Part 12: The Causes Leading up to World War I

Part Twelve: The Causes Leading up to World War I

"The nineteenth century was an age of European expansion" in both territory and knowledge. Throughout the first three quarters of this century, the naval and commercial supremacy of Great Britain was unquestioned. But after that the British had to face "very real competition from America" and newly formed nation states in continental Europe. When Germany won the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, they "became the greatest continental power." This brought an end to France's preeminent position on the continent.

Both the British and the French then turned their attention overseas to regain their "greatness." Their technological advantage enabled them to establish colonies in North, East, and West Africa. (The Africans resisted and fought bravely, but their inferior weapons were nor match for those of the Europeans.) King Leopold II of Belgium, who "always wanted a colony," competed with France for control of the Congo in Central Africa. "In 1883–1884, Bismarck decided that Germany needed colonies." … "Once determined to seize colonies, Bismarck set out to collect them swiftly and ruthlessly. In a year and a half between 1884 and 1885 Germany acquired extensive regions in South-West Africa, Togoland, the Cameroons, and East Africa."

In October of 1884 Bismarck joined with France "to invite twelve other states to a conference in Berlin to discuss free trade in the Congo basin, freedom of navigation on the Niger and the Congo rivers, and the requirements for international recognition of European occupation in Africa." This conference began in November of 1884. When it ended in February of 1885, the European "Partition of Africa" was virtually complete and King Leopold's claims on the Congo were recognized.

As we have seen: "During the last quarter of the nineteenth century the nations of Europe, in their mad scramble for colonies, had practically completed the partition of Africa. (See Table on the 1895 Partition of Africa.) Now they had turned their attention to China as the last of the great 'backward' nations as yet unappropriated. 'Spheres of influence' were already marked out in which one nation or another had obtained 'concessions' for the 'development' of a specified region and in many instances outright ownership was asserted. England, ever since the Opium War of 1842 (a war which England fought for the right to sell opium, which influenced their economy, to China), had held Hong Kong; Japan after the war with China in 1895, assumed control of Korea"; Germany, France, and Russia all had interests in Asia.

But inside China, anti-foreigner feelings were rising. In 1900, under the leadership of a Chinese athletic society known as Boxers, foreigners including traders, missionaries, and government agents came under attack in what was called "The Boxer Rebellion." Military intervention was necessary for the European powers to quell the uprising.

The United States, in order to maintain its favorable trade conditions, advocated an open door policy for China. With the exception of England, the other powers called for partitioning. The diplomacy of Secretary Hays carried the day for the Americans and English. Negotiations were held wherein the withdrawal of expeditionary forces were to be withdrawn by the fall of 1901. All parties complied except Russia, which maintained a special concentration in Manchuria.

The depression following the Panic of 1873 hit America hard. In the beginning of the country working men looked upon America as the "land of opportunity." This illusion was being shattered. This discontentment was fed by Henry George's book Progress and Poverty, in which he argued that the progress of the few had been built on the poverty of the many. For John D. Rockefeller's company, Standard Oil of Ohio, had gained control of 95 percent of all pipelines and refineries in the United States, and was on his way to become "the most feared and hated man in America." Commodore Vanderbilt had accrued more than $20 million by the end of the war by keeping up with the technological revolution in transportation. Later when the Vanderbilts announced wage cut prices on their railroad lines, the other lines followed. Workers' strikes ensued. Rioting and mob violence destroyed over $5 million worth of railroad property.

In an effort to quell the emerging radicalism, and to assure the workingman that there was room at the top, men of wealth began to publish their success stories. The myth of Horatio Alger (poor boy makes good; rags to riches, etc.) became an American dream.

Andrew Carnegie, asserted that the rich man's role was to provide ways of success for the less fortunate. He espoused the theory of schools as "ladders of success." As a result, the wealthy families established institutes of learning including Carnegie Institute of Technology, Cornell, Pratt, Stanford and others.

(Needless to say that during this period, labor unionism accelerated representation for the working man.)

The interest of the American people, in general, had been toward westward expansion towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Monroe Doctrine had warned Europeans to stay out of American affairs, while proceeding to control the Western Hemisphere under the slogan of "manifest destiny."

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, continental expansion had ended; the United States had matured; pioneering and the frontier were fading; good, cheap, or free lands were nearing exhaustion; American industry was beginning to hold its own; many mines and factories were supplying the country's needs and selling the surplus abroad. American interest began to turn to areas outside of the United States.

American began to foster ambitions of Pan-Americanism. Relationships were set up with Hawaii, Samoa, Chile, Venezuela, and Cuba. Using the Monroe Doctrine as a guideline, the United States generally worked out relationships with the European countries. However, there was a lingering dispute over the boundary between British Guyana and Venezuela, which was thrust into controversy upon the news of the discovery of gold in the disputed territory. The United Sates called for arbitration, while the British were only willing to arbitrate within certain limits.

Developing European tensions made the British realize that Germany loomed as her future enemy. Thereby, making friendship with the United States desirable in the event of a future war (World War I validated this reasoning). Therefore, plans for arbitration were eventually agreed upon which were satisfactory to the United States. The Americans talked loudly of their diplomatic triumphs.

The American entanglement with Spain over Cuba took a different course. The McKinley Tariff in 1890 removed the duty on sugar and compensated American growers by bounty. The Cuban economy prospered enormously as a result. "The Cuban 'native', colored by a strong fusion of Negro blood, did most of the work, while the upper class whites took most of the profits." When the Wilson-Gorman Act, in 1894, restored the duty on sugar, the Cuban economy declined just as rapidly as it had risen.

Hard times, unemployment, and depression followed. The Spanish policy of discrimination in favor of the mother country and the pure breed Spaniards contributed to the wretchedness of the peons as well as provided ample reason for discontentment. Insurrection ensued.

When the Spanish proceeded to crush the "revolution," together with the corrupt and inefficient Spanish officials in Cuba, the insurrectionaries found support form the Americans. For the southern expansionists had coveted Cuba since before the Civil War.

When the Spanish destroyed the battle ship "Maine" in Havana Harbor, Americans entered the Spanish-American War.

Four Black regular army regiments fought in Cuba. Blacks were with Theodore Roosevelt and the "Rough Riders" at San Juan Hill. There were some Blacks who understood the real meaning of the war to be American imperialism. Charles G. Baylor, attorney, observed "…the American Negro cannot become the ally of imperialism with enslaving his own race." Lewis Douglass (son of Frederick Douglass) wrote: "It is a sorry, though true, fact that whatever this government controls, injustice to dark races prevails. The people of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Manila know it well as do the wronged Indian and the outraged Black man in the United States…its (America's) expansion means extension of race hate, and cruelty, barbarous lynchings, and gross injustice to dark people."

As the war came to an end, not only was Puerto Rico conquered, but the advent of the belligerent mood of the Americans that developed during the 1890's subsided. And what's more, the war had been enough to involve the United States into world politics.

As we recall, the European powers partitioning of Africa had been practically completed and they had turned their attention to Asia. As they did so their interests came in conflict and tensions evolved. In particular, the French-British cordial understanding "of the new century was faced by a German demand for 'a place in the sun', a right to extract from colonial and semi-colonial areas a sphere of the wealth which was going to Britain. When Germany invaded Belgium, and with that invasion brought war with England, it must be remembered that by that same token Germany was invading the Belgian Congo and laying claim to the ownership of Central Africa."

"World War I then was a war of spheres of influence in Asia and colonies in Africa, and in that war," writes DuBois, "curiously enough, both Asia and Africa were called upon to support Europe."

The rate at which Europe plunged into war left the Americans aghast. In 1914, the United States declared its neutrality, as this had been a tradition since George Washington.

Control of the high seas posed a major struggle in the war. Though America proclaimed its neutrality, she acquiesced to the allies. And when Britain set up its blockade she virtually sewed up a monopoly on the American trade. Germany, handicapped by its inability to trade with the United States, in retaliation set up a war zone around the British Isles and threatened to blast anything coming into it. Prodded by the popular slogan, "Keep us out of the war," President Wilson embarked upon peace negotiations. Though Wilson did not think the Germans would actually carry out their threats, on March 18, 1917, German submarines sank three ships with loss of American lives.

This act set the machinery in motion that carried the Americans into the war. On April 4th and 6th the war resolution passed the senate and house, respectively.


Collins, Robert O. — The Partition of Africa: Illusion or Necessity
DuBois, W. E. B. — The World and Africa
Goldston, Robert — The Negro Revolution
Hicks, John D. — The American Nation
Perkinson, Henry J. — The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education 1865–1965
Negro Almanac
New York Times Encyclopedic Almanac
Quotations are from Collins, DuBois, and Goldston