Special Report

“I Hope It Is Not Too Late”: How the U.S. Decided to Send Millions of Troops Into World War I

The Allies were desperate for reinforcements, but the U.S. wasn’t quite ready to provide them

In this June 13, 1917 file photo, U.S. Army General John J. Pershing, center, inspects French troops at Boulogne, France (AP Photos)
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U.S. General John J. Pershing, newly arrived in France, visited his counterpart, French general Philippe Pétain, with a sobering message on June 16, 1917. It had been two months since the U.S. entered World War I, but Pershing, newly appointed to command the American Expeditionary Force in France, had hardly any troops to deploy. The United States, Pershing told Pétain, wouldn’t have enough soldiers to make a difference in France until spring 1918.

“I hope it is not too late,” the general replied.

Tens of thousands of Parisians had thronged the streets to cheer Pershing on his June 13 arrival. Women climbed onto the cars in his motorcade, shouting, “Vive l’Amérique!” The French, after three years of war with Germany, were desperate for the United States to save them.

Now Pétain told Pershing that French army was near collapse. A million French soldiers had been killed in trench warfare. Robert-Georges Nivelle’s failed April offensive against the German line in northern France had caused 120,000 French casualties. After that, 750,000 soldiers mutinied, refusing to go to the front line. Pétain, who replaced Nivelle in May, had kept the army together by granting some of the soldiers’ demands for better food and living conditions and leave to see their families. But the French were in no condition to launch any more offensives. “We must wait for the Americans,” Pétain told Pershing.

But the United States wasn’t ready to fight. It had declared war in April 1917 with only a small standing army. Pershing arrived in France just four weeks after the Selective Service Act authorized a draft of at least 500,000 men. Though President Woodrow Wilson intended to send troops to France, there was no consensus on how many. “The more serious the situation in France,” Pershing wrote in his 1931 memoir, My Experiences in the World War, “the more deplorable the loss of time by our inaction at home appeared.”

It fell to Pershing to devise the American war strategy. The 56-year-old West Point graduate had fought the Apache and Sioux in the West, the Spanish in Cuba, Filipino nationalists in their insurrection against U.S. rule and Pancho Villa in Mexico. He was blunt, tough, and stubborn—“a large man with small, trim arms and legs, and an underslung jaw that would defy an aerial bomb,” a contemporary wrote. He hated dithering, spoke little and hardly ever smiled.

Resisting French and British pressure to reinforce their armies with American soldiers, Pershing and his aides studied where to best deploy the American Expeditionary Force. Germany had seized nearly all of Belgium and the northeast edge of France, so the war’s Western front now stretched 468 miles, from the Swiss border to the North Sea. The British were deployed in France’s northern tip, where they could quickly escape home if they had to. The French were defending Paris by holding the front about 50 miles northeast of the capital.

So Pershing chose Lorraine, in northeastern France, as “a chance for the decisive use of our army.” If the Americans could advance just 40 miles from there, they could reach Germany itself, cut off the main German supply line, and threaten the enemy’s coalfields and iron mines. On June 26, Pershing visited Pétain again, and tentatively agreed on where to begin the first American offensive.

On June 28, the first 14,500 American troops arrived in France. “Their arrival left Pershing singularly unimpressed,” wrote Jim Lacey in his 2008 biography, Pershing. “To his expert eye the soldiers were undisciplined and poorly trained. Many of their uniforms did not fit and most were fresh from recruiting stations, with little training other than basic drill.” But Parisians wanted to throw a gala celebration for the troops on America’s Independence Day.

To boost French morale, Pershing reluctantly agreed. On July 4, he and the troops marched five miles through Paris’ streets to the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette. There, Pershing aide Charles E. Stanton delivered a speech that ended with a sweeping salute. “Nous voilà, Lafayette!” Stanton declared—“Lafayette, we are here!” in English—a phrase often misattributed to Pershing himself.

Ceremonies performed, Pershing got back to work. The British and French counted on 500,000 U.S. troops in 1918. But Pershing suspected a half-million soldiers wouldn’t be enough. His three weeks in France had deepened his understanding of the Allies’ plight and their inability to break the stalemate on the Western Front. America, he decided, needed to do more. 

On July 6, Pershing cabled Newton Baker, the Secretary of War. “Plans should contemplate sending over at least 1,000,000 men by next May,” the telegram read. Soon after, Pershing and his aides forwarded a battle plan to Washington. It called for a larger military effort than the United States had ever seen.

“It is evident that a force of about 1,000,000 is the smallest unit which in modern war will be a complete, well-balanced, and independent fighting organization,” Pershing wrote. And plans for the future, he added, might require as many as 3 million men.

Pershing’s demand sent shock waves through the War Department. Admiral William Sims, who commanded the U.S. fleet in European waters, thought Pershing was joking when he heard it. Tasker Bliss, the War Department’s acting chief of staff, expressed alarm, but had no alternate plan. “Baker seemed unruffled,” wrote Frank E. Vandiver in his 1977 Pershing biography, Black Jack. “Committed to winning peace at any kind of rates, Wilson followed Baker’s calm.” They accepted Pershing’s war plan.

Almost 10 million young men had already registered for the draft, giving the Wilson administration the means to fulfill Pershing’s demand. On July 20, Baker, wearing a blindfold, pulled numbers out of a glass bowl, choosing 687,000 men in the nation’s first draft lottery since the Civil War. By the end of July, the outlines of the war effort’s true scale—1 to 2 million men—began to emerge in the press.

But the news didn’t reverse public and congressional support for the war. The shock of the Zimmermann Telegram and the patriotic exhortations of the government’s Committee on Public Information had overcome many Americans’ past skepticism about sending troops to fight in Europe. By the end of 1918, the United States would draft 2.8 million men into the armed forces—just in time to help its allies win the war.

About Erick Trickey

Erick Trickey is a writer in Boston, covering politics, history, cities, arts, and science. He has written for POLITICO Magazine, Next City, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and Cleveland Magazine

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