This Day in History: The State Department At the Advent of World War I

3 minutes read time
President Woodrow Wilson delivers a declaration of war to the joint session of Congress, in Washington, April 2, 1917. (AP Photo)
President Woodrow Wilson delivers a declaration of war to the joint session of Congress, in Washington, April 2, 1917.

This Day in History: The State Department At the Advent of World War I

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. involvement in WWI, which began on April 6, 1917, with a declaration of war against Germany.  The outbreak of World War I took nearly everyone by surprise, including the thousands of U.S. citizens trapped in Europe in August 1914—trying to get home from a war zone, in the midst of a continent at war.

The declaration of war against Germany, signed by President Woodrow Wilson signals the U.S.'s entry into the Great War, April 6, 1917. (AP Photo)

 

Today the State Department's Office of the Historian is publishing the first installment of their narrative account of  U.S. diplomats responding to the humanitarian catastrophe that accompanied the beginning of the war—first in ensuring the safety of U.S. citizens at the outbreak of war, and then in accepting “protecting power” responsibilities for the major combatants. This narrative will focus on the major embassies across Europe—Paris, Berlin, Vienna, London, and Saint Petersburg (then Petrograd)—and their heroic and resourceful responses to the cataclysm of the war. This account will be published serially over the coming months at https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/wwi.

 

Publication begins today. This first installment includes an introduction and a survey of the Department on the eve of war. It moves on to cover the extraordinary American Relief Commission that sailed to Europe in the first days of the war, loaded with caskets of gold to finance loans to U.S. citizens stranded in the midst of a continent at war. Subsequent installments will move from capital to capital, examining the unique challenges facing each, and the adaptive responses of the invariably insufficient staff in coping with these challenges. It is a story nearly forgotten in history, but an inspiring look back at the first diplomats to step up to the kinds of responsibilities that have since become integral to the role U.S. diplomats play around the world.

Ambassador James W. Gerard, late ambassador to the German imperial court, says goodbye to Americans leaving on a special train, August 1914. (Photo courtesy of "My Four Years in Germany" by J.W. Gerard)

 

The Office of the Historian is complementing this narrative history with the release today of newly digitized versions of sixteen volumes from the Foreign Relations of the United States series, the official documentary record of U.S. foreign relations. These volumes cover the years from 1912 to 1918, documenting the descent into conflict across Europe, and then U.S. policymaking throughout the war—first as a neutral power, and then as combatant. The Office of the Historian is executing this release of material on WWI on the centennial of U.S. entry into the war, to commemorate that event and to honor those who served in that conflict. The Office of Historian plans to release the related material on the Versailles peace negotiations in the next quarterly release, scheduled for June 2017. 

 

About the Author: Stephen Randolph serves as Director of the Office of the Historian at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.

For more information: