The United States’ Entry into the First World War: The Role of British and German Diplomacy

Well-timed for the centenary of the Great War’s end,
Dr Olmstead’s book uncovers the influence of diplomacy on America’s decision to enter the First World War. It’s an important but oddly understudied subject, a complex aspect of a war commonly represented by instantly recognized themes and images but which when examined in detail reveals itself as incredibly complicated, even, as Dr Olmstead suggests below, “mindboggling” to the men in charge of it.


Growing up I was, like many young boys, fascinated with the Second World War. It was while I was at university that I began to become more interested in the First World War. The more I read, listened to, or watched about the war, the more intrigued I became. The thing that caught my attention was (and still is) that it is not straightforward. Who is at fault. Were the soldiers ‘lions led by donkeys’? Were the German’s ruthless people? Could peace have been had earlier were it not for inept leaders bent on European or even global domination? These questions, or forms thereof, and so many more are still being asked with few definitive answers given. The research that led to this book began as part of my Ph.D. thesis, and it is still very much based on it. Why I focused on an aspect of US, British, and German diplomacy during the war and not something else? The attraction of why people make the decisions they do was too much to resist. At this point, I am no longer sure what my initial thoughts about the direction this was going to go were, but I had terrific support from Timothy Baycroft and Dan Scroop. Both offered wonderful advice and allowed me to poke around and go down rabbit holes until I felt comfortable and confident that I had something new to offer.

The United States’ Entry into the First World War
The Role of British and German Diplomacy
by Justin Quinn Olmstead

As one would expect, the research for this project took place in the UK, Germany, and the US. At various points, over the last several years I could be found at The National Archives of the UK, or the Parliamentary Archives, various US archives, and the several archives in Germany. It must be noted that the archivists and other professionals at all of the archives were extremely helpful and willing to point me to me sources and ideas. At the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, I was even invited to go into the vault with the Director of the Prussian Archives to find the papers of Alfred Zimmermann. These papers had yet to be cataloged since their arrival in the early 1900s! One of the beautiful things about researching in the twenty-first century is that most archives allow you to use digital cameras. This allows for a large number of files to be looked at in a short amount of time. The key is that upon returning home, the work begins in earnest. As I read, reread, translated, and transcribed, I started sorting information by what I thought would be the initial chapters. I then categorized them by subtitle within each section to create a linear feel to each chapter.

I hope that this book will provide the readers with some understanding of how genuinely mindboggling the war was to those supposedly in charge of it. Just like today, there were no clear answers, despite what men such as President Woodrow Wilson or Edward M. House thought. The events of the war were much more in tune with the approach taken by British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey or German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg. The approach Britain and Germany took towards America followed the same patterns as had been established years before. From the American perspective, why the United States entered the war was very much about the multiple pressures placed on it by the warring factions. Americans had different feelings about the war and those on the East Coast held very different views from those on the opposite Coast.

I think the contribution this book makes is multifaceted. First, the approach is taken to understand how the history of diplomatic relations matter is an original approach to the subject of diplomacy during the First World War. Quite simply, diplomacy and diplomats mattered. Second, is that the reasoning behind the sending of the Zimmermann Telegram covers more than two chapters. Knowledge of the rough history of US-Mexican relations paired with Bismarck’s style of diplomacy makes Zimmermann’s move logical in context. Finally, the diplomacy surrounding the war at sea is often over-simplified.

This book sheds some light on what the meaning of the phrase ‘strict accountability’ meant to the men who wrote it. This book also provides a notion of how the British maneuvered the American president and his administration into focusing on German violations of international law while ignoring violations by Britain.


This guest post was written by Justin Quinn Olmstead, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Central Oklahoma.

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