America's strained neutrality
Although Oregonians expressed diverse opinions, they generally followed the political mood of the nation. Isolationist or strict neutrality arguments held sway in national political debate during the early period of World War I. But these arguments would be weakened by cultural, economic, and military factors.
Isolationism versus imperialism
But a countervailing opinion promoted the expansion of American power and influence to other continents. Many watched enviously as several European nations divided up Africa and other regions at an accelerating rate beginning in the 1880s. Certainly, the United States had flexed its muscles, particularly during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. But the nation mainly focused on economic expansion through efforts such as the building of the Panama Canal. Many people decried the fact that a democratic America held onto the Philippines long after taking it during the Spanish-American War. Critics claimed that this "imperialism" was inconsistent with the founding principles of the United States.
Cultural and economic complications
The American economy boomed during the period of neutrality. The war created a tremendous demand for American industrial and agricultural products. Both sides placed orders with U.S. companies but British blockades of German ports and their confiscation of cargoes limited the amount that reached Germany. Wilson protested what he considered to be British interference with the right of a neutral nation to trade with either side.
Nevertheless, by 1915, while still officially neutral, the United States began to provide cash-strapped Britain and France with enormous loans to pay for the materials they ordered. This made American industrialists and financiers rich but it also further compromised "the true spirit of neutrality." Consequently, the United States had a strong economic interest in preventing a German victory.
Strict neutrality collapses
President Wilson's complicated diplomatic and economic dance of neutrality continued into 1916. On the eve of the American entry into World War I, philosophical arguments for avoiding outside entanglements were overlaid with the grisly reality of three years of trench warfare in Europe. After running for reelection in 1916 under the banner "He kept us out of war," a series of German provocations finally led Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war in April 1917. Chief among the American grievances was the earlier German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, which now targeted the merchant ships of neutral countries such as the United States. These ruthless naval attacks combined with German diplomatic intrigue in Mexico to make war inevitable.