The banner headline in the New York Times summarizing the events of August 4, 1914 told readers everything they needed to know: “England Declares War on Germany; British Ship Sunk; French Ships Defeat German, Belgium Attacked; 17,000,000 Men Engaged in Great War of Eight Nations; Great English and German Navies About to Grapple; Rival Warships Off This Port as Lusitania Sails.” In short, Britain had come off the sidelines to fight with France and Russia against Germany and Austria. Now, for the first time since the Battle of Waterloo ninety-nine years earlier, all of Europe was at war.
But that Times front page is telling for another reason: every story described what foreign capitals were doing. With exception of the terse column subhead “Our Destroyers Put Out” buried in the middle of the page in a list of ten subheads, the Times reported nothing about what Washington thought of the war in Europe or how the United States might respond. The official White House proclamation of U.S. neutrality in the war appeared on page seven. It didn’t merit front-page treatment because few Americans could imagine being anything other than neutral. As good students of Washington’s Farewell Address, they saw the United States as a bystander to Europe’s war, not a potential participant.
That isn’t to say that Americans would have objected if the United States could have brokered a peace deal. President Woodrow Wilson was prepared to do just that. He wrote to each of the belligerents on August 4 expressing his willingness to “act in the interest of European peace, either now or at any other time that might be thought more suitable.” But Americans didn’t expect their president to keep Europe at peace. And they certainly didn’t imagine that within two generations he would be expected to.
As Wilson’s counterparts in European capitals were grappling with the public tragedy they had unleashed, he was grappling with a private one over which he had no control. His beloved wife, Ellen, was gravely ill with kidney disease. She died at the White House on August 6. For days afterward Wilson’s staff heard him muttering over and over again, “My God, what am I to do?” He would eventually find his answer in an audacious plan for world peace.