WHY did the United States go to war in 1917? For an answer, some point to the banks and munitions makers, some to the character of President Wilson, some to the capitalist system, some to Allied propagandists. In any attempt at presenting a complete answer, careful consideration must be given to what was in the minds of the American people themselves in the thirty-two months during which the United States was neutral. There were speakers, books, periodicals, and movies which gave the American people interpretations of the war and provoked popular emotions and reactions. But it was above all the news of Europe as supplied by the newspapers which provided the bases of contemporary American opinion.

The task of charting the features of this war news might be pursued along several useful lines. In the present case, attention is concentrated upon only two features: (1), the origin of the news which created the American picture of the war; and (2), the appeals contained in this news (not editorials) which might make the reader favor American participation. Reportorial interpretations naturally varied with the countries in which they originated. It seems worth while today to reëxamine the appeals they contained in view of the present controversy as to the motives which determined the United States to join the conflict.

The accompanying diagrams show the origin of our war news and indicate the nature of the appeals which that news contained. The diagrams are based on a compilation of the number of items appearing on the front page of the New York Times, the newspaper which published the maximum amount of war news. The diagrams do not cover the entire period of American neutrality; but they include the vital months from the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia through the sinking of the Lusitania and the resignation of Secretary Bryan, and the period from the German peace proposals of December 1916 to the American declaration of war in April 1917.

It is not to be assumed that each item counted had an equal effect upon the American public. Certain facts relating to the war were not in dispute. Germany did invade Belgium contrary to the terms of existing agreements. A single sensational fact of that nature made a far deeper impression than did columns of printed matter attacking German culture. Furthermore, the deep impressions so implanted in the public consciousness tended to influence the way in which subsequent news about German behavior and character was received. Although we can now discriminate more successfully between fact and interpretation, the writer's present aim is to present a picture of the news as it reached the American public during the years 1914-1917.

During the period of neutrality some Americans knew the significance which attached to British control of the cables, but there was no wide appreciation of the situation disclosed in the first of the accompanying diagrams. What the British accomplished by cutting the Emden-New York cable is indicated by a comparison of the amount of news coming direct from Germany in July 1914 with what came in August. The cable was used until August 4, when Britain declared war. Several days were required to establish the Nauen-Saybrook wireless link to replace the cable. Those were the days when the German armies were invading Belgium. As a result, the American impression of the German action in Belgium was based almost exclusively upon news received via Germany's enemies. Thereafter, the trans-oceanic wireless was the only direct contact between the Central Powers and America. A breakdown occurred shortly after the torpedoing of the Lusitania; and communication by wireless continued to be unreliable throughout the war. During the first year of the war, the news obtained in this manner never exceeded 4 percent of the front-page war news. In the same period, 70 percent was being supplied from the Entente Powers. This distribution (as the diagram shows) is in marked contrast to the distribution in July 1914, when Austria-Hungary and Germany provided nearly as much of the news as did France, Russia, Great Britain, and the minor powers which became allied with them. The period when the largest amount of direct news from Germany (12 percent) was attained was December 1916, when the peace proposals of the German Government awakened great interest. It is to be noted that much of the war news originated in neutral countries; but a great part of this passed through the hands of the London censors.

When the hostilities began, each belligerent established a rigid censorship over all communication, internal and foreign. The actions taken by the Germans and the British were especially important for America -- that of the Germans because their wireless disseminated their censor's version of the war; and that of the British because the news from the rest of Europe (including cables from the Central Powers) flowed through their sieve. The terms of the British censorship were set forth in 1915 in two memoranda.[i] "All press messages to, from, or through London" were censored by the Official Press Bureau "with the threefold object of preventing information of military value from reaching the enemy, of acquiring similar information for our own purposes, and of checking the dissemination of information likely to be of use to the enemy or prejudicial to the allies." The statements of wartime correspondents bear ample testimony to the activity of the censors in mutilating or suppressing a large proportion of the dispatches intended for America, and even of making numerous interpolations.[ii]

This situation affected not only the war news appearing in the New York Times, but the dispatches in the other major papers. Investigation reveals that the various trends disclosed are paralleled in each of the seven newspapers then published in Chicago. Even the newspapers unfriendly to the Entente, such as the Hearst chain, published twice as much news from that side as from Germany.

Another significant fact shown by the first of the diagrams is the constant increase in the proportion of war news originating in the United States. In the early months of the war, when military dispatches constituted the bulk of war news, occasional statements or disclosures were made here by representatives of European governments. But as the war came to touch this country more and more directly, this news began to include the answers of American officials and of notable private citizens to the question as to what Americans should do and think in view of the tragic developments in Europe. Such news items dealt at first with the war as a general situation; then they began to pay particular attention to British interference with American commerce; after the sinking of the Lusitania they became more and more concerned with the actions of Germany. The items about the war dealt much more frequently with diplomatic negotiations than with pork, copper or munitions. Naturally many of them originated in Washington and New York; but at a time like the Lusitania sinking in May 1915 they came from all over the country and occupied many columns on the inside pages. By February 1917 the war news originating in the United States constituted 42 percent of such news appearing on the front page.

Much of the news concerning American foreign relations naturally originated abroad, and diplomatic news was published with especial prominence after the sinking of the Lusitania. It was natural, perhaps, that attention should be concentrated upon specific losses suffered because of our position as a neutral rather than upon the gains we received; but the tendency made each American feel that he was directly involved in the commercial and personal tragedies enacted upon the high seas.

Not all of these war items -- not even most of them -- incorporated appeals likely to affect our attitude toward the belligerent nations. During the first year, not over 13 percent of the war articles can be said to have contained statements of this character. The items that did are nevertheless of special interest to us. The term "propaganda" connotes the organized dissemination of appeals to influence the behavior of people. In this sense propaganda is not confined to exaggerated atrocity stories, lies, and misrepresentation. The wartime propaganda machines naturally utilized straightforward truth whenever it seemed likely to be effective. But often, even when they did not resort to falsehood, they overlaid the truth with interpretations from a particular point of view. Just how much of the war news received by the American public was colored by organized propaganda no one can say. But every sort of appeal may influence action whether or not it results from organized propaganda. The American press published countless appeals of all sorts. The changing character of the appeals which appeared in the New York Times is indicated in the second diagram.

The proportion of news items designed to modify American opinion one way or the other, or capable of producing that effect, varied according to the country where each originated. The fact throws light on the activity of the propagandistic censorships. Throughout the period of American neutrality, the news which showed the greatest proportion of such items was that originating in the United States (28.8 percent) where the censorship was least operative. The smallest proportion of items containing appeals came from Berlin via London (16.6 percent), after passing both the German and British censors. The direct wireless news from Berlin contained, proportionately, many more items likely to influence behavior (26 percent) than did the Entente news from London (17.6 percent). On the other hand, the volume of London news was so great that the total number of items containing appeals received from that source was almost as great as the number originating in the United States itself.

As the second diagram indicates, news stories about war atrocities were relatively infrequent. Probably the discrediting of the more horrifying stories about the mutilation of Belgian babies and the crucifixion of soldiers determined the American public not to be deceived again. Even when the appeals based on alleged atrocities are lumped together on the chart with the appeals having as their basis a discussion of a belligerent's alleged insolence, the total is still seen to have been very small during the first months of the war. Charges of murder and piracy became more frequent in 1917 with the resumption of German submarine warfare. Reports of German insolence toward Ambassador Gerard, and the dispatches giving the insolent German announcements regarding the number of American vessels which might pass through the war zone, were published with great prominence. It was at this time that the Hearst papers decided to hate Germany more than England, and began to give indications of favoring war. Appeals based on news of this sort doubtless carried more force than is suggested by their mere numbers; but we more frequently find other types of motivation.

As the war progressed, the news about it reaching America was accompanied by an increasingly large number of appeals which implied verdicts against one side or the other on the basis of law or of ideal morality. The legal items tended to be specific, referring to violations of neutrality (e.g. in Belgium or Greece), or of the laws of warfare. Other dispatches left it to the reader to pass judgment upon the Russians who were said to be mistreating the Jews, or the Germans who were depicted as adherents of militarism, Junkertum and absolute monarchy. In some cases there would be no specific details, but the article might create the general atmosphere of, "You just know those British are doing the right and manly sort of thing." When the "mistress of the seas" was interfering with American commerce, these appeals to law and idealism were anti-British in their effect; but they became more and more anti-German as the war continued and as German activity on the high seas interfered with alleged American rights. The submarine issue came back strongly into the news on February 1, 1917. With it, the proportion of items containing appeals increased to 20 percent. Even people of German blood and those who had had first-hand experience of Germany came to accept a distinction between a wicked German Government and a misguided German people. The American public was aggravated that the British had interfered with neutral commerce and mails; but the German action produced dramatic losses of American lives, and people began to argue that it might be necessary to avenge these on the field of battle.

It is significant that only a very small portion of the war news carried appeals based on economic interest. In the period analyzed, the New York Times carried 7,267 war items on its front page. Only 66 can be classed as having been motivated by the material interest of the United States; and of these, 35 appeared after March 1, 1917. Of the first dozen items referring to this issue in the early days of the war, ten were in opposition to the Entente. On occasion the implication was that the United States should remain neutral. The reappearance of the submarine menace turned almost all of the appeals of this nature definitely against Germany; but in all of February 1917, while we were waiting for a German "overt act," only nine such items appeared.

It was in March 1917 that the economic motivation began appearing daily upon the front page. By this time the President had called upon Congress for power to arm American merchantmen for defense, and he had revealed the note in which Foreign Minister Zimmermann invited Mexico and Japan to fight us in the event we entered the war. This news exploded like a bomb upon the front pages of American newspapers; and the effect was to emphasize, not the advantages of economic relations with the Entente, but revulsion against Germany's various attacks upon American interests. On top of the accumulation of many months of news and of idealistic propaganda which had generated an anti-German feeling, there now flashed the sharp appeal of American national defense -- defense of American lives, American property, and American honor.

The appeals heard from abroad in the war years were not different in their effect from those often issued today by propaganda ministers or ministers of foreign affairs in the effort to influence world opinion. "Hitler's foreign policy has restored Germany to the normal status of equality with other nations." "Reports from the interior of Ethiopia prove that slavery is still practised there." "Natives have welcomed the Japanese army because it brings protection against bandits." But whether or not such statements form part of organized propaganda efforts they constitute an integral part of the legitimate and important news of the world. They may be designed to enlist the sympathies of Americans in this or that foreign cause. But the suppression of news of this nature would be neither feasible nor desirable. It is news. But care in examining it is obviously desirable, as well as caution in predicating any action upon it.

The result of the present effort to chart the war news received by the United States in 1914-1917 has been to show that our determination to declare war was preceded by a crescendo of items likely to stir up violent discussion and enlist strong sympathies. Whatever part may have been taken by bankers or munitions makers or the capitalist system in general in producing a decision favorable to war, the American people had not been lacking in news in which idealistic appeals were prominent. Atrocity stories had been comparatively few, and though appeals to economic interest were not especially prominent those which appeared concentrated their appeals on demands for vengeance against an offender rather than for aid to a debtor. Whatever the rôle played by the personal sentiments of President Wilson, there is evidence that the day-by-day news originating in the United States laid chief emphasis on diplomatic exchanges and on what might be termed "national insults." An overwhelming proportion of the news was provided by the side on which we later fought; and as the struggle progressed an increasing proportion of the news about it was composed of the responses of American citizens and officials thereto.

Obviously it is impossible to be completely accurate or final in isolating appeals to idealism, or appeals of a sensational nature, or appeals to self-interest, from straight news. But to whatever extent such appeals constitute influences which lead to war, we can say that the only way of minimizing them is through the vigilant skepticism of the public.

[i] Cd. 7680; Cd. 7679. Italics mine.

[ii] See George A. Schreiner, "Cables and Wireless and Their Rôle in the Foreign Relations of the United States." Boston: The Stratford Press, 1924, p. 184; and p. 9 of the Introduction by Edward F. McSweeney. See also Captain Schreiner's article, "Censorship is Necessary, but Censors Muddle News of a Non-Military Nature," in Editor and Publisher, June 23, 1917.

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