Episode 134: The Great Neutral Pt. 3

Episodes United States 1917

This is our third episode on America's path into the war. Last episode we discussed America's road from neutrality in February 1917 to the declaration of war in April 1917 and this week we will be primarily concerned with what the planned to do now. There were several items on their to-do list before they could join in the fighting at the front, and we will cover three of these items today. The first were some domestic problems that would need to be dealt with around food and money. Then the second two are military matters, how to handle the now massively expanding army, and what to do with the Navy. The answer to these final two questions would set the state for whatever the United States was going to do for the rest of the war.

The History of the Great war is also available on Stitcher


Uncle Same Poster
Uncle Same Poster

Zimmermann Telegram
Zimmermann Telegram

President Woodrow Wilson
President Woodrow Wilson

Senator La Follette
Senator La Follette


American Newspaper
Newspaper from America


The First World War by John Keegan
A World Undone by G.J. Meyer
Castles of Steel by Robert K. Massie
French War Aims and the American Challenge, 1914-1918 by David Stevenson
A Counsel of Despair: British Strategy and War Aims, 1917-1918 by Brock Millman
The Bilateral Relationship Between Austria-Hungary and the United States from April to December 1917 by Vaclav Horcicka
The United States and the Rights of Neutrals, 1917-1918 by Alice C. Morissey
The United States Army General Staff, 1900-1917 by James Hewes
Great Britain in the United States, 1917-1918: The Turning Point by Kathleen Burk
The Zimmermann Telegram: Intelligence, Diplomacy, and America's Entry into World War I by Thomas Boghardt
Fruits of Victory: The Woman's Land Army of America in the Great War by Elaine F. Weiss
The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order by Adam Tooze
The World Remade: America in World War I by G.J. Meyer
Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917-1918 by Byron Farwell


This is our third episode on America's path into the war. Last episode we discussed America's road from neutrality in February 1917 to the declaration of war in April 1917 and this week we will be primarily concerned with what the planned to do now. There were several items on their to-do list before they could join in the fighting at the front, and we will cover three of these items today. The first were some domestic problems that would need to be dealt with around food and money. Then the second two are military matters, how to handle the now massively expanding army, and what to do with the Navy. The answer to these final two questions would set the state for whatever the United States was going to do for the rest of the war.

America is often thought of as an infinite bread basket, especially in the context of the 20th century, but this was not necessarily the case in 1917 and that mindset is somewhat colored by the monumental impact of industrialization on American agriculture in later years. 1916 and 1917 were in fact very bad years for the wheat harvest, and when this was met with seemingly limitless demand from Europe shortages, speculators, and inflation would follow. Because of these issues the government created a food administration and put it in the hands of Herbert Hoover, the former President. This new administration would handle the supply and distribution of food within the country with its powers to include the ability to set prices. The establishment of this administration would be one of the first post declaration of war bills to encounter serious resistance in Congress. By the time that the bill was introduced the initial honeymoon period was over and many Senators were tired of being called upon approve anything that would put in front of them by the White House. This would be one of the first bills to experience resistance because many constituencies were actively against the government have any ability to set prices, especially rural districts which made up a good portion of the country. Farmers from all over the country lined up against the bill, bringing many of their Republican representatives with them. This meant that the new food administration was only created after pressure from the press was put on the government, and even then only passed begrudgingly.

Another topic that became more and more contentious as the year wore on was the subject of money. When war was first declared Congress approved any number of spending bills but there was a limit to how much Congressmen would approve, especially when people started asking how they were going to pay for it. Much like today the government was hesitant to introduce new taxes, which were always destined to be unpopular with a high percentage of Americans. The original revenue bill sent from the White House called for much higher taxes on those with the highest incomes and even higher on those businesses making profits from the war. These measures found large bases of support in the South and West since they had been less ethusiastic about the war, and were in general reaping far fewer of the economic benefits. Senators who had opposed the war leaped onto these bills, sometimes making the more extreme with the tax on war profits suggested at 80 percent. This then caused more conservative members to rise up in arms, saying that such a rate would wreck the economy. Just as an aside, at this point the British also had an 80 percent tax on war industries, after starting the war with it at 50 percent. Eventually the United States would settle on a 31 percent tax. The next topic on the discussion list was raising taxes on the richest individuals and companies, closing tax loopholes, and doubling the excess-profits tax that had been enacted in march. These measures met even greater resistance from the Senate. The Senate Finance Committee would hold several weeks of hearings on the topics, hearing that were packed with anti-tax viewpoints. Senator Hiram Johnson would say that these hearings "brought into sharp relief the skin-deep dollar patriotism of some of those who have been loudest in declamations on war and in their demands for blood." When a revenue bill was finally agreed upon and sent to the president the proposed new revenue streams paled in comparison to how much the war was going to cost. Already there was another 4.6 billion dollar bond drive starting up, on top of the 5 billion already raised. Wealthy individuals bought up these bonds in large numbers because the interest that was earned on them was tax free, which turned the initial 3.5 percent profit into something more like 10 percent. With so much money going out either at the moment or in the future when bonds were redeemed the only course of action was for the government to go into debt. In what would become common practice for the United States in times of war, it would be up to the future generations to make good on the debt because there was no way to stopping a massive increase in government spending. This spending would even continue after the war, with the federal budget never again being less than 5 times what it had been in 1914.

With the money situation at least out of mind for the moment, let's turn to the military side of the preparations. It was easy for the government to say that it was going to enter the war, create an army, then play a big role in winning the conflict but the devil was of course, in the details. In mid-April therefore the question moved from the theoretical to the practical, and how exactly they were going to do all of this. The first task, as mentioned last episode, was to create a division, even a single one. Here is Adam Tooze from his book The Deluge on how this was completed "To fulfill the promise that one division would be sent to France without delay, the commander of the southwestern military district was instructed to select three infantry regiments and one regiment of artillery—what would become the core of the army’s First Division, the Big Red One—for transfer to the East Coast. There were two reasons for drawing these units from the Southwest. That district was exceptionally rich in manpower at the time, having been sent large numbers of regular and National Guard troops to deal with the Mexican troubles. And the service record and political connections of the officer in charge there, Brigadier General John J. Pershing, made him a leading candidate to take charge of the new division." After the division was created it then had to be outfitted. One area where they were extremely lacking was in the realm of the artillery. American industry had been assisting in the creation of artillery shells for years, but the United States Army had barely any stockpile at all. Obviously the calculation is rough, but when war was declared in 1917 the Army had enough artillery shells for roughly 9 hours of bombardment on the scale required for the 1917 Western Front, 9 hours, so basically that rounds to zero.

While the 1st division could be cobbled together from the various regular and national guard troops available the far larger question was what to do with the massive number of new conscripts that were being brought into the army due to the draft. To train these men there were 32 training camps created across the country, each of which could accommodate 40 thousand men, some in nothing more than tent cities. While the living conditions were not great, they were created in just 60 days. To accomplish this feat there were 200,000 men employed in the construction, during which they consumed 2 billion nails, and 30,000 tons of building materials every single day. This was of course just the tip of the iceberg. In 1917 the army would order 132 million pairs of stockings, 8.3 million overcoats, 84 million underpants, 86 million undershirts, all of those numbers are pretty impressive. When men began to arrive for training in September they found the camps barely completed. There were also no special units created for training, instead the men were assigned to the division they were expected to serve in. Now, when I say that the men were trained, I use that in the loosest definition of the word. For example, when the 90th division would ship out in June 1918 only a third of its men had received over 4 weeks of training, barely enough to instill even the basic concepts of military life, they would still have a ton to learn in Europe. While the men were lacking in terms of training and equipment they were certainly not lacking in food. American soldiers were provided with more meat and more calories than any other army in the war, with something like 4,761 calories being given to them every day. This at a time when the Germans and Austrians were cutting their rations heavily due to food shortages. One item of note is that this army was a White army, those of other races were not welcomed and it was believed that they were not suited for anything other than labor or other service duties. There was on black division allowed, the 92nd, and while it had some black officers, none of them were higher than a Captain. It was not that minorities were not ready, willing, and capable of fighting, it was that they were not allowed to.

While there were hundreds of thousands of men getting dubious amounts of training, there also had to be men to lead them. If the number of troops that were needed to go to war was insufficient it was nothing compared to how much the officer corps was understrength. In essence the number of officers needed would have to be double the size that the entire United States Army was in 1915. Nearly every single NCO in the old army was instantly commissioned, and 16 officer training camps were established. 30,000 officer candidates were called to active duty in May, many of which were recent college graduates or upperclassmen. Training these new officers was critical, and to do so meant that many officers from the old army were stock on the home front for the entire war. This was very frustrating for them, including men like Dwight D. Eisenhower who spent the entirety of the war in Kansas, Maryland, and Pennsylvania administering training camps. He would finally receive his orders to go to Europe just in time for the war to end. He would have another war in which to show his leadership abilities.

With men and officers being trained up and preparing to go to Europe the next question was who would lead them. This duty would fall to General Pershing, who would go over with the First Division. Pershing was a career officers, and he would not necessarily a bad one, but in the prewar army promotions were very few and far between. This meant that the best move Pershing made was actually to marry Helen Frances Warren, the daughter of Francis Warren, the chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee. Warren's influence resulted in Pershing being promoted up four ranks in a single leap by President Roosevelt in 1906 a promotion that bypassed 862 more senior officers, something those 862 men were none too fond of, not that there was anything they could do about it. I will leave more in depth evaluations of Pershing's accomplishments and leadership to later episodes. Pershing and the first men of the American Expeditionary Force arrived in Europe in June 1917 and they were received with wild enthusiasm by the French crowds. The staff were placed into quarters in Paris and began to prepare for all of the challenges of feeding the millions of American soldiers into combat. By the end of 1917 there would be 125,000 men in Europe and their allies were less than impressed with what they saw. The British and French officers who were sent to work with the AEF were shocked at how deficient the men and officers were, in almost every single possible criteria. In some ways this was understandable. Every single American regulation, organizational decision, and command structure created before the war had to be rewritten since they could not cope with such a huge expansion. Even just moving a single division, which was 28,000 men, double the size of the divisions of other countries, was a logistical challenge beyond what the prewar army would have been able to do. Then there was also the issue of the Americans just having their own opinions on the war. They generally believed that the Europeans were being far too timid in their approach to warfare. The American regulations paid little attention to things like machine guns and grenades, instead it said that rifle fire would be more than sufficient to achieve fire superiority. Those who are Patreon subscribers, and have listened to the last several Patreon episodes, will know that this sounds a lot like the British Army of 1914. Belief that courage and a rifle was all that was needed. Pershing believed that "victory could not be won by the costly process of attrition, but must be won by driving the enemy out into the open and engaging him in a war of movement." This could have been lifted from any number of armies from 1914 to 1916. But this was not 1914, or 1916, and the Americans were far behind the Europeans in both mindset and ability. In many ways they were lucky that they were arriving into the war at the end instead of the beginning where their enemy had far less ability to punish their mistakes.

One limiting factor in terms of how many men could be sent to Europe was around shipping space. The War Department thought that by June 15, 1918 it would only have sent about 635,000 men to Europe due strictly to how much shipping it would take to supply them. When you look at the amount of food shipped to Europe to support the AEF this concern starts to make sense. During the last 17 months of the war the United States shipped 800 million pounds of canned beef, 150 million of canned pork, 500 million pounds of potatoes and a billion pounds of flour, yes that is billion with a b. They tried to reduce the amount of this that had to be shipped by buying as much as possible in Europe but food was something that would always have to make its way across. Shipping space would be part of why so much equipment that the Americans would use would actually come from the British and French. With this equipment they would also at some point have to take over part of the front line, and the question became where to put them. The possible areas of operation for the AEF were far more limited than you might suspect. The Americans could not go in Flanders, the British would never allow themselves to be moved away from the channel ports, and they certainly would not trust the American army to protect their lines to home. The French would similarly never let the Americans take over the front closest to Paris, protecting the capital would be a French job. With these limitations in mind Pershing asked to be put in the line between the Argonne Forest and the Vosges mountains, and area need the old Verdun battlefields of 1917. He believed that this would allow his army to take part in some solid offensives when the time came. The French had not issues with handing this part of the line over to the Americans, so Petain agreed. The first American troops of the 1st Division would begin arriving at the front on October 21st 1917. They would start with 10 day tours of the front on a battalion by battalion basis to try and acclimate themselves to the trenches in what was a very quiet sector. A few days after the infantrymen arrived the artillery did as well, and they fired their first shot into the German lines. The next day they captured their first prisoner of war. The rest of 1917 would be quiet for the Americans, and we will catch back up with the AEF next your when we discuss the German attacks of early 1918.

For now, we turn our eyes to the navy. During our episodes on the U-boat campaign of 1917 we talked a bit about how the Americans helped out the British by sending over their destroyers, but this would not be the only way in which the American Navy would assist in the war. However, before they determined how they would assist the British in the Atlantic the Americans had to solve a problem and it had to do with the mix of ship types in their navy. They had a good number of modern dreadnought battleships, 14 to be precise, which was a very respectable number, but they were joined by relatively few smaller ships. Basically, the American navy was very top heavy, lots of big ships, very few small ships to accompany them. This would be exacerbated by the number of destroyers that had to be detailed to protect convoys. Sims, the architect of the sending of the destroyers to Britain, would help find a way around this problem. After Sims arrived in Britain he went to Scapa Flow to consult with Jellicoe. When he got there the discussions resulted in his recommendation that Washington send their strongest coal-burning battleships to England to assist the Royal Navy. This may seem like an odd request, specifically coal burning batteships, nothing else, but that is exactly what the British needed. In 1917 the British were building a lot of new light cruisers, destroyers, and submarines to try and counter the German U-Boats but they were running out of trained seamen to man these new vessels, there simple were not enough men to go around. They hoped to solve this problem by retiring some of their older pre-dreadnoughts that they were using for coastal defense, breaking up their crews to be put on the smaller vessels, but to do this they wanted to augment their forces with American battleships to keep their numerical advantage over the Germans. The reason that they had to be coal burning was that, while the British had access to plenty of coal, they were short of fuel oil. Oil deliveries had been hit hard by the German U-Boats and there was barely enough for the Royal Navy to keep their own ships going, let alone the additional needed for any oil burning American ships. On the American side there was some concern about sending any large capital ships to Europe. The American admirals shared many strategic concepts with their British and German counterpats, mostly around the absolutely necessity of keeping the whole fleet intact for use in a massive battle that would win the war. However, in this case these concerns were overruled due to the opportunity that sending the ships to Europe presented the Americans with. By sending American battleships to Europe, battleships being the greatest symbol of national strength, the Americans would have a seat at the table in any Allied naval stategy discussions. It would also greatly increase the prestige of the Navy. Also, and when looking back at history we can be very honest, there was not much else for those ships to do. So on November 25th, 4 battleships sailed from Hampton Roads to Scapa Flow, they were in the Royal Navy now. When they arrived they were trained up to play their part in the Grand Fleet. They had British signalmen put on board and they were taught British signals, radio codes, tactical concepts, and fire and damage control methods. Overall a total of 9 American battleships would serve in European waters, this would be a precursor to the next war with how closely the two navies would work together against a common foe.

A key role of all of these ships was to make sure that the American Expeditionary Force got to Europe intact. Overall they would protect 2 million American soldiers on their way to Europe. With the knowledge of both how important these soldiers were, and how much the Germans would love to interdict their transit, the troops convoys were heavily protected. At times just 5 troops ships would be surrounded by 12 destroyers over the course of their 12 day voyage. To the credit of both the American and Royal Navies there was just 1 troopship sank during the war, with the Tuscania torpedoed on February 15th, 1918. Of the 2179 soldiers on board just 166 drowned, along with 44 members of the British crew. Even with a few casualties, by mid-1918 the Americans were coming to France at a rate of 300,000 a month, every single one of them due to the skill and dedication of the merchant sailors and navies protecting them. The Americans had now arrived, they were over there, next week we will begin by looking at what the Europeans in the war thought of the Americans and how their entry into the war would change the situation before we then jump back over the ocean to the American home front to look at some of the changes that the war would bring to the land of the free.