Over There (1898-1918). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Over There (1898-1918). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

 (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

Jingoism, imperialism, and “yellow journalism”.

The Spanish-American War.

The Wilson administration and entry into World War I.

 In his Farewell Address of 1797, George Washington cautioned his fellow Americans to avoid “foreign entanglements”; for a century thereafter, the nation did just that. The United States, insulated from the European and Eastern powers by great oceans, maintained a foreign policy of strict isolation. The one chink in this isolationist armor was Central and South America. President James Monroe promulgated his Monroe Doctrine in 1823, essentially declaring the entire Western Hemisphere off-limits to European powers with designs on creating new colonies. In the course of the 19th century, the United States became the de facto major power of the hemisphere. During the century, too, while other nations amassed far-flung empires throughout the world, the United States expanded exclusively across its vast continent.

By the end of the century, the nation extended from “sea to shining sea,” and a significant number of Americans (some called them “patriots,” others “imperialists,” and still others “jingoists”) started thinking that it should extend even farther. Not content with the United States as a force in this hemisphere, these individuals wanted to see it on an equal footing with the great European powers of the world.

Color It Yellow. Strange as it may seem, the birth of U.S. imperialism was related to a newspaper comic. In 1895, Richard Felton Outcault, a cartoonist for the New York World, introduced a singlepanel comic that featured as its main character a slum child costumed in a garment that was tinted yellow by a brand-new color process, of which the paper was very proud. The World’s publisher, Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), was delighted with “The Yellow Kid of Hogan’s Alley,” the popularity of which allowed him to close the gap in his circulation race with The New York Journal, published by rival news magnate William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). Not to be outdone, Hearst lured Outcault to the ranks of the Journal, whereupon Pulitzer hired George Luks (who would go on to become a major American painter) to continue the original comic as simply “The Yellow Kid.”

The battle over the comic was but one episode in an ongoing, high-stakes circulation war between Pulitzer and Hearst, both of whom were intent on building great publishing empires. The papers continually strove with one another to publish sensational news stories that would attract readers. But it was the yellow ink of the slum kid comics that gave this style of newspaper publishing its name when newspaperman Ervin Wardman made reference to the “yellow press of New York.”

“I’ll Furnish the War…” Sometimes the quest for sensational news led the likes of Pulitzer and Hearst to publish muckraker material that exposed social injustice, corruption, and public fraud. Indeed, for all its faults, the age of yellow journalism contributed greatly to the cause of reform and introduced onto the American scene the tradition of the crusading journalist. But, noble motives aside, the circulation war kept escalating. Both Hearst and Pulitzer, hoping to bag the Big Story, dispatched reporters to cover a developing situation in Cuba, a colony of Spain that was a mere 90 miles off the Florida coast. At considerable expense, Hearst hired the great painter of life in the American West, Frederic Remington (1861-1909), and dispatched him to Cuba. When combat failed to materialize, Remington cabled Hearst: “Everything quiet. There is no trouble. There will be no war. I wish to return.” The newspaper tycoon cabled in reply: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

It was true that Cuban hostilities were slow to brew. The island had long been rebellious, and in February 1896, Spain sent General Valeriano Weyler (dubbed “Butcher Weyler” by Hearst) as governor. He created outrage not only in Cuba, but in the United States, when fie summarily placed into “reconcentration camps” Cubans identified as sympathizing with or supporting the rebels. Although both President McKinley and his predecessor, Grover Cleveland, stoutly resisted intervening in Cuba, U.S, popular sentiment, whipped Lip by atrocity stories published in the papers of Pulitzer and Hearst, at last moved McKinley to order the battleship Maine into Havana Harbor to protect American citizens and property there.

Remember the Maine! The temperature of America’s war fever was not raised by sentiment alone. United States companies had made major investments in the island, especially in sugar plantations. Not only did revolution threaten those investments, but, to put the situation in more positive terms, a pliant puppet “independent” government in Cuba (or better yet, a Cuba annexed to the United States) would be very good for business. On February 9, Hearst scored a journalistic coup by publishing a purloined private letter in which the Spanish minister to the United States insulted President McKinley. Having for so long avoided “foreign entanglements,” America was now propelled to the brink of war.

On February 15, 1898, the nation held hands and leaped over that brink. An explosion rocked Havana Harbor, and the U.S.S. Maine blew up, killing 266 crewmen. The Hearst and Pulitzer papers vied with one another to affix blame on Spain, and cries of “Remember the Maine … to hell with Spain!” echoed throughout the nation.

President McKinley, himself still reluctant, waited until April to ask Congress to authorize an invasion of Cuba. Congress not only complied but voted a resolution recognizing Cuban independence from Spain. In response, Spain declared war on the United States on April 24. However, the first action took place in the Spanish-occupied Philippine Islands, not Cuba. U.S. Admiral George Dewey (1837-1917) sailed the Asiatic Squadron from Hong Kong to Manila Bay, where, on May 1, he attacked the Spanish fleet, sinking all 10 ships in the bay. This action was followed by a landing of 11,000 U.S. troops, who, acting in concert with the guerrilla forces of Filipino rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo, quickly defeated the Spanish army in the islands. In July, Spanish Guam also fell, and the U.S. gathered up previously unclaimed Wake Island. Most importantly, Congress passed a resolution annexing Hawaii.

Action on Cuba was equally swift and decisive. On May 29, the U.S. fleet blockaded the Spanish fleet at Santiago Harbor, and in June, 17,000 U.S. troops landed at Daiquiri and assaulted Santiago. The war’s make-or-break land battle, at San Juan Hill on July 1, included a magnificent charge by the volunteer Rough Riders, led by Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. In the meantime, Admiral Pasqual Cervera sailed into the harbor of Santiago de Cuba, where he was blockaded by the U.S. fleet. On July 3, after the U.S. victory at San Juan Hill, Cervera decided to run the blockade. Within four hours, his fleet was almost completely destroyed. The battle claimed 474 Spanish sailors and only two U.S. sailors. On July 17, 24,000 Spanish troops surrendered, and Madrid sued for peace nine days later. U.S. Secretary of State John Hay (1838-1905) summed it all up by dubbing the ten-week conflict a “splendid little war.”

Spain withdrew from Cuba and ceded to the United States Puerto Rico and Guam; it sold the Philippines to the U.S. for $20 million. The U.S. established a territorial government in Puerto ]Rico but temporized on Cuba, first establishing a military government there and then allowing Cuba to draft its own constitution, albeit with U.S. supervision and with provisos. The provisos included the right to establish American military bases on the island and to intervene in Cuban affairs “in order to preserve [Cuban] independence.” Until the revolution spearheaded by Fidel Castro in 1959, Cuba would exist as the often less than willing puppet of the United States.

Theodore Roosevelt, who assumed office after the September 5, 1901, assassination of McKinley and who was subsequently elected to a presidential term in his own right, promulgated the so-called “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. In effect, this policy made the United States a kind of international police force in the Western Hemisphere, The policy was a major step toward establishing the nation as a world power.

He Kept Us Out of War. After taking that step, however, Americans had second thoughts. Roosevelt handpicked his old friend William Howard Taft to succeed him as president, and Taft won handily. However, Taft soon proved far more conservative than Roosevelt-although he did continue some of TR’s Progressive reforms, including anti-trust prosecution and, most significantly, support for the proposed income-tax amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, Taft did not pursue Roosevelt’s aggressive foreign policy, for it was clear that most Americans wanted to return to a comfortable degree of isolationism. Taft failed to win reelection in 1912, finishing a poor third to Democrat Woodrow Wilson and TR himself (running as a third-party Progressive—” Bull Moose”—candidate).

Democrat Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), president of Princeton University and, afterward, zealously reform-minded governor of New Jersey, was elected U.S. president on a Progressive platform. During his first term, the income tax was introduced, protectionist tariffs were lowered, the Federal Reserve Act (1913) reformed currency and banking laws, and antitrust legislation was strengthened in 1914 by the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act. In 1915, Wilson supported legislation that federally regulated working conditions of sailors, and in 1916, he signed the Federal Farm Loan Act into law, providing low-interest credit to farmers. Labor reform came with the Adamson Act, granting an eight-hour day to interstate railroad workers, and the Child Labor Act, curtailing children’s working hours.

But Wilson faced staggering problems in foreign relations. He unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a Pan-American pact to guarantee the mutual integrity of the Western Hemisphere. Wilson also wrestled with revolutionary Mexico, at first seeking to promote self-government by refusing to recognize the military dictatorship of General Victoriano Huerta and instead supporting constitutionalist Venustiano Carranza. But in 1916, Wilson intervened against revolutionary guerrilla leader Pancho Villa after Villa raided the border town of Columbus, New Mexico, killing several American citizens. In 1915 and 1.916, Wilson also sent troops to rebellion-racked Haiti and Santo Domingo, where he established U.S. protectorates.

Despite these problems and conflicts, the majority of Americans were highly relieved that, under Wilson, the United States remained safely aloof from the cataclysm that had begun in Europe on June 28, 1914. On that pretty day in early summer, the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Grand Duchess Sophie, paid a state visit to what was then the remote and obscure Balkan capital city of Sarajevo. The couple was gunned down by a young Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princeps. AustriaHungary responded by accusing Serbia of having plotted the assassination. A tangled series of threats, ultimatums, and alliances was suddenly set into motion—mindlessly—as if some terrible machine had come to life. And between the great gears of that mindless machine, the people of Europe would be mangled.

At first, it looked as if the war would be a short one. The German armies made a spectacular drive through France, sweeping all resistance before them. Then, in a moment of strategic uncertainty, the German column turned and, about 30 miles outside Paris, dug in. For the next four years, Europe was doomed to the fruitless horrors of trench warfare. To the, grinding tattoo of machine-gun fire, the ceaseless pounding of artillery, and the strangled moans of asphyxiation by poison gas, the nations of Europe fought one another to a standstill. France, Britain, Russia, and lesser allies were on one side; Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their lesser allies were on the other.

Lusitania Lost. President Wilson adroitly managed to keep the American nation out of this charnel house.. Anxious to preserve the rights of American neutrality, he sternly warned Germany in February 1915, that the United States would hold it strictly accountable for the loss of American lives in the sinking of neutral or passenger ships. Just four months later, on May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the British passenger liner Lusitania, killing 1,200 people, including 128 Americans.

Many in the United States—among them Theodore Roosevelt—clamored for immediate entry into the war. Wilson demurred, but he issued a strong protest to Germany, demanding reparations and the cessation of unrestricted submarine warfare. Although Germany protested that the Lusitania carried munitions (a truth that was vigorously denied by the British), officials were anxious to avoid having to face yet another enemy. Germany ordered its U-boats to give passenger ships ample warning before firing upon them. Wilson’s firmness with Germany so deeply disturbed isolationist Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan that he resigned in protest. But popular sentiment was on the side of Wilson, who had retained American honor without shedding American blood. He ran successfully for a second term, propelled by the slogan “He kept us out of war.”

Zimmermann Note. Although the Germans had backed down on unrestricted submarine warfare, relations between the United States and Germany deteriorated steadily after the Lusitania sinking. In February 1917, Germany announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, and on February 3, the U.S.S. Housatonic was torpedoed and sunk without warning. In response, President Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Germany. In the meantime, evidence of German espionage in the U.S. mounted, and on March 1, the American public learned of the “Zimmermann Note” or “Zimmermann Telegram.” It was a coded message, sent on January 19, 1917, from German foreign secretary Alfred Zimmermann to his nation’s ambassador to Mexico outlining the terms of a proposed German-Mexican alliance against the United States. Public sentiment left Woodrow Wilson little choice. On April 2, 1917, he asked Congress for a declaration of war. The declaration was issued on April 6.

… Sate for Democracy. Wilson told Congress that America must go to war in order “to make the world safe for democracy.” With this statement, the nation’s role as guardian of the Western Hemisphere expanded to an assertion of the United States as a true world power.

The puny U.S. Army numbered only about 200,000 men in 1917; by the end of the war, it would swell to 4 million. President Wilson led a spectacular mobilization, creating a welter of special war agencies, effectively placing private industry entirely under federal control. In May 1917, Wilson pushed through Congress a Selective Service bill, by authority of which 2.8 million men were drafted. About half the army—some 2 million men—served in the AEF (Allied Expeditionary Forces) led by the very able General John J. Pershing. Naval forces sailed under the command of Admiral William S. Sims.

Pershing arrived in Paris on June 14, 1917, at a low point in the fortunes of the Allies. Every major French offensive had failed, and the demoralized French army was plagued by mutinies. The British had made a major push in Flanders, which ended in a costly stalemate. The Russians, fighting on the Eastern Front, had collapsed and were rushing headlong toward a revolution that would end centuries of czarist rule and introduce communism into the world. This revolution would also result in a “separate peace” between Russia and Germany, freeing up masses of German troops for service on the Western Front. Although the first AEF troops followed Pershing on June 26, it was October 21, 1917, before units were committed to battle and the spring of 1918 before masses of Americans actually made a difference in the fighting.

Patriots and Slackers. Pershing’s first battle was not with the Germans, but with his French and British allies, who demanded that U.S. forces be placed under their control. Backed by Wilson, Pershing resisted this demand and at last prevailed, retaining full authority over U.S. troops.

There was yet another war to fight. Although a majority of Americans supported the war effort, many objected to spilling blood in a “foreign war.” Wilson built a powerful propaganda machine, which produced hundreds of films, posters, pamphlets, and public presentations to portray the “Great War” as a titanic contest between the forces of good and evil, of civilization versus the omnivorous “Hun.” And wherever propaganda failed, the government used emergency war powers to censor the press and to silence critics of the war. Little was done to protect the rights of U.S. citizens of German ancestry, many of whom were threatened and persecuted.

As to America’s young manhood, the noblest thing one could do was to enlist. And if waiting to be drafted was considered less than patriotic, protesting or attempting to evade the draft was downright treasonous. Those who were suspected of avoiding service were branded as “slackers” and publicly humiliated.

Over the Top. Between June 6 and July 1, 1918, the “Yanks” recaptured for the Allies Vaux, Bouresches, and—after a particularly bitter battle-Belleau Wood. The Americans also managed to hold the critically important Allied position at Cantigny against a great German offensive during June 9-15. If ever the cliche about a “baptism by fire” was appropriate, it was now. American troops quickly came to know what the soldiers of Europe had experienced for the past four years: the results of humanity gone mad.

Marne. Between July 18 and August 6, 85,000 American troops broke the seemingly endless stalemate of the long war by decisively defeating the German’s last major offensive at the Second Battle of the Marne. Here, at last, was a battle that could be deemed a genuine turning point. The victory was followed by Allied offensives-at the Somme, Oise-Aisne, and Ypres-Lys during August.

St. Mihiel. Although Americans fought in each of the major August offensives, they acted independently—and brilliantly—against the St. Mihiel salient during September 12-16. This battle initiated a campaign involving a massive number of U.S. troops-some 1.2 million of them—who pounded then cut German supply lines between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest. The campaign, which continued until the very day of armistice, November 11, 1918, was highly successful, but terribly costly. American units suffered, on average, a casualty rate of 10 percent.

Armistice. It became apparent to Germany that American soldiers were not only willing and able to fight (a matter of doubt among optimistic German strategists the year before), but that their numbers were inexhaustible, as was the American capacity for military-industrial production. The German government agreed to an armistice—a cessation of hostilitiesto be concluded at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

The Least You Need to Know

The end of the 19th century saw the end of America’s long tradition of isolation from world affairs.

 The United States emerged from World War 1, the most terrible war the world had seen up to that time, as the champion of world democracy; although some politicians held out for a return to the nation’s old isolationist ways, turning back was not possible.

Word for the Day. Americans who, in characteristically loud tones, voiced support for a warlike, imperialist foreign policy were called jingoes. The word jingo apparently came from “by jingo,” an expression in the refrain of a bellicose 19th-century English music-hall song. “By jingo” also entered into American popular speech as a socially acceptable alternative expletive to “by Jesus. “

Word for the Day. Yellow journalism–sensational, usually nonobjective, even distorted or outright untrue journalistic practices aimed directly at readers’ emotions and meant to boost newspaper circulation.

Main Event. The 16th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified by the required two-thirds of the states in February 1913, and the federal government was henceforth authorized to collect income taxes. Initially, rates were set at 1 percent of taxable income above $3,000 for individuals and $4,000 for married couples. The highest rate was 7 percent, imposed on those with incomes in excess of $500,000. The century’s two world wars would temporarily send income tax rates sky high-as high as 77 percent during World War I and 91 percent during World War II. In the middle of the second war, in 1943, Congress enacted an automatic payroll withholding system, thereby greatly increasing taxpayer “compliance” (as the IRS politely terms it) and doubling tax revenues by 1944.

Word for the Day. American David Bushnell (ca. 1742-1824) invented a submarine that was used during the Revolution in 1776. Then in 1864, the Confederate navy operated the submarine Hunley with disastrous results—for the crew of the Hunley. By the early 20th century, all the major European powers built submarines. By far the best were the German vessels, which were called Unterseebooten, or U-booten for short: U-boats.

Voice from the Past. From Woodrow Wilson’s war message to Congress, April 2, 1917:

 “…The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind. It is a war against all nations. American ships have been sunk, American lives taken in ways which it has stirred us very deeply to learn of, but the ships and people of other neutral and friendly nations have been sunk and overwhelmed in the waters. in the same way. There has been no discrimination. The challenge is to all mankind. Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it. The choice we make for ourselves must be made with a moderation of poise and a temperateness of judgment befitting our character and our motives as a nation.

“… We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those tights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of the nations can make them….”

Word for the Day. In a military context, a salient is a line of battle, especially a concentrated area of defense.

Stats. A total of 65 million men and women served in the armies and navies of combatant nations during World War 1. Of this number, at least 10 million were killed and 20 million wounded. Of the 2,000,000 U.S. troops who fought, 112,432 died, and 230,074 were wounded. The monetary cost the war to the United States was the equivalent of $32,700,000,000 in dollars.


As deadly as bullets, shells, and poison gas were, an influenza epidemic produced by the filthy living conditions of the war proved even more terrible. About half the number of American troop deaths were caused by “flu.” The epidemic would grow to pandemic proportions after the war, killing some 21.64 million people world percent of the world’s population. In the United States, 25 percent of the ill, and 500,000 died.


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