Wednesday, May 31, 2017

May 1917

It's May 1917, and the United States has just entered the Great War.  Visiting Allied war leaders ask President Wilson for an immediate commitment of American troops.  General Pershing is named commander of the American Expeditionary Force and departs for Europe.  The United States enacts the first draft law since the Civil War.  Included is a provision authorizing the president to organize volunteer divisions such as the one former President Roosevelt wants to lead, but the President says he will not exercise that authority.  Americans are asked to subscribe to a “Liberty Loan” to finance the war effort.  President Wilson urges press censorship, but a bill giving the president censorship authority fails to pass Congress.  The Allies confront the Central Powers in the Balkans; Italy launches another attack against Austro-Hungarian forces on the Isonzo.  United States Navy warships arrive in Great Britain to assist the British with convoy escort and other duties.


Lansing (left) with Viviani, Balfour and Joffre at Mount Vernon

High-level delegations from France and Great Britain arrived in the United States last month.  After touring Mount Vernon together and laying a wreath at the tomb of President George Washington, they embarked separately on a round of visits dinners, parades, and visits to other cities. On May 1 the French emissaries, accompanied by Ambassador Jules Jusserand, visited the Senate.  After Vice Premier Viviani's brief address, Marshal Joffre explained apologetically that "I do not speak English," but added, in French, "Vivent les Etats-Unis!" and gave a military salute, inspiring a prolonged ovation.  The next day the French visitors joined President Wilson for luncheon at the White House, and the following day they visited the House of Representatives.  After M. Viviani concluded his remarks, Speaker Clark took Marshal Joffre by the arm as the Marshal stood at attention and saluted.  When the applause subsided, he said, in English, "Thank you."  Then he added "Vive l'Amerique," and the thunderous ovation resumed with shouts of "Vive la France!"  

The French delegation then boarded a train that took them to Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Springfield, Illinois, where on May 7 they laid a wreath at the tomb of President Abraham Lincoln.  They arrived in New York City on May 9 and were greeted at the Battery by Joseph H. Choate, the chairman of the Mayor's Committee.  They were driven by automobile to City Hall, where they were welcomed by Mayor Mitchel and other dignitaries in speeches that recalled America's debt to France in the Revolution and expressed admiration for France's role in the World War.  The next day they were given a tour of the City that extended from Prospect Park in Brooklyn, to luncheon at the Hotel Astor, to Columbia University where they were awarded honorary degrees, to Grant's Tomb on the shore of the Hudson River.  Thereafter they retired to the Fifth Avenue residence of Henry C. Frick, their host during their stay in New York, for a small private dinner (fewer than fifty guests).  On May 11, Marshal Joffre and the other military members of the delegation visited the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, while the civilians stayed in the City to greet Mr. Balfour and the British delegation arriving from Washington.  That evening, rejoined by Marshal Joffre and his entourage, the combined French and British delegations dined at the Waldorf-Astoria.

Balfour Arriving in New York

British Foreign Minister Balfour and his commission arrived in Washington last month three days before the French commissioners.  The day after their arrival Mr. Balfour had a long meeting with President Wilson in the White House, followed by a dinner hosted by the President and Mrs. Wilson for the principal members of the British mission.  After M. Viviani and Marshal Joffre had made their visits to Congress and departed Washington for their journey through the Midwest, Mr. Balfour took his turn on Capitol Hill, visiting the House of Representatives on May 5 and the Senate on May 8.  The British delegation then traveled to New York, arriving the afternoon of May 11.  

New York City's welcome rivaled that given the French commissioners two days earlier.  Debarking from their train in Jersey City, the British commissioners boarded a police boat that carried them to the Battery.  (It was noted that they landed at the very spot where the last British soldier had left New York in 1783).  Following the same route as the French, the British visitors rode up Broadway between cheering crowds and buildings flying the Union Jack to City Hall, where they were welcomed by Mayor Mitchel, Mr. Choate and other dignitaries including J.P. Morgan, Cleveland Dodge, Dudley Field Malone and Bernard Baruch.  That evening they attended the Mayor's Committee's dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria.  Attendees included former Presidents Roosevelt and Taft and two former candidates for the presidency, Alton B. Parker and Charles E. Hughes.  When Colonel Roosevelt, who is fluent in French, was seen in earnest conversation with Marshal Joffre, no one doubted that he was making the case for leading American troops to France.  Enthusiastic cheers erupted when Mr. Choate, calling for immediate and vigorous aid to the Allies, cried "Let Teddy go!"  

The next day, Mr. Balfour addressed more than a thousand members and guests of the Chamber of Commerce, telling them that the common cause of Great Britain and the United States represents the fulfillment of his life-long dream that the "English-speaking, freedom-loving branches of the human race should be drawn far closer than in the past."  On Sunday, May 13, Balfour had lunch with Colonel House at his New York City residence, then went to Sagamore Hill where he joined Colonel Roosevelt for high tea.  After returning to Washington, the British mission cancelled plans to visit Chicago in order to spend its remaining time in discussions with American officials regarding shipping and other issues.  On May 18 Balfour held a private meeting with President Wilson, at which it is believed he shared the text of secret treaties between Great Britain and other countries involved in the war including Russia, Italy and Japan.  The following Monday, May 21, President Wilson and Mr. Balfour held a lengthy meeting at the British mission.  Three days later Balfour addressed the National Press Club and paid a farewell call on President Wilson at the White House.  He left the next day for Toronto.

During their visit, both the French and the British commissioners impressed on their American hosts the immediate need of the Allies, not only for financial and logistical support, but for American troops in large numbers as soon as they can be supplied.  Last month's failure of the French offensive at the Chemin des Dames and the initial success of Germany's new policy of unrestricted submarine warfare have placed the Allied cause in jeopardy.  As Marshal Joffre said, "We want men, men, men."

Joseph H. Choate (1832-1917)

Joseph H. Choate, the Chairman of the Mayor's Committee that organized and conducted New York City's welcome to the British and French delegations this month, was the United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James from 1899 to 1905.  A prominent member of the New York legal community, he participated in several notorious cases and was instrumental in breaking up the Tweed Ring in the 1870's.  Since retiring from diplomatic service he has continued to be active in civic affairs, and followed a strenuous schedule before and during this month's celebrations.  On May 14 he suffered an apparent heart attack at his home on East 63rd Street and died at 11:30 that evening.  Two days earlier, in his last public appearance, he had attended Sunday services with Mr. Balfour at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

 The Former President at Home

Mr. Choate's plea at the May 11 dinner to "Let Teddy go!" was echoed in Congressional speeches and in the manpower bill passed this month and signed into law by the President on May 18.  The final version of the bill, however, while it authorized the recruitment of a division of volunteers, did not require it, and when President Wilson signed the bill he issued a statement saying "I shall not avail myself, at any rate at the present stage of the war, of the authorization conferred by the act to organize volunteer divisions."

Former French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, the influential French newspaper owner and journalist who served as prime minister from 1906 to 1909, also wants to see Roosevelt in France.  In an open letter to President Wilson in the May 27 edition of his newspaper L'Homme Enchaine, he tells the president "there is in France one name that sums up the beauty of American intervention.  It is the name Roosevelt."  Speaking for the French soldiers, Clemenceau says their hearts beat with joy at the arrival of the Americans, but that "more than one of our 'poilus' asked his comrade 'But where is Roosevelt? I don't see him.'"  He pleads with Wilson, for "the cause of humanity, which is also your cause," to "send them Roosevelt."

 Major MacArthur as a Captain in Veracruz, 1914

The manpower bill requires all men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the draft beginning June 5.  Registration is expected to require about five days and to result in a potential pool of draftees of about ten million.  The draft army will be known as the National Army to distinguish it from the Regular Army and the National Guard Army.  Some Regular Army troops are to be sent to Europe without delay.  With the enactment of the draft legislation, Major Douglas MacArthur of the General Staff delivered an announcement to newspapermen at the War Department stating that an expeditionary force of approximately one division of Regular Army troops under the command of Major General John J. Pershing would be sent to France as soon as possible.  The first American combat troops arrived in France on May 26.  On May 28 General Pershing and his staff sailed secretly for Europe aboard the White Star liner Baltic.  The French high command wants to use American troops to augment Allied units on the front lines, but it appears likely that American entry into combat will take place only after their organization and training as American Army units under the American flag.

Support for the draft, while less than unanimous, is widespread, as reflected in the popularity of a new song.  The Peerless Quartet, which in 1915 sang "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be a Soldier," now sings "America, Here's My Boy" (click to play):


4 Minute Men

The Senate-House Conference Committee considering an Espionage Bill added, at the urging of President Wilson, a section giving the President authority to censor the press.  The proposal has encountered resistance in Congress on the ground that it infringes freedom of speech and the press, and is opposed by most newspapers and news organizations.  On May 31 the House of Representatives voted on the censorship section separately and defeated it by a vote of 184-144.  The bill has been returned to the Conference Committee with instructions to eliminate that section.  Censorship or no censorship, on May 27 the Committee on Public Information released proposed "regulations for the periodical press of the United States during the war."  The Committee has also initiated a program of "four minute men," volunteers who will give brief speeches at motion picture theaters during the four minutes required to change reels.  The topics will be chosen by the Committee and will address patriotic themes in support of the war effort.

Buy Liberty Bonds!

In his war message, President Wilson said he wanted the United States war effort to be financed by "adequate credits" sustained by "well conceived taxation."  His proposed tax increases have encountered some resistance, but Congress has not been reluctant to authorize borrowing.  U.S. Government bonds, called Liberty Bonds, are now on sale and are being promoted by four minute men as well as celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and the evangelist Billy Sunday.  Large banks and wealthy individuals such as John D. Rockefeller have made large and well-publicized purchases.

 A Gotha Bomber in Flight

In the Balkans, British, French, Serbian and Italian forces in Salonika faced Bulgarian, German and Austrian troops across the River Struma.  An Allied offensive beginning on May 8 was turned back by heavy artillery fire.  The tenth battle of the Isonzo began with an Italian artillery bombardment on May 10.  By month's end, the Italian Army had made modest advances and captured over 20,000 Austrian prisoners.  German Gotha bombers based in Belgium struck Great Britain on May 25, killing 95 civilians and injuring 192.

 Foreign Minister Miliukov

Russia is in turmoil in the wake of the Tsar's abdication as the provisional government struggles to maintain control.  On May 1 (April 18 on the Russian calendar), Foreign Minister Pavel Miliukov sent a diplomatic note to the Allied governments promising that Russia would continue vigorous prosecution of the war.  News of the Miliukov note led to violence in the streets of Petrograd and gave impetus to the Bolshevik campaign against the Provisional Government.  On May 9 Chairman Mikhail Rodzianko addressed the Duma, pledging that Russia would "make every sacrifice to bring this war, in concert with our allies, to a complete victory."  Premier Lvov followed with a tribute to the revolution, which he said "every day strengthens our confidence in the creative forces of the Russian people and the greatness of its future."  Minister of War Alexander Guchkov, however, adopted a more pessimistic tone, warning that the military might have been weakened by "duality of power, polyarchy, and anarchy" and that the country was "on the edge of an abyss."  On May 13 General Lavr Kornilov, commander of the Petrograd garrison, resigned rather than comply with an order of the Petrograd Council of Workmen's and Soldiers' Deputies, also known as the Petrograd Soviet, that he submit his orders to the Council's executive committee for approval. 

In Berlin on May 15, German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg extended an olive branch to Russia, announcing during a debate on war aims that "if Russia wants to prevent further bloodshed and renounces all violent plans of conquest for herself, if she wishes to restore durable relations side by side with us, then surely . . . an agreement aiming exclusively at a mutual understanding could be attained which excludes every thought of oppression and which would leave behind no sting and no discord."  His approach was different to Germany's "western enemies."  While he disavowed "a program of conquest," he refused to give "an assurance which will enable them to continue the war indefinitely without danger of losses to themselves."

Mikhail Tereshchenko

A new coalition government was announced in Petrograd on May 16.  Foreign Minister Miliukov and Minister of War Guchkov have left the cabinet.  Mikhail Tereshchenko is the new foreign minister and Alexander Kerensky is the new minister of war.  The Provisional Government, which now includes representatives of the Petrograd Soviet, issued a statement on May 19 pledging that Russia will "energetically carry into effect the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity, beneath the standards by which the great Russian revolution came to birth."  The new government is apparently unimpressed by Bethmann-Hollweg's peace offer in the Reichstag a few days earlier.  Its statement firmly rejects "all thought of a separate peace" and "adopts openly as its aim the re-establishment of a general peace . . . without annexation or indemnities and based on the right of nations to decide their own affairs."

 Trotsky Arriving in Petrograd

Completing his long journey from New York interrupted by a month-long detention in Halifax, Leon Trotsky arrived at Petrograd's Finland Station on May 17.  He has not formally joined forces with Vladimir Lenin's Bolsheviks, but his speeches and statements since his arrival have been generally in line with the positions advocated by Lenin in last month's address to the Conference of Soviets (see the April 1917 installment of this blog).

Elihu Root

The United States government announced on May 11 that a special mission led by former Senator and Secretary of State Elihu Root will be sent to Russia.  Root has been given broad authority to do whatever is necessary to persuade the Russian government and people to continue to prosecute Russia's war against Germany.

 Admiral Sims

It will take several months at least before an American army large enough to make a difference on the battlefields of France can be drafted, trained, equipped, and sent to Europe.  The United States Navy, however, can begin making important contributions much sooner.  Last month Vice Admiral William Sims established a mission in Great Britain to coordinate naval operations between the United States and Great Britain.  The first American warships arrived on May 4, and will assist the Royal Navy in conducting patrols in the North Sea and English Channel.  In addition, the two navies have begun forming convoys of merchant ships with naval escorts in an attempt to minimize losses to submarine attacks.  Since the Germans' resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1,  Allied shipping has suffered unsustainable losses, over 800 Allied ships having been sunk on their way to great Britain.  Overcoming initial resistance by the British Admiralty, a trial convoy was formed on May 10 at Gibraltar and arrived without loss at the Downs on May 24.  Also on May 24, the first transatlantic convoy departed Hampton Roads bound for Great Britain.


May 1917 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, June and July 1917
New York Times, May 1917

Books and Articles:
A. Scott Berg, Wilson
Britain at War Magazine, The Fourth Year of the Great War: 1917
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
Patrick Devlin, Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson's Neutrality
John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson's War
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume IV: The Stricken World 1916-1922
Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
John Keegan, The First World War
David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War
Arthur S. Link, Wilson: Confusions and Crises, 1915-1916 
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
G.J. Meyer, The World Remade: America in World War I
Michael S. Neiberg, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America
Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 
J. Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram
United States World War One Centennial Commission, The U.S. Navy Arrives in Europe,
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I


  1. Excellent and comprehensive article! I have shared it with Joe Wiegand who portrays Teddy Roosevelt every summer in Medora, ND. I as General Pershing will divert from my appearance at the M.O.W.W convention in Billings, MT to sit in with "Teddy" and we will discuss his offer to lead Volunteers, which Pershing ignored.

  2. Thanks, David. I look forward to seeing you (as General Pershing) at the Dole Institute on July 12.