Chapter 4
Early Diplomatic Correspondence

     On May 7, 1915, the German submarine U-20 torpedoed the giant British Cunard Liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland.  There were 1,198 passengers aboard the ship when it sank, including 128 Americans.  The American public reacted with indignation and anger, and interventionists clamored for war with Germany.  The incident was indeed a turning point in the war.  It drove the United States to adopt a position that the Germans then violated, driving the country into war.  As it turned out, American military might tipped the scales in favor of the Allies.  Winston Churchill placed the sinking of the Lusitania with the German invasion of Belgium as one of the two most important events of the war that led to the Allied victory.1
     After the Lusitania sinking, the United States and Germany were on a collision course.  President Woodrow Wilson even sacrificed the service of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan in order to send a note to Berlin denying the right of belligerent powers to jeopardize non-combatants through attacks on unresisting merchantmen.  Bryan resigned rather than sign the note, believing Germany had the right to prevent contraband from reaching Allied ports.  Wilson, however, was unflinching in his resolve to protect the neutral rights of the United States.
     It has long been held that the sinking of the Lusitania marked the beginning of the diplomatic tensions that led to war between the United States and Germany.  Actually Washington had begun to sympathize with the Allied Powers earlier in 1915.  On March 28, 1915, a German submarine torpedoed the British merchant ship Falaba, without giving the crew and passengers time to escape.  An American citizen was aboard the Falaba when it sank.  This incident caused Washington to lean toward the Allied cause.  None of the diplomatic problems with London at the time compared with this because, whatever they might be doing, the British were not jeopardizing the lives of American citizens.  The Royal Navy merely captured ships and took them to prize court rather than sinking them.  One can see the cooperation between Washington and London by examining the diplomatic cable traffic regarding the Wilhelmina case, which the two governments settled in a peaceful manner.  The Falaba case never came to a close, as slightly more than a month later the Lusitania case became the focus of diplomatic correspondence between Washington and Berlin.
     Late 1914/early 1915 cable traffic between Secretary of State Bryan and the U.S. ambassadors to Berlin and London indicates a change in attitudes from strict neutrality to pro- Allied tendencies.  If the American reaction to the Falaba sinking was any indication, the Germans should have done everything possible to prevent a disaster on the scale of the Lusitania.  They failed to see the importance of the Falaba incident and this eventually brought the massive industrial and military might of the United States against them.
     In August 1914 when World War I began in Europe the position of the United States Government was clear; America would be neutral.  President Wilson called upon his countryman to be neutral in thought as well as in deed.  In retrospect, it would appear that the United States was destined to enter the First World War.  In 1914, however, this was by no means clear.
     Wilson also expected the warring European powers to respect U.S. neutral rights.  But theory was one thing and practice another.  A principal area of concern was American merchant shipping, the United States then representing a very large portion of neutral trade with the belligerent European nations.  While it was naive for President Woodrow Wilson to expect American shipping to be allowed safely through the war zones, it was even more naive that belligerent ships carrying American passengers should also be safe.
     There was certainly historical precedent for this situation.  In 1812 the United States had gone to war with Great Britain in part because of British failure to recognize the neutrality of American ships.  The British practice of impressment, whereby Royal Navy captains would stop American vessels and take individuals from them for the Royal Navy was a principal cause of war between the two nations.
     From 1914 on the United States Government communicated with both sides on the issue of neutrality, providing ample warning that continued failure to recognize the U.S. neutral stance would cause strained relations, which could lead to United States entry in the war.
     On December 26, 1914, U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan cabled Ambassador to Great Britain Walter Hines Page.  The communication dealt with London's wartime practice of diverting American merchant vessels into British ports.  Often these ports had no market for the goods aboard the ships, causing heavy losses to American exporters.2
     Bryan pointed out that Britain was normally a champion of freedom of the seas and that being a belligerent nation did not give her the right to interfere with commerce between countries not at war, except in cases where British national safety was at stake.  He stated that British policy toward neutral ships and cargoes exceeded the manifest necessity of a belligerent and placed restrictions on the rights of American citizens.  He also claimed that British actions were not justified under international law.3  Finally, Bryan told Page to impress upon London that if conditions of U.S. trade with neutral European nations did not improve, it would "arouse a feeling contrary to that which has so long existed between the American and British peoples."  He pointed out that British policies were already becoming the subject of public criticism and complaint and the cause of depression in certain industries that depended upon European markets.4
     This problem with the British Government led the State Department to prepare a letter to the same effect to the German Government.  While not in response to specific German actions, as was the case with the letter to Page regarding British policy, it was nonetheless a warning.
     This communication to the German embassy, dated December 28, was actually prepared in response to a German memorandum of December 10.  In the latter German ambassador Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff inquired as to whether Washington was willing to prevent the British from seizing shipments, including foodstuffs bound for German ports.5
     In his response Secretary of State Bryan did not promise a course of action to be taken regarding the British.  He did, however, assure the German Embassy that the Washington would "extend all appropriate assistance to its citizens whose goods may be seized or detained by any of the belligerents in violation of international law."  This was a good promise but the problem was that in this time of major war the rules of international law were receiving what Bryan called, "generally accepted interpretation."6
     Bryan pointed out that neutral nations and their citizens had the right to trade with belligerent nations in all cases where the trade involved non-contraband or relative contraband goods.  This, of course, excluded goods bound for governments or armed forces of belligerents.7
     In remarks at a December 29 press conference President Wilson reaffirmed the U.S. position covered in Bryan's letter.  When asked if there was any treaty violation involved, Wilson answered, "No, it is just a question of the rules of international law."8  He went on to say that the note had no bearing on any former protests to the British government, such as those made in 1812.  "It merely referred to precedents," he stated.
     The President denied the existence of any sort of threat in the note, stating that this would be the position of any neutral nation.  As he put it, "There is nothing in it peculiar to our view of international law."9  He apparently viewed the situation as an embarrassment to the United States.  While he agreed that there were some captains of merchant ships who were concealing contraband under cargoes of non-contraband goods, he did not admit that any of them were coming from the United States.  The president went on to say, "So long as there are any instances of this kind, suspicion is cast upon every shipment and all cargoes are liable to doubt and search.  This government can deal confidently with this subject only if supported by absolutely honest manifests."10
     On the night of December 29 Colonel Edward Mandell House, who had the title of Personal Representative of President Wilson to the European Governments, met with British Ambassador to the United States Sir Cecil Arthur Spring Rice.  Having already discussed the issue of American neutrality with Spring Rice, House found him unconcerned with Bryan's December 26 letter.  Spring Rice had already received instructions from London to the effect that President Wilson's request would be granted.  The problem, as far as the British were concerned, was that the whole affair had been publicized and had thus become fuel for anti-British sentiment in the United States.11
     At this point in the war London did not feel any serious strains in its relations with the United States.  It was still very early in the war and the major incidents that would require a great deal of negotiation had yet to happen.  Nevertheless, there is no doubting that London now understood that neutrality was a touchy subject that would require delicate action on their own part.
     Most of Washington's diplomatic correspondence in the final month of 1914 was with London.  Major communication with Germany on the issue of neutrality did not begin until 1915.  It was in February of that year that the German populace began to feel the full effects of the British naval blockade, and this led to counteraction in the English Channel and eventually to the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania.
     On February 2 United States Ambassador to Berlin James Watson Gerard sent two telegrams to Bryan.  The first one to reach the secretary of state noted that German Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs Alfred F. M. Zimmerman had informed Gerard that the British Government was trying to starve Germany into submission.  Zimmerman also stated that "quite probably" a submarine blockade of England would soon be declared and the English Channel closed.12
     The second telegram imformed Bryan about a German Admiralty proclamation.  This warned all merchant vessels to avoid the north and west coasts of France.  This was because Germany intended to employ all possible means to stop British shipments of ammunition and troops to France.  The Germans recommended that any merchant vessels bound for the North Sea should travel around the northern coast of Scotland to avoid the newly proclaimed war zone altogether.13
     On February 6 Counselor for the State Department Robert Lansing sent a letter to Gerard in Berlin.  Lansing warned Berlin regarding its declaration of a war zone around Great Britain.  He stated that Washington would view "with grave concern" the deterioration of relations between Germany and the United States that might arise if the German Navy should sink any U.S. merchant vessel or kill any American citizen.14
     Lansing pointed out that the only right enjoyed by belligerent powers when dealing with neutral ships was that of visit and search, unless an effective blockade was proclaimed and maintained, and that this had not been accomplished.  Finally, Lansing pointed out that it was unlawful to exercise the right to attack and destroy any vessel entering a prescribed area without first determining whether the ship was from a belligerent nation.  Also, he stated that it was wrong always to assume an enemy would employ neutral flags to disguise its ships.15
     Lansing concluded by expressing the earnest hope that the Imperial German Government would give assurances that provision would be made for the safety of American citizens and vessels.  Only in the case of visit and search should Americans be inconvenienced.16
     During a February 9 news conference President Wilson was reluctant to provide any clear-cut views on the German situation.  When asked if the declaration of a war zone was grounds for protest, he did not offer a yes or no answer.  He stated only that the State Department was waiting for a more extensive explanation, as Gerard promised.  He was not confident in assessing German intentions, however.  As he put it, the German proclamation "bristles with things one would like to know more about."17
     On February 10 Secretary of State Bryan sent his own warning to Gerard.  He reiterated all of the main points raised by Lansing, but he took these a step further.  Bryan stated that the United States was not guilty of any of the unneutral practices of which Berlin accused certain other nations.  He also said the United States had not pursued actions such as those of the belligerents that restrained neutral trade.18
     Bryan warned Berlin against taking immediate hostile action against U.S. flag vessels.  He said that if the Imperial Navy were to sink an American vessel or kill American citizens, that Washington would view it as an indefensible violation of neutral rights and that such actions could destroy the existing friendly relations between the two countries.19
     Finally Bryan assured Gerard that a cable to Walter Hines Page in London the same day dealt with use of the American flag.  That message told of reports that the captain of the Cunard Liner Lusitania was under orders from British authorities to raise the U.S. flag when his ship approached the British coast.  This policy would doubtless jeopardize the vessels of neutral nations traversing those waters in that the Germans would assume they were of enemy origin regardless of flag.  Bryan pointed out that with the German declaration in effect, British use of U.S. flags would afford them no protection but would be a serious and constant menace to American vessels.
     Bryan expressed hope that the British Government would do all that was in its power to restrain this practice.  If London failed to do this and the German Navy was to sink U.S. vessels that resulted in the loss of American lives, a measure of responsibility would rest with London.20
     On February 12 Ambassador Gerard cabled Bryan.  He informed him that German Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Gottlieb E. G. von Jagow was preparing a written response to Bryan's communication.  Having spoken to Jagow, Gerard was convinced that Berlin would withdraw its proclamation if the British Government would allow food for the civilian population to enter Germany.21
     Von Jagow's communiqu� arrived at the German Embassy on February 15.  Just as Gerard expected, Berlin rested its decision to withdraw the war-zone proclamation upon London's actions in the naval war.
     Von Jagow first dealt with British practice of arming merchant vessels.  He noted reports of British merchant ships sailing in groups and ramming German submarines while their crews conducted searches.  Some British merchant crew members had supposedly thrown hand grenades at the submarines and others attempted to overpower search parties as they came aboard.  He also noted the substantial prize offered to any merchant vessel crew that could bring about the first destruction of a German submarine.  Von Jagow contended that because of all this merchant shipping in the war zone could no longer be considered undefended and thus should be open to attack without "visit and search."22
     The German secretary of state went on to cover the use of neutral flags.  He charged that the British were using every means at their disposal to disguise the nationality of their merchant ships.  As a result it had become practically impossible for the Germans to identify truly neutral vessels.  With "visit and search" discontinued because of the aforementioned attacks, Von Jagow stated that there could be no assurance of safety for neutral shipping in the war zone.  He claimed Germany's naval policy was justified by "murderous" British methods and held that British efforts to destroy legitimate German trade with neutral states was designed to starve Germany to death.23
     Later on February 15 Bryan sent a memorandum to President Wilson regarding the German message.  In it he stated that it might be possible to secure German withdrawal from the proclaimed war zone around the British Isles in return for positive action on the food question.  Believing the British were acting without justification, Bryan spoke of working with the German Government.  He assured the President that arrangements could be made so that no food entering Germany would go to military or government personnel.  American organizations could even distribute the food if necessary.  This he felt would negate any British excuse for not allowing food past the blockade.
     Bryan appealed to the President's strong sense of morality.  He said it was against American ideals to allow the starvation of German women and children.  This would arouse those inclined to sympathize with the Germans (of which Bryan himself was showing an inclination).24
     The next day Bryan cabled Page in London.  He asked Page to inform the British Government that the Germans were willing to allow American organizations to distribute food.  This should remove any British justification for preventing the foodstuffs from reaching their destination.  Page was to make a particular appeal to British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Sir Edward Grey, reminding him that keeping food from noncombatants would create an unfavorable impression on world opinion, and it would cast the United States in an unfavorable light if her government was inactive.  Page was to push the point that the German war zone order might be withdrawn if the matter of food to Germany could be remedied.25
     On February 16 the State Department sent a letter to the German Embassy informing it of Bryan's cable to London.  In addition Bryan cabled Gerard urging him to get in touch with Colonel House immediately.  President Wilson had requested that Gerard act only on House's advice.26
     House was perhaps better informed than any individual on how to deal with the stubborn British.  But at the time he had his hands full dealing with Sir Edward Grey.  House wrote to Wilson on the 18th with a pessimistic report.  Grey had told him that Great Britain would continue the war indefinitely unless the Germans agreed both to evacuate invaded territory and to guarantee permanent peace.  These were obviously not going to happen.  House asked that the British avoid "closing the peace door too tightly," just in case the Germans really desired it.  Grey merely replied, "You will be a very clever man if you can do that successfully."27
     Colonel House went on to tell the President that the situation was growing hourly worse as a result of the German declaration regarding merchantmen.  Grey was continuously putting off discussion on the issue, which House attributed to what he called the "usual British slowness."28
     House's frequent discussions with Grey were largely informal, but they were full of indicators as to why diplomatic interaction between Washington and London was going the way it was.  Indeed, many of their conversations turned into official messages to the State Department.
     Grey's memoirs show his lack of interest in keeping the door to peace open.  He was certain that House blamed German militarism for the war.  House, he wrote, saw the war as a struggle between democracy and an undemocratic antithesis to American ideals.  For the most part this was the same viewpoint held by President Wilson.  But unlike Wilson, House thought it would be a mistake to bring the United States into the war prematurely.  Rapid and total victory of either side would offer the least chance to utilize American influence to its fullest potential.  A stalemate could make decisive and paramount use of American influence if it was exercised with full support from the American public.  Grey wrote that House felt stalemate was the most likely outcome.  This partially explains why Grey was so stubborn about working for peace in 1915.29
     To others relations between Britain and the United States did not seem so troubled.  Bryan wrote to the President in February 18, referring to a telegram from Ambassador Walter Hines Page, received on the 12th.  This telegram noted the British government might propose to Berlin that it would keep food off the absolute contraband list.  The problem was that, again, the British wanted too much in return.  London would only consider this proposal if Berlin agreed to halt the laying of mines and submarine attacks on merchant ships.  To the secretary of state this offered what he styled a "ray of hope."30
     Bryan felt it would be worthwhile to negotiate with the Germans, as he felt they would be more conciliatory than the British.  He wanted to propose that U.S. agents consign food destined for non-combatants to retailers licensed by the German government.  Any license would specify that the food would not be subject to requisition.  Any violation of its terms would result in a forfeiture of the right to receive foodstuffs.
     In return for food shipments the U.S. government would require five things of the Germans.  First, they could not employ floating mines; all mines would have to be chained in place.  Second, any mines laid would have to be for defensive purposes at the entrances to harbors with the German Government's stamp on them.  Third, the mines would have to be designed to become inoperative if detached.  Fourth, submarines could not attack commercial vessels.  And, finally, neutral flags could not be used aboard merchant ships of belligerent nations.31  However naive it may have been to suggest these conditions, at the time they seemed perfectly reasonable to Bryan.
     Inside Bryan's letter to Wilson was a message from Gerard in Berlin.  It conveyed the German Government's request for American understanding of alleged British neutrality violations.  It also outlined the consequences to Germany of inaction on the part of neutral nations and promised that Berlin would do its best to keep from attacking American vessels.
     The Germans pointed out the danger to ships entering legitimately mined areas.  Absolute safety could only be achieved if vessels stayed out of the war zone.  Gerard believed  Washington misunderstood Berlin's intentions.  Berlin had announced its plan to destroy only enemy vessels in the war zone, not all merchant ships.  But Gerard reminded his government that dangers remained because of the continued British use of neutral flags and ongoing practice of neutral nations shipping contraband traffic through the war zone.  Gerard did, however, convey Berlin's appreciation for American protests against the British use of neutral flags.  In return, German submarine commanders had been instructed to abstain from violence against American shipping, provided contraband was not found aboard those vessels.  Finally, Gerard expressed the German Government's appreciation of American efforts toward persuading the British to allow food to enter Germany.32
     It is interesting to note that this message from Gerard was received on the 17th, before Bryan outlined American demands to Wilson.  Yet Bryan's note to the President covered some of the proposed demands, namely an end to attacks on neutral shipping, disapproval of the use of neutral flags, and keeping mines in designated areas.  While there was no mention of floating mines, nor mines becoming inoperative if detached, it still represented progress.


1.    Robert Leckie, The Wars of America - Volume II (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), p. 616.
2.    Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1914 Supplement (Washington D.C.:  U.S. Government
       Printing Office, 1928), File No. 763.72112/545a, p. 372.
3.    Ibid., p. 373.
4.    Ibid., p. 375.
5.    Ibid., File No. 763.72112/468, p. 376.
6.    Ibid.
7.    Ibid.
8.    Arthur S. Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Volume 31 (New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 543.
9.    Ibid., p. 544.
10.  Ibid.
11.  Charles Seymour ed., The Intimate Papers of Colonel House (New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 1926), p. 315.
12.  Foreign Relations Papers, 1914 Supplement, File No. 763.72/1430, p. 93.
13.  Ibid., File No. 763.72/1428, p. 93.
14.  Link, Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Volume 32, pp. 194-95.
15.  Ibid.
16.  Ibid.
17.  Ibid.
18.  Foreign Relations Papers, 1915 Supplement, File No. 763.72/1434, p. 98.
19.  Ibid.
20.  Ibid., File No. 811.0151/33, pp. 100-1.
21.  Ibid., File No. 763.72,1451, p. 102.
22.  Ibid., File No. 763.72/1519, p. 104.
23.  Ibid., p. 105.
24.  Link, Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Volume 32, pp. 235-36.
25.  Foreign Relations Papers, 1915 Supplement, File No. 763.72/1457a, p. 107.
26.  Ibid., File No. 763.7212/1386c, p. 108.
27.  Seymour, Intimate Papers of Colonel House Volume 32, p. 328.
28.  Ibid., p. 379.
29.  Sir Edward Grey, Twenty-Five Years, 1892-1916, Volume 2 (New York:  Frederick A. Stokes, 1925), p. 126.
30.  Link, Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 32, p. 249.
31.  Ibid., p. 250.
32.  Ibid., p. 251.

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