Shall it be Again ?


IN examining our excuses for war, the first noticeable circumstance is their great number and variety.  The number, rendered it easy for our propagandists to shift, to leap about from one point to another, to dodge about in a maze of affirmation and denunciation;  while the variety was calculated to raise some consideration appealing to every class, temperament, and type of mind.

On many occasions we proclaimed the utter unselfishness of our motives.  Yet on other occasions we urged motives as selfish as can well be imagined.  Where selfish motives are acknowledged, however justifiable they may be, common decency would seem to require that no profession of unselfishness be made.

In his message of December 4, 1917, President Wilson divided our claimed war motives into two classes, causes and objectives;  the causes comprising the motives mentioned in the pre-war disputes, the objectives comprising those which were brought forward only after we were in.  Since the former were urged exclusively before the American people and the American Congress, in defense of each and every step towards belligerency, it would be only just to test our sincerity strictly by them.  These were the only motives of which America was officially told, and of which Germany was told.

Wars are always preceded—and always ought to be—by disputes, recitals of specific grievances, or ultimatums setting forth the course which the offending government may pursue in order to avoid war.  But our official spokesman did not demand that Germany get out of Belgium;  he did not demand that the Kaiser resign or reorganize his government along more democratic lines;  he did not demand that Germany cede France Alsace-Lorraine, he did not demand that Italy be given parts of Austria;  he did not demand that Germany renounce her alliance with Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria, or that Germany abandon imperialism.  His quarrel was concerned entirely with Germany’s use of the submarine, and almost entirely with America’s rights involved therewith.  Not a single complaint was offered that was not professedly based upon some specific injury to American lives, or trade, or danger thereto.  On several occasions, the President did assume to stand as the champion of the rights of neutral nations in general, or as the defender of international law as such, but on every such occasion his complaints proceeded from alleged injury to selfish interests of certain Americans, and were scrupulously confined to submarine issues.

In strict justice, our objectives are invalidated at the beginning by the very fact that they are after-thought reasons.  They will not, however, be so treated here.

America having ridden into war on the submarine issue, that issue will be examined first.  The motives urged in the submarine dispute were :

1.  Protection of American commerce.
2.  Preservation of American lives.
3.  Championship of international law.
4.  Maintenance of American honor.

On a number of occasions, both before and after April, 1917, our spokesman proclaimed the sufficiency of these causes.  For example, at Urbana (Jan. 31, 1918), he told his audience :

You will not need to be convinced that it was necessary for us as a free people to take part in this war.  It had raised its evil hand against us.  The rulers of Germany had sought to exercise their power in such a way as to shut off our economic life, so far as our intercourse with Europe was concerned.

And in a letter to Congressman Heflin, May 22, 1917, he wrote :

I have again and again stated the very serious and long continued wrongs which the Imperial German Government has perpetrated against the rights, the commerce, and the citizens of the United States.  The list is long and overwhelming.  No nation that respected itself or the rights of humanity could have borne these wrongs any longer.

Previously, in each successive step towards belligerency, the President had hinted that he was willing to go to war strictly on the submarine issue.  As far back as February, 1915, he uttered this threat to Germany, conditioned wholly upon the protection of selfish American rights :

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.  (Strict-accountability note.)

Looking over his preparedness-tour speeches, we find that the President presented the following propositions, to each of his audiences, practically in the same terms :

1.  He asked the country to prepare for war.
2.  He promised to keep the country out of war.
3.  He hinted at danger of war.
4.  In promising to keep the country out of war, he left a loophole—war for the maintenance of American honor.
5.  He made it plain that, by American honor, he meant the obligation to protect American rights to trade and travel upon the high seas, as these rights are defined by international law.

Here is the argument in typical quotations :

Country Must Prepare.

I should feel that I was guilty of an unpardonable omission if I did not go out and tell my fellow-countrymen that new circumstances have arisen which make it absolutely necessary that this country should prepare herself.  (Pittsburgh speech)

Yet He Will Keep Us Out of War.

I pledge you that, God helping me, I will keep you out of war.  (Milwaukee speech)

Still, There May Be Trouble.

I cannot tell twenty-four hours at a time whether there is going to be trouble or not.  (Kansas City speech)

For Honor May Require War.

You have laid upon me this double obligation :  ‘We are relying upon you, Mr. President, to keep us out of this war, but we are relying upon you, Mr. President, to keep the honor of the nation unstained.’ Do you not see that a time may come when it is impossible to do both of these things ?  (Cleveland speech)

Although There is No Danger of Invasion.

Nobody seriously supposes, gentlemen, that the United States needs to fear an invasion of its own territory.  (New York speech)

Rights Abroad Must be Protected, by Force, if Necessary.

It may be necessary to use the forces of the United States to vindicate the rights of American citizens everywhere to enjoy the rights of international law.  (Topeka speech)

For We are Morally Obliged to Protect Commerce.

There is a moral obligation laid upon us to keep free the courses of our commerce and our finance, and I believe that America stands ready to vindicate those rights.  (Topeka speech)

The Destruction of Even One American Cargo May Mean War.

One commander of a submarine ... might set the world on fire. ... There are cargoes of cotton on the seas;  there are cargoes of wheat on the seas;  there are cargoes of manufactured articles on the seas;  and any one of those cargoes may be the point of ignition.  (St. Louis speech)

For We Must Maintain Our Right to Ship Products Abroad.

There is one thing Kansas ought to be interested in, and that is that we must maintain our rights to sell our products to any neutral country anywhere in the world.  We should be allowed to send the wheat that grows on the Kansas fields and the cotton in our southern states to neutrals who need them, without interference from any of the warring nations.  (Topeka speech)

And See that Americans Everywhere are Respected.

Americans have gone to all quarters of the world.  Americans are serving the business of the world ... and every one of these men ... is our ward and we must see to his rights and that they are respected.  (Cleveland speech)

That the true import of the President’s preparedness speeches was not grasped by his audiences was due only to his policy of mixing such remarks with sentiments that seemed to lead to a diametrically opposite conclusion.

Growing directly out of the President’s determination to champion the interests of certain Americans was his assertion of those interests as rights under international law.  Growing directly out of his determination to champion these specified American “rights” was his assumption of the championship of law on principle.  Growing out of this position was his assumption of the championship of the rights of neutrals in general, although neutral nations were not asking for his peculiar kind of championship.  Growing out of this position was his championship of that all-embracing thing, “humanity.”

The apparently contradictory rôle of champion of others and champion of ourselves, apostle of unselfishness and apostle of selfishness, our Executive played throughout the pre-war disputes.  It would appear, therefore, that the best means of testing the validity of our professed motives is to segregate and examine them one by one.


CAN the protection of American commerce from U-boat attacks be defended as a valid cause—as one of the causes—for our war with Germany ?

Our war represents an infinitely greater expense than the gross value of American commerce concerned in the dispute.

Compare the cost of war with the value of the commerce that we entered the arena to protect.  Forget the blood-cost and every other cost except in immediate dollars and cents.  The gross value of all exports from the United States to Great Britain and France, for the record-breaking year of 1916, was only $2,155,537,090, or but one-ninth of the appropriations of the first session of the war Congress.

Consider the volume of commerce at issue, in comparison with the entire volume of America’s commerce.  In a speech at Cincinnati, October 26, 1916—less than one hundred days before he broke relations with Germany—President Wilson said :

If you take the figures of our commerce, domestic and foreign included, you will find that the foreign commerce, even upon the modest reckoning of our domestic commerce, does not include four per cent. of the total, and the exports in munitions—and not merely in munitions, but in everything that goes to supply armies—draft animals, automobile trucks, food directly intended for that purpose, shoes, clothes, everything that is needed by the commissary of an army, that all of these things put together do not constitute one per cent. of the total of our commerce.

And only a fraction of this very small portion of America’s total commerce passed through the submarine zone.  The great increase in America’s foreign commerce between 1913 and 1916 was due only in part to the war trade with the Entente countries.  A portion of it was represented by an inflation of neutral trade, due to the disappearance of competition for world trade on the part of some of the warring nations.  For his “modest reckoning of our domestic commerce” the President took the New York Annalist figures for the year ending June 30, 1916—five hundred billion dollars.  American exports to England and France, during the same period, represented less than one-half of one per cent. of this sum.

And even that one-half of one per cent. represents a great deal more than the fraction of America’s export trade covered by American representations to Germany on behalf of American commerce.  In making such representations, the government of the United States concerned itself only with the safety of American ships and their cargoes.  Where ships flying other flags came into the dispute, the theme was not commerce, but lives.  The ships which carried American goods through the U-boat zone were, more than ten to one, of foreign registry, sailing under foreign flags.  The “American commerce” at issue as such was less than one-twentieth of one per cent. of the total commerce of America.

American commerce thrived and expanded without war, and its growth, even through the war area, was never endangered by the enemy.

The entire loss of one-twentieth of one per cent. of a country’s commerce could hardly be a staggering blow to that country as a whole.  Such a loss, however, never occurred.  America’s trade with England and France was not destroyed by the submarine.  It was never in danger of destruction as a whole.  Interference with it was never so serious as to prevent its steady growth.

In February, 1917, following the breaking of relations with Germany, the National Association of Manufacturers issued a special bulletin characterizing the submarine warfare, up to the intensified period, as a “failure.”

And, from the beginning of the intensified period, it was the same kind of a failure.  Although the trade of February fell off from that of January, this was not due to any increased destruction on the part of the submarine, but to a conspiracy of certain shipping and financial interests, allied with the British government, to coerce America into more war-like action.  (See Chapter XXVII.)

But even then, the value of February exports was greater than that of the same month of the previous year, and the recovery in succeeding months—before America began to assist in combating the submarine—was complete.

In an interview in the New York Times, February 18, 1917, the editor of Export American Industries, organ of the National Association of Manufacturers, said :

Our regular export trade has suffered but little from the new German blockade.  Without any possibility of interruption, the lines to the great neutral markets and to the colonies of the warring nations are open to our shipments.  It is too bad the steamship news and the sailings cannot have a prominent place in the papers, as it would go far in offsetting the idea that our export trade is killed by the new submarine zone.  Every day, from New York harbor alone, there are sailings of dozens of big cargo carriers that leave for Latin America, the West Indies, Australia, South Africa, and the Orient, and these are not mentioned in the newspapers.  And this does not include the shipments going out from Boston, Baltimore, Savannah, and our other Atlantic ports, or from the Pacific Coast.

The trade routes from our different ports spread out like the delta of a great river.  The most aggressive submarine warfare may dam some of these channels, but the current of our export trade will seek other outlets, and the result will be a deepening and broadening of the channels that cannot be obstructed.  The coast line of the United States is too extensive, the ports are too widely separated, to make any submarine blockade effective in the slightest degree.

Consider what England has done in continuing her export trade since the war.  Hampered by an ebbing labor market and the highest insurance rates, and surrounded by the submarine zone, her foreign sales have steadily increased until her exports stand at approximately the same figure as in 1913.  If Germany could not retard this foreign trade of England, then how little have we to fear for the interruption of our export trade !

In spite of all the hullaballoo that was raised, up to America’s declaration of war but seventeen ships flying the American flag were attacked by U-boats.  (State Department figures presented during war debates by Representative Rogers of Massachusetts.)

Actually, our war protection did not protect.  Destruction of “our” merchant ships in war became immediately greater than it had been in peace.

Over against the seventeen American merchant ships attacked by Germany in nearly three years before our declaration of war, we find sixty-three American merchant ships sunk in the ten months following.

During the first two months of Germany’s intensified campaign—which were the last two before America went to war—six ships were attacked, or three per month.  But in the following ten months—the first ten months of our war “protection”—Germany sank an average of six and one-half per month.  (Department of Commerce figures published Jan. 30, 1918.)

The war trade was of no value whatever to America as a whole, but an injury per se, and the nation would have lost nothing by its disappearance.

Not only were the ships which sailed the U-boat zone, in overwhelming majority, of foreign registry, but the ships flying the American flag belonged, in a great part, to foreigners, including the seventeen ships attacked by Germany.

The majority stock of the organization sometimes known as the “Shipping Trust”—the International Mercantile Marine Company and its subsidiaries—was owned in England.  Although its American head was an American citizen, J.P. Morgan, a large share of the profits of this organization went to foreigners.

To what extent were the American people interested in the shipping profits of Mr. Morgan and his partners, foreign and American ?  President Wilson on at least two occasions gave a partial answer to this question—once in the early days of the war trade, and again after America became a belligerent.  In a speech at Indianapolis, January 8, 1915, the President told his audience :

Do you know that the ocean freight rates have gone up in some instances to ten times their ordinary figures ?  And that the farmers of the United States, those who raise grain and those who raise cotton, cannot get any profit out of the great prices that the world is willing to pay for these things, because the whole profit is eaten up by the extortionate charges for ocean carriage ?

And in his statement to American business interests, July 11, 1917, the President said :

The ship owners of the United States ... are doing everything that high freight charges can do to make the war a failure, to make it impossible. ... The fact is that those who have fixed the war freight rates have taken the most effective mean;  in their power to defeat the armies engaged against Germany.

Yet the protection of the business of these very people was one of the President’s excuses for our war !

Not only was the American public as a whole precluded from sharing in any degree in the war-trade profits of Morgan and his partners, but that war trade actually put the American public out of pocket.  This is proven by a comparison of the increase in the prices of the necessaries of life, with the increase in returns to the numerically large classes that constitute the American public.

There were some notable increases in wages, and some considerable increases in the returns for certain farm products, but millions of Americans had been unable to add a penny to their incomes.  In general, the rise in prices was not offset by corresponding increases in wages, in prices of farm products, and in the returns to the other numerically large classes.

It can be conceded that a certain measure of foreign commerce is beneficial to the country at large, that when such commerce falls below a certain point it may be injurious to the body politic generally;  and at the same time it may be proven that when foreign trade rises beyond a certain level it does so at the expense of the public at home, though the few directly participating in such trade may be reaping tremendous profits.  Especially did that part of America’s foreign trade classed as war trade react unfavorably upon the public pocketbook.  The chief reason is that the greater part of such trade—far exceeding even the trade in munitions—consisted of food and other necessaries of the American people.

The result was the high prices which caused wide-spread suffering and numerous food riots during the weeks just preceding America’s declaration of war.

We did not think it necessary to go to war with England, although the latter interfered with American commerce to a much greater degree than did Germany.

England’s interference with American commerce represented infinitely greater sums in dollars and cents than Germany’s interference with American commerce.

Moreover, while American trade with England continued to grow in the face of the submarine peril, American trade with Germany completely disappeared in the face of the mine and cruiser peril.

While Germany’s interference with American trade was confined altogether to trade with Germany’s enemies, England’s interference with American trade extended to our trade with neutral countries.  In the first eleven months of the European war, England seized 2,000 ships with American cargoes bound for Europe.  (State Department figures quoted by Prof. Edwin J. Clapp, “Economic Aspects of the War,” p. 53.)

Practical means were open to the United States for the protection of American commerce from all belligerents without war.

From the beginning of the European conflict in August, 1914, until America herself became an enemy, Germany made repeated efforts to bring about practicable arrangements for the protection of all American commerce from interference by any belligerent.

Immediately after the initiation of hostilities, the American government, on behalf of American commercial interests, proposed that all belligerents agree to conduct their naval warfare in conformity with the Declaration of London.  Germany assented unconditionally to the proposal;  her enemies refused to do so.

When Germany established a military area on the high seas, in retaliation for England’s military area on the high seas, although England was already intercepting nearly all neutral commerce to Germany, the latter announced that “the German navy has received instructions to abstain from all violence against neutral vessels recognizable as such.”  (German memorial, Feb. 4, 1915.) At the same time it recommended that the American government convoy American ships to insure their recognition, in order that they might proceed unharmed.

The German memorial establishing a war zone was answered by our “strict-accountability note.”  (Feb. 10.) This marked the beginning of the dispute with Germany.  Replying to the “strict-accountability note,” the German government offered definitely to withdraw its war-zone decree if the United States should succeed in bringing about an acceptance of the Declaration of London, on the part of its enemies.  Furthermore, it declared :

The German government is prepared to accord, in conjunction with the American government, the most earnest consideration to any measure that might be calculated to insure the safety of legitimate shipping of neutrals within the seat of war. (Note of Feb. 16, 1915.)

Proceeding on the above suggestion, the American government proposed to the belligerents (Feb. 20, 1915), “a basis of agreement” to safeguard neutral shipping, and obviate disputes between neutrals and belligerents.  Replying (Feb. 28), Germany characterized the proposal as “a suitable basis for the practical solution of the questions which have arisen.”  Taking up the American points seriatim, it agreed in essentials, declaring :  “The German government would undertake not to use its submarines to attack mercantile of any flag except when necessary to enforce the right of visit and search.”  Which is all that the American government was at the time contending for regarding submarines.

These negotiations fell through only because the British reply was a peremptory rejection.  (Note of Mar. 1.) Nevertheless, thereafter the German government continued to try to meet the demands of the American government in its undersea warfare.  In its note of May 9, 1915, it disclaimed any intention of attacking neutral ships, declared that it had given orders to the contrary, and promised to pay for all damages to American ships caused by mistakes of submarine commanders.  In its note of September 1, 1915, it quoted its orders to submarine commanders, instructing them to follow the rules of cruiser warfare in dealing with neutrals.  That these orders were sincerely given and carried out is evidenced by the fact that, in the two years of submarine activity up to the beginning of the “intensified” period, of the many hundreds of vessels attacked by submarines, but eleven were American, and a majority of these were sunk in conformity with the rules of cruiser warfare, against which the United States government could make no complaint and did not do so.

In fact, so little fault was found with the German policy, so far as its effect upon American commerce was concerned, that the United States practically changed the basis of the dispute.  A relatively greater stress was laid upon complaints on behalf of American rights to travel on belligerent ships, and greater emphasis upon its assumption of championship of neutral rights in general and “the sacred and indisputable rules of international law.”

Following the German announcement of intensified warfare, the protection of American commerce again came to the fore as an acknowledged motive for our successive steps towards belligerency.  The German announcement of intensified warfare was made only after two years of negotiations in which Germany sought to arrive at an understanding that would safeguard American commerce within the zone of warfare.  It was made only after Germany had every reason to despair of obtaining impartial and neutral treatment from this country.  It was the direct and logical result of the German failure to obtain such treatment from the Wilson Government.

The responsibility for the intensified policy lies, therefore, largely upon ourselves.  For throughout the entire dispute, another course lay open and clear for American impartial and feasible course that would have assured the safety of American commerce from all belligerents, without the abandonment of neutrality, and without war.  That course was to stand by the Declaration of London, to accept Germany’s consent to conform to it, to compel England to conform to it—to compel, not by war or threats of war, or any hostile, unneutral, or dishonorable act, but by the simple pressure of economic force, the application of the sovereign right of embargo, which would have been sufficient, as every American government official knew at the time.

What is the answer to all this ?

When it becomes evident that the war cannot be justified on any basis of immediate dollars and cents, is the answer that future dollars and cents will make it worth while ?

When it is shown that the nation was not profiting but was losing by the war trade, is the answer that we had to fight for that trade, nevertheless, in order to protect the “right” of such trade to pass unmolested, on the theory that in some future war the trade of this class might become nationally profitable ?  Will any one dare contend that the American people stood to reap financial benefits from our war, in this or any future generation, sufficient to compensate it for the blood and treasure that it proceeded to pour out ?

Or is the answer that it was a question of honor ?  But if a question of honor, why mention commerce unless honor is in some way involved with commerce ?  In what manner are commerce and honor related in the dispute that carried America into the most terrible war in history ?

Commerce was one immediate subject of contention in the submarine dispute;  the other was American lives.


CAN the preservation of American lives be defended as a cause for our war with Germany ?

This point is disposed of on grounds similar to those applied to commerce.  Our war, of course, represents an expenditure of many more American lives than were concerned in the dispute.

Our war protection did not even protect from the particular kind of danger from which the obligation to protect was alleged.  Before April, 1917, but 226 American lives were lost on all ships, American and foreign, as a result of Germany’s action;  this includes the 114 American lives lost on the “Lusitania.”  (State Department figures presented during war debates by Representative Rogers of Massachusetts.) But in the first ten months of American belligerency, more than 300 American lives were lost as a result of Germany’s operations upon the seas.  (Department of Commerce figures published Feb. 1, 1918.)

Moreover, practicable means were always open to the United States for the preservation of American lives from any of the incidents of the European conflict.  Had the preservation of American lives been at any time a real consideration our government would have taken one or the other of two courses :

1.  It would have notified American citizens to travel within the barred zone only at their own risk.

2.  It would have accepted the means offered by Germany for safe travel for American citizens through the barred zone.

Many Americans have no doubt forgotten that the German government repeatedly expressed a willingness to enter into any arrangements whatever—short of abandoning her commercial blockade—looking towards the preservation of the lives of neutrals.

In its note of July 8, 1915, the German government offered to give its submarine commanders instructions “to permit the free and safe passage of American passenger steamers when made recognizable by special markings and notified a reasonable time in advance.”  It proposed that an arrangement be entered into covering details.  It went farther and expressed a willingness to agree to “the installation in the passenger service of neutral steamers, the exact number to be agreed upon, under the American flag under the same conditions as the American steamers above mentioned.”  It even offered :

If, however, it should not be possible for the American government to acquire an adequate number of neutral passenger steamers, the Imperial Government is prepared to interpose no objections to the placing under the American flag by the American government of four enemy passenger steamers for the passenger traffic between America and England.  The assurances of free and safe passage for American passenger steamers would then be extended to apply under the identical pre-conditions to these formerly hostile passenger ships.

In the note of May 4, 1916, the German government pointed out that it had made “several proposals to the government of the United States in order to reduce to a minimum for American travelers the inherent dangers of naval warfare,” all of which proposals we had declined;  nevertheless it declared that “the German government still stands by its offer to come to an agreement along these lines.”

Finally, in announcing the intensified commercial blockade—which furnished the occasion for President Wilson to break diplomatic relations and move rapidly towards war—Germany laid down conditions under which American passengers could still travel.  (See annex to note of Jan. 31, 1917.)

We had a dispute with England, as well as with Germany.  In comparing the wrongs which we suffered from each, a great point was made of the fact that, while England may have interfered with American commerce quite as flagrantly as did Germany, our grievance against the latter was very much greater by reason of the fact that Germany’s interference involved the sacrifice of American lives, while that of England did not.

It was pointed out at the time that this contention was not true, American lives having been lost from British mines in at least two instances, in the sinking of the American ships “Evelyn” and “Carib.”  Supposing, however, it were true, the answer would be that, if the German sea warfare resulted in the sacrifice of American lives and the British warfare did not, it was not because of any difference in goodwill between Germany and England, but it was wholly due to the choice of Americans.

No informed persons will seriously contend that Germany wished to kill Americans—any more than that England wished to kill Americans.  The blockade on each side was aimed solely at commerce.  Both wished to avoid causing the loss of neutral lives, but both were determined to hurt the commerce of the other, even though it cost the lives of neutrals.  Both laid down conditions for neutral commerce which, if disregarded, would result in the loss of neutral lives, and, if obeyed, would mean that no neutral lives would be lost.  Had Americans persisted in sailing the North Sea in defiance of British orders they would surely have been sunk by mines;  or if they avoided mines they would have been pursued by cruisers, and if they attempted to escape they would have been fired upon.  The sole reason why Americans were killed by Germans and not by Britons was that they persisted in disregarding the German orders, while carefully complying with the British orders.

American citizens took such a course for several reasons.  First, the chances of successfully evading the German orders were greater.  Second, the American government encouraged them to attempt to evade the German orders while not encouraging them to attempt to evade the British orders.

For not only did our government unconditionally reject all German offers for the safeguarding of American lives, but it used American lives as pawns in the dispute.  It deliberately encouraged Americans to go into danger.  In this it cooperated with England, whose policy could have been dictated only by a desire to embroil the United States with Germany.

Great Britain placed restrictions upon the travel of British women and children through the barred zone.  In this policy it was acting out of consideration for British lives.  But it had no such consideration for American lives.  Nor did our own government.  Great Britain was quite willing for American citizens to be killed, if that would only pave the way to American hostility to Germany.  And the Wilson Administration played into the hands of England.  Meanwhile, Germany was begging the United States not to send its citizens into danger.  Germany was showing more consideration for American lives than was the American government.  Of course it was doing this in the hope of avoiding war with us.  But what was the motive for our I peculiar policy ?

President Wilson was so willing for our citizens to risk their lives that he permitted them to do so even in violation of our own statutes.  A notable case is that of the “Lusitania.”  In the words of Senator LaFollette :

Two weeks before the “Lusitania” sailed, the passengers had been warned also from German sources.  Who, then, was primarily responsible for the loss of American lives on the “Lusitania”?

A year later the issue was even more clearly defined.  In opposition to the view of Congress, the President insisted on the “right” of American citizens to travel as passengers upon the fighting “merchant” ships of the warring countries, encouraging them to risk their lives in this manner.

From all this it is obvious that the preservation of American lives was only a pretext.  Did the President deliberately seek to use American lives to protect the munitions trade as such ?  Certainly he used American lives for some other purpose than for the preservation of American lives, for the way to protect life is to protect it, and not send it into danger.

In its note of July 8, 1915, the German government declared itself “unable to admit that American citizens can protect an enemy ship through the mere fact of their presence on board.”  If President Wilson’s willingness to sacrifice American life in opposition to this view was not due to a determination to protect the American war trade, even that carried in belligerent ships, what was the motive ?

Again—as with commerce—was it a question of honor ?  In what manner are trade and travel within the barred zone related with honor, in the dispute that carried America into the most terrible war in history ?

We find Wilson’s own answer in his famous letter to Senator Stone, opposing a warning to American citizens against traveling as passengers on the armed ships of the Entente allies.  Here is the most complete existing amplification of President Wilson’s position as the professed champion of international law, and his most connected exposition of the relationship which this professed championship bears to the selfish American interests of trade and travel;  the relationship which these selfish interests bear to American honor, and the relationship between the supposedly unselfish championship of neutral rights generally, and the obviously selfish interest of American sovereignty.  Said President Wilson to Senator Stone (Feb. 24, 1916):

I cannot consent to any abridgement of the rights of American citizens in any respect.  The honor and self-respect of the nation is involved.  We covet peace and shall preserve it at any cost but the loss of honor.  To forbid our people to exercise their rights for fear we might be called upon to vindicate them would be ... an implicit, all but explicit, acquiescence in the violation of the rights of mankind everywhere and of whatever nation or allegiance.  It would be a deliberate abdication of our hitherto proud position as spokesman even amidst the turmoil of war for the law and the right. ... It is important to reflect that, if in this instance we allowed expediency to take the place of principle, the door would inevitably be opened to still further concessions.  Once accept a single abatement of right, and many other humiliations would certainly follow and the whole fine fabric of international law would crumble under our hands, piece by piece.  What we are contending for in this matter is of the very essence of the things that have made America a sovereign nation.  She cannot yield them without conceding her own impotency as a nation and making vital surrender of her independent position among the nations of the world.

If you follow this, you get the official theory almost clear.  Honor is involved with trade and travel because trade and travel are involved with international law, and international law is involved with sovereignty.  For our own sakes we must maintain our proud position as champion of neutral rights and of humanity.

We do not pretend that Americans must be left to trade and travel under all circumstances.  It is not the actual interference with commerce and lives that obliges us to fight;  it is the method—and the method stands or falls by the rules of international law.  Of such overshadowing importance is international law, indeed, that we must stand prepared to sacrifice both commerce and lives to it.  We must stand prepared to spend even “our last man and our last dollar” in order to maintain the simple right, under international law, of any American to ship the food we need to other countries, or the simple right of the same American to travel anywhere upon the high seas, in pursuit of the patriotic business of causing a scarcity of food and high prices within his own country.

Very well, all motives of the submarine dispute are reduced to terms of international law.


IN view of the universally admitted fact that international law had largely gone by the board, as a result of the war measures of both belligerents, and the universal belief that after the war, a new and more definite code would be drawn up, was it not a bit ridiculous to pretend to go to war to save the existing code from the scrap-heap ?

In the British note of February 10, 1915, appears the following :  “No war has yet been waged in which neutral individuals have not occasionally suffered from unjustifiable action.”  Supposing America had not gone to war with Germany, there is no ground whatever for the theory that Germany would then have gone out of her way to violate other American “rights” than those involved in the submarine dispute, or would in any way have assailed the independence of this country.

It would seem to be obvious that, under the circumstances, expediency should have been the guide.  It would seem to have been expedient to keep out of the war except for some interest immediately vital to sovereignty, or for some practicable ideal impossible to arrive at through any alternative course.

Every one surely knows that governments do not habitually rush into war on any such principle as that enunciated by Wilson.  Nor had America in the past followed any such policy.  Justification of a diametrically opposite course was the main thesis of the campaign upon which Wilson was reelected in 1916, although at that very time he had given enunciation to his war-for-the-championship-of-international-law theory.  In the keynote speech, at the St. Louis convention, Governor Glynn sought to show that his chief was following the course of expediency, wisely pursued by his illustrious predecessors.  In support of his argument, Glynn gave a long list of instances from our history, in which America had suffered grievous injury, chiefly from England and France,[1] during the presidential terms of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Van Buren, Pierce, Lincoln, Harrison, and Grant, in which our disputes had been settled by negotiation, without resort to war.

Do not forget that the expedient course was always open to our Executive, that it was made easily possible by the conciliatory attitude of Germany, and that a numerous group within his own party urged it from the start, and continued to urge it down to the very verge of war.

In support of his resolution seeking to warn American citizens against traveling as passengers in armed belligerent ships, Senator Gore had argued (Mar, 2, 1916):

The progress of civilization consists of the withdrawal of individual rights when they become incompatible with the paramount interests of organized society.  It is perhaps true that any one of the 100,000,000 American citizens has a right to travel on an armed merchant ship.  He has the right to run the risk of losing his life and engulfing this republic in a sea of carnage and blood, but I believe that the 100,000,000 citizens have a right to be protected against his recklessness.  The right of 100,000,000 to be protected from butchery is not to be weighed in the balance with the sacred and inherited right to imperil his own life.

A few days earlier, Senator Stone, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, had argued with the President as follows :

I find it difficult for my sense of duty and responsibility to consent to plunge this nation into the vortex of this world war because of the unreasonable obstinacy of any of the powers, upon the one hand, or upon the other hand, of foolhardiness, amounting to a sort of moral treason against the republic, of our people recklessly risking their lives on armed belligerent ships.  I cannot escape the conviction that such would be so monstrous as to be indefensible.  I insist that neither a private citizen nor the President nor the Congress of the United States can be justified in driving this nation into war or endangering its peace by any such false sense of courage or national prestige or dignity.  (Letter of Feb. 24, 1916.)

A similar position was taken by many Republicans, a large proportion of whom held to it even after the President had broken diplomatic relations, and almost down to the day when he had practically embroiled us.  Had the President himself taken this position, it would have been difficult for him to have found grounds for a serious quarrel.  Moreover, there is no evidence that he would have lost his leadership by doing so.[2]

In the keynote speech previously referred to, President Wilson’s mouthpiece accused the political opposition of urging the very theory that “a single abatement of right” would require America to plunge into the war, and pointed where such a policy, if carried out, would inevitably lead :

Fighting for every degree of injury would mean perpetual war, and this is the policy of our opponents, deny it how they will.  It would not allow the United States to keep the sword in the scabbard as long as there remains an unrighted wrong or an unsatisfied hope between the snowy wastes of Siberia or the jungled hills of Borneo. ... It mould give us a war abroad each time the fighting cock of the European weather vane shifted with the breeze.  It would make America the cockpit of the world.  It would mean the reversal of our traditional policy of government.  It would mean the adoption of imperialistic doctrines which we have denounced for over a century. ... In a word, this policy of our opponents would make the United States the policeman of the world.  Rome tried to be policeman of the world, and went down;  Portugal tried to be policeman of the world, and went down;  Spain tried, and went down;  and the United States proposes to profit by the experience of the ages and avoid ambitions whose reward is sorrow and whose crown is death.


1 Among other things, Mr. Glynn referred to the efforts of the French minister during Washington’s administration, to “rally this country to the support of France in return for the help France gave us in the revolutionary war.”  “Our debt to France” was a special reason frequently proclaimed by our war propagandists for American intervention against Germany.  On one occasion President Wilson asserted that the American people had been waiting for more than a century an opportunity to repay the alleged debt.  President Harding expressed himself in similar terms in a speech, October 19, 1921.  On arriving in France, General Pershing shouted loudly, “Lafayette, we are here !” The gesture was not without its sentimental effect.  But for more than a century the prevailing American view had been that we owed France nothing, as the French official help to the colonies in the Revolutionary War was given selfishly, as an incident in the French war with England, which happened at the time to be more “democratic” than France.  The “opportunity” mentioned by Wilson had come to President Washington himself, who rejected it.  Had there been any debt to France, moreover, it would have been wiped of the slate generations ago by the unfriendly acts mentioned by Wilson’s spokesman at St. Louis.

2 According to Joseph P. Tumulty, President Wilson’s secretary (“Woodrow Wilson as I Know Him,” Chapter XXIV.), the members of Wilson’s own cabinet advised him against the belligerent position which he took upon this crucial occasion, on the very ground that he might thereby suffer defeat and lose his leadership.


OUR dispute with Germany hinged upon three legal points:  the law of the submarine, the law of the armed merchantman, and the principle of equal treatment as an attribute of neutrality.  On all three of these points, the Administration at Washington flagrantly reversed itself during the course of the controversy.

At one time our spokesman virtually admitted that the law of the submarine had never been fixed, in the following words :

The government of the United State;  is not unmindful of the extraordinary conditions created by this war, or of the radical alterations of circumstances and method;  of attack produced by the use of instrumentalities of warfare which the nations of the world cannot have had in view when the existing rule, of international law were formulated, and it is ready to make every reasonable allowance for these novel and unexpected aspects of war at sea.  (Note to Germany, July 21, 1915.)

Notwithstanding this admission, he proceeded to formulate rules of submarine procedure and to put forth these rules as a part of “the fine fabric of international law !”

In doing so, far from holding the submarine to be an outlaw, he conceded it to be a proper weapon of warfare, and at times conceded that it could properly be employed in operations against commerce.  On one occasion he declared :

The events of the past two months have clearly indicated that it is possible and practicable to conduct such submarine operations as have characterized the activity of the Imperial German Navy within the so-called zone in substantial accord with the accepted practices of regulated warfare.  (Note of July 21, 1915, to Germany.)

On another occasion he declared :

I do not feel that a belligerent should be deprived of the proper use of submarines in the interruption of enemy commerce.  (Letter of Secretary Lansing to British ambassador, Jan. 18, 1916.)

But at another time he held :

Manifestly submarines cannot be used against merchantmen ... without an inevitable violation of many sacred principles of justice and humanity.  (Note of May 13, 1915, to Germany.)

And at another time he held :

The use of submarines for the destruction of an enemy’s commerce is ... utterly incompatible with the principles of humanity, the long-established and incontrovertible rights of neutrals, and the sacred immunities of non-combatants.  (Note of Apr. 18, 1916, to Germany.)

A comparison of these four quotations shows that, in attempting to lay down the law of the submarine, we flatly reversed ourselves, first in 1915, and again in 1916, on the legality of the submarine for the destruction of commerce.

The law of the armed merchantman was of prime importance in the dispute with Germany because it involved the question of the right of attack without warning.  The most unfavorable view ever held of the submarine by our government was that it must not be employed at all against bona fide merchant vessels;  at no time did we hold that its unrestricted use against war vessels was not legitimate.

We never, of course, claimed that American citizens had any right to protection when found upon enemy war vessels.  The question was, therefore, when does a merchant ship become a warship ?  May a merchant vessel arm purely for defense and fight defensively ?  And if so, what procedure must it follow in order to retain its character as a merchantman, and continue in the enjoyment of the immunities of a merchantman ?

On this point our reversal was even more flagrant than upon the law of the submarine.  In the beginning (Memorandum of Sept. 19, 1914) we held that the mere presence of any armament on board a merchant vessel would create a presumption of offensive purpose, and that this presumption could be overcome only by the marshalling of concrete evidence to prove that the armament was intended “solely for defense.”  Such evidence, we held, must include the facts “that no guns are mounted on the forward part of the vessel”;  “that the calibre of the guns carried does not exceed six inches”;  “that the guns and small arms carried are few in number”;  “that the quantity of ammunition carried is small”;  “that the speed of the ship is slow”;  that the vessel is manned only by its usual crew, follows the usual route of a merchant vessel, engages in regular trade, etc. etc.

This position was concurred in by the British government.  In a memorandum dated August 25, 1914, the British ambassador notified us that he had been instructed to give “the fullest assurances that British merchant vessels will never be used for purposes of attack ... that they will never fire unless fired upon, and that they will never under any circumstances attack any vessel.”  In a memorandum dated September 7, he admitted the impropriety of an armed merchantman’s carrying war material or military forces.  And in a memorandum dated September 9, he defined defensively armed craft as “merchant vessels which are bona fide engaged in commerce and carry guns at the stern only.”

For a brief period, indeed, we took the position that no armament whatever could be considered defensive, and that the so-called armed merchantman was never a merchantman at all, but always a ship of war :

The placing of guns on merchantmen at the present day of submarine warfare can be explained only on the ground of a purpose to render merchantmen superior in force to submarines, and to prevent warning and visit and search by them.  Any armament, therefore, on a merchant vessel, would seem to have the character of an offensive armament. ... I should add that my government is impressed with the reasonableness of the argument that a merchant vessel carrying an armament of any sort, in view of the character of submarine warfare and the weakness of undersea craft, should be held to be an auxiliary cruiser and so treated by a neutral as well as by a belligerent government, and is seriously considering instructing its officials accordingly.  (Letter of the Secretary of State to the British Ambassador. Jan. 18, 1916.)

A complete reversal from this position came only sixty-seven days later.  In a memorandum dated March 25, 1916, we not only abandoned our stand of January 18, but conceded to armed merchant vessels greater freedom of action than we had conceded them originally, greater freedom even than the British government had dared to ask.  From holding that merchantmen could not arm against submarines at all we faced squarely about to the position that merchantmen might not only arm against submarines, but might fire before being fired upon;  that, in effect, while the armed merchantman was entitled to attack without warning, the submarine was not entitled to do so;  that neutral persons traveling as passengers upon such armed ships were entitled to the same immunities as if traveling upon peaceful passenger-vessels.

On the question of the presumption to be drawn from the presence of armament, the two memoranda present a perfect deadly parallel.  (See appendix, p. 433.) The new ruling, indeed, would not permit the submarine to fire upon the “merchantman” under any circumstances, until after it had been attacked by the latter.

It was in support of this reversal, and no other, that Wilson threatened to break diplomatic relations with Germany in 1916.  It was this kind of law that Wilson characterized as “sacred and indisputable.”  It was this kind of championship of “immutable” principles by which the President sought to explain our alliance with England and our war with Germany.

In the diplomatic controversies which preceded war, our official spokesman unfitted us for the role of knightly crusader for international law, not only by disputing and changing his own position on essential questions of principle, but by presenting an unequally inflexible front toward different offenders against his various positions upon such questions.

When a neutral nation fails to maintain its claimed rights against one belligerent, only to quarrel with another belligerent over rights of a similar character, and finally go to war with it, becoming an ally of the first, its course cannot be justified on any ground of championship for international right.

At the beginning of the European war our government observed this principle in action, and at times also proclaimed it in words.  For example, in the note of February 20, 1915, to England, we find :

To admit (any) claim on the part of Great Britain of justification for interfering with these clear rights of the United States and its citizens as neutrals ... would be to assume an attitude of unneutrality toward the present enemies of Great Britain, which would be obviously inconsistent with the solemn obligations of this government.

Fifteen months later, however, we find President Wilson putting forth this astonishing proposition :

In order, however, to avoid any possible misunderstanding, the government of the United States notifies the Imperial Government that it cannot 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 and non-combatants.  Responsibility in such matters is single, not joint;  absolute, not relative.  (Note of May 8, 1916.)

Even the British government, which profited so greatly by this reversal, had expressed the opposite view.  In pleading justification of its own violations of international law, on the ground that Germany had violated international law, it urged (Note of Feb. to, 1915):

It is impossible for one belligerent to depart from rules and precedents and for the other to remain bound by them.

Neither then nor at any other time did President Wilson contend against this plea of England, although contending against the self-same plea by Germany, and ultimately maneuvering America into the European war by means of such contention.

President Wilson’s reversal on this point would seem to constitute nothing less than a confession of a conscious abandonment of a single standard of international morality, and the application of a double standard, in favor of the enemies of Germany;  a confession, therefore, of a departure from neutrality, although for nearly a year longer he continued telling his own people and the world that we were neutral.[3]


3 The account of Joseph P. Tumulty, Wilson’s secretary, although self-contradictory at times, bears out the view that the President was deliberately unneutral almost from the beginning.  (“Woodrow Wilson as I Know Him,” Chapters XXIII to XXVI.)