The Story of the Great War, Volume IV (of 8)
by Francis J. (Francis Joseph) Reynolds, Allen L. (Allen Leon)
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This was a virtual refusal by Austria-Hungary to be bound by or concerned with the submarine agreement between her ally and the United States. As viewed through German-American eyes (the "New Yorker Herold"), the Austrian answer represented "a very sharp censure of a dilettante diplomacy which desires to negotiate and expects plain replies before the most essential preliminaries are given. The tenor of the Vienna note is in substance this: 'We are willing to negotiate, but first you must furnish us with the necessary material—undebatable material at that.' It is quite comprehensible that Washington is peeved at this censure."

Austria's demand for a "bill of particulars" was aptly expressed in this hostile view of the American note. The United States declined to accede to the request, which was viewed as a resort to the evasive methods practiced by Germany, but rested its case on the Austrian admiralty's self-condemning admission that the Ancona was sunk while people were still on board her. Nor would the American Government assent to the Austrian proposal that the two governments "exchange views" as to the legality of the act as described by the Austrian admiralty. President Wilson and his advisers saw no loophole for argument as to the justification or otherwise of a submarine sinking an unarmed merchantman with passengers on board her when the vessel was at a standstill.

Hence the second American note sent on December 19, 1915, was confined to a simple issue. The Government brushed aside the questions Austria raised as immaterial to the main fact based on the incriminating report of her own admiralty. The Austrian Government was informed that the admission that the Ancona was torpedoed after her engines had been stopped and while passengers remained on her was alone sufficient to fix the blame on the submarine commander. His culpability was established.

"The rules of international law," the American note continued, "and the principles of humanity which were thus willfully violated by the commander of the submarine have been so long and so universally recognized and are so manifest from the standpoint of right and justice that the Government of the United States does not feel called upon to debate them and does not understand that the Imperial and Royal Government questions or disputes them.

"The Government of the United States therefore finds no other course open to it but to hold the Imperial and Royal Government responsible for the act of its naval commander and to renew the definite but respectful demands made in its communication of the 6th of December, 1915."

Austria yielded. A lengthy response from Vienna, disclosed on December 31, 1915, was couched in a spirit which removed all danger of a cleavage of relations between the two countries on the Ancona issue. The United States drew from the Dual Monarchy an affirmation that "the sacred commandments of humanity" must be observed in war, and a concurrence in the principle that "private ships, in so far as they do not flee or offer resistance, may not be destroyed without the persons aboard being brought into safety." Austria-Hungary was thus ranged in line with Germany in the recognition of, and pledging compliance with, principles for which the United States stood.

The Vienna Government, however, adhered to its own version of the sinking of the Ancona, and from it sought to show that the statements made in the first American note were based on incorrect premises, i. e.:

"Information reaching the United States Government that solid shot was immediately fired toward the steamer is incorrect; it is incorrect that the submarine overhauled the steamer during the chase; it is incorrect that only a brief period was given for getting the people into the boats. On the contrary an unusually long period was granted to the Ancona for getting passengers in the boats. Finally it is incorrect that a number of shells were still fired at the steamer after it had stopped.

"The facts of the case demonstrate further that the commander of the submarine granted the steamer a full forty-five minutes' time—that is more than an adequate period to give the persons aboard an opportunity to take to the boats. Then, since the people were not all saved, he carried out the torpedoing in such a manner that the ship would remain above water the longest possible time, doing this with the purpose of making possible the abandonment of the vessel on boats still in hand.

"Since the ship remained a further forty-five minutes above water he would have accomplished his purpose if the crew of the Ancona had not abandoned the passengers in a manner contrary to duty.

"With full consideration, however, of this conduct of the commander, aimed at accomplishing the rescue of the crew and passengers, the Imperial and Royal Marine authorities reached the conclusion that he had omitted to take adequately into consideration the panic that had broken out among the passengers, which rendered difficult the taking to the boats, and the spirit of the regulation that Imperial and Royal Marine officers shall not fail in giving help to anybody in need, not even to an enemy.

"Therefore the officer was punished, in accordance with the existing rules, for exceeding his instructions."

On the question of reparation by indemnity for the loss of American lives, Austria-Hungary would not admit liability for damages resulting from the "undoubtedly justified bombarding of the fleeing ship," but was willing to come to an agreement on the subject.

It will be seen that the note did not denounce the attack on the Ancona as "illegal and indefensible"; but Austria's acquiescence in the American demand for the punishment of the submarine commander was viewed as a virtual admission of the illegality and indefensibility of the method of attack. Coupled with her expressed disposition to pay damages and her acceptance of the humane principle of warning and safety to passengers, Austria regarded her concessions as closing the Ancona issue, in so far as it affected the friendly relations between the two Governments. As the complaint of the American Government had been principally against the method of attack, and had been met by Austria, the crisis passed.



The Lusitania negotiations were resumed, only to encounter a deadlock. The issue had been eased in one important particular—Germany's undertaking, drawn from her in the Arabic crisis, not to sink unarmed merchant vessels without warning and regard for the safety of passengers and crews. But there remained the no less vital questions of indemnity to relatives of the Americans who lost their lives when the Lusitania sank and a disavowal by Germany of the submarine commander's act. Here was ground well traversed by the State Department in its communications with Austria over the Ancona; but Germany was much less pliant. The United States insisted that not only must full indemnity be paid for the American lives lost, but that the agreement for such payment must be accompanied by a declaration of disavowal acknowledging that the submarine commander committed an illegal act in sinking the Lusitania.

The stumbling-block lay in Germany's objection to subscribing to such a principle as was here implicated—that her war-zone decree against Great Britain, carried out by submarine attacks on merchant vessels, was illegal. She held that her submarine policy was a just reprisal for Great Britain's "starvation" blockade of Germany. The United States held that reprisals in the form of sinking helpless ships without warning were illegal. Germany would not admit that her submarine policy as practiced when the Lusitania went down was illegal. To do so would be an admission that her entire submarine campaign against Great Britain violated international law, and that Americans surrendered none of their rights as neutral citizens in traveling through a war zone on merchant ships of a belligerent power. But Germany was willing to pay an indemnity for the loss of American lives, not as an admission of wrongdoing, but as an act of grace.

Despite this deadlock the private conversations between Secretary Lansing and Count von Bernstorff continued. Germany submitted proposals in various forms aiming at making concessions to meet the American demand for disavowal of an illegal act; but in each case Secretary Lansing discerned an effort to evade acknowledging wrongdoing.

Matters remained at this stage toward the close of January, 1916, after negotiations extending over several weeks, apparently fruitless in opening any acceptable channel toward a settlement. That the status of the Lusitania case was unsatisfactory was vaguely hinted, and the alternative to Germany's meeting the American demands—a severance of diplomatic relations—which remained the menace it was from the outset, loomed up again. A speech by President Wilson before the Railway Business Association in New York City on January 27, 1915, ostensibly on preparedness for war, was interpreted as having a bearing on the deadlock in the Lusitania negotiations. At least it was significantly coincidental both in time and subject, and did not pass without comment in Europe, especially this passage:

"I cannot tell you what the international relations of this country will be to-morrow. I would not dare keep silent and let the country suppose that to-morrow was certain to be as bright as to-day. There is something the American people love better than peace. They love the principles upon which their political life is founded. They are ready at any time to fight for the vindication of their character and honor. I would rather surrender territory than ideals."

Whether this utterance was a warning to Germany or not, the Lusitania negotiations afterward became more promising. Throughout them Germany balked at making an outright disavowal; she indicated a willingness to go part of the way to meet the United States, but always conditional to an expression being inserted in her apologia that the attack on the Lusitania was a justifiable reprisal against Great Britain. A proposal by Germany to submit the question of disavowal to arbitration was rejected, for the second time, on the ground that the "vital interests and national honor" of the United States were involved and were therefore not arbitrable. The right of Americans to be on board the Lusitania, under the protection of international law accorded to neutrals on the high seas in war time, was too firmly established to admit of debate. A renewed reminder to Germany that the private conversations threatened to end in failure, which meant further consideration of the alternative of a cleavage of relations between the two countries, brought from Germany a reply on February 4, 1916, which was described as "one word short" of a satisfactory surrender. The word needed was a synonym for "disavowal" which did not convey that Germany had committed an illegal act. So the proposal again fell short of the demand; it did not contain the exact form of disavowal insisted upon by the United States. But it came nearer to meeting the American demands than any of the varied proposals Germany had previously submitted. The dispute turned on terminology that did not affront Germany's sensibilities. The aim sought was the avoidance of the words "illegal" and "disavowal" or whether to "assume" liability, which seemed to imply a voluntary act of grace, or "admit" liability, which implied an acknowledgment of an illegal act, or "recognize" liability, which was President Wilson's solution. On February 8, 1916, the outcome of these efforts in search of the acceptable word or words was a reported agreement on a memorandum which contained "language sufficiently broad to cover substantially the demands of the United States."

This bright prospect of a speedy settlement was suddenly dimmed by a communication received from Germany and Austria-Hungary two days later notifying that, beginning March 1, 1916, their submarines would sink all armed merchantmen without warning. Germany's revised draft apparently deciding the Lusitania issue came to hand on February 15, 1916. The following day the Administration intimated that the submarine controversy over the Lusitania could not be closed until the United States had fully considered the possible effect of the new policy of the Teutonic Powers.

Germany later informed the United States that her assurances regarding the future conduct of submarine warfare, given in the Lusitania and Arabic cases, were still binding, but that they applied only to merchantmen of a peaceful character; that the new orders issued to the submarine commanders, which directed them to sink without warning all belligerent merchantmen carrying arms, either for defense or offense, were not in conflict with these assurances; and that Germany and Austria-Hungary had entered into an agreement regarding the new submarine orders, which would go into effect by midnight, February 29, 1916.

Germany charged that Great Britain had instructed all her merchantmen to arm for offensive purposes against submarine attacks, and cited instances in which submarines were attacked by vessels seemingly of a peaceful character. This accusation was denied by Lord Robert Cecil, Great Britain's Minister for War Trade, who told the House of Commons:

"The British view has always been that defensively armed merchantmen must not fire on submarines or on any other warships, except in self-defense. The Germans have twisted a passage in a document taken from a transport which they sank into meaning that merchant vessels have instructions to take the offensive. This is not so."

The question of armed merchantmen had been simmering during the course of the Lusitania negotiations. It arose over the unexplained sinking in the Mediterranean of a Peninsular and Oriental liner, the Persia, on December 29, 1915. The American Consul to Aden, Robert N. McNeely, was among the passengers who lost their lives. The Persia carried a 4.7 gun. The Administration was believed to be exercised—though erroneously—over the question whether an armed liner was entitled to be regarded as any other than an auxiliary cruiser, and hence liable to be sunk without warning. No new issue, however, was raised by the United States with the Teutonic Powers, because both Germany and Austria-Hungary—Turkey also—categorically denied that the liner had been sunk by any of their submarines. The loss of the Persia thus remained a mystery, though there were not wanting suspicions in the American press that the Teutonic Powers, in disclaiming that they had any hand in the vessel's destruction, might have hit upon a new device to evade further controversies with the United States.

The Persia's gun, added to the frequent reports rife of other merchantmen being similarly armed, injected a new element in the submarine controversy, which could not be wholly removed from the pending Lusitania negotiations. Germany had excused the sinking of vessels without warning on the plea that her submarine commanders, if they appeared on the surface to warn them to haul to for visit and search, or for those on board to take to the boats, could never be assured that they would not be fired upon and sunk. Hence she regarded armed merchantmen as being more than a match for submarines and not entitled to any consideration. Had evidence been forthcoming that the Persia was sunk by a German submarine, the presence of a gun on board her would, in Germany's view, have justified the vessel's destruction without warning, and the uncertain attitude of the American Government, at this stage, appeared to lean toward the acceptance of such a defense. It was even hinted that the Administration was considering whether the situation did not call for a proclamation warning all Americans off armed merchantmen. Sweden had done so in the case of her nationals.

The Administration soon dissipated the impression current that it contemplated a change of policy in the submarine issue. But, while the uncertainty lasted, it appeared to have a credible basis in a proposal Secretary Lansing had made to the Entente Powers, as a modus vivendi of the submarine controversy, for the disarmament of merchant vessels, to assure the safety of their passengers and crews if attacked. The success of this course depended wholly upon Germany living up to her guarantees. The proposal was not well received by the Entente Powers, who doubted the good faith of Germany's pledges, and only saw in the Lansing suggestion an assurance of safety to her submarines in their raids on allied shipping.

The American attitude to the new Teutonic policy of sinking all armed merchantmen on sight remained to be declared. The Administration had upheld the right of Americans to travel on the high seas in merchantmen, and saw a surrender of national principle and an abridgment of personal liberty if the United States yielded to the terrorism caused by submarine warfare and warned Americans to stay at home. The United States also recognized the right of belligerent merchantmen to arm, but for defensive purposes only. At the beginning of the war it so notified Germany in a memorandum naming the following American regulations, among others, governing such vessels:

"A merchant vessel of belligerent nationality may carry an armament and ammunition for the sole purpose of defense without acquiring the character of a ship of war.

"The presence of an armament and ammunition on board a merchant ship creates a presumption that the armament is for offensive purposes, but the owners or agents may overcome this presumption by showing that the vessel carries armament solely for defense."

The memorandum was sent to Germany as an answer to Germany's protest against the refusal of the United States to intern as ships of war British liners leaving or entering New York with guns mounted. Germany dissented from the view that any belligerent merchant ship could carry guns. The United States declined to modify its rulings, but informed Germany that, recognizing the "desirability of avoiding a ground of complaint", it had disapproved of British vessels using American ports if armed, and had made such representations to Great Britain that no armed merchant vessel, since September, 1914, with the exception of two, had entered an American port.

The situation disturbed Congress. A resolution came before the Senate on February 18, 1916, opposing acquiescence by the United States in the notifications of the Central Powers of the right of their submarines to sink armed merchantmen. The foreign policy of the Administration was bitterly assailed by Senators Lodge and Sterling, especially for its attitude in relation to the pending negotiations over the new submarine order. For the Administration, Senator Stone, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the question of armed merchantmen was at least debatable. The position at this stage was that the Administration was taking cognizance of Germany's charge that British merchantmen were armed for offensive purposes, had been instructed to attack submarines, and that rewards had been offered for their success in so doing. Germany offered to furnish proofs to show that the American rules recognizing merchantmen armed for defensive purposes as peaceful ships could not now apply.

There was a division of sentiment in the Senate as to the stand the United States should take, and a wider one in the House of Representatives, where a panic-stricken feeling arose that the country was slowly but surely heading toward war with Germany. A vociferous demand was made by a minority of congressmen for strong action warning Americans off armed merchantmen of belligerents to prevent the United States raising further critical issues with Germany. The House leaders informed the President that they could not control their following, and that on a vote the House would be two to one in favor of such legislation. They even were tempted to force the passage of such a resolution on the patriotic ground that in doing so they would merely be seeking to prevent American citizens from jeopardizing the peace of the nation. The President suspected that pro-German propaganda was behind the hysteria in Congress, and objected to any legislative interference in his handling of the submarine controversy. A resolution was actually pending in the House forbidding Americans to travel on armed merchantmen. The President finally stated his position in a forceful letter to Senator Stone on February 24, 1916, refusing to assent to any such abridgment of the rights of American citizens. This letter followed an emphatic rejection by him of a proposal made by the Democratic leaders in Congress that that body should relieve him of all responsibility of forcing an issue with Germany.

"The course which the Central European Powers have announced their intention of following in the near future with regard to undersea warfare," the President wrote, "seems for the moment to threaten insuperable obstacles, but its apparent meaning is so manifestly inconsistent with explicit assurances recently given us by those powers with regard to their treatment of merchant vessels on the high seas that I must believe that explanations will presently ensue which will put a different aspect upon it.... But in any event our duty is plain. No nation, no group of nations, has the right, while war is in progress, to alter or disregard the principles which all nations have agreed upon in mitigation of the horrors or sufferings of war, and if the clear rights of American citizens should ever unhappily be abridged or denied by any such action, we should, it seems to me, have in honor no choice as to what our own course should be.

"For my own part I cannot consent to any abridgment 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 a deep humiliation indeed. It would be an implicit, all but an 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 spokesmen even amid the turmoil of war for the law and the right. It would make everything this Government has attempted, and everything it has achieved during this terrible struggle of nations, meaningless and futile.

"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 might 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 virtual surrender of her independent position among the nations of the world."

The leaders in Congress were so impressed by this uncompromising declaration of the President that they set about allaying the revolt against the Administration's policy, which, it was feared, was drawing the United States into war. Efforts were made to smother in committee the resolutions pending in both the House and Senate forbidding Americans to travel on armed merchant ships. But the President later saw that much harm had already been done. An impression became current abroad that Congress and the President were at cross purposes regarding the attitude the United States should take toward the new submarine policy of the Teutonic Powers. In the belief that the country was with him in his stand, the President decided that such an impression ought not to be permitted to prevail, and that the question should be determined as to whether Congress upheld him also. In almost irreconcilable contrast to his previous opposition to Congress voting on the resolutions forbidding Americans to travel on armed merchantmen, the President suddenly executed an audacious volte face on February 29, 1916, by demanding a test vote upon them. The congressional leaders were confounded by the request, coming as it did after they had done their utmost to suppress the resolutions in deference to the President. But the latter made his reasons for changing his attitude cogent enough in a letter he addressed to Representative Pou of the House Rules Committee.

"The report," he wrote, "that there are divided counsels in Congress in regard to the foreign policy of the Government is being made industrious use of in foreign capitals. I believe that report to be false, but so long as it is anywhere credited it cannot fail to do the greatest harm and expose the country to the most serious risks.

"I therefore feel justified in asking that your committee will permit me to urge an early vote upon the resolutions with regard to travel on armed merchantmen, which have recently been so much talked about, in order that there may be afforded an opportunity for full public discussion and action upon them, and that all doubts and conjectures may be swept away and our foreign relations once more cleared of damaging misunderstandings."

The House resolution, which was proposed by Representative McLemore of Texas, was thereupon revived for immediate consideration. The President's demand for a vote upon it came on the eve of the date set by the Teutonic Powers for inaugurating their submarine war on armed merchantmen, March 1, 1916. The ensuing events belong to the next volume of this history.



Pro-German propaganda soon developed far beyond its original aim. Registering protests against the Administration preserving a neutrality according to its own interpretation of American laws proved ineffective. Balked in this, the crusade took a form which was plainly an outgrowth of a countrywide circulation of literature emanating from German publicity organizations devoted to presenting the Teutonic cause in the most favorable light to the American people. Opinions being free, epistolary zeal of this kind violated no laws, and words broke no bones. In the fact that the crusade failed perceptibly to swing national sentiment regarding the European war to a recognition of the German view of American neutrality obviously lay a stimulus and incitement for resorting to sterner measures, since mild measures were vain. Events already narrated show the extent to which German zealots pursued a defiant criminal course in making their "protests," but there was no certainty—though suspicions and allegations were not wanting—that their activities had official German inspiration and sanction. But as the summer of 1915 wore on, the Administration became satisfied—through an accumulation of evidence—that this was the case. For reasons of state, in view of the delicate stages of the Lusitania and Arabic issues with Germany, the Government forbore to take cognizance of the undoubted participation of German diplomats and secret-service agents in plots hatched and pursued on American soil against the country's neutrality, and provoking unrest and disorder. The Government's tolerance of such a situation did not long endure.

The first revelation that these activities were organized on an extended scale came through the columns of the New York "World" in August, 1915. The country was not unprepared for the disclosure. They had had forerunners in repeated rumors and accusations that German Embassy officials were involved in the passport frauds and were using American territory as a base for an espionage system, whose coils were wound about this country and Canada, as well as in the charge that German money had been freely spent in a way inconsistent with international friendship. The newspaper named unreservedly charged that "The German propaganda in the United States has became a political conspiracy against the Government and people of the United States." To substantiate that sweeping indictment the "World" reproduced the text of a series of letters it had obtained, addressed to Dr. Heinrich F. Albert, a German Privy Councilor, who acted as the fiscal agent of the Kaiser's Government in the United States.

The correspondence, as printed, linked Dr. von Bethmann-Hollweg, the German Imperial Chancellor, and Count von Bernstorff, the German Ambassador, with a vast project for spreading German propaganda. The disclosures of the correspondence, the authenticity of which was not contested, were described as showing that the German propaganda had for its purpose "the involving of the United States in the complications of the European war," and that the plans "designed to accomplish this result were carefully and deliberately projected, efficiently organized, superbly executed, and adequately financed." These plans embraced an elaborate scheme to control and influence the press of the United States to establish newspapers and news services, finance professional lecturers and moving-picture entertainments and publish books "for the sole purpose of fomenting internal discord among the American people to the advantage of the German Empire."


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