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Chapter 22

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Woodrow Wilson

Josephus Daniels

in the
Greenwood Press edition,
New York, 1971

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 24
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p243  Chapter XXIII

Nearly all America favored neutrality upon outbreak of European war — Roosevelt at first favored and later vigorously opposed policy — Diplomatic correspondence — armed guard on ships — Wilson consistent in demand "will omit no word or act" — The McLemore Resolution — "Little group of wilful men"

"We are not trying to keep out of trouble; we are trying to preserve the foundation upon which peace can be rebuilt." — Wilson

The days of neutrality were 976 — from August 4, 1914, to April 6, 1917. They began with the invasion of Belgium. They ended with the studied invasion and disregard of just American rights and the deliberate murder of noncombatants on the high seas. The policy of neutrality was announced in August, 1914, and compressed in these words:

"We are a true friend to all the nations of the world, because we threaten none, covet the possessions of none, desire the overthrow of none. Our friendship can be accepted, and is accepted, without reservation, because it is offered in a spirit and for a purpose which no one need ever question or suspect. Therein lies our greatness. We are the champions of peace and of concord.

"Woodrow Wilson."

The formal declaration of the end of neutrality was contained in these words, in President Wilson's message delivered to Congress, April 2, 1917:

 p244  "Neutrality is no longer feasible nor desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled by their will, not by the will of the people. We have seen the last of neutrality in such circumstance. We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states."

What should be the policy of the United States with reference to the World War? That was the question debated in the late summer of 1914 when the fires of war blazed overseas. With almost perfect unanimity, the feeling in the first few months was that the United States should preserve a neutral position. Those who believed otherwise in 1914 were negligible in numbers. On August 19, fifteen days after the invasion of Belgium by Germany, Wilson issued an appeal for neutrality. "Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned." He called attention to the character of the population of America "drawn from many nations," said it was "natural and inevitable that there should be the utmost variety of sympathy" and that it "will be easy to excite passion and difficult to allay it."

On September 16, a Belgian Commission visited President Wilson, asking American help to redress the wrongs visited upon them. He gave them cordial welcome, told them the American people "love justice, seek the true path of progress, and have a passionate  p245 regard for the rights of humanity." He told them "it would be inconsistent with the neutral position of any nation, which like this, has no part in the contest, to form a final judgment." He was moved by the outrages in Belgium and said to the members of the mission, "Presently, I pray God very soon, this war will be over. The day of reckoning will come when, I take it for granted, the nations of Europe will assemble to determine a settlement. Where wrongs have been committed, their consequences and the relative responsibility involved will be assessed."

Mr. Wilson shared the feeling of indignation at the wrongs to Belgians and did everything possible to relieve their sufferings, that did not demand taking part in the war. His position, criticized in some quarters, was approved by most of his countrymen. Undoubtedly, criticism of his course was lessened by its approval by Mr. Roosevelt, who later became his severest critic. In an article in the Outlook of September 23, 1914, Mr. Roosevelt declared: "It is certainly eminently desirable that we should remain entirely neutral and nothing but urgent need would warrant breaking our neutrality and taking sides one way or the other." This was said apropos of a visit of the Belgian Mission. "What action we can take I know not," he said as a preface to his saying only "urgent need would warrant breaking our neutrality." He added: "Of course, it would be folly to jump into the gulf ourselves to no good purpose; and very probably nothing that we could have done would have helped Belgium. We have not the smallest responsibility for what has befallen her, and I am sure the sympathy of this country for the suffering of men, women and children in Belgium is very real. Nevertheless,  p246 the sympathy is compatible with full acknowledgment of the unwisdom of our uttering a single word of official protest unless we are prepared to make that protest effective; and only the clearest and most urgent national duty would ever justify us in deviating from our rule of neutrality and noninterference." Not only did Mr. Roosevelt take the same position Mr. Wilson felt constrained to take at that time, but in the same article he wrote what was regarded as at least an extenuation of Germany's action in Belgium. "Of course," he said, "if there is any meaning in the words 'right' and 'wrong' in international matters, the act was wrong. The men who shape German policy take the ground that in matters of vital moment there are no such things as abstract right and wrong, and that when a great nation is struggling for its existence, it can no more consider the rights of neutral powers than it can consider the rights of its own citizens as these rights are considered in times of peace, and that everything must bend before the supreme law of national preservation. Whatever we may think of the morality of this plea, it is certain that almost all great nations have in times past again and again acted in accordance with it."

As an example, Mr. Roosevelt cited "England's conduct toward Denmark in the Napoleonic wars, and the conduct of both England and France toward us during the same wars," and "our conduct toward Spain and Florida nearly a century ago." He said he wished it "explicitly understood that I am not at this time passing judgment one way or the other upon Germany for what she did to Belgium." He went on to say: "They (the Belgians) are suffering somewhat as my own German ancestors suffered when Turenne ravaged the  p247 Palatinate, somewhat as my Irish ancestors suffered in the struggles that attended the conquests and reconquests of Ireland in the days of Cromwell and William." He wished it to be understood that at that time he was not condemning the Germans, for he added: "I think, at any rate, I hope, I have rendered it plain that I am not now criticizing, that I am not passing judgment one way or the other, upon Germany's action. I admire and respect the German people. I am proud of the German blood in my veins. When a nation feels that the issue of a contest in which, for whatever reason, it finds itself engaged will be national life or death, it is inevitable that it should act so as to save itself from death and to perpetuate its life." His conclusion was, "The rights and wrongs of those cases where nations violate the rules of abstract morality in order to meet their own vital needs can be precisely determined only when all the facts are known and when men's blood is cool."

It is necessary, in order to convey an understanding of the atmosphere of 1914, which was almost wholly in approval of a course of neutrality, to read the point of view expressed by Wilson and Roosevelt, the two leaders of the great parties in America. In the light of later events, and America's whole-hearted and patriotic champion­ship of the principles at stake, it is not easy to understand the temper of the country in the summer and fall of 1914.

Shortly after the appearance of his article in the Outlook, Mr. Roosevelt in a vigorous and earnest way denounced the German invasion of Belgium, and with great zeal made himself leader of the forces which were urging earlier participation in the war than Mr. Wilson  p248 favored. The time was to come when both these leaders, in spite of the difference in temperament and politics, and the antagonism of 1915‑17, were to lead in protest against hyphenated Americanism and for the vigorous prosecution of the war. But before that time Roosevelt was the voice of hostility to the Wilson program of continued neutrality.

No selfish belief in isolation influenced Wilson's policy of neutrality. In the weary months of correspondence, with promises extorted from Germany one day to be broken the next, President Wilson kept ever before him the hope that the hour of "mediation" would come when this country could help to bring peace to the warring nations. It was in that spirit that Wilson carried on the negotiations, secured the promises from Germany which were kept for a time, and stood firm for American rights and the rights of humanity. From the note of February 15, 1915, to April 6, 1917, when war was declared by the United States, there runs through every word and action devotion to neutrality so long as it could be pursued without sacrifice of the things America held dear. But no longer.

President Wilson always felt the difficulties and delicacy of the position. He would often say in that perplexing period, as he said at Cleveland, Ohio, on January 29, 1916, in his campaign for effective national preparedness:

"I want to remind you, and remind you solemnly, of the double obligation you have laid upon me. I am constantly reminded of it by conversation, by letter, by editorial, by means of every voice that comes to me out of the body of the nation: 'We are relying upon you, Mr. President, to keep us out of this war, but  p249 we are relying upon you, Mr. President, to keep the honor of the nation unstained.' " This dual, perhaps impossible duty, gave him pause and anxiety. "Do you not see," he asked, "that there may come a time when it is impossible to do both of these things?" In public and private utterances he reverted to the double, perhaps conflicting expectations, again and again. "We are in the midst of a world that we did not make and we cannot alter and I must tell you that the dangers are infinite and constant." He was always saying that while a "partisan of peace" he yet realized that "peace is not always within the choice of the nation," and he pointed out on many occasions that one reckless commander of a submarine might "set the world on fire." Again at Pittsburgh he emphasized the fact that war was possible by the act of others. "You have bidden me," he said, "to see to it that nothing stains or impairs the honor of the United States and that is not a matter within my control; that depends on what others do, not upon what the Government of the United States does. Therefore there may come a time at any moment when I cannot preserve both the honor and the peace of United States." However, for two and a half years he piloted the ship of neutrality between Scylla and Charybdis with infinite patience and infinite concern. "We are not going to invade any nation's rights," he said in 1916, and asked, "but suppose some nation should invade our rights? What then?" The only answer in his mind was the course he took in 1917.

The diplomatic correspondence of those days was voluminous, beginning on August 6, 1914, when Ambassador Page was directed "to inquire whether the British Government is willing to agree that the laws of  p250 naval warfare as laid down by the Declaration of London of 1909 shall be applicable to naval warfare during the present conflict," expressing the view that "an acceptance of these laws by the belligerents would prevent grave misunderstandings that may arise as to the relations between neutral forces and the belligerents." Britain's reply was not compliance with, but that she would adopt "generally the rules of the Declaration subject to certain modifications." France and Britain adopted steadily increasing definitions and lists of contrabands and made such other radical modifications of the Declaration that our State Department withdrew its proposal. In its note of October 22, 1914, Britain and France were notified of such withdrawal and the note said, "Therefore this Government will insist that the rights and duties of the United States and its citizens in the present war be defined by the existing rules of international law and the treaties of the United States irrespective of the Declaration of London." On November 3, 1914, Britain declared the entire North Sea a war-zone. On February 4, 1915, Germany declared the waters surrounding the British Isles and the whole English Channel a war-zone. It also announced that, in retaliation for Britain's violations of the maritime rules of war, all enemy merchant vessels found in the zone would be destroyed after February 18. Navigation in the waters north of the Shetland Islands, and in the eastern part of the North Sea, and a zone thirty miles wide along the Dutch coast was expressly declared as being outside the danger zone.

On February 10 a note was dispatched to Germany calling attention to the critical situation in respect to relations between this country and Germany which might arise were the German naval forces, in carrying  p251 out the policy foreshadowed in the Admiralty's proclamation, to "destroy any merchant vessels of the United States or cause the death of American citizens." In clear and unmistakable language, if an American vessel or the lives of American citizens should be destroyed, the note signed "Bryan" declared, "The Government of the United States would be constrained to hold the Imperial German Government to a strict accountability for such acts of their naval authorities and to take any steps it might be necessary to take to safeguard American lives and property and to secure to American citizens the full enjoyment of their acknowledged rights on the high seas." It closed with "the hope and expectation that the Imperial German Government can and will give such assurance that American citizens and vessels will not be molested by the naval forces of Germany, otherwise than by visit and search, though their vessels may be traversing the sea area delimited in the proclamation of the German Admiralty."

On the same date a note was addressed to the British Government pointing out "the serious consequences" which might result to American vessels by the practice of the deceptive use of a flag of a neutral power, and requested it to restrain vessels of the British nationality from the deceptive use of the flag of the United States in the sea area defined in the German declaration. On February 20 an identical note was sent to Britain and Germany with the request that "through reciprocal concessions" both countries "find a basis for agreement which will relieve neutral ships engaged in peaceful commerce from the great dangers which they will incur in the high seas adjacent to the coasts of the belligerents." It outlined in detail what it wished each country to do  p252 for the "common interests of humanity." Germany's reply was a practical agreement in terms, but Britain's reply recited Germany's offenses against humanity and declared it did not understand from Germany's reply that it would abandon submarine warfare. It upheld the necessity of carrying on its blockade. The next note of March 5 to the French and British Governments protested against their policy of "taking into custody all ships, both outgoing and incoming, trading with Germany." This, it was pointed, "presents a proposed course of action previously unknown to international law; the consequences of which would be that neutrals have no standard by which to measure their rights or to avoid danger to their ships and cargoes." October 21, a note was sent to Britain reciting the grievances of American merchants. It declared that "the United States is reluctantly forced to the conclusion that the present policy of His Majesty's Government toward neutral ships and cargoes exceeds the manifest necessity of a belligerent and constitutes restrictions upon the rights of American citizens on the high seas which are not justified by the rules of international law or required under the principle of self-preservation." The British answer to several notes having the same object in view were lengthy, and correspondence was carried on throughout the entire year.

The country as a whole approved the demands by the State Department for the protection of American citizens and American shipping made in the numerous notes from time to time, but indignation was stirred to white heat by the sinking of the Lusitania, which was torpedoed on May 7, 1915, off Kinsale Head, Ireland. It sank almost immediately, causing the loss of more than  p253 1,200 lives. There was demand in some quarters that war be declared at once on Germany, but the preponderating American sentiment was with President Wilson in the course he pursued. There was no suggestion of war in Congress. On May 13, a note was dispatched to the Imperial German Government recounting the sinking of the Lusitania by which 114 American citizens lost their lives, and the sinking of other ships resulting in the death of American citizens. The note reminded the German Government that the United States had understood its instructions to its naval commanders "to be on a plane of humane action" and it could not bring itself to believe "that these acts, so absolutely contrary to the rules, the practices, and the spirit of modern warfare, could have the countenance of the German Government." It was pointed out at length in the note that "submarines cannot be used against merchantmen without an inevitable violation of many sacred principles of justice and humanity." A demand was made for "just, prompt and enlightened action," and the note, which was signed "Bryan," closed with this significant declaration:

"The Imperial German Government will not expect the Government of the United States to omit any word or any act necessary to the performance of its sacred duty of maintaining the rights of the United States and its citizens and safeguarding their free exercise and enjoyment."

Germany's reply, dated May 28, while evidently intended to be conciliatory, was wholly unsatisfactory to Wilson. It sought to mitigate its offense by the claim that the Lusitania was armed and that the rapid sinking was due not to the torpedo, but to the explosion of ammunition the ship was carrying to England.​a It requested  p254 permission to defer its final reply until it received an answer to its plea of confession and avoidance. On June 4 it sent a more satisfactory explanation of the attacks on the American cargo steamships Gulflight and Cushing, in which it recognized "the principle of the freedom of all parts of the open sea to neutral ships and the frank willingness of the Imperial German Government to acknowledge and meet its liability where the fact of attack upon neutral ships 'which have not been guilty of any hostile act' by German aircraft or vessels of war is satisfactorily established." On June 9, the United States Government, in a note signed "Lansing" (Mr. Bryan having resigned), replied at length to the German note. It was plain that Wilson was resolved to admit of no temporizing, for it "very earnestly and very solemnly reviews" the demand in the note of May 13, "The Government of the United States is contending for something much greater than mere rights of property or privileges of commerce. It is contending for nothing less high and sacred than the rights of humanity, which every government honors itself in respecting and which no government is justified in resigning on behalf of those under its care and authority." It closed with a demand for "assurances" that Germany would carry out what our Government had all along insisted upon. Still Germany sought to palliate its action and, instead of giving the "assurances," it stressed Great Britain's "illegal blockade" and offered to grant complete immunity to "passenger ships under the control of the American Government and distinguished by special marks." The answer to Germany went into the questions at issue at great length, closing with these words of portent: "Friendship itself prompts us to say to the  p255 Imperial Government that repetition by the commanders of the German naval vessels of acts in contravention of those rights must be regarded by the Government of the United States, when they affect American citizens, as deliberately unfriendly." Then after vigorous and unmistakable assertion of the position of the United States, Germany made the promises Wilson had demanded. When the Arabic was torpedoed and sunk on August 19, 1915, the German Ambassador promised "full satisfaction" and the German submarine commanders were instructed to attack no liners without warning.

For some weeks after this promise, it looked as if it was made to be kept, but on November 7 a submarine in the Mediterranean carrying the Austria-Hungary flag, sunk the Ancona, and a large number of passengers, including citizens of the United States, lost their lives. In a letter of December 6 to the Austrian Government the facts were detailed and the Government was called upon to denounce the act as "inhumane and barbarous" and make reparation. The Austrian reply was entirely satisfactory. On December 29 the British ship Persia, carrying a gun, was sunk in the Mediterranean. Among those who lost their lives was Dr. Robert McNeely, the American consul at Aden. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey denied that the ship had been sunk by any of their submarines.

On the twenty-fifth day of February Senator Gore, of Oklahoma, introduced a resolution to the effect that American citizens should "forbear to exercise the right to travel as passengers upon any armed vessel of any belligerent power" and that no passport should be issued to any American citizen for the purpose of such travel. In the House, Mr. McLemore, of Texas, introduced a  p256 resolution which requested the President to warn American citizens that they should refrain from traveling on armed belligerent ships and that any such travel in neglect of this warning would be at their own risk.

The feeling was intense in Congress and in the country. Senator Stone, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, had written the President on February 24, that the situation was such as to "excite a sense of deep concern in the minds of careful and thoughtful men," and he added, "As much and as deeply as I would hate to radically disagree with you, I find it difficult from my sense of duty and responsibility to consent to plunge this nation into the vortex of this World War." Senator Stone was of Wilson's political party and up to that time had supported and championed Wilson's policies. He and those with him believed this country would soon be in the war if Wilson's declared purpose was carried out. As subsequent events proved, the Senator was resolved to do everything possible to keep the United States out of "the vortex of war." Wilson replied, calling attention to the fact that the Central Powers had in the past kept the promises he had obtained, and he hoped existing difficulties could be peacefully adjusted. Otherwise, he declared with the spirit that left no room to doubt his determination:

"We should, it seems to me, have in honor no choice as to what our course should be. For my own part, I cannot consent to any abridgment of the rights of our citizens in this respect. The honor and self-respect of the nation are involved. We court peace and shall preserve it at any cost but the loss of honor. . . . If, in this instance, we allowed expediency to take the place of principle, the door would inevitably be opened  p257 to still further concessions. Once accept a single abatement of right and many other humiliations would certainly follow."

The next day, pursuing the fixed habit of conferring with responsible leaders of Congress upon important policies, President Wilson had a conference with the leaders of the House. Speaker Clark, after the conference, said: "We told the President that the warning resolution (McLemore) would carry two to one if we ever got a chance to vote."

It was evident that there were those who wished to avoid direct action. Wilson felt the supreme necessity of a clear and vigorous policy. If there was a two-to‑one majority in favor of surrendering the right of Americans to travel on the seas in pursuit of legitimate business, he wished to know it. If, as he believed, the country and the Congress would not surrender that inherent right for fear of the consequences, he wished it to be affirmatively declared. He thought the country shared his point of view. He, therefore, with what opponents of his policy called "a dramatic suddenness" requested Mr. Pou, Chairman of the House Committee on Rules, to secure an "immediate opportunity for full public discussion and action" upon the McLemore resolution.

Pending action by the House, the Senate took up the Gore resolution, its author substituting a new one, declaring that "the sinking by any submarine without notice or warning of an armed merchant vessel of her public enemy resulting in the death of a citizen of the United States would constitute a just and sufficient cause for war between the United States and the German Empire."

There was no debate, the Senate by a vote of 68 to 14  p258 tabling the resolution, Gore voting to table his own resolution. The result was, of course, virtual defeat of Gore's original proposal that American citizens should "forbear to exercise the right to travel as passengers upon any armed vessel of any belligerent nation." Its author admitted defeat when he amended it beyond recognition and then joined in tabling it without debate. The Senate, by its lack of action, gave the President a free hand. There were not a few Senators who preferred not to go on record and were agreeable to the dog-fall. In the House, however, Wilson had his way in everything except securing "full public discussion." On March 7, the McLemore resolution came up for consideration. That body adopted the previous question, shutting off debate by a vote of 256 to 160; approved the rule itself by a vote of 272 to 137; and tabled the motion by a vote of 276 to 133. The majority included 182 Democrats, 93 Republicans, 1 Progressive. The minority embraced 33 Democrats, 102 Republicans, and 5 Progressives. This was equivalent to an approval of the policy of President Wilson and a rejection of any surrender of the right of Americans on the sea.

This victory, won only by supreme resolution and courage on Wilson's part, over the opposition of men, supposed up to that time to have controlling influence in Congress, presaged the succession of victories that followed and insured the co‑operation of Congress in the subsequent measures leading up to war and in the vigorous prosecution of war.

The unrestrained submarine warfare abated, but on April 18, 1916, it became necessary to send a note on the explosion which wrecked the Sussex and also on the general submarine warfare against merchant  p259 ships. The note named instances of "the deliberate method and spirit of indiscriminate destruction of merchant vessels of all sorts and nationalities." This ultimatum was given: "Unless the Imperial German Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government of the United States can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire altogether." This ultimatum was made not only to protect American rights, but, as Wilson declared, "in behalf of humanity and the rights of neutral nations."

On April 19, 1916, President Wilson, in pursuance of his fixed policy of keeping in touch with the legislators and keeping them informed of every important step, in a special message delivered to Congress, gave a full résumé of the correspondence with the German Government with reference to the submarine destruction. "Again and again," he said, "the Imperial German Government has given this Government its solemn assurances" and "again and again permitted its undersea commanders to disregard these assurances with entire impunity." He told Congress our Government "has been very patient"; it had "accepted the successive explanations and assurances of the Imperial Government as given in entire sincerity and good faith, and had hoped, even against hope," that these promises would be kept. He said the German Government had "been unable to put any limits or restraints upon its warfare," and it had become "painfully evident that the use of submarines for the destruction of an enemy's commerce is incompatible with the principles of humanity, the long established and incontrovertible rights of neutrals, and the  p260 sacred immunities of non-combatants." He therefore stated he had said to the Imperial German Government that "if it is still its purpose to prosecute relentless and indiscriminate warfare" there would be no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the Government of the German Empire altogether. He added as the reason that had impelled him "with keenest regret to this course," this statement: "We cannot forget that we are in some sort and by the force of circumstances the responsible spokesman of the rights of humanity, and that we cannot remain silent while those rights seem in process of being utterly swept away in the maelstrom of this terrible war." The result of this note and message was that the German Government in a long reply gave the promises and assurances demanded. In its note Germany expressed the confidence that the United States would demand that the British Government should observe the rules of international law. To this on May 8, the United States government answered, accepting Germany's "declaration of its abandonment of the policy which seriously menaced the good relations" and announcing that it would "rely upon a scrupulous execution of the new and altered policy." It added that it could not "for a moment entertain, much less discuss, a suggestion that respect by German naval authorities for the rights of citizens of the United States upon the high seas should in any way, or in the slightest degree, be made contingent upon the conduct of any other government affecting the rights of neutrals non-combatants" and concluded with the pregnant sentence: "Responsibility in such matters is single, not joint; absolute, not relative."

Wilson had won the victory. Germany had surrendered.  p261 The pledge that merchant vessels would not be sunk without warning and without saving human lives was observed from May 4, 1916, to January 31, 1917. Wilson had indeed been "very patient," but he had never altered his ultimatum made on May 13 that the American Government "would not omit any word or act" to secure what Germany at last pledged its honor to do. For nine months the promise was kept and the summer and fall of 1916 gave hope that the submarine menace was a thing of the past. Wilson was so encouraged that on December 18 he sent a note to the belligerent governments, suggesting to each that they state the terms on which peace would be acceptable. The responses were somewhat encouraging, and on January 22, 1917, he addressed Congress on the essential terms of peace in Europe. That olive branch, which at first seemed to be well received, was followed shortly by Germany's breaking its word and its renewal of the unrestricted submarine warfare. In that situation, as in every crisis, Wilson conferred with congressional leaders. Senator Robinson thus relates what happened:

"When the German Government announced its purpose to resume submarine warfare, the President went to his room in the Capitol, summoned a number of Senators and said:

" 'You know the situation in all its details. I wonder what you are thinking I should do?'

"One Senator replied: 'Give the German Ambassador his passports and order him forthwith to leave the country.'

"Another declared: 'I heartily approve of that suggestion.'

"A third Senator, however, suggested that perhaps  p262 it might be well to dispatch a communication remonstrating against the avowed purpose of Germany. President Wilson's jaws snapped. His features became pale and rigid. Drawing himself erect and casting a stern glance upon the crowd which had gathered while the consultation was in progress, he said, in substance: " 'Let us be done with diplomatic notes. The hour to act has come. We scarcely can hope that Germany will recede. The German Ambassador will be advised that unless immediate abandonment of the submarine policy is announced, his further presence in the United States is not desired.' "

President Wilson in a message delivered to Congress on February 3, 1917, reviewed the circumstances and stated that he had taken steps to sever all relations with the German Empire. He added that the American Ambassador at Berlin would be withdrawn, and the German Ambassador at Washington would be handed his passports. He still hoped the "overt act" would not occur. If, however, "American ships and American lives should be sacrificed," Wilson added, he would come to Congress again "to ask that authority be given me to use any means that may be necessary for the protection of our seamen and our people in the prosecution of their peaceful and legitimate errands on the high seas." He closed with the declaration that he proposed to "vindicate our right to liberty and justice and unmolested life," and made this prayer: "God grant we may not be challenged to defend them by acts of willful injustice on the part of the government of Germany!"

"Has the Navy the guns and gunners to arm and man merchant ships?"

 p263  "How soon can you put guns and gunners on merchant ships?"

President Wilson asked these questions of the Secretary of the Navy at a Cabinet meeting early in the year 1917. He was told the Navy could arm them as fast as the ships were ready.

The Central Powers had announced that after March 1, they would treat armed enemy merchantmen as ships of war. Prior to that, on February 15, a statement was given out to the press by the administration that merchantmen had a legal right to carry armament for the purpose, the sole purpose, of defense and that the right of American citizens to travel on such vessels should not be impaired. Wilson believed he had the right to arm merchantmen, but on February 26, in an address to both houses, he requested Congress to "supply our merchant ships with defensive arms, should that become necessary, and with the means of using them, and to employ any other instrumentalities or methods that may be necessary and adequate to protect our ships and our people in their legitimate and peaceful pursuits on the seas." A bill to that effect, introduced at once, promptly passed the House by a large majority, but failed in the Senate by reason of a filibuster conducted by a handful of Senators whose continual debate prevented the bill from coming to a vote before the end of the session of Congress, March 4. It was that filibuster which called forth the President's denunciation of the "little group of wilful men" who had, with utter disregard of the necessity of action, prevented the legislation. He also suggested a change in the rules of the Senate so as to make it impossible for a small group to defeat the will of the overwhelming majority of  p264 Senators. The need for such protection of American merchant ships called for no delay. Before adjournment, a large majority of the Senators signed a document, stating that they favored the bill to arm American merchantmen, and would have voted for it, if they had been given the opportunity. Confident that he had the power under the Constitution, and a large majority of both Houses of Congress having expressed willingness to grant him specific authority, President Wilson, on March 12, directed the Secretary of the Navy to furnish guns and naval gunmen to American ships. In two days guns were installed in the Manchuria, St. Louis and Aztec; four days later the New York and St. Paul were equipped. The Manchuria sailed for England March 15, and thereafter a constant succession of merchant ships, carrying armed guards, left our ports for Europe.

Up to this time the majority sentiment of the country had seemed to be averse to America's participation in the European war. In November Mr. Wilson had been re-elected by popular majority of 590,785. A militant and growing minority had been critical of Wilson's policy. But sentiment for action was crystallizing, and when Wilson brought the matter to a head by asking Congress to "supply our merchant ships with arms" that naval gunners might give protection to them, there was such response as to show the country was behind its President in his resolve at any cost to give protection to American lives on the high seas. His measure had passed the House by a vote of 403 to 13 and only the "little group of wilful men" in the Senate stood against the course he had marked out.

Solemnly as he had called the nation to war, after exercising every possible means to avert its entrance,  p265 consistent with devotion to humanity and duty to America, President Wilson welcomed release from the longer impossible attempt to preserve neutrality. From the sinking of the Lusitania, there had been a growing feeling in the country that the United States could not avoid participation. Wilson, when urged to keep the nation "out of war," in his earnest desire to do so consistent with duty, had reminded the people that conditions might at any time arise when it would not be possible to do so. On April 2, all efforts for peace having proved unavailing, Wilson delivered his famous war message to Congress, advising that Germany's course be declared war against the United States.

Neutrality was ended. War was on.

Thayer's Note:

a On‑the‑spot explorations of the sunken ship in 1993 and 2006 have shown that the Lusitania was indeed carrying ammunition, but that the second explosion was not due to munitions of any kind.

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Page updated: 16 Aug 08