Editor’s note (4/2/2017): This week marks the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. entry into the First World War. Scientific American, founded in 1845, spent the war years covering the monumental innovations that changed the course of history, from the first tanks and aerial combat to the first widespread attacks with chemical weapons. To mark the centennial, we are republishing the article below and many others. For full access to our archival coverage of the Great War sign up for an All Access subscription today.

For more than two years the U.S. had been neutral while the “Great European War” raged on, but driven by circumstance and popular demand, the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Opinion in the U.S. was shaped by a highly controlled stream of information from governments involved in the war, who relied heavily on censorship and propaganda to bolster national support for efforts to shift entire societies onto a war footing. News and narratives from the battlefield or factory emphasized the negative characteristics of the opposing side or tried to show the strength, diligence or courage of friendly forces or people. As a neutral country, the U.S. was allowed by international law to trade with all of the combatants; but a tight British naval blockade meant in reality that only those friendly to the Allies benefited from this arrangement. Germany tried to halt the flow of food, weapons and munitions to its enemies by using submarines to sink neutral ships, but this policy, as you can read below, caused outrage in the U.S. and was one of the prime causes of its entry into the war in 1917.

All of these excerpts (which have been edited for length) are pulled from the past pages of the Scientific American Archive, which has been bringing the news and opinions from the frontiers of science, technology and civilization since 1845. You can peruse 171 years of the Archive for yourself at scientificamerican.com/magazine/sa


A look at a world at peace in July 1914

Scientific American, July 25, 1914

“A World’s Fair of Books

“On the very ground where, one hundred years ago, was waged the ‘nations’ battle,’ a peaceful competition of peoples is taking place this year, for the benefit of civilization and the profit of mankind. The International Exposition of Book Trade and the Graphic Arts at Leipzig, Germany, may fitly be called a symposium on human education; it unfolds before our eyes the history of culture, man's own history, giving an insight into the intellectual evolution of nations, the rise from darkness, superstition, and ignorance to light and joy, education, knowledge, and understanding.”


There was surprise, even shock, when the Germans invaded France. Two weeks after the invasion of France, we have this editorial.

Scientific American August 15, 1914

“The Napoleon of the twentieth century

“Chief among the many dramatic features of the opening scenes of the great European war drama, is the superb daring with which the German “War Lord” has launched his mighty army against what is practically the united naval and military strength of the rest of Europe .... Not since wars began has so great a military people, with such a sublime confidence in its invincible prowess, played for so great a stake as that for which the German hosts are now battling on sea and land. Should the Teuton win, he will hold all Europe in his ‘mailed fist,’ and the flag of his ships of war and commerce will float undisputed upon the Seven Seas, with nothing to stand between him and worldwide dominance but the great English-speaking republic of the New World!”


The U.S. was neutral at first, but there were questions about which countries might be better to support.

Scientific American, September 19, 1914

Letter to the Editor

“The War of the Nations

“To the Editor of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN:

“Without entering into the partisanships or race animosities of Europe, without taking sides in what is their affair, and not ours, on a basis of our natural sympathies, does it not still behoove us to consider what effect the result of this great conflict may have on our own interests and destinies as a nation? .... Should the allies win, the status quo ante bellum will be largely resumed so far as the world outside of Europe is concerned except for the annihilation of German commerce .... Should, on the other hand, the allies be defeated, Germany would become supreme on the seas and assume the Napoleonic role of France a century ago.... Which, then, is most to our interest as a nation? The prime, if not only, fact to remember in deciding this question is that whereas England has always supported our Monroe Doctrine, Germany has always been hostile to it; in fact, we may say that but for England we never could have supported it until now. Germany is, among the nations, a “bounder” or “climber,” as the English aptly term one who eagerly elbows his way to the front without regard to the rights or interests of others.

Milwaukee, Wis. GEORGE W. COLLES.

[Colles worked as a consulting engineering and patent expert in Milwaukee 1903–1914]


You can sense the frustration of the editors that the militarism of the European powers took precedence over the sensible pursuit of commerce.

Scientific American October 3, 1914

Lead Editorial

“Frontiers in the Old World and the New

“If they were not so deeply engrossed, just now, in the work of mutual butchery, we would invite the warring nations of the continent of Europe to contemplate the following very significant facts: First, that here, on the continent of America, the two greatest nations of the world have a common frontier, which extends, unbroken, for some four thousand miles.

“Second, that throughout the whole vast reach of it there is not to be found, on either side, a single fortification, or any offensive or defensive military work of any kind whatsoever.

“Third, that leading up to, crossing it, or running parallel with this frontier, there does not exist a single so-called military railway—every line of railway communication having been built with a single eye to the development of the natural resources of the two countries, and the mutual exchange of the products of peaceful industry. That heavily fortified frontiers, backed up by a network of military railways, are a menace to a friendly neighboring state, and provocative of responsive military works, and that they produce an atmosphere of international suspicion and dislike, cannot be disputed.”


There was much support in the U.S. for being neutral.

Scientific American, February 27, 1915

Lead Editorial

“On the Edge of the Maelstrom of War

“Altogether timely and fitting and universally approved throughout the country was the President’s appeal to the citizens of this country, issued immediately upon the declaration of war, to preserve an attitude of the strictest neutrality.”


Imaginations sometimes wandered to unpleasant conclusions.

Scientific American, May 15, 1915

Book Review

“America Fallen! The Sequel to the European War. By J. Bernard Walker. New York, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1915. Price: 75 cents.

“In this book the naval and military unpreparedness of the United States is demonstrated in the form of a dramatic narrative, which shows how helpless this country would be against a sudden and carefully planned attack by a first-class naval and military European power ....This book may not please but it will certainly fascinate the American reader.”


After a year of war, we published a roundup article that looked at the European descent into war.

Scientific American, August 7, 1915

“The First Year of the Great War”

“On June 28th, 1914, the world heard of the assassination by a Serb in Sarajevo of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne. Who could have foreseen at that time the terrible deluge of blood and iron that was to sweep over Europe as a consequence of this act? Nearly a month passed before Austria sent an ultimatum to Serbia on July 23rd, giving her but a few hours in which to frame her reply. The Serbian answer failed to satisfy Austria, and one month to a day after the assassination she declared war on Serbia. During this brief period the situation grew in gravity until it became a crisis of greater magnitude than any which had confronted Europe since the days of Napoleon. Soon all Europe was to act as though possessed of an evil spirit of madness and destruction.”


The battlefield was in France. The ensuing destruction of French civilian buildings was useful propaganda material for drumming up sympathy by the Allies.

Scientific American, October 24, 1915

From a first-person account “Letters from the Firing Line”

“The Cathedral of Rheims is in flames. I cannot speak of anything else to-day. It is a stab at the heart of France, a direct and cowardly insult thrown at her face. The burning of Louvain, the destruction of the university where centuries had heaped their treasures, already appealed to the world. This is a still worse act of vandalism. The enemy set fire to the most magnificent fane of Christianity while invoking the Christian God. In so doing they have covered themselves with an immortal shame, and it will be hard for Germany to eradicate this deed from the memory of all lovers of art.”


A description of terrorism in an article by Major H. Bannerman-Phillips shows a growing anti-German sentiment.

Scientific American, April 17, 1915

“The duties of aircraft are scouting and the destruction, by means of bombs, of objects of military usefulness and importance. To these the Germans have added a third, which they term 'frightfulness'—raids which by the murder of non-combatants and the destruction of private property may strike terror into the inhabitants: of a country in the hope that, by setting up a state of nervousness, an influence may be exerted on the progress and direction of the war. In our case, of course, the hope evidently is that the flow of reinforcements to the Continent may be stopped, whereas in point of fact the excursion of Tuesday is more likely to have exactly the opposite effect.”


Germany’s efforts to strike back at the flow of manufactured goods (including ammunition) from the U.S. to Germany’s enemies. But sinking civilian ships brought Germany more problems than benefits.

Scientific American, May 22, 1915

Lead Editorial:

“War, Humanized and De-humanized

“One of the most assuring evidences of the fact that the world has been steadily advancing toward a higher civilization has been the development of a set of laws designed to soften, if not eradicate, the inhumanity of war. War is a professional business. The soldier is the professional exponent of war. It is his business to kill and, if fate so decrees, to be killed. But all around the inherent terror and cruelty of war, there has been built up, by the common consent of civilization, a series of restrictions designed to protect, as far as may be, the non-combatants. It is one of the most lamentable features of the present struggle that by one nation, at least, these safeguards have been ruthlessly thrown aside. The sinking, on sight, of the ‘Lusitania’ is the latest and most atrocious instance of this relapse to that gratuitous cruelty which we all thought had been relegated to a bygone and far-distant age.

“There are two features which render this crime peculiarly abhorrent to the civilized world: The first is its magnitude; the other is the cold-blooded premeditation and careful deliberation with which it was planned. One of the most remarkable psychological phenomena of the present war is the specious. sophistry with which Germany has attempted to justify. her multitudinous breaches of the above-mentioned humanitarian laws of war; and surely the most amazing instance of this is. the fact that to-day, at this very hour, Germany is justifying this slaughter of innocent non-combatants by stating that she gave them full warning that she was going to perpetrate the deed. This is a new philosophy, indeed!”


German intellect was disparaged, part of the pro-Allied drumbeat leading up to American involvement in the war

Scientific American, May 29, 1915


“But for the fact that philosophers have so often, in the past, proved to be anything but philosophic when put to the test, we should view with much astonishment the efforts made by the savants of a certain belligerent country of Europe to disparage the intellectual achievements of their erstwhile friends and colleagues among the enemy. German scholars had so long been in the habit of taking their own intellectual superiority for granted that there was little left for them to say on the subject when the war broke out. French scholarship was somewhat tinged with chauvinism before the war, and the French temperament serves to explain many things. The scholars of England, however, who had for some time been living under the spell of the supposed preeminence of things German, suddenly executed so complete a volte face as to suggest, first, that the English are a more volatile race than we had supposed them to be, and, second, that if these same scholars are now sincere, they must have been amazingly deficient in good judgment prior to the first of last August.”


A technical and emotional view of the Lusitania sinking accuses Germany of premeditated murder.

Scientific American, May 29, 1915


“What Sank the ‘Lusitania’?

“A battleship not only carries a heavy watertight protective deck, but the underwater portion of the ship below this deck is divided and subdivided transversely and longitudinally until she contains, as we have said, over two hundred and fifty separate watertight compartments, big and little, The ‘Lusitania’ contained below the waterline only thirty-four such compartments-and this was all that could be conveniently accommodated within a ship whose primary purpose was for the uses of commerce and not to face the perils of modern submarine warfare. Since she was designed the explosive charge in the warheads of torpedoes, at least of those used on submarines, has been more than doubled. The commander of the German submarine, when he discharged his torpedo at point-blank range and saw it strike home, knew that the “Lusitania” would probably go down fast and long before her helpless passengers could take to the boats.

“This was expected and so intended by the Imperial German Admiralty.”

A modern discussion of the Lusitania sinking can be read here:

Part I: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anecdotes-from-the-archive/sinking-the-lusitania-part-1-many-civilians-die-in-wicked-atrocity-may-7-1915/

Part II: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anecdotes-from-the-archive/sinking-the-lusitania-part-2-death-and-blame-may-7-1915/

Given the destruction in life and property worldwide, our editors were often perplexed by how and why the war started.

Scientific American, June 12, 1915


“Some Thoughts On the War

“At a time when the war 'is assuming more gigantic proportions, it seems almost idle to speak of Peace. Nevertheless, the problem, naturally presents itself, how and when could the conclusion of peace be considered as a possibility. One of the most discouraging features of this world war is the fact that when this war broke out the nations of Europe fought, not to adjust, or settle any profound principle of right or wrong, not to adjust some grievance, not surely for the love of fighting; but in obedience, it would seem, to some perverse fate. There surely had been no well-defined and commonly accepted issue; the reasons given were as varied as the nations engaged. In case some visitor had appeared from a neighboring planet, it would be easy to imagine his utter amazement at the sight of the warring nations killing each other, destroying each other's cities and homes and engaged in mutual murder and devastation but his astonishment at this would have been nothing as compared with his state of mind when he discovered the inability of the combatants themselves to explain just why they were fighting. The war broke out suddenly without any preliminaries; there had been. no act of aggression; no hard words had passed, and as between most of the warring nations there had been even no diplomatic disagreements. In short, the war came out of a clear sky, without meaning, without principle, with no just cause and with no wrong to adjust. It is this lack of justifiable cause for war that renders the hope of peace so remote.”

[Editor’s note: Christopher Clark’s masterful discussion from 2012 on the complex web of treaties, aggressions, actions and beliefs that led to the war: “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.”]


First use of the word “terrorism” during the Great War is firmly affixed to German acts.

Scientific American, July 31, 1915


“The Price of Frightfulness

“Every American is aware of the inner feeling of revulsion which he experienced at the invasion of Belgium, then at the treatment to which its citizens were subjected, later at the wanton destruction and continued effort to destroy the choicest architectural treasures, and then at the horror which ensued with the sinking of the ‘Lusitania.’ The feeling of revulsion which is experienced in this country because of these acts of terrorism is sympathized with in every civilized nation, and Germany stands to-day without friends, without support, looked upon with suspicion and regarded as the enemy of humanity. From letters recently received from Italy, it appears that the hatred created by the German acts of wantonness has played a very vital part in the declaration of war on the part of Italy.”

[Editor’s note from 2017: Not so. The secret Treaty of London induced Italy to declare war on Austria-Hungary and Germany in exchange for a promise to take over neighboring territories that the Italians believed ought to belong to them.]


Some Americans took the view that the shootout in Europe was good for business in America

Scientific American, April 1, 1916

Article by Stuart B. Stone

Coastal submarine on patrol hails a merchant vessel for inspection of cargo and papers. Later in the war such ships were at risk of being torpedoed without warning. Credit: Scientific American, April 1, 1916

“When the ruling forces of the Old World first let loose the dogs of war, spreading frightful ness and carnage over half the globe, business America stood aghast, half-stunned, afraid to move, to buy, to build, to employ. Stock exchanges closed; wheels and spindles slacked motion; pay-envelopes dwindled. Then gradually the truth began to dawn upon our tradesmen and producers that the end of the world had not yet come. First came the spurt of war orders, later to develop into a continuing flood.”


Strong reactions: a condemnation of civilian casualties from German submarine and zeppelin attacks.

Scientific American, May 6, 1916

“Fatuous Blindness of Germany

“The war has been a great revealer of national character, and the revelation has been full of the unexpected and surprising. Those of us who appreciated the genius of the German people for organizational efficiency, and admired that strong logical bent which enabled them to move with such directness to their great industrial and commercial accomplishments, have been dumfounded by the total lack of moral and ethical qualities, as revealed in the gospel of might and frightfulness which the Germans have preached and practiced throughout the war. They alone, among the great nations of the world, seem either to have lost all regard for the approbation and opinion of mankind or to have become suddenly bereft, at least so far as morals and ethics are concerned, of the most elementary powers of reasoning.

“As evidence of this, consider the violent recrudescence of the murderous raids of the Zeppelins, whose victims are almost entirely unarmed combatants, at the very time when the German Government professes to be endeavoring to meet the humanitarian views of President Wilson on the subject of submarine warfare.”


As war clouds gathered in the U.S., there was concern that its military forces were inadequate to protect the country.

Scientific American, Jan 6 1917

“National Defense

“When the present era in the naval and military history of the United States comes to be analyzed and written, it is our belief that the year 1916 will be recognized as one of the most important in all the annals of this great Republic. When the European War revealed the enormous scale upon which modern war must be waged, both as regards the size of the armies and the unbelievable amount of munitions and equipment that are necessary to make these armies effective, the fact of the relative defenselessness of the United States was made clear to the citizens of this country. And it is to the citizens themselves, leagued together in such patriotic movements as the National Security League, the Navy League and other movements for preparedness, backed up, as it was, by the powerful influence of the Press, that the passage by Congress of the great national defense act, with its huge appropriation of between $600,000,000 and $700,000,000 is to be attributed. We are willing to believe that the anti-preparedness attitude of the administration during the first eighteen months of the war was as well intended as it was unfortunate, and it would be ungenerous not to give the administration due credit, once the demand of the country for action was made clear, for adopting in toto the recommendations of its naval and military advisers as thus backed up by the country, and putting through that great scheme for national defense.”


There were also voices raised against continuing the war.

Scientific American, January 6, 1917

From the weekly column, “Strategic Moves of the War”

“We seem to have reached a point where we must devote a little time and space to a retrospective view of the most important events of the past year in order to form an approximately correct estimate of the present situation This necessity is due in part to the recent peace proposals, or rather to the recent German proposal to discuss peace terms, which is a somewhat different proposition, and in part to the attitude of neutrals in general, as expressed in foreign news reports, and in the United States press in particular .... As a matter of fact, practically all press reports and despatches from neutral countries indicate a strong desire for peace and a general inclination to the belief that the belligerents ought to get together in conference, with or without the assistance of neutral governments, and come to terms with a view to ending the war as soon as possible It is doubtful, however, whether these views on the part of the neutrals are the result of a careful consideration of all the factors involved or whether they are simply based on a commendable wish to put an end, as soon as possible, to the carnage that has been going on for over two years, and on the less worthy though important one of allowing the resumption of the world's commercial activities unhampered by the restrictions and perils of modern warfare.”


There were some opinions on how peace could be achieved

Scientific American, January 13, 1917, p 61

Letter to the Editor

“Those Guarantees for Permanent Peace

“To the Editor of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN :

“Both parties to the present World War claim they are fighting to obtain “Guarantees for Permanent Peace.” When President Wilson invites the neutral nations to a conference a first aid would be a precise definition of what ‘Guarantees’ are expected or possible. Solemn treaties are mere paper; ‘sitting on bayonets’ over conquered territory breeds passion for revenge; crushing cash indemnities keep alive that passion. These all have been tried and failed! Has any other method succeeded? “Yes! Succeeded conspicuously. Just over a century ago the Treaty of Ghent, the laughing stock of contemporary diplomats, closed the war of 1812 to 1814 between this country and Great Britain. No word was therein of any cash indemnity, of any cession of territory, or what the war was about; nothing to humiliate either party; nothing to leave a sting to rankle and breed more war.

“What America can do, why not Europe?”

Edward Berwick

[the writer sponsored an annual Peace Prize at Stanford University for several years]


The U.S. was physically distant from the fighting. Here’s a note of caution from a military point of view.

Scientific American, January 20, 1917

Letter to the Editor

“To the Editor of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN:

“On December 7th in his Annual Report, Secretary Daniels, while discussing enlistments in the Navy showed that Congress has authorized an immediate increase of 26,000 men, only 2,524 of whom have been obtained and Admiral Fiske said lately at a New York meeting that the American people were as ignorant of their danger as a baby sitting on a railroad track.”


The war disrupted civil life in the world. There was some worry that the eventual coming of peace would also be disruptive.

Scientific American, January 27, 1917

Lead Editorial

“When the European Worker Lays Down His Arms

“It is usually a very safe and logical procedure to base forecasts upon precedent. However, when we are confronted with a series of events which do not conform to any previous experience, we do not always break away from our habit of thought, but grope around for some precedent upon which to base our reasoning, with the result that our conclusion is often very wide of the mark.

“Shortly after the great European War broke out its magnitude began to dawn upon us; we realized that it was smashing all precedents and establishing records of its own. Nevertheless, in considering conditions that will prevail immediately after peace is declared, we persist in basing our predictions upon the sequels of other wars.

“In the past the disbanding of a great army has always been considered a serious matter. Men who had been torn from their occupations in peace times are suddenly thrown back into civil life and are expected to find their natural level in the work of the community. This calls for a readjustment of economic conditions which has always been attended with considerable confusion. It is natural to assume that such a state of affairs will ensue when the vast multitude of European soldiers lay down their arms.”


President Wilson made regular and urgent attempts to broker peace in Europe.

Scientific American, January 17, 1917 p. 100

From “A Week’s Review of the War”

“No review of the military happenings of the past few days would be complete without taking into consideration the reply of the Entente Allies to President Wilson's note asking both sides to state the terms of peace that they would propose. This the German government promptly declined to do, but issued, on the same day that the Allies made known their terms, a very vague and apparently a not well-considered note, consisting largely of accusations and recriminations. On the contrary, the Entente answer to the President's query was a clear and definite statement of their views and aims in this titanic struggle of nations.”


The dislocations to society during the war had far-reaching implications:

Scientific American, February 3, 1917 p. 127

“Women in the Industries

“It has for a year or more been clear that the present war is to have an unforeseen economic effect of far-reaching import in the extension of woman' s field of employment. Throughout the warring nations literally hundreds of trades which have always been closed to female workers are now of necessity being carried on largely by girls and women. When the fighting is over and the men workers return to their homes prepared to reclaim their places in the industrial fabric, a critical situation will exist. Will the girls and women who have learned new tasks possessing greater interest and returning better pay than their earlier employment willingly return to domestic labor and poorly paid operation of automatic machinery? Will their employers willingly exchange their services for those of the men? Only time can answer these questions, and tell just what economic turmoil will result from the sudden influx of workers which the end of the war will create.”


Censors restricted information on the worst aspects of warfare. The lack of such details meant coverage of the war could read like a commentary on a sporting match.

Scientific American, February 3, 1917

“Many and varied are the epithets hurled by the Britisher at his stubborn German friends across the North Sea. He is a kinsman of Attila, a cannibal, a burner of convents—even a killer of foxes, but worse than all of these things Fritz is alleged to be, he is a poor shot. That's the last straw that ought to crush him.

“All these things the Britisher calls the German as a matter of course, but the epithet of being a poor shot John seems to feel ought to shame the German out of the war. One of the irritating phases of the great fight is the fact of being potted by a man who cannot shoot.”


As war appeared imminent there were specific worries about how the fighting might come to the U.S.

Scientific American, February 10, 1917

SA Editorial

“German Submarines and our Harbors

“Now that Germany has thrown overboard the pledges which she gave to the United States after the sinking of the ‘Suffolk,’ and has cast all considerations of humanity to the winds, the United States has been brought as close to the possibility of war with Germany as the eyelid is to the eyeball. It seems to be generally assumed that if, as the outcome of Germany's submarine policy, there should be war between the two countries, it would be ushered in by some formal declaration of war. On our side, it might be; but we are fully convinced that the only declaration of war which Germany would ever make would take the form of the sudden appearance of her submarines in our harbors and a savage attack upon our naval and merchant ships. In other words, we should see a repetition on a larger and more frightful scale, of the torpedo attack on Port Arthur with which Japan commenced hostilities against Russia. The ships lost by Russia by that, surprise attack, so weakened her that Japan at once obtained the command of the sea.

“This is the third time that the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN has warned our authorities that they should forestall any such attack, by netting the entrances to our harbors, naval dock yards and naval stations.”


An assessment of how the United States would contribute to the war effort proved to be quite accurate.

Scientific American, February 17, 2017


“If the United States Should Go to War

“If we are drawn into the world war, we may well prove to be the decisive factor; even though we land not a single soldier upon European soil. For it is a fact, well understood by the statesmen and strategists of Europe, that if we were lined up with the Allied cause we should place it in an impregnable position in respect of two of the most vital necessities for the winning of a war of this magnitude, namely, financial resources and munitionment. Excellent though it may be in morale and in its all-round military efficiency, our army would be lost amid the embattled millions of Europe; and the fact that Great Britain defeated the German Fleet off Jutland, and drove it back into its harbors and now holds it there, proves that our battleships would be superfluous in the North Sea. But the moment our enormous financial resources and our vast potentiality for the manufacture of guns, powder and shells, were lined up behind the allied armies, the ultimate overthrow of the Central Powers would be as certain as the rise and setting of the sun.”


The concept of “preparedness,” or the ability to fight a war, was a serious question raised in the pages of Scientific American.

Scientific American, March 24, 2017


“A Call for Instant Action

“A FEW months after the outbreak of the war we published a series of articles under the caption ‘Our Country, An Undefended Treasure Land,’ in which we told the astounding story of our military defenselessness. “We then gave warning that our country, drifting and without a pilot, was already caught on the outer edge of the maelstrom of the European War. That was two years ago; and in the interim we have been drawn, remorselessly, in ever-narrowing circles and with ever-increasing speed, towards the vortex. Today we are about to be swept into the very center of this gigantic conflict.”


Massive armies and mass-production needs of modern warfare caused shortages of manpower—a problem that many in the U.S. realized they would not escape:

Scientific American, March 24, 2017

“Industrial Man Power and the War

“Modern warfare makes terrific demands upon the industries of a nation and through them upon its man power. Now and again there is difficulty with some material supply; but from beginning to end the labor question is continuously acute. Artillery and ammunition, food and clothing, automobiles and aeroplanes and ships, engines and machine tools and tool machines, are but a few of the things consumed in unprecedented quantities. Armed forces and industrial units alike must be kept at fullest strength or disaster follows swiftly.

“How to do this is the outstanding problem. It is a problem of whose very existence England was sublimely oblivious at first. It is a problem which she had begun to formulate in six months, to grapple with in a year; one whose satisfactory solution she may fairly be stated to have but just now finally worked out; and one which today confronts us as we are dragged nearer to participation in the war.

 “We must of course avail ourselves of England's experience to the last measure .... Attention has been centered upon the efforts to replace skilled workers who have gone to the front, for this is a spectacular story with news value. Much has been said of the dilution of skilled labor with unskilled, of the employment of a dozen green workers under the supervision of one or two of the former skilled staff. Even more comment has been lavished upon the assignment of women to tasks always heretofore entrusted to men. But when all is said and done, a substitute is a substitute, and the genuine article is to be preferred.”


The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans was a calculated gamble to choke off supplies to the Allies before the might of the U.S. could be brought to bear in Europe; but it enraged the Americans.

Scientific American, March 31, 1917


A worker operates a drilling machine in a Canadian munitions factory. Labor shortages and a frantic demand for military supplies opened up many jobs to women in every industrialized country. Credit: Scientific American Supplement, March 31, 1917

“We are embarked in the Great European War. Of that there can be no doubt whatsoever. Our entrance into the conflict took place on that fateful day, the 17th of March, when three of our peaceful and unarmed merchantmen were sent to the bottom and fifteen unfortunates were added to the two hundred or more American citizens, whose lives have been snuffed out by German lawlessness and brutality.”


On April 6, 1917, the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany.

The lead editorial from the next issue of the weekly Scientific American, April 14, 1917

“The President's War Message

“Occasionally in the great crises of human history it has happened that the whole world, of whatever race, creed or tongue, by common consent, has given ear to the voice of one man. Conspicuous among such occasions will ever be reckoned the joint session of the two branches of Congress, which gathered on the night of April 2nd to learn from the lips of the President of the United States why it was that the great republic, of which he is the executive head, was compelled to declare that a state of war existed between itself and the greatest military autocracy of all time. His audience on that fateful night was greater than the few hundreds which sat within reach of his voice, greater even than that contained within the bounds of these United States, and extended, in truth to the uttermost ends of the earth. Never, surely, was a public utterance awaited with greater anxiety than this noble and inspiring address, calling upon the country to wage war in defense of those great principles which are the foundation of all true democracy.

“Acting as the drop of liquid with which the chemist clarifies a cloudy mixture in his test tube, the words of the President have served to remove the last doubt as to the practical unanimity of the people of this great republic on the question of the true meaning of the present world war. The American people believes with its President that the conflict, in the last analysis, is a struggle between autocracy and democracy, between the right of a privileged few to rule the peoples of the world for their own private ends and the right of every nation, big or little, to govern in the interests of its collective citizenry.

“Particularly acceptable to the American people is that portion of the President's address in which he makes it clear that we enter the war, not as a struggle against the German people, but against that military clique which has led them, deluded and unsuspecting, into a war of aggression and attempted world conquest. The citizens of America have no quarrel with the citizens of Germany, rather they have for them and for their notable industrial and social achievements, the profoundest admiration. In keeping with the past traditions of the country and unquestionably reflecting the spirit of the people, was the President's avowal that the country would enter this conflict with its whole heart and that it would wage war in complete cooperation with the Allied powers.

“The great principle of alliance having been thus clearly stated, the details of the method of cooperation can safely be left to the naval, military and financial advisers of the President.”


Even before the declaration of war, Germans committed (or were accused of committing) acts of sabotage in the U.S.

Scientific American, April 14 (cover article)

“The Cunning Displayed in the Sinking of the German

Steamer ‘Liebenfels’

“Germany may well claim to be a master in the art of destruction, not only of the coarse and brutal variety, but also in the finer and more subtle technique of the finished crook. How well schooled are her people in these arts is exemplified by the sinking of the steamer ‘Liebenfels’ in the harbor of Charleston, S.C. on February 2nd, Never was a ship more cleverly sunk. It was anchored off the channel leading to the Navy Yard. Evidently word of a coming break in diplomatic relations between our country and Germany had reached the captain of the vessel some time in advance. The work that was done on the ‘Liebenfels’ to insure its foundering was most thorough and must have consumed considerable time.

“On the morning of the second of February, the ship was seen to be in a sinking condition and two tugs put off to its assistance. They found three men on board, the first officer, the chief engineer and a colored man., They admitted that, the vessel was in trouble, but refused any assistance as long as the captain was not there.

“It was observed that a dead light under the counter on the starboard side was open, but although attention was called to this no effort was made to close it. The covers of all hatches, except one, were displaced.

“It was apparent that the sinking was intentional and designed to block the channel to the Navy Yard.”


Now that Germany and the U.S. were at war, suspicion was rife about Germans in the U.S.:

Scientific American, April 14, 1917


“An Opportunity for German-American Clubs

“During the past two and one-half years, the position of the native-born German or the German-American with strong affiliations with the Fatherland has been a trying one. Owing to the machinations, plots and lawlessness shown by spies, certain German officials and over-zealous partisans, acts have been committed against the sovereignty of our nation and its peace and welfare which have been, in many cases, criminal in character, and which in any other country than this would have aroused the most serious outbursts of indignation. Because of such acts, many of the better class of Germans and German-Americans have been unjustly, and often irrelevantly, reproached with lack of loyalty—a result which, under the circumstances was inevitable.

“The time has now arrived, however, when this very class of our citizens has been brought to the point of deciding whether to retain their allegiance to their former home or to come out openly and candidly in support of the country of their adoption. The imputation of disloyalty may still be an unjust one; but it can no longer be regarded as irrelevant. There is no half-way position, now that our country is at war. In the past, the German residents of the United States have proved to be, in the main, a staunch and splendid body of citizens; and, up to the time of the war they held the respect of the better part of the community. An immense number of these German subjects has recently taken out papers of citizenship. Many have doubtless done so from motives of conviction; many have taken the oath to safeguard themselves from being placed in detention camps.

“For those who have a genuine love for the flag of our country, however, a mere attitude of passivity will not suffice, nor will merely the wearing of a little flag in the buttonhole.”


Parting shot: after the Armistice ended the Great War, an editorial tried to justify U.S. involvement.

Scientific American, November 23, 1918

Lead editorial

“Civilization Vindicated

“Although the nations in Europe that were so ruthlessly assailed grasped very quickly the true significance of this assault upon international morality, it so happened that many of the intellectuals among us, as is so clearly shown in another column, in print and in speech told us that this war was in the class of all other wars—that it was a quarrel born of mutual greed, ambition and lust for world power. But it was inevitable that the vile thing which was being attempted should reveal itself in its true light to the clear thinking of the American people. It was as certain as the sequence of day and night that they would break through the clouds of obfuscation raised by the intellectuals, the pacifists, the politicians, and the deliberate pro-Huns, to demand that we take our place in the Great Crusade.

“We came a little late, we came with profound conviction; and apart from the great military force that we flung into the fight in the critical hour, we performed the even greater service of setting our seal of approval upon the cause of civilization, and of stimulating the faith and the courage of the Allies at the very darkest hour, when the enemy was launching his greatest effort. It has been a costly sacrifice but to have saved from utter destruction all the high and noble things upon which our life is founded, by which it is inspired, was well worth the cost—aye, even to the millions that lie under the sod and the tens of millions that carry, upon their bodies or in their hearts, wounds that will be long in the healing.”


In 2017 we know that the Armistice of 1918 that ended World War I was a prelude to the even more disastrous World War II: 13 years later, the Japanese invaded Manchuria; 21 years later, Nazi Germany invaded Poland.