Comparing and Contrasting WWI and WWII

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World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) were the most devastating military conflicts in human history which caused untold destruction and loss of millions of lives. Although both wars were fought under distinctly different circumstances, had different causes and did not involve exactly the same foes, the two conflicts were not completely devoid of similarities. This paper compares and contrasts the two world wars from an American perspective; explains the reasons for United States’ involvement in each war, and describes the legacies of the two wars on the country’s economy, society, its domestic and foreign policies.

United States’ Initial Neutrality in World War I

At the start of the First World War in 1914, the United States considered the war to be strictly a European affair and resolved not to get directly involved in it. Its declared policy of neutrality was in line with the country’s traditional isolationism and the advice of its founding fathers to remain aloof from foreign conflicts. The fact that many Americans were first or second generation immigrants from countries on both sides of the conflict, i.e., Britain, Germany, and Austria-Hungary, meant that most Americans had mixed feelings about the protagonists in the war. At the same time, Woodrow Wilson’s administration was desirous of carrying out unhindered trade with all the countries involved in the European conflict and such a policy could only be possible if the United States remained neutral (Keylor, 2007).

The U.S. Involvement in the War

Despite its declared neutrality at the start of WWI, the U.S. had deeper historical, ideological, and trade ties with the major Allied powers, especially Britain and France, as compared to the Central Powers, i.e., Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. For example, a greater proportion of the U.S. population traced its origins to Britain, and Italy (both Allied powers) and they were naturally sympathetic to the countries of their origin. The U.S. trade ties with the Allies were also much stronger even before the war and imbalance worsened as the war progressed. Hence by 1917, American commerce with Germany had fallen by 1916 to less than 1% of its 1914 value, while its trade with Britain, France and Italy had tripled in the same period. Similarly, American loans to the Allies were $2.25 billion in 1917 and just a paltry $27 million to Germany (Dwyer, 2004).

Britain, due to its domination of the seas, was able to implement a successful naval blockade of Germany. On the other hand, the Germans were aware that most of the ships carrying goods and military supplies from the U.S. were helping the Allies in their war effort but did not have comparable naval power to block the flow; hence, in desperation, they decided to attack all ships, including neutral ones headed for Allied ports with their U-boats. When such attacks resulted in American casualties, it put Germany at odds with the U.S. The last straw was an intercepted telegram from German foreign minister to the Mexican government, proposing that it should join Germany in an attack on the U.S. And promising Mexico that it would be rewarded with the recovery of territory it had lost to the U.S. In Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. When the telegram was published in the press, the previously isolationist public opinion turned against Germany and President Wilson, despite having been re-elected in the previous year on a platform for having kept the country out of the war, asked the Congress on April 2, 1917 to declare war on Germany. (Ibid., Keylor, 2007)

President Wilson’s Peace Efforts and the Legacy of the War

America’s entry into the War with its enormous material resources and almost unending manpower proved to be instrumental in the defeat of the Central powers. When Germany realized that it could not win the war and indicated its desire to negotiate an armistice, President Wilson, put forward his 14 points for a lasting peace. Other Allied powers considered Wilson’s proposals as too lenient and wanted to punish Germany more severely. This resulted in the signing of a one-sided Treaty of Versailles that forced Germany to accept responsibility for the outbreak of the war and to pay reparations, deprived it of large portions of territory, was unilaterally disarmed, and was forced to give up its colonial empire (Keylor, 2007). Wilson, who was striving for a “just peace” through the creation of a League of Nations and enforcement of the principle of self-determination, was frustrated in his efforts as his European Allies had differing aims and due to internal American politics, the President was unable to get the Congress to endorse United State’s membership of the League of Nations.

The legacy of the war on America’s domestic and foreign policies was significant. With the Senate’s rejection of President Wilson’s plans for the country’s leadership role at the international level, the country retreated back into an isolationist phase. On the domestic front, American women had achieved a degree of independence and self-reliance, as the men were busy on the battlefield. As a result, women were able to successfully win their voting rights and get the law for Prohibition passed after the war. The U.S. population also underwent a demographic change as a significant proportion of its black population moved out from the South to several northern cities such as New York and Chicago to fill the vacuum of industrial labor shortages during the war.

The Aftermath of WWI Leads to WWII

The largely unsatisfactory end of the First World War led to the start of an even more devastating war just two decades later. The harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles were perceived to be grossly unfair by most Germans and Italy and Japan, although part of the Allies, were dissatisfied with their share of the war spoils. The war reparations on an already devastated Germany resulted in further crippling its economy. A demagogue like Hitler was thus able to exploit the situation and win support for his agenda of re-armament, creating “living space” for Germany by re-occupying its lost territories, and ultimately dominating Europe through military power. The unprecedented devastation caused by the First World War convinced most other European powers, including Britain and France, to avoid another war at all costs — leading to a policy of appeasement towards Germany, which further encouraged Nazi belligerency. Moreover, United State’s withdrawal into isolation rendered the League of Nations, initially envisaged to promote peace, ineffective. As a result, Hitler was emboldened to violate the Treaty of Versailles and launch a blatant aggression in the neighboring countries, precipitating the WWII in 1939. (Steiner, 2001)

Initial Neutrality of the United States in WWII

The start of the Second World War depicted an uncanny similarity to the beginnings of the First World War as far as the role of U.S. is concerned: its public opinion was in no mood to get entangled in another “foreign” war and the country was cocooned deep into an isolationist phase. President Franklin Roosevelt, although no isolationist himself, respected the public mood and declared America’s neutrality in the war. Nonetheless, just as in the initial stages of WWI, due to its historical links and common political ideology with Britain, the U.S. was sympathetic to the Allied cause against the Nazis. Hence, initially, the U.S. helped the Allies through a program of “cash-and-carry” which permitted allied ships that could reach the U.S. coast to carry back war material for cash.

United State’s Direct Involvement in WWII

Just as in WWI, it was only a matter of time before the U.S. entered the Second World War directly. Apart from its general dislike of fascism and a natural affinity with the democratic Britain, the other major reason for its eventual direct involvement was its tussle with Japan for the domination of the Pacific region and control over its resources. The Japanese government, like Germany, had come to be dominated by militarists. Being a resource-poor region, Japan adopted a policy of expansionism in the 1930s and invaded China in 1937. The U.S. imposed embargoes on Japan by 1939, which became stricter when Japan signed a tripartite treaty with Germany and Italy to form the Axis (Arima, 2003). In response, the Japanese moved into northern Indo-China to capture the oil-rich regions of the Dutch East Indies. The U.S. retaliated by freezing Japanese assets and imposed a complete embargo on oil exports to Japan and delivered the ‘Hull Note’ — an ultimatum demanding a complete withdrawal from China. Japan considered the act unacceptable and opted for all-out war by attacking Pearl Harbor (Ibid.) the U.S., thus, entered the war, not only against the Japanese in the Pacific but also against Germany and Italy in Europe. Its economic might and military prowess once again proved decisive in the victory of the Allies (Ibid.)

Transformation into a World Power

Although United States’ role in both the world wars followed a similar pattern, i.e., initial neutrality but covert support for the Allies, its eventual direct entry and a decisive role in the Allied victory, its post-World War II role in international affairs was markedly different. The U.S. emerged as a leading superpower and the sole nuclear power in the world, determined to play a leading role in international politics. The post-Second World War era saw the start of a prolonged Cold War in which the U.S. competed for political domination around the world with Soviet Communism until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. The Second World War also helped the country to overcome the economic depression of the 1930s as its wartime industrial production stimulated its economy.


Arima, Y. (2003). “The Way to Pearl Harbor: U.S. Vs. Japan.” ICE Case Studies:

Number 118, December, 2003. Retrieved on May 26, 2007 at http://www.american.edu/TED/ice/japan-oil.htm

Dwyer, J.J. (2004). “The United States and World War I.” Lew Rockwell.com. Retrieved on May 26, 2007 at http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig3/dwyer3.html

Keylor, William R. (2007). “World War I.” Encyclopedia Encarta Online. On May 26, 2007 at http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761569981/World_War_I.html

Steiner, Z. (2001). 2 the Treaty of Versailles Revisited. In the Paris Peace Conference, 1919: Peace without Victory? (pp. 13-33). New York: Palgrave.

WWI was fought between the Allied Powers (the U.K., France, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro, Japan, Italy, Russian Empire and the U.S.) and the Central Powers (the Empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria), while the WWII involved Allies (Britain, France, Soviet Union, and the U.S.) and the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan)

Some historians have even gone to the extent of terming WWII as an extension of the First World War

British passenger liner Lusitania was sunk by the Germans on May 7, 1915, killing 128 Americans; several American ships were sunk in February and March 1917

In addition, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill had developed close personal relationship

The program of “cash and carry” served a two-pronged purpose — it helped the U.S. economy that was emerging from a pro-longed economic depression and assisted the Allies in their war effort against Germany