The Great War in Europe was viewed in the United States in 1914 as a catastrophe, a tragedy, and wholly unnecessary. There were speculations that perhaps it was the inevitable result of forsaking the sensible conduct of business in pursuit of militarism. But by 1917 the mood in the U.S. had changed.
A steady drumbeat of news accounts tinged with anti-German sentiment played on public perception. The Germans tried to claim military necessity to excuse their use of force as an invading and occupying army in France and Belgium. But too many dead civilians and destroyed towns led to commentary in these pages that Germany was guilty of “barbarity,” “piracy” and being run by a “power-mad autocracy.”
The most direct reason for the U.S. entry into the war was submarine warfare by Germany, according to frequent editorials in Scientific American. Submarines were a relatively new weapon when war broke out in 1914. They were envisaged originally as weapons for attacking ships in harbors and defending coastlines from enemy fleets. But during the war the Germans developed the strategy of attacking trans-oceanic trade itself. Historians generally support the idea that Germany gambled and lost: its leaders believed they could manufacture and deploy enough advanced submarines to shut down trans-Atlantic trade and starve England, France and Italy into submission before the industrial and military might of the U.S. could be brought to bear in Europe. But the Americans were furious when their civilian ships, such as the Lusitania, were destroyed and their citizens killed.
When Germany announced in January 1917 that it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare, an editorial in Scientific American flatly stated: “The United States has been brought as close to the possibility of war with Germany as the eyelid is to the eyeball” [Scientific American, February 10, 1917]. Three weeks later, another editorial responded to the renewed nautical carnage by stating: “We are embarked in the Great European War. Of that there can be no doubt whatsoever. Our entrance into the conflict took place on that fateful day, the 17th of March, when three of our peaceful and unarmed merchantmen were sent to the bottom ... by German lawlessness and brutality” [Scientific American, March 31, 1917].
On April 2, the formerly noninterventionist President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress, asking for a declaration of war. His eloquent speech [published in Scientific American, April 14, 1917 as “The President’s War Message”] emphasized morality, “calling upon the country to wage war in defense of those great principles which are the foundation of all true democracy.” By April 6th the Senate and House of Representatives voted to support Wilson’s call, and the U.S. was at war with Germany.
Scientific American was a witness and commentator on what has been called “the first science war.” Our Archive covers how science and technology entered and was used in the war from 1914 to 1918, but also looks at how the war affected individuals, and analyzes the news from the home front. Perhaps most telling, from our view in 2017, we can explore the news and perspectives on the war at the time, and see where these were either accurate, misleading, or just plain wrong.
There is a rich variety of material in the Archive available to the interested reader. Here is a sampling of some themes and ideas:
Editorials and letters published in Scientific American about the war:
An overview of Scientific American and the war:
Slideshows on our Web site cover a variety of themes from the war. A sample is here:
War breaks out in 1914
Aviation in 1915
War at Sea 1915
Industry in 1916
1916 in the Great War
Our monthly column, “50, 100 and 150 Years Ago in Scientific American” has entries that cover the evolving war. For instance, on the new technology of tanks:
In the Anecdotes from the Archive blog, one facet of the war is highlighted from every issue of the then-weekly magazine. Here is a small selection:
Personal reports from the field of battle:
A look at camouflage and deception in war:
The big guns enter the war:
The sinking of the civilian liner Lusitania, and the reaction to it:
Women move into the factories as part of the war effort:
The chemistry and the horror of poison gas:
Caring for the severely wounded soldiers from the war:
A look at the front lines in 1916:
The Scientific American Archive
Our full 172-year archive covers the First World War and science and technology from 1845 to today. It is available to all-access subscribers at scientificamerican.com/magazine/sa