Skip to Content

Why did the United States break Diplomatic Relations with Germany in 1917?

We take pride in providing authentic travel recommendations based on our own experiences through unique imagery and visiting each destination. We may earn a commission when you purchase a product or book a reservation. Learn more ›

The Allied Powers and the Central Powers fought the First World War between 1914 and 1918. The countries that made up these alliances were primarily European countries, with Germany belonging to the Central Powers.

The US was neutral initially but eventually joined the war near its conclusion. In total, over 100,000 Americans died in World War I. So, why did the United States break Diplomatic Relations with Germany in 1917? Why did it take so long for the US to get involved?

First World War

World War I started on 28 July 1914 and ended on 11 November 1918. The war was fought between the Allied Powers (British Empire, France, Russian Empire, and eventually Italy and the US) on one side and Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany & the Ottoman Empire).

Damaged City of Lille, During German Occupation, World War I, 1916

The US stayed neutral for most of the war but eventually joined it in 1917. The United States had an important role in entering WWI, which involved a number of reasons. President Woodrow Wilson was one of the main promoters of entering WWI.

He had his ideas on democracy, freedom, and self-determination which he wanted to export to other countries. These are considered the most important reasons for joining the war against Germany in 1917.

Another reason is that Americans were steadily becoming more outraged by German acts of terrorism against civilians. The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, a civilian British ocean liner, was a major factor in pushing the US closer to war. 123 Americans lost their lives in that attack.

Although it would still be two years before the US said enough was enough. The Zimmermann Telegram was also a factor in America entering WWI. This telegram was sent from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government.

The Germans were trying to get Mexico to join the war and help them defeat America should the US decide to join the fight on the Allies’ side. If Mexico agreed, Germany would help them regain the territories they lost to America in the Mexican-American War.

The war ended in November 1918, and the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919. This treaty forced Germany to sign an agreement to take full responsibility for starting the war and to pay heavy reparations to the Allied Powers.

Many speculate that the harshness of this treaty gave rise to Nazism in Germany, leading to World War II. So why did the US break ties and declare war on Germany? Let’s delve into it!

See Related: Is Germany Socialist?

US President Woodrow Wilson

US president Woodrow Wilson

In 1917, US President Wilson decided to sever diplomatic relations with the German Government due to violations of the Sussex pledge. The Sussex Pledge was an agreement between the US and Great Britain set out in May 1916 to warn Germany that if their submarine warfare resorted to unrestricted attacks on all vessels regardless of nationality, then this would be regarded as a war crime and would result in America entering World War I.

Germany’s submarines started sinking unarmed American ships without warning during WWI. As a result, the tension between the US and Germany was high. The sinking of these ships pushed the US President to break all diplomatic relations with Germany on April 7th, 1917.

See Related: What If Germany Won WWI?

German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg

German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg is also considered a reason for America breaking ties and joining WWI against Germany. He was the head of the German government during WWI.

He even attempted to negotiate with the United States in 1916, but realizing that U.S. entry into the conflict would be crucial, he fought against those advocating unrestricted submarine warfare. Bethmann’s offer of electoral changes in Prussia on April 7, 1917, angered military and civilian conservatives even more.

Bethmann was forced to step down from his post as chancellor in the Reichstag debates over a peaceful resolution in July 1917. On July 13, Georg Michaelis replaced him.

Von Bethmann-Hollweg wanted to keep America out of the war, but his policies only worsened it. He made several strategic and political mistakes that led to Germany’s defeat in 1918.

See Related: Hilarious German Jokes to Know

Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare

Unrestricted submarine warfare meant that submarines were sinking any ship regardless of its nationality inside the war zone – being a World War, a “warzone” could mean the entire continent of Europe or the entire Atlantic Ocean. This type of warfare is illegal under international law.

During this time, the ocean was divided into an official war zone and another zone where the German navy promised not to attack. However, they did not stick to this agreement, which resulted in Americans dying on passenger ships and convoys to Europe.

The sinking of the Lusitania caused outrage across America because of the American victims on board. It changed public opinion of the war and made it more difficult for President Wilson to stay neutral.

It also changed the public perception of Germany in America. German was the second most popular language after English in the US until WWI.

The Sussex Pledge

Wilson threatened to cut diplomatic ties with Germany unless the German government stopped attacking all passenger ships and allowed the crews of enemy merchant ships and vessels to flee their ships before being attacked after an unarmed French boat, the Sussex, was sunk in the English Channel in March 1916.

On May 4, 1916, Germany accepted these terms and conditions under what became known as the Sussex Pledge.

The Sussex Pledge was an agreement between the United States and Great Britain set out in May 1916 to warn the German navy that if their submarine warfare resorted to unrestricted attacks on all vessels regardless of nationality, then this would be regarded as a war crime and would result in America entering World War I.

The Zimmerman Telegram

The Zimmermann Telegram was sent from the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government. The Germans were trying to get Mexico to join the war and help them defeat America should the US join against Germany.

If Mexico agreed, Germany would help them regain the territories they lost to America in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

For this reason, the straw that broke the camel’s back, Woodrow Wilson, decided on March 1, 1917, that all diplomatic relations with the imperial German government should be severed.

See related articles: The Flag of Germany: Colours, Meaning & History

The US declares war

In 1917, the United States Congress passed a resolution to declare war on Germany. This was due to the unrestricted submarine warfare resumption that the German ambassador announced and the Zimmerman Telegram. The US would finally enter World War I on April 6, 1917.

German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg opposed the resumption of submarine warfare, believing it would bring the United States into the war on behalf of the Allies.

This, he claimed, would result in Germany’s defeat. Despite these warnings, the Imperial German government determined to resume unrestricted submarine attacks on all Allied and neutral shipping in declared war areas. Finally, on April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to demand a declaration of war against Germany.

submarine machine found in a musuem

Wilson mentioned Germany’s breach of its promise to cease unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean and efforts to persuade Mexico into an alliance with the United States as motivation for declaring war.

On April 4, 1917, the United States Senate voted favor war against Germany. The House concurred on April 6th.

On December 7, 1917, the United States declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the key German ally in Europe. Due to these reasons, the US public opinion was swayed into declaring war by the US with Germany.

FAQ

President Wilson was the President of the United States from 1913-1921. What historical event happened in 1917?

The historical event in 1917 was America’s entry into World War I, shortly after the Russian capitulation.

Who is President Wilson?

President Woodrow Wilson was the President of the United States from 1913 to 1921.

Who is Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg?

Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was the Chancellor of Germany from 1909-1917. He resigned by order of Emperor Wilhelm II in July 1917.

Why did the US enter World War I?

The US entered World War I because of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare and also because of the Zimmermann Telegram.

What is the Zimmerman Telegram?

The Zimmermann Telegram was sent from the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government. The Germans were trying to get Mexico to join the war and help them defeat America. If Mexico agreed, Germany would help them regain the territories they lost to America in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

What is unrestricted submarine warfare?

Unrestricted submarine warfare is a naval strategy employed in World War I by the Central Powers, comprised of Germany and Austria-Hungary. It involved using submarines to sink any ships, regardless of their nationality. This was a direct violation of international law at the time.

What is a Submarine?

A submarine is a watercraft that is designed to operate underwater. They are used in naval warfare to launch torpedoes at enemy ships. In German, a submarine is called unterseeboot, or U-boat for short.

What are the Allies?

The Allies were the countries that fought against the Central Powers in World War I. The main players were the British Empire, France, Belgium, and eventually the US and Italy.

Where did the US side during WWI?

The US sided with the Allies during World War I.

What territories did America gain from Mexico?

America gained the territories of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona from Mexico due to the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. These territories would later become part of the United States.

Who were the Central Powers in WWI?

The Central Powers in WWI were the countries that fought against the Allied powers. The members of this alliance included Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria.

Is unrestricted submarine warfare still used today?

Unrestricted submarine warfare is no longer used by militaries worldwide because it was only effective in the early days of submarine warfare. Since then, naval technology has progressed to the point where submarines can no longer sink large numbers of undetected enemy ships.

Who won World War I?

The Allies, comprised of the British Empire, France, Belgium, Italy, and the US won World War I. The Central Powers were defeated and surrendered in 1918.

Related Resources

    ↑ Top