do, successfully constructing the Panama Canal. The canal would continue to be controlled by the US, before finally being transferred to the Panama Canal Authority in 1999. The US would also occupy the Dominican Republic and Haiti for a period of time.

Meanwhile, the US continued developing its navy, becoming the largest in the world after the British Empire. The US, under President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1909 sent a fleet dubbed as the Great White Fleet, consisting of 16 battleships along with support ships, manned by 14,000 sailors, for a circumnavigation of the Earth. The 43,000-mile circumnavigation included 20 port calls on six continents and lasted for 14 months. The US created an air component within the army at around the same time, which would later evolve into the US Air Force.

World War I

In Europe, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while on a visit to Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, was assassinated by a group of Serbs and a Bosniak. Some elements of Serbian army had helped in the assassination. An angered Austria-Hungary, emboldened by support from Germany, sent a list of demands, also known as “July Ultimatum” to Serbia, to be fulfilled within 48 hours. Serbia partially accepted the demands but not the complete list. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia as a result. Russian Empire came in support of Serbia while Germany supported Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Germany demanded France be neutral and do not come to aid for the Russians, but got back a cryptic message. France ordered its troops to withdraw 10 km from its border with Germany to avoid any incident but mobilized its reserves. Germany viewed it with suspicions, so it attacked Luxembourg and declared war on France. Germany asked permission for its troops to pass through Belgium on its way to France. Permission was denied by Belgium, so Germany declared war on Belgium too. The British had warned that Belgium be kept neutral. Following German declaration of war on Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany. British dominions in the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia captured almost all German territories in Asia and the Pacific.

US Entry into the First World War

Britain started a naval blockade of Germany. Germany retaliated with an unrestricted submarine warfare. German submarines were sinking any ship they suspected was supplying the British. A telegram from German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann to Mexico was intercepted by the British Intelligence. The telegram urged Mexico to declare a German-sponsored war on the US, to recover the territories it had lost to the US in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War. The British forwarded the telegram to the US, where President Woodrow Wilson made it public. Earlier public opinion in the US was more tilted towards neutrality however, the Zimmermann’s Telegram and sinking of American merchant ships by the Germans using submarines infuriated the American public. This shifted their stance from being neutral to being supportive of the British. The US declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917.

In 1917, the US had only 213,577 personnel (both active duty and reserve) in its armed forces. By the time it was over, the US had 4,176,297 personnel. Although Germany had some numerical advantage in land warfare, entry of the US changed that. The US sent American Expeditionary Force under command of General John J. Pershing, which at the end of the war amounted to 1,929,760 personnel. The US also had to send Expeditionary Forces to Russia, at first to aid the Czech-Slovak and Russian forces, and then again to aid the Czech-Slovak forces against Bolsheviks and securing the war material sent earlier to Russia from falling in the hands of Bolsheviks. Finally, the allies won the war. This war helped in the rapid expansion and enlargement of the US’ armed forces.

Aftermath of the First World War

The allies won the war but their casualties in the war were very high. The allies imposed very harsh reparations on the losers. The German Empire and the Ottoman Empire both lost most of their territories. In addition to the territorial losses, Germany had to pay a huge sum in gold, and a significant amount of its industrial output to the French and British. League of Nations was established for stopping international conflicts and maintaining international peace. Unfortunately, the US did not become its member. League of Nations failed in its mission miserably, and soon the Second World War broke out. Once again the US soldiers would set foot on the European soil, never to leave again. The Second World War would change the course of history forever.

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