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10 July 1915 – Diplomatic Means

The day after Britain’s state of war became official, United States Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan asked the belligerents to agree to the laws of naval warfare as laid down in the 1909 Declaration of London, one of many prewar international conferences convened to limit the impact of war on soldier and civilian alike. While the Central Powers quickly agreed, the Entente allies refused. Instead, the British Foreign Office was quickly appointed to organize the systematic blockade of German and Austrian shipping, and the British Admiralty asserted the right to interdict contraband cargoes on neutral ships. Since then, the list of prohibited items — like the lengths to which the allies are willing to go in enforcing it — has only grown, and is becoming more expansive all the time.

Asserting America’s traditional views on international law and the rights of neutral nations, Bryan began to write a diplomatic letter in protest of these actions, but President Wilson’s adviser Edward M. House lobbied him to tone down the communication, and Undersecretary of State Robert Lansing was instead appointed to lobby London to modify their restrictions, tacitly accepting the validity of the allied blockade. Speaking by telephone via transatlantic cable, House and Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey predicted a Lusitania-like tragedy would result from the German U-boat blockade of the allies, and the sinking of the doomed passenger liner in May further reduced Bryan’s already-attenuated influence in the Wilson cabinet.

When diplomatic correspondence regarding the incident grew heated in June, Bryan resigned, letting Undersecretary Lansing take his place. The move has helped reveal the true structures of power and information flow in Wilson’s administration; for instance, the most important person in the White House is Joseph Patrick Tumulty, the president’s personal secretary (see above) who helps his boss filter a paper river of diplomatic and open sources of intelligence on the situation in Mexico, and whose position will eventually evolve into the modern-day Chief of Staff. In the immediate wake of the Lusitania‘s sinking, it was Tumulty who spoke for Wilson in the press, not Bryan.

Robert Lansing

Robert Lansing in his office. Note the busy staging of his desk blotter, the ashtray, and the telephone

Today, the United States publishes the third diplomatic note to Germany in reference to the Lusitania. Responding to the most recent German note, which accused Wilson of being too provocative and un-neutral, Lansing rejects the contention of the Kaiser’s government that the passenger liner was secretly armed, insisting that American customs officials inspected the ship properly.

[The US government] is able to assure the Imperial German Government that it has been misinformed.  If the Imperial German Government should deem itself to be in possession of convincing evidence that the officials of the Government of the United States did not perform these duties with thoroughness, the Government of the United States sincerely hopes that it will submit that evidence for consideration.

Whatever may be the contentions of the Imperial German Government regarding the carriage of contraband of war on board the Lusitania or regarding the explosion of that material by the torpedo, it need only be said that in the view of this Government these contentions are irrelevant to the question of the legality of the methods used by the German naval authorities in sinking the vessel.

But the sinking of passenger ships involves principles of humanity which throw into the background any special circumstances of detail that may be thought to affect the cases, principles which lift it, as the Imperial German Government will no doubt be quick to recognize and acknowledge, out of the class of ordinary subjects of diplomatic discussion or of international controversy.

Whatever be the other facts regarding the Lusitania, the principal fact is that a great steamer, primarily and chiefly a conveyance for passengers, and carrying more than a thousand souls who had no part or lot in the conduct of the war, was torpedoed and sunk without so much as a challenge or a warning, and that men, women, and children were sent to their death in circumstances unparalleled in modern warfare.

A subtle shift is taking place in Wilson’s policy. Although he is hardly eager to take America to war, the president surely understands the stakes, and is re-conceiving the country’s neutrality in such a way that German policy increasingly stands in direct conflict with it. This shift reflects Wilson’s growing awareness of clandestine German activities aimed at destabilizing Mexico and conducting sabotage in North America. The Kaiser’s eventual decision to cancel unrestricted U-boat warfare will put the brakes on this process for a while, but his reversal in 1917 will finally bring the United States into the war.

An international lawyer, Lansing would seem to be the ideal replacement for Secretary of State. But Wilson largely restricts his role to writing diplomatic correspondence, instead taking personal charge of most foreign policy decisions and letting House act as his personal representative for the most sensitive negotiations with foreign states. Meanwhile, a new player is rising within the White House, and her presence will change everything.

Uniquely among American presidents, Wilson is a widower; his wife Ellen died of kidney failure the day after London’s declaration of war became official. This January, he met a woman named Edith Galt, and their romance has been such a whirlwind that Tumulty and the White House staff have taken pains to keep it out of the public eye so a scandal doesn’t erupt over perceptions of an inappropriately-short mourning period. Displaying the anti-Catholic bigotry of her racist southern upbringing as well as a measure of elitist snobbery, Edith dislikes Tumulty, and even before marrying Wilson in December she lobbies for the private secretary’s dismissal. Although these moves have little effect on the conduct of the Wilson administration yet, the internal war for power featuring Lansing, Tumulty, House, and Mrs. Wilson will have significant impact on the postwar peace process.

Robert Lansing in Wilson's War Cabinet

Robert Lansing in Wilson’s wartime cabinet, seated in the exact same spot where Bryan was recorded for posterity in 1913

  • Gregory Robert Zieren

    As you point out, Wilson’s treatment of Lansing was less than cordial and unbecoming Lansing’s considerable gifts as an international lawyer. Wilson had only a handful of friends, and treated many other Cabinet members and politicians with a certain disdain. Col. House was the exception, of course, but he was hardly a reliable substitute for a real secretary of state. House’s machinations at the time of the war aims debate in late 1916 left a stain on his character and his ability to function as a real neutral in steering American policy.

    • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

      My mental portrait of Wilson grows less flattering all the time. I knew he was flawed, but had not studied his administration in any sort of detail since high school AP history class.

      • Gregory Robert Zieren

        If you re-read the speeches and sense the soaring rhetoric and the grand ideas, you can’t help but admire him. If you immerse yourself in the details, on the other hand, his flaws and the limitations of his ability to empathize with any but a few are what strikes the modern reader. His presidency becomes as bizarre as that of his contemporary, TR’s 7 years in office.

        • dbtheonly

          Bizarre?

      • dbtheonly

        But remember, tearing down Wilson, and all his works, is a current goal of the right-wing. Do not confuse an unwillingness to show emotionalism with not having them. Also remember how turbulent his personal life is at this time.

        • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

          I’m not concerned with Wilson’s emotions, just his actions. He’s not a monster, he’s just more deeply flawed (and human) than I had realized.

          • dbtheonly

            Which actions? Direct election of Senators? Income Tax? Federal Reserve?

            Just remember the America of 1915 is not the America of 2015. Brutal racism did exist. Condemning Wilson for that racism is hardly fair. Ask yourself what was possible at the time.

          • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

            Censorship was also far more accepted at the time, but the Sedition & Espionage Acts still went too far. In our era, fear of terrorism is widespread, but almost everyone agrees the Patriot Act went too far.

            I don’t condemn the past, I use it to understand the present.

          • dbtheonly

            Wise words.

            Though I question of whether the US Sedition Acts were significantly more rigorous than DORA. Strange stuff happens in wartime.

            And the RW attacks on Wilson. I don’t understand their point, but I suspicious of their actions.

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