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U.S. Financial and Military Impact on the First World War

23 Jan
Courtesy of Wikipedia: Men of US 64th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, celebrate the news of the Armistice, 11 November 1918. (Rights within the public domain.)

Courtesy of Wikipedia: Men of US 64th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, celebrate the news of the Armistice, 11 November 1918. (Rights within the public domain)

(Note: The following work was submitted in partial fulfillment of course requirements of ‘The First World War in Perspective’, fall semester, 2014, at University of Oxford Department of Continuing Education.)

Finance and Economics

There can be no denying the significance financial backing from the United States had in enabling victory for the Entente in the long-term. By late 1916 Great Britain was spending $250 million per month in the United States for its own needs and on behalf of the Entente.[1] Niall Ferguson suggests that some writers have exaggerated the importance of American finance however.[2] In contrast, it is important to note that Ferguson highlights the Central Powers’ lower death toll as compared to the Entente, despite being “disastrously disadvantaged in economic terms.” The Entente suffered 5.4 million military deaths during the war as compared to 4 million for the Central Powers.[3] So while American dollars enabled France, Great Britain and Russia to continue to fight, the Central Powers—most notably Germany and Austria—were able to achieve more on the battlefields with less although still losing the war.

To what degree U.S. financial backing may or may not have been critical towards victory is pedantic and hypercritical but still relevant. For many businesses involved in the war effort in the United States, the First World War had brought prosperity to American businesses. U.S. Steel made $348 million dollars in 1916 bolstered by war production.[4] Yale professor Adam Tooze however, in warning Great Britain of an impending dependence on the United States in considering financial engagement, cites British economist John Maynard Keynes in suggesting that “The dependence of the Entente on the United States was not necessary…. London’s decision to lead the Entente toward Wall Street was taken as part of the deliberate high-risk strategy, as part of an all-out effort to deliver the ‘knock out’ blow.”[5] The next logical question must be addressed: How did the United States financial support of the Entente affect pre-existing overseas trade and commerce relationships with countries around the globe now embroiled in war—if at all?  A political and economic conundrum arose. Aware that they were now in the position as a world-leading economic power, how could United States policy makers both stifle Germany economically during the war yet foster a positive climate for her post-war participation, which the U.S. would need? The immediate priority was to revive and re-stabilize the stock market and foreign commerce which went into shock in 1914. The New York Stock Exchange had shut down for four months.[6] In the short-term, the United States benefitted economically by bolstering its weak sea and naval resources by confiscating several hundred thousand tons of German shipping in American ports by the Emergency Fleet Corporation. Additionally, the War Trade Board was established in 1917 by Woodrow Wilson. Its mission was to regulate American foreign commerce and ultimately halt trade with Germany and the Central Powers.[7]

Aware that the United States would need to deploy its army to fight in Europe to ensure its participation and leadership in the post-war era, President Woodrow Wilson finally committed American troops to Europe in April 1917. By the time the Armistice was signed in 1918, the United States had marginal or limited direct military impact on the Western Front in Europe. America’s late entry into the war had provided a morale boost for the Entente, and the German and Austrian people were already starving at home over the 1916-1917 winter, a fact that was symptomatic of a weakening Central Powers.[8] Furthermore, the Central Powers were deteriorating economically supporting the timeliness of U.S. entry. David Stevenson writes that

Bulgaria’s railways were seizing up and Turkey was lurching towards hyper-inflation. Reliable budgetary figures are lacking, but Ottoman government expenditure may have quadrupled during the war while revenue rose barely 20 per cent. The authorities could not cover the deficit by borrowing, and the paper currency introduced in 1915 rapidly depreciated. Retail prices in Constantinople had quadrupled by January 1917 and rose nearly twenty-fold by the end of the war.[9]

The literature strongly suggests that U.S. financial backing and war loans to the Entente coupled with economic collapse of the Central Powers was closely tied to the combatants on the battlefield achieving victory.

America at War on the Western Front

American strategy dictated that the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) would fight as an independent army against Germany on the Western Front. This decision to not join France and Great Britain through amalgamation of its troops was costly. Challenged as other generals and commanders were during the Great War, American General John J. Pershing’s inexperience and refusal to integrate with French and British troops resulted in high numbers of losses. Pershing’s weaknesses during the Meuse-Argonne in 1918 after the Battle of Saint-Mihiel illustrated the ineffectiveness of the AEF as a stand-alone army. Following American success at Saint-Mihiel, where combined AEF and French troops outnumbered a retreating German enemy 2-to-1, Pershing-led troop’s renewed confidence was over-shadowed by inexperience and battle stress: “The offensive could have moved even more quickly, noted a French observer, ‘but the army was immobilized after the first 12 hours by inexperience in reorganizing under battle conditions.’ When French premier Georges Clemenceau arrived to visit the liberated areas, he saw firsthand the chaos in the American sector.”[10] Clemenceau had sought Pershing’s removal as commander of the AEF late in the war, but this did not come to pass and was later dismissed as political maneuvering for the post-war era.

David Kennedy suggests that German attrition and retreat due to exhaustion led to Pershing’s contribution on the Western Front rather than his strategies. The AEF’s efforts in the Meuse-Argonne, although not without exorbitant losses, probably helped shorten the war: “Their errors and losses on the battlefield were largely attributable to their lack of preparation and to the inexperience of their officers…. But the AEF’s exertions in 1918 undoubtedly helped shorten the war by perhaps as much as a year…”[11] Although the AEF’s two battles in 1918 were fought late in the war, it can be suggested that Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne may have been tipping points which facilitated German General Erich Ludendorff to begin his push towards peace in earnest with Foreign Minister Paul von Hintze and Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm aided by Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenberg.

Ferguson addresses the dated myth that ‘the Americans won the war’, when in fact “the AEF suffered disproportionately high casualties, mainly because Pershing still believed in frontal assaults, dismissed British and French training as over-cautious, and insisted on maintaining outsized and unwieldy divisions.”[12] Ferguson writes that it was not that the Allied tactical superiority that ended the war, but rather it was German morale which had reached a crisis point.[13] As historians who inject qualitative analysis and opinion along with narrative, it is important to include that both Kennedy and Ferguson do not single out AEF shortcomings exclusively however. Both write extensively of the failings and successes of Central Powers leadership and tactics as well as those from the Entente in their respective works.

Conclusion

In Paul Fussell’s 1975 classic The Great War and Modern Memory, the author quotes the late American dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman’s response to questions of her writing from her diaries. She said “Reading them later, she found that they did not include ‘what had been most important to me, or what the passing years have made important.’”[14] As historians and students studying the history of the First World War, we debate larger issues such as direct military and financial impact from the United States highlighted in this paper. In this short essay the writer has offered a few examples of subjects within this debate. What the passing years have made important to us is the assessment of the utter chaos of world war’s profound effect on economies and politics both during and after the conflict. ‘A bad war and a bad peace’ has been a common narrative among historians in summation of the First World War. Although fighting as an independent, the United States should not be excluded from the Entente and Central Powers in this over-arching characterization—in every aspect. But what ultimately resulted, fortunately, were the signed armistice and a twenty-year peace.

Endnotes

[1] Hew Strachan, The First World War (New York: Viking, 2004) 228.
[2] Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (New York: Basic Books, 1999) 326-327.
[3] Ibid., 294.
[4] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2003) 363.
[5] Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (New York: Viking, 2014) 208.
[6] David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 301.
[7] Ibid., 311, 314.
[8] Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (New York: Viking, 2014) 39.
[9] David Stevenson, Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy (New York: Basic Books, 2004) 304.
[10] David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 194.
[11] Ibid., 204-205.
[12] Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (New York: Basic Books, 1999) 312.
[13] Ibid., 313.
[14] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975) Kindle Edition.

Bibliography

Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999.
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. Kindle Edition.
Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004.
Strachan, Hew. The First World War. New York: Viking, 2004.
Tooze, Adam. The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931. New York: Viking, 2014.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2003.

By Scott Lyons

 

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2015 in World War I - General

 

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