(The WAR to DECEMBER 1916 – continued)

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The WAR to DECEMBER 1916 (9 of 11)

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The United States, Trade and Naval Blockades: 1915

When war broke out, people in the United States tended to believe that Europeans had gone mad. They saw their nation as more sensible and above Old World conflicts and wars. They wished their nation to remain uninvolved. This was the position of most of Congress and of the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.

When news of the war began arriving in the United States it was largely from British and French sources, with an anti-German point of view, including descriptions of German retaliations against Belgians. Sympathy for Belgians arose among Americans. The British were more skilled than the Germans in explaining their reasons for going to war. And in the United States, Germany was being portrayed as a militarist and autocratic nation influenced by various German writers such as Bernhardi, Teitschke and Nietzsche, who were made to represent the German character.

By a month into the war, Germany's success in invading France (in contrast to France's failure in invading Germany) added to Germany's appearance as the aggressor.

Theodore Roosevelt

Former President Roosevelt had always wanted to overcome weakness. He wanted war and thought President Wilson a coward.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt, writing in The Outlook, published on September 23, cautioned against US intervention and described Germany as having been compelled to violate Belgian territory "by the iron law of self-preservation."

Freedom to trade was becoming an issue. International agreements created by the Declaration of London in 1909 had attempted to clarify the issue of naval blockades during wartime. That agreement gave belligerents the right to receive food and raw materials, and it gave belligerents the right to seize contraband: guns, shells and other warfare equipment. The United States believed it had a right to continue trading with Germany, while Britain began confiscating goods being shipped to Germany including food.

Britain was concerned with opinion in the United States and claimed its confiscations were within the bounds of international law. It apologized for its actions against US shipping and declared its acceptance of the Declaration of London except for a couple of "modifications" made by expanding their definition of contraband.

The British succeeded in cutting trade between the United States and Germany, and into the war the US economy suffered, especially regarding cotton. Soon, however, the United States was selling war supplies to the Allies, which alarmed those wishing the United States to remain neutral.

German UC-1 class submarine

German UC-1 class submarine enlarged photo of German UC-1 class submarine

The Royal British Navy dominated the surface of the oceans, while the Germans had a few submarines. A German submarine sank a British merchant vessel on October 20, 1914, off the coast of Norway after having surfaced to warn the British crew. The British navy could confiscate goods, pay for the goods and let the ship go its way. The German navy was at a disadvantage: with submarines the only way to blockade goods was to sink the ship carrying the goods.

Britain began arming its merchant ships and ordering its merchant ships to fire on surfacing submarines. This put an end to the chivalry of German submarine captains surfacing to warn crews to prepare for the sinking of their ship.

On 30 January 1915 in the English Channel, Germany sank two Japanese liners, the Tokomaru and Ikaria. And other sinkings soon followed. On February 4, Germany declared the waters around Great Britain a war zone. In that zone, permission was given to sink all enemy merchant ships and the ships of neutral powers that were taking supplies to enemy powers. These measures, declared the German government, were justified because Germany was fighting for its life.

On March 1, Britain and France declared themselves free to detain and take to port any ship carrying goods to Germany. This, they explained, was in retaliation for Germany making the waters around Great Britain a war zone.

Germany pursued its retaliation against the British and French blockade. In March they sank the British steamship Falaba off the coast of Africa, killing 111 people, including one American. Some in the United States spoke of the wickedness of German warfare. Some others, including Secretary of State Bryan, argued that Americans could avoid traveling on the ships of the warring nations and that they did so at their own risk. President Wilson didn't take a position but agonized over the ambiguities.

The Germans sank more ships, and on May 1, off the southwestern tip of Britain, a German submarine torpedoed the American merchant ship Gulflight, killing three Americans. That same day, a British liner, the Lusitania set sail for England. Warnings from the German embassy in Washington DC had been published in New York newspapers stating that war existed between Britain and Germany and that the Lusitania would be a legitimate target when it reached the war zone in waters adjacent to the British Isles. Various Americans who wished to sail on the Lusitania ignored the warnings. President Wilson was aware of the warning but chose not to restrict Americans from traveling on the ship.

The Lusitania

The RMS Lusitania Photo of the ship Lusitania

The Lusitania was a luxury liner that had been built in part with government money and obliged to serve the British in time of war. In addition to passengers, the Lusitania was carrying munitions. When it arrived in British waters a German submarine sank it, and 1,198 people died, including 128 Americans. In Britain and the United States, people were outraged. American newspapers stated as fact that no war material had been aboard the Lusitania. The secondary explosion of munitions on board was erroneously described as a second torpedo. Newspaper editors described submarine warfare as cruel and barbaric – too barbaric ever to be employed by Americans.

In Germany, people responded with joy to the news of the Lusitania's sinking. The newspaper of Germany's Catholic Center party, the Kölnische Volkszeitung, saw the sinking as "a success of moral significance." It pointed to the English effort at blocking and starving the German people and described Germany as "more humane." It wrote:

We simply sank an English ship with passengers, who, at their own risk and responsibility, entered the zone of operations.

The public's inclination to focus on an individual source of evil targeted Kaiser Wilhelm. Cartoons in US newspapers depicted him as Satan and described him as bloodthirsty. Some newspaper editors called for war against Germany. The sinking of the Lusitania became a turning point in US opinion about the war. By now the emotionally volatile Theodore Roosevelt had changed his opinion about the war, and he too called for war against Germany. Joining Roosevelt was his friend, the Republican minority leader of the US Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts.

Roosevelt was hostile toward President Wilson and his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan. While a candidate for vice president back in 1900, Roosevelt had defended the US war for the Philippines while the Democrat candidate, Bryan, had vociferously opposed US imperialism. Roosevelt had run against Wilson for the presidency in 1912, and Wilson had angered Roosevelt just after he had taken office in 1913 by apologizing to Colombia and offering Colombia 25 million dollars as compensation for Roosevelt's seizure of its territory: Panama. And now, in 1915, Roosevelt perceived Wilson to be continuing his streak of weakness. In his personal correspondence, Roosevelt called Bryan a "prize idiot" and Wilson a "jackass."

Many in the US continued to oppose going to war, influenced in part by their having read about the horrors of trench warfare in Europe. Many Americans looked to Wilson to keep a cool head and to keep them out of "the mess" in Europe. And a majority in Congress went along with this opinion.

William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan did not want war and resigned as Wilson's Secretary of State.

President Wilson was also afraid of appearing weak. He threatened that if sinkings continued the US would respond with war. He sent Germany a measured and limited demand: that it end its submarine warfare against unarmed merchant ships. Wilson's Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan was displeased, fearing that Wilson's message to Germany would lead to war, and in June, 1915, Bryan resigned.

On August 19 in the Irish Sea a German submarine sank an unarmed British liner, the Arabic, killing forty-four passengers and two US citizens. Later that day a surfaced German submarine, the U-27, shelled a cargo ship, the Nicosian, carrying mules from New Orleans to England. An armed British merchant ship, the Baralong, flying the US flag, approached the submarine. Crewmen aboard the Baralong lowered the US flag and raised the British flag. British marines began firing upon the Germans. Twelve submarine crewmen jumped into the sea, and the marines fired upon them, killing six. The other six fled to the Nicosian and took refuge in its engine room. The marines found them and killed all six. Germany's ambassador to Washington protested the British use of the American flag and the murder of German sailors. But it was the killing of the two Americans who had been aboard the Arabic that aroused Americans and concerned President Wilson. He repeated his opposition to the United States being drawn into "the contest" in Europe. It was, he said, the "...worst thing that could happen to the world." He announced also that he was "too proud to fight." His words enraged Theodore Roosevelt, who had been connecting a willingness to fight with pride.

Wilson accepted the view of his aide, Colonel House, that if Germany won the war it would alter the course of civilization and "make the United States a military nation." note13   The United States was on a course toward joining the war on the side of those with whom they traded and had a common language.

Following the sinking of the Arabic, Wilson sent an appeal to Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm was attached to his navy and concerned about its reputation and his honor. The Kaiser was a good Lutheran and concerned about morality. The killing of civilians, he said, appalled him. In September 1915 he responded to Wilson's appeal by ordering submarines to return to surfacing and warning merchant ships. Germany's admirals saw this as nonsense, refused and withdrew their submarines from active duty. Germany's Admiral Tirpitz was annoyed at what he thought was the Kaiser's timidity. He wished Wilhelm would stop interfering in the war effort, and he favored transferring command of the government from the Kaiser to a military hero, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg.

Meanwhile the issue of preparedness for war was being raised -- led by Roosevelt. Roosevelt claimed that a better-armed Britain would have been able to deter Germany in August 1914. He warned that if the United States failed to make adequate preparations for war, what had happened to the Belgian cities of Antwerp and Brussels would surely happen to cities from New York to San Francisco – as if Germany, bogged down just a short distance from its own border on the Western Front, was not finding war in Europe enough of a challenge.

Military preparedness was more popular than actually going to war, and President Wilson responded by presenting to Congress on 7 December 1915 a program to substantially increase the size of the US Army and Navy. Pacifists who had been Wilson's political allies became alarmed. Wilson's Democratic Party had majorities in both the House and the Senate, and a majority in Congress supported Wilson's program, and some Republicans joined Roosevelt in claiming that Wilson's proposal was not enough.


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