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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·Colonial and Foreign Policies · The United States at War·»

The United States and the European War

The Outbreak of the War.—In the opening days of August, 1914, the age-long jealousies of European nations, sharpened by new imperial ambitions, broke out in another general conflict such as had shaken the world in the days of Napoleon. On June 28, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated at Serajevo, the capital of Bosnia, an Austrian province occupied mainly by Serbs. With a view to stopping Serbian agitation for independence, Austria-Hungary laid the blame for this incident on the government of Serbia and made humiliating demands on that country. Germany at once proposed that the issue should be regarded as “an affair which should be settled solely between Austria-Hungary and Serbia”; meaning that the small nation should be left to the tender mercies of a great power. Russia refused to take this view. Great Britain proposed a settlement by mediation. Germany backed up Austria to the limit. To use the language of the German authorities: “We were perfectly aware that a possible warlike attitude of Austria-Hungary against Serbia might bring Russia upon the field and that it might therefore involve us in a war, in accordance with our duties as allies. We could not, however, in these vital interests of Austria-Hungary which were at stake, advise our ally to take a yielding attitude not compatible with his dignity nor deny him our assistance.” That made the war inevitable.

Every day of the fateful August, 1914, was crowded with momentous events. On the 1st, Germany declared war on Russia. On the 2d, the Germans invaded the little duchy of Luxemburg and notified the King of Belgium that they were preparing to violate the neutrality of his realm on their way to Paris. On the same day, Great Britain, anxiously besought by the French government, promised the aid of the British navy if German warships made hostile demonstrations in the Channel. August 3d, the German government declared war on France. The following day, Great Britain demanded of Germany respect for Belgian neutrality and, failing to receive the guarantee, broke off diplomatic relations. On the 5th, the British prime minister announced that war had opened between England and Germany. The storm now broke in all its pitiless fury.

The State of American Opinion.—Although President Wilson promptly proclaimed the neutrality of the United States, the sympathies of a large majority of the American people were without doubt on the side of Great Britain and France. To them the invasion of the little kingdom of Belgium and the horrors that accompanied German occupation were odious in the extreme. Moreover, they regarded the German imperial government as an autocratic power wielded in the interest of an ambitious military party. The Kaiser, William II, and the Crown Prince were the symbols of royal arrogance. On the other hand, many Americans of German descent, in memory of their ties with the Fatherland, openly sympathized with the Central Powers; and many Americans of Irish descent, recalling their long and bitter struggle for home rule in Ireland, would have regarded British defeat as a merited redress of ancient grievances.

Extremely sensitive to American opinion, but ill informed about it, the German government soon began systematic efforts to present its cause to the people of the United States in the most favorable light possible. Dr. Bernhard Dernburg, the former colonial secretary of the German empire, was sent to America as a special agent. For months he filled the newspapers, magazines, and periodicals with interviews, articles, and notes on the justice of the Teutonic cause. From a press bureau in New York flowed a stream of pamphlets, leaflets, and cartoons. A magazine, “The Fatherland,” was founded to secure “fair play for Germany and Austria.” Several professors in American universities, who had received their training in Germany, took up the pen in defense of the Central Empires. The German language press, without exception it seems, the National German Alliance, minor German societies, and Lutheran churches came to the support of the German cause. Even the English language papers, though generally favorable to the Entente Allies, opened their columns in the interest of equal justice to the spokesmen for all the contending powers of Europe.

Before two weeks had elapsed the controversy had become so intense that President Wilson (August 18, 1914) was moved to caution his countrymen against falling into angry disputes. “Every man,” he said, “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.... We must be impartial in thought as well as in action, must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.”

The Clash over American Trade.—As in the time of the Napoleonic wars, the conflict in Europe raised fundamental questions respecting rights of Americans trading with countries at peace as well as those at war. On this point there existed on August 1, 1914, a fairly definite body of principles by which nations were bound. Among them the following were of vital significance. In the first place, it was recognized that an enemy merchant ship caught on the high seas was a legitimate prize of war which might be seized and confiscated. In the second place, it was agreed that “contraband of war” found on an enemy or neutral ship was a lawful prize; any ship suspected of carrying it was liable to search and if caught with forbidden goods was subject to seizure. In the third place, international law prescribed that a peaceful merchant ship, whether belonging to an enemy or to a neutral country, should not be destroyed or sunk without provision for the safety of crew and passengers. In the fourth place, it was understood that a belligerent had the right, if it could, to blockade the ports of an enemy and prevent the ingress and egress of all ships; but such a blockade, to be lawful, had to be effective.

These general principles left undetermined two important matters: “What is an effective blockade?” and “What is contraband of war?” The task of answering these questions fell to Great Britain as mistress of the seas. Although the German submarines made it impossible for her battleships to maintain a continuous patrol of the waters in front of blockaded ports, she declared the blockade to be none the less “effective” because her navy was supreme. As to contraband of war Great Britain put such a broad interpretation upon the term as to include nearly every important article of commerce. Early in 1915 she declared even cargoes of grain and flour to be contraband, defending the action on the ground that the German government had recently taken possession of all domestic stocks of corn, wheat, and flour.

A new question arose in connection with American trade with the neutral countries surrounding Germany. Great Britain early began to intercept ships carrying oil, gasoline, and copper—all war materials of prime importance—on the ground that they either were destined ultimately to Germany or would release goods for sale to Germans. On November 2, 1914, the English government announced that the Germans wore sowing mines in open waters and that therefore the whole of the North Sea was a military zone. Ships bound for Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were ordered to come by the English Channel for inspection and sailing directions. In effect, Americans were now licensed by Great Britain to trade in certain commodities and in certain amounts with neutral countries.

Against these extraordinary measures, the State Department at Washington lodged pointed objections, saying: “This government 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.”

Germany Begins the Submarine Campaign.—Germany now announced that, on and after February 18, 1915, the whole of the English Channel and the waters around Great Britain would be deemed a war zone and that every enemy ship found therein would be destroyed. The German decree added that, as the British admiralty had ordered the use of neutral flags by English ships in time of distress, neutral vessels would be in danger of destruction if found in the forbidden area. It was clear that Germany intended to employ submarines to destroy shipping. A new factor was thus introduced into naval warfare, one not provided for in the accepted laws of war. A warship overhauling a merchant vessel could easily take its crew and passengers on board for safe keeping as prescribed by international law; but a submarine ordinarily could do nothing of the sort. Of necessity the lives and the ships of neutrals, as well as of belligerents, were put in mortal peril. This amazing conduct Germany justified on the ground that it was mere retaliation against Great Britain for her violations of international law.

The response of the United States to the ominous German order was swift and direct. On February 10, 1915, it warned Germany that if her commanders destroyed American lives and ships in obedience to that decree, the action would “be very hard indeed to reconcile with the friendly relations happily subsisting between the two governments.” The American note added that the German imperial government would be held to “strict accountability” and all necessary steps would be taken to safeguard American lives and American rights. This was firm and clear language, but the only response which it evoked from Germany was a suggestion that, if Great Britain would allow food supplies to pass through the blockade, the submarine campaign would be dropped.

Violations of American Rights.—Meanwhile Germany continued to ravage shipping on the high seas. On January 28, a German raider sank the American ship, William P. Frye, in the South Atlantic; on March 28, a British ship, the Falaba, was sunk by a submarine and many on board, including an American citizen, were killed; and on April 28, a German airplane dropped bombs on the American steamer Cushing. On the morning of May 1, 1915, Americans were astounded to see in the newspapers an advertisement, signed by the German Imperial Embassy, warning travelers of the dangers in the war zone and notifying them that any who ventured on British ships into that area did so at their own risk. On that day, the Lusitania, a British steamer, sailed from New York for Liverpool. On May 7, without warning, the ship was struck by two torpedoes and in a few minutes went down by the bow, carrying to death 1153 persons including 114 American men, women, and children. A cry of horror ran through the country. The German papers in America and a few American people argued that American citizens had been duly warned of the danger and had deliberately taken their lives into their own hands; but the terrible deed was almost universally condemned by public opinion.

The Lusitania Notes.—On May 14, the Department of State at Washington made public the first of three famous notes on the Lusitania case. It solemnly informed the German government that “no warning that an unlawful and inhumane act will be committed can possibly be accepted as an excuse or palliation for that act or as an abatement of the responsibility for its commission.” It called upon the German government to disavow the act, make reparation as far as possible, and take steps to prevent “the recurrence of anything so obviously subversive of the principles of warfare.” The note closed with a clear caution to Germany that the government of the United States would not “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 of safeguarding their free exercise and enjoyment.” The die was cast; but Germany in reply merely temporized.

In a second note, made public on June 11, the position of the United States was again affirmed. William Jennings Bryan, the Secretary of State, had resigned because the drift of President Wilson’s policy was not toward mediation but the strict maintenance of American rights, if need be, by force of arms. The German reply was still evasive and German naval commanders continued their course of sinking merchant ships. In a third and final note of July 21, 1915, President Wilson made it clear to Germany that he meant what he said when he wrote that he would maintain the rights of American citizens. Finally after much discussion and shifting about, the German ambassador on September 1, 1915, sent a brief note to the Secretary of State: “Liners will not be sunk by our submarines without warning and without safety of the lives of non-combatants, provided the liners do not try to escape or offer resistance.” Editorially, the New York Times declared: “It is a triumph not only of diplomacy but of reason, of humanity, of justice, and of truth.” The Secretary of State saw in it “a recognition of the fundamental principles for which we have contended.”

The Presidential Election of 1916.—In the midst of this crisis came the presidential campaign. On the Republican side everything seemed to depend upon the action of the Progressives. If the breach created in 1912 could be closed, victory was possible; if not, defeat was certain. A promise of unity lay in the fact that the conventions of the Republicans and Progressives were held simultaneously in Chicago. The friends of Roosevelt hoped that both parties would select him as their candidate; but this hope was not realized. The Republicans chose, and the Progressives accepted, Charles E. Hughes, an associate justice of the federal Supreme Court who, as governor of New York, had won a national reputation by waging war on “machine politicians.”

In the face of the clamor for expressions of sympathy with one or the other of the contending powers of Europe, the Republicans chose a middle course, declaring that they would uphold all American rights “at home and abroad, by land and by sea.” This sentiment Mr. Hughes echoed in his acceptance speech. By some it was interpreted to mean a firmer policy in dealing with Great Britain; by others, a more vigorous handling of the submarine menace. The Democrats, on their side, renominated President Wilson by acclamation, reviewed with pride the legislative achievements of the party, and commended “the splendid diplomatic victories of our great President who has preserved the vital interests of our government and its citizens and kept us out of war.”

In the election which ensued President Wilson’s popular vote exceeded that cast for Mr. Hughes by more than half a million, while his electoral vote stood 277 to 254. The result was regarded, and not without warrant, as a great personal triumph for the President. He had received the largest vote yet cast for a presidential candidate. The Progressive party practically disappeared, and the Socialists suffered a severe set-back, falling far behind the vote of 1912.

President Wilson Urges Peace upon the Warring Nations.—Apparently convinced that his pacific policies had been profoundly approved by his countrymen, President Wilson, soon after the election, addressed “peace notes” to the European belligerents. On December 16, the German Emperor proposed to the Allied Powers that they enter into peace negotiations, a suggestion that was treated as a mere political maneuver by the opposing governments. Two days later President Wilson sent a note to the warring nations asking them to avow “the terms upon which war might be concluded.” To these notes the Central Powers replied that they were ready to meet their antagonists in a peace conference; and Allied Powers answered by presenting certain conditions precedent to a satisfactory settlement. On January 22, 1917, President Wilson in an address before the Senate, declared it to be a duty of the United States to take part in the establishment of a stable peace on the basis of certain principles. These were, in short: “peace without victory”; the right of nationalities to freedom and self-government; the independence of Poland; freedom of the seas; the reduction of armaments; and the abolition of entangling alliances. The whole world was discussing the President’s remarkable message, when it was dumbfounded to hear, on January 31, that the German ambassador at Washington had announced the official renewal of ruthless submarine warfare.

«·Colonial and Foreign Policies · The United States at War·»