Wheat and thin strips of wood: Did these benign supplies really play a role in getting America into World War I?
In fact, logistics played a key part in bringing our nation into this conflict — in particular, America’s policy of, despite official neutrality, providing supplies to Britain via merchant ships.
At the turn of the 20th century, most Americans had grown weary of nearly a century of war. In the latter half of the 19th century alone, Americans fought and died in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the Mexican War, not to mention the Indian Wars. In fact, Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election with the slogan “He kept us out of war.”
But soon after war broke out in August 1914, America began to supply food, materials and even munitions to Britain and other German enemies, such as Italy. Germany — itself under pressure from a British sea blockade — began using its "unterseeboote," better known as U-boats or submarines, to sink these merchant ships in 1915. The Germans believed that American merchant ships, by delivering supplies, were contributing in a real way to the success of their enemy, Great Britain.
“Cruiser law” of the era dictated that unarmed vessels first be boarded, inspected for contraband, and if contraband was found, be afforded enough time for crew and passengers to escape via lifeboats. The first such attack, in January 1915, was of the ship William P. Frey, which was carrying wheat to Britain. Germany sank several more U.S. merchant ships that year. However, because of the comparatively genteel rules of engagement, most of these early sinkings brought no casualties.
This changed, however, with the sinking of the British ship Lusitania in May 1915. The attacking submarine gave no warning and made no attempt to rescue passengers. The attack killed nearly 1,200 civilians, including 128 Americans, many of them prominent civilians instead of the isolated losses of working-class merchant mariners in previous attacks. The sinking of the Lusitania led to widespread criticism of Germany, and so Germany soon re-imposed its own restrictions on its submarines.
But by early 1917, Germany was on the verge of losing the war. And so it declared on Jan. 31 that its submarines had the right to sink any ship in the war zone encircling the United Kingdom, without warning.
Between this announcement and the U.S. declaration of war on April 6, Germany sank 10 U.S. merchant ships. The Housatonic, first ship sunk after the announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare was carrying wheat to the British government. The second ship, the Lyman M. Law, was sunk for carrying what Germany considered lumber — in actuality thin strips of wood used to build lemon crates.
However, it was the sinking of three merchant ships in the same weekend in March that may have tipped Wilson and his cabinet toward war, according to Rodney Carlisle, in his 2007 article for the Canadian nautical journal Northern Mariner. The sinking of the Vigilancia killed 15 crew members, including six Americans. The other two ships, the City of Memphis and the Illinois, were empty and on the way back to the United States, but the fact that the Germans made no attempt to warn them, seize any contraband and give the crew a chance to escape was the probable turning point for Wilson, who considered such aggression barbaric, according to Carlisle.
In the Germans’ defense, their submarines were at great risk once they surfaced and made their presence known, given that the British government had urged merchant ships to ram German subs when possible.
As to the views of the American public, these ongoing attacks with their civilian deaths, combined with the Rape of Belgium; Germany’s offer in the Zimmerman Telegram to return to Mexico a large, recently acquired swath of the United States; and the prospect of a “war to end all wars,” turned the nation from isolationism to nationalism. And so America declared war April 6, 1917, with the first U.S. troops arriving in June.
For those American doughboys, it might have all begun with food and lumber.