How to preserve our neutrality peacefully during the next great war abroad, without submitting to serious economic or political injury, is among the greater questions which now concern earnest Americans. We are greatly perturbed by the growing evidence of coming conflict on a vast scale in both Asia and Europe. We fear the traditional menace of being drawn into a quarrel between foreign belligerents because of grave damage to our just rights and general interests, arising incidentally from their methods of warfare against each other.
As of old, a large and influential group of citizens now hopes to solve this dilemma by curtailing American potential fighting power. It would reduce our military and naval forces, tether the munition makers, shipbuilders, bankers, and others who might enjoy profits from our participation in war, and so alter neutrality rules as to remove the stigma of illegality from a variety of belligerent actions under which America at peace would nevertheless suffer grievously.
The futility of weakness in preserving neutrality, or avoiding war on account of breaches of neutrality, has been thoroughly demonstrated by our history, not to mention the common experience of other nations. So true is this, so palpably true, that a mere examination of the facts should be sufficient to convince anyone whose judgment has its basis in reality and reason. If there is any solution of the problem set forth it cannot lie in feebleness, but in the opposite direction—in the realm of strong preparedness together with the pacific persuasions of ready force.
Such a conclusion is also well fortified by the abundant examples offered by history of the peaceful preservation of neutral rights and general interests through the influence of military-naval power. In this respect a predominant British Navy in the century preceding the World War afforded striking illustration, while our own Navy played a similar part on a smaller scale.
The present situation of seemingly impending war abroad therefore undoubtedly calls for the strengthening of America's combat power, rather than its curtailment, if we hope to avoid being embroiled and if we desire to safeguard our essential interests. For us this is an untried method of accomplishing such objects under the critically difficult circumstances of a general war in Europe, which many persons now regard as probable within a few years. Where weakness has repeatedly failed us, strength should be doubly worthy of trial.
No better proof can be found of the restraining influence of obviously effective neutral power than that given by the vacillations of Germany with respect to ruthless submarining during the World War. Before the final and fateful U-boat campaign that brought forth American belligerency there were several false starts during a period of two years. This long prelude was characterized throughout by the German High Command's fear of neutral might. Their chief concern in debating submarine war on shipping was over which neutrals might thereby be drawn into the war, and especially what force such neutrals might bring to bear as future opponents.
Not until January of 1917 did the German command feel strong enough to win out despite the added weight of probable new enemies. It was then positively estimated that the Kaiser's armies could hold fast on the Continent while the U-boats brought England to her knees, before effective American military-naval aid could appear in Europe. The grave injury to neutral rights and interests that followed was clearly and largely a consequence of supposed neutral weakness, relatively speaking. With greater strength the neutrals could certainly have maintained their own peace without enduring substantial harm.
As early as November, 1914, the German Navy had gained sufficient experience in submarine warfare to convince its leaders of the then surprisingly high potential value of this method of attack on shipping. Accordingly a definite proposal for such a campaign was made to the Chancellor. The disapproval of the latter was based purely on military and political expediency. According to Admiral Scheer (in his Germany's High Sea Fleet in the World War):
The question was not whether it should be done, but when it could be done without ruining our position. Such a measure as the U-boat blockade would react detrimentally upon the attitude of neutrals and our imports; it could only be employed without dangerous consequences when our military position on the Continent was so secure that there could be no doubt as to the ultimate outcome there, and the danger that the neutrals would join our opponents might be regarded as out of the question. At the moment these conditions did not exist.
Evidently at this time it was respect for neutral strength which alone assured neutrals of peace and justice.
By February, 1915, Germany felt sufficiently strong to begin ruthless submarining against enemy shipping, with a warning that neutral vessels should keep clear of the declared war zone. Orders were issued against torpedoing neutral ships but there was too much difficulty in distinguishing them and many were torpedoed. Their safety really depended upon their keeping out of the zone, which the Germans vainly hoped they would do. Among neutrals the United States made the most vigorous protests, based largely on humanitarian grounds but accompanied by threats of declaring war. After the Lusitania was sunk in May the German government was persuaded to forbid the torpedoing of all big passenger steamers, but the submarining of the Arabic in August, when the U-24 felt she was acting in self-defense, further emphasized the difficulties of continuing the campaign under the restrictions against attacks on neutral shipping and passenger steamers. This incident led to cessation of the war on shipping, except in the Mediterranean where Italy had come into the war and the danger from neutral susceptibilities was much less.
It should be remarked that at this stage Germany had relatively few submarines in readiness; that she was not yet certain what novel counter-measures might be developed against them which would also be available to neutrals should they declare war; and that she was much concerned over losing important economic advantages arising from imports from the United States, which the British blockade had not then virtually- cut off. Consequently Germany's attitude was then largely one of fear as to the results of America's entering the war against her, and American protests were correspondingly effective.
By March, 1916, the German High Command had determined upon renewing the submarine campaign. The following reasons governing the decision are abstracted from the information furnished Admiral Scheer by the Chief of the Naval Staff:
The general military situation is good. . . . No serious danger is to be apprehended from America so long as our U-boats and Fleet remain afloat. . . . From the economic point of view the fact that we are cut off from all imports from overseas and neutral countries becomes increasingly apparent. . . . Our opponents can hold out longer than we can. We must therefore aim at bringing the war to an end. . . . England can only be injured by war on her trade. . . . A ruthless U-boat campaign. . . . England will not be able to withstand for more than six or eight months. . . . Neutral shipping will also feel the full brunt of it. . . . The small neutral states must give in and are willing to do so: that is, to stop trade with England. America opposes this manner of waging the U-boat campaign, and threatens us with war. From a military point of view, and especially from the standpoint of the Fleet, we might well risk this war. But economically it would fatally aggravate our situation. . . . Our aim, which is to bring the war to an end within a short time, would be farther than ever from realization, and Germany would be exposed to exhaustion. . . . A break with America certainly affords us the tactical advantage of ruthless U-boat warfare against England, but only under conditions that will prolong the war, and will certainly bring neither relief nor amelioration to the economic situation.
In this second abortive submarine campaign the passenger steamer Sussex was torpedoed on March 24, 1916, with the loss of a number of American citizens. President Wilson accordingly sent a very sharp note to the German government threatening to break off diplomatic relations, and the ruthless operations were promptly abandoned. Again the fear of military handicaps from the economic effects of America's becoming an enemy was conclusive in Germany's decision. No other consideration seems to have been a factor, and this is worthy of special note at this time when many Americans are seriously proposing removing all cause of future fear of us, as a means of keeping us out of war.
Following this second cessation of the submarine campaign in April, 1916, the Naval Staff made several unsuccessful efforts to have it resumed, and in September the question was again voted down at General Headquarters. On that occasion the principal governing reason was the military situation—the land campaign against Rumania then occupying the attention of an army whose services might be required against the Netherlands or other neutrals, should they be provoked into war by the submarine operations. Once more, therefore, it was fear of military consequences alone which protected neutral rights, and not until such fears were reasonably well dispelled was the final war on shipping decided upon.
The fateful decision in favor of the ruthless submarine warfare that forced the United States into the World War was unquestionably predicated upon a firm German belief in our inability to defend our rights or to assist the Allied navies materially against U-boats. The latter craft were assumed to be virtually immune against naval attack, and hence able to prevent any great American troop movement overseas to the fields of France. As a matter of obvious logic and rationality, had the German High Command made the opposite assumption it would have reversed its conclusion and decision, our neutrality and rights would have been reasonably well respected, and America would not have been drawn into the war on this account.
In his War Memoirs General Ludendorff outlines the proceedings of a special meeting at General Headquarters presided over by the Kaiser January 9, 1917, where the final submarine campaign was decided upon. After their then recent victories in Rumania the German troops so engaged were expected back on the home fronts before February 1, and there was therefore no longer any anxiety as to what Holland, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, or Norway might do. An American declaration of war, however, was recognized as practically certain. She would, no doubt, arm herself in the same way that England had done, but could not substantially increase her output of munitions that were already being supplied the Allies. In the first year she might put a maximum of five or six divisions of troops in France. Shipping deficiencies in consequence of submarining, however, would prevent transporting a greater force together with its supplies.
Neutral shipping would be frightened away from the war zone and add to the shortage resulting from the mounting submarine toll. This was carefully calculated to bring decisive results within six months despite all the anti-submarine efforts which the Allies and America might make jointly. On these assumptions and recommendations of the Chief of the Naval Staff, Hindenburg favored the adoption of the submarine campaign. The Chancellor, who had previously opposed it on political grounds, now concluded
The decision to embark on the campaign depends on the effects which are to be expected from it . . . if the military authorities regard it as essential, I am not in a position to withstand them. . . . If success beckons we must act.
Thus was the Kaiser convinced and the momentous decision made.
A clear index of the German conviction at this period that America was incapable of effectively combating submarines is given by Ambassador Gerard in My Four Years in Germany. Repeatedly questioned on this point he could only suggest that being a very inventive people we might devise some new weapon or method. Such a vague deterrent could scarcely influence an intention to begin a naval campaign which was fully expected to bring about decisive victory within six months. Even though the magical invention were made, much time would be necessary to apply it effectively on a big scale 3,000 miles overseas. Manifestly American naval impotence against submarines was a firm German assumption, and must have had a vital influence upon their final decision to embark on under-sea ruthlessness.
The Conversion of President Wilson
The weighty lesson carried in this massive load of national experience is manifestly that neutral rights can best be protected, without danger of war, through being well prepared for war. As George Washington put the same principle after his own experiences as President during the Napoleonic Wars and while Barbary Powers were also doing great harm to our sea-borne commerce:
The most sincere neutrality is not a sufficient guard against the depredations of nations at war. To secure respect to a neutral flag requires a naval force, organized and ready to vindicate it from insult or aggression. This may even prevent the necessity of going to war. . .
The wisdom of Washington in this regard receives arresting endorsement from the fact that Woodrow Wilson, although starting out with an opposite opinion, finally reached the same conclusion as a direct result of similarly trying experience. Sincerely idealistic and pacific at heart, Wilson was shocked by the outbreak of the World War and promptly advised the nation to be scrupulously neutral in thought and act. He strongly and impatiently opposed further preparedness on our part, believing that it would be misconstrued by the belligerents and might even lead toward our participation in the great conflict.
The conversion of Wilson to Washington's viewpoint holds a profound lesson. Until late in 1915 he apparently clung to the conviction that moral suasion, held strictly apart from the threat of force, was the most certain means of maintaining neutral rights and avoiding war for us. His first public utterance indicating a change in this viewpoint was the speech of November 4 of that year before the Manhattan Club. Although the sinking of the Arabic in the preceding August had marked the end of the first ruthless submarine campaign as a result of our vigorous diplomatic protest, there were ominous signs of its renewal as soon as general circumstances were favorable to the Germans. It was becoming increasingly evident that moral suasion alone would not deter them permanently, and that the added influence of force was necessary.
We had also had serious differences with England, whose determined efforts to blockade Germany led to many costly detentions and seizures of American ships and to the gross expansion of the list of contraband. Although these practices were less goading than submarining (since innocent lives were not placed in jeopardy), they were illegal and indefensible, according to our State Department, and many Americans were deeply incensed over them and advocated war against Britain. The latter's unwillingness to heed our strong diplomatic protests was evidently another case of belligerent respect for neutral rights being contingent upon the influence of force. The policy of our government, according to Mr. Lansing's War Memoirs, was not to allow such "controversies to reach a point where diplomatic correspondence gave place to action" (page 128).
Viscount Grey in his Twenty-five Years reveals the corresponding British state of mind. "The Navy acted," he says, "and the Foreign Office had to find the argument to support the action; it was anxious work. British action provoked American argument; that was met by British counter-argument. British action preceded British argument; the risk was that action might follow American argument. In all this Page's [the American Ambassador in London] advice and suggestion were of the greatest value in warning us when to be careful or encouraging us when we could safely be firm." These general circumstances must have been known to President Wilson and to have further convinced him that the preservation of our neutral rights without recourse to war necessarily depended upon our having a navy sufficiently strong to give weight to diplomatic protests.
This was the background of Wilson's November 4, 1915, speech in which he reversed his previous position and strongly advocated increasing our armed forces: "not for attack in any quarter, not for aggression of any kind . . . but merely to make sure of our own security." He wanted "to be prepared not for war, but only for defense," believing that "the principles we hold most dear can be achieved . . . only in the kindly and wholesome atmosphere of peace, and not by the use of hostile force." He spoke "in terms of the deepest solemnity of the urgency and necessity of preparing ourselves to guard and protect the rights and privileges of our people. The Navy of the United States is already a very great and efficient force," he said, yet on the same occasion he advocated making it very substantially greater by beginning the largest naval building program ever undertaken, even to the present day. The Army was also to be materially strengthened.
President Wilson had obviously reached the conclusion as early as November, 1915, that if there was any way to keep out of the war while safeguarding our neutrality, it was through having amply strong armament with which to back our diplomacy. He was soon to receive stronger confirmation of this doctrine, and to realize the tragedy of having delayed preparedness until too late for it to be effective in any such way. Colonel House was sent abroad in January, 1916, on a very important peace mission. Through him Wilson proposed a general conference to end the war. The Allies were first approached, with the assurance that should they accept and Germany reject, the United States would go into the war on their side. At first the proposal was received sympathetically but when in March Wilson insisted in qualifying our commitment by inserting the word "probably" the Allies refused the offer. Thus again, from another viewpoint, was the positive influence of force upon peace thrust upon Wilson's attention.
As previously stated, Germany renewed her submarine campaign in March, 1916, but in a few weeks once more abandoned it upon our virtual ultimatum threatening to sever diplomatic relations. Wilson among many other high officials seems then to have temporarily shared in the mistaken public assumption that moral suasion had again triumphed, whereas in fact the governing consideration was German fear of economic consequences. At this period the British also fanned our resentment against them by further restraints upon American trade, including the obnoxious "Black List" of neutral firms and persons with whom all trade was forbidden. The effect of these added provocations—both German and British —was to spur President Wilson to great heights in his advocacy of preparedness. Under his ardent sponsorship the huge naval building program was pressed through Congress and formally approved by him in August, 1916. He also toured the country making numerous extraordinary speeches calculated to turn public opinion strongly in favor of adequate armament.
The cause of preparedness has never received more impassioned, eloquent, logical, and convincing support than that given in 1916 by the previously pacifist-minded President Wilson. Some of the strongest speeches were delivered in the winter and spring before his re-election, but all are worthy of the most careful study and consideration at this time when we debate the relationship between armaments, neutrality, and war. There is not the least doubt that as a result of his unequalled experience Wilson had become an ardent convert to the conviction that the preservation of just peace for us in a warring world required preponderant American armament with which to reinforce diplomacy. At St. Louis in February, 1916, he pleaded for "incomparably the most adequate navy in the world" for the United States, and he strongly supported such a doctrine even after the war was over, and until his death.
But the tragedy of Wilson's conversion is that it came too late, and that should be a fruitful lesson for the present generation. Ships appropriated for in August, 1916, could scarcely have had their keels laid by February 1917, when the Germans started their final submarine campaign. The forces, both military and naval, which Wilson advocated so earnestly during 1916 might well have forestalled the ruthless U-boats, and hence kept us out of war, had they been an effective reality at the time of the Kaiser's conference with the High Command in January, 1917. Certainly if we had then had sufficient means to quell submarines, the fateful decision would have been far different—and most likely reversed—and America no doubt would have remained at peace and at the same time enjoyed respect for her neutrality and vital interests.
The Examples of Other Wars
The prelude to our entry into the World War thus offers convincing argument for the need of adequate force as a means of keeping out of war while maintaining legitimate rights and interests unimpaired. Yet it is merely one among several chapters of American experience which unmistakably point to precisely the same thing. Moreover in our entire history there are no examples which would lead to an opposite conclusion. Virtually all of our foreign wars possess the common aspect of having American non-preparedness, or assumed relative weakness, as a cardinal element in their origin. They thus point to military-naval strength as a general preserver of peace for the United States.
In the case of the Revolution a seafaring people were first aroused to resist the mother-country by infringements upon their vital interests on the sea. The Colonies were totally unprepared for war, and had it been otherwise there can be little doubt that they would not have been provoked to the point of rebellion. Our Quasi-War with France (1798-1801) would not conceivably have occurred if the infant Republic had been able to give even moderate naval protection to its merchant vessels. The long continued and extensive depredations upon them took place while we were a neutral during a great war in Europe and when we had not a single man-of-war to safeguard our shipping. America's weakness then clearly invited the irksome violations of her neutrality and was hence a prime cause of her necessary resort to hostilities. Much the same were the circumstances which forced us to defend our interests and rights against Barbary piracy between 1801 and 1815, and in this instance we had even gone to the disgraceful length of vainly paying tribute to avoid war. Sufficient force from the first would have preserved our rights as well as our peace.
The genesis of the War of 1812 is better known. In principle it closely paralleled that of our part in the World War. Two strong belligerents in Europe exasperated us beyond endurance by illegal and gravely injurious practices against our commerce on the sea, which the American navy was too weak to protect adequately. In 1812 we had as just a complaint on this score against France as against England, and finally chose the latter as an antagonist because of her added provocation respecting impressment. Our relatively negligible naval power at this period commanded no respect against the aggressive violation of neutrality that forced us into the fruitless war.
America's only other foreign wars of any considerable magnitude were those with Mexico in 1846 and with Spain in 1898. Neither one fits the condition of a general war in Europe under which it is now being alleged by many American idealists that disarmament would favor preserving our neutrality and keeping us at peace. Nevertheless, both of these relatively small wars serve to illustrate the war hazard that is inherent in naval weakness. Our occupation of Texas in 1846 that brought on the clash of arms was precipitated by British and French diplomatic maneuvers aiming at control of Texas. These European countries would scarcely have entertained such intentions had the power of our Navy commanded their respect. In the case of the war with Spain in 1898, although America's navy proved itself under test to be substantially superior, this was a great surprise to European authorities who had freely predicted the reverse. In advance of hostilities Spanish statesmen felt confident of naval victory. Otherwise they would have been more careful to keep peace with us by reasonable concessions respecting Cuba.
The circumstances leading up to our various foreign wars therefore offer powerful arguments in favor of preparedness as a means of avoiding war, especially so under the condition of a great conflict abroad in which our neutral rights are jeopardized. In these instances a lack of sufficient force as an ally to diplomacy was usually a prime factor in the provocation which left us little choice but the use of arms. The opposite side of the same case, the influence of adequate force to keep peace and maintain our interests, has also been well demonstrated on many occasions in history. Among American experiences of this nature the most illuminating is the French evacuation of Mexico after the Civil War in consequence of our vigorous diplomatic demands, although numerous other lesser incidents could be cited.
Reviewing all the factual evidence that is available--the historical experiences set forth herein and much more for which there has not been space—the conclusion is inescapable that preparedness is the most certain way to keep out of war, and is the only way in which we can do so while maintaining just and essential interests. The apostles of the opposite thesis of "Peace Through Disarmament of America in an Armed World," can present only the illusory logic of academic idealism. Such persons are necessarily far more dangerous guides than Washington and Wilson— idealists of the first magnitude and statesmen of great eminence, whose opinions were matured by potent experience in high office and in the crucible of grave responsibility. And moreover, all other American statesmen, with scarcely any exception, have come to the same general conclusions whenever experience under responsibility in such matters has served them.
Wilson's eloquent advocacy of "incomparably the most adequate navy in the world" was mainly predicated in his mind upon the maintenance of our neutrality with justice and peace. He pleaded for this nearly eighteen months before we were drawn into the war, largely from want of such a force. And after the Armistice he went forward vigorously with the building of such a navy despite very active foreign diplomatic opposition. He wanted then to be certain of preserving the peace and justice that victory had won. Gruelling experience had taught him the same lesson for today that Washington had learned in the same hard school, more than a century before: "The most sincere neutrality is not a sufficient guard against the depredations of nations at war." For this a powerful naval force is indispensable and "may even prevent the necessity of going to war." No greater wisdom is available for our guidance now as we look forward to the ominous prospect abroad.