There was strong pressure led by ex-President Theodore Roosevelt for immediate intervention on the side of the democracies. Sympathy for the Central Powers was slight, and the image of Germany as a militaristic monster projected by her behaviour in Belgium, her use of poison gas, and her ruthless conduct of the war at sea, all powerfully magnified by Allied propaganda, did nothing to increase it.
But the British were not generally popular either. In addition the substantial Irish vote in the cities of the east and the ethnic German communities further west, there were many who regarded Britain not as a natural ally but as the traditional enemy against whom the United States had already fought two major wars and might have to fight another if she were to establish her rightful place as a World Power. Still, the overwhelming majority of Americans favoured keeping out of a war that was none of their business. Yet as the war went on an increasing amount of that business consisted in supplying war material to the Allies—not necessarily out of ideological sympathy, but because they could not get it to the Germans. If that trade were interrupted, then the war would become their business, whether they liked it or not.
Until the end of 1916 President Woodrow Wilson’s primary concern had been to keep the United States out of the war. But the longer the war went on, the more difficult this became. His problem was less to persuade the hard-pressed Allies to make peace: that could always be done by cutting off their credits and supplies, which Wilson showed himself quite ready if necessary to do. It was how to persuade the victorious Germans, who were not getting American supplies anyway. Throughout 1915 and 1916 Wilson’s personal emissary, the Anglophile Colonel House, had been exploring possibilities of a settlement, but the German armies were still too successful, and the Allies too hopeful of eventual military success, for either side to consider it.
By the end of 1916 the situation was changing. In November Wilson was elected President for a second term, and, although both his personal inclination and his government’s official policy were still to keep America out of the war, his hand had been strengthened against the isolationists. In Europe the pressure for peace was becoming too strong for any belligerent government to ignore. Even Ludendorff had to take account of the plight of his Austrian ally and the growing demand within the Reichstag for a peace ‘without annexations or indemnities’. Shortly after his re-election Wilson invited the belligerents to state their peace terms. The Allies were happy to do so, knowing that these would command American sympathy.
They involved, first and foremost, the restoration of Belgian and Serb independence with full indemnity for the damage done by their occupiers. In addition, they required ‘the restitution of provinces or territories wrested in the past from the Allies by force’; Alsace-Lorraine, obviously, but perhaps other territories as well. Italians, Slavs, Rumanians, Czechs, and Slovaks were to be liberated from foreign domination (the fact that Italy had been promised extensive Slav territories by the Treaty of London was left unstated). Poland was to be granted independence—a concession that the Czar, under intense Allied pressure, had already accepted for the Polish territories under his control. Finally, the Ottoman Empire was to be dismembered, though on what lines was left unspecified.