This introductory chapter explains the place of the American merchant marine in society in the years preceding World War I. The low social standing of merchant mariners, the mundane nature of the work they did, and the unglamorous cargos they shipped, have all contributed to a skewed view of American entry into World War I. Even so, American merchant sailors travelled under the protection of the American flag. During the period 1914–7, Wilson hoped that adherence to international law would allow the United States to remain neutral and would protect the American flag at sea. However, as the war between the Central Powers and the Allies extended from the battlefield to economic warfare, differing interpretations of international law revealed the weakness of law to protect neutrals.
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