A century ago this month, Navy Commander William Sowden Sims, commanding officer of the battleship USS Minnesota, imperiled his promising career with a speech forecasting Anglo-American unity in any future large-scale war. His indiscretion took place in the cavernous, cathedral-like great hall of the medieval-style Guildhall, the ceremonial center of the City of London, and his remarks reverberated from Berlin to Washington, D.C.
The occasion was a banquet hosted on 3 December 1910 by the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Vezey Strong, in honor of the assembled officers and Sailors of the eight battleships of the First and Third Divisions of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. In the words of President William Howard Taft, the European visit was “an instrument of peace.” The President said he had sent the warships to England and to France to convey “to all nations the goodwill of the United States.”1
These descriptions of the traditional diplomatic and operational functions of foreign cruises were thoroughly conventional and well-understood throughout the U.S. Navy. In this instance, however, tradition was bent to the breaking point by Commander Sims and by the disposition of the Fleet.
The Fisher Connection
On Friday, 2 December, the day before Sims spoke, the Lord Mayor had welcomed 100 officers of the U.S. Fleet to the Guildhall for a banquet held in their honor. American Ambassador Whitelaw Reid was among the approximately 1,000 guests, as was Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher of Kilverstone.2 Former First Sea Lord John (“Jacky”) Fisher was the preeminent naval officer of the Edwardian Era (1901–1910). He “stood ready for war” and in the words of one foreign observer “simply longs to have a go at Germany.”3 He had known Sims at least since 1906, when on Christmas Day he and his family hosted then-Lieutenant Commander Sims at a mid-afternoon lunch or tea in his home. Sims, an ardent and well-known advocate of the all-big-gun battleship, was making an informal inspection of HMS Dreadnought, and Fisher wanted to discuss the concept with him.4 Now, four years later, the American gunnery expert publicly expressed political sentiments with which Fisher must have agreed.
Admiral Fisher, Ambassador Reid, and the American naval officers heard opening remarks by Sir Thomas that vigorously endorsed Anglo-American political and naval intimacy. Noting that General Ulysses S. Grant and former President Theodore Roosevelt had spoken in the Guildhall, the Lord Mayor said, “This is the first occasion that, in a hall which has witnessed the reception of British naval heroes like [Vice Admiral Horatio Lord] Nelson . . . we are permitted to welcome as friends and as allies in the peaceful amenities of citizenship the Naval representatives of our cousins from the other side of the Atlantic.”
He and his countrymen could no longer “think of America as a foreign power. It is an integral part of the English-speaking family. . . .” If serious differences of opinion disturbed Anglo-American “commercial or diplomatic relations,” the two governments had resolved to submit them “to the benign and peaceful arbitrament of legal-qualified tribunals. . . .” London and Washington would not “dream of referring them to the bitter, implacable armaments of destruction. . . .”5
What Rear Admiral Murdock Said
The responsibility for responding to the Lord Mayor fell to Rear Admiral Joseph B. Murdock, the Third Division’s flag officer and the 14th-ranking admiral in the U.S. Navy. Murdock extolled the United States as “naturally a peaceful nation, anxious now, as ever before, to live in amity with all nations of the world.” In his conclusion, he echoed Sir Thomas’ praise for international arbitration as the proper modern method for resolving disputes. Regarding Great Britain in particular, he said, “It is almost inconceivable that any difference can arise between the two nations that cannot be thus settled.”6
The next day, Saturday, 3 December, 800 American Sailors traveled by train from their ships at Portland Harbour on the south coast of England and Gravesend on the Thames to the Waterloo and Charing Cross Stations in London. They assembled at the Victoria Embankment and were paraded by Commander Sims to the Guildhall for another midday round of food, drink, and speeches. Sims sat next to Sir Thomas, who rose to take the oratorical lead. Pointing to the Guildhall’s monuments to Nelson and Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington, the Lord Mayor proclaimed to the Americans: “We cannot regard you . . . as foreigners. You are the other arm of the Anglo-Saxon race. You have the same hopes and aspirations as ourselves and are inspired by the same noble aims. We greet you as fellow-labourers in the cause of humanity.” This bold assertion was met with loud cheers, as Sir Thomas turned the podium over to Commander Sims.7
Undoubtedly swept up by the ceremonies and the Lord Mayor’s oratory, Sims responded with a speech that nearly cost him his career. Extemporaneously he delivered harmless benedictions to transatlantic marriages, his own mixed heritage flowing from a Canadian mother and an American father, the absence of a fortified boundary between Canada and the United States, and the “strong peace sentiment of unity” shared by the British and American peoples. Then, in what he warned his audience would be a “purely personal opinion,” he dropped his bombshell: “If the time ever comes when the British Empire is seriously menaced by an external enemy, it is my opinion that you may count upon every man, every dollar, and every drop of blood of your kindred across the seas.”8
The assemblage roared its approval as Sims proposed three cheers: “For the King, the British people, and the integrity of the British Empire.”9 Writing to his wife, Anne Hitchcock Sims, the elated commander assured her: “It is safe to say that in all its five hundred years the old Guildhall never witnessed such a scene.”10
Alone among the speakers, Sims had explicitly posited Anglo-American solidarity in the event of a serious breech between England and a foreign state. In 1910 this could refer to only one major power: Imperial Germany. Berlin was assiduously solidifying the Triple Alliance, the political and military link between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. The continental balance of power was shifting, and at sea Kaiser Wilhelm II was enthusiastically challenging the Royal Navy in a massive capital-shipbuilding race. In this festering environment, German sensibilities were understandably provoked by Sims’ speech and by the apparently discriminatory cruising pattern of the 16 American battleships in European waters.
For all President Taft might say about the peaceful and impartial intentions of the Fleet’s cruise that winter, the Navy Department from the beginning had excluded Germany from its itinerary. After departing from four U.S. ports, the battleships had rendezvoused at sea on 3 November. They subsequently divided again into four divisions, two of which—the First and Third—proceeded to England, arriving on the 16th. The Second and Fourth Divisions, similarly comprised of four battleships each, steamed to Cherbourg and Brest, France, where they stayed until 8 December. They then traded places with the two divisions in England. All the ships remained in British and French harbors until the 30th, when they sailed for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to conduct Fleet gunnery practice.11
Germany’s reaction to this exclusion was pained, but its criticism was largely confined to commentators on the fringes of the government. The most hostile quasi-official response came from a “noted naval expert,” Count Graf Ernst von Reventlow. As early as 1907 he had publicly remarked on what he saw as the U.S. Navy’s inferiority to the Imperial Japanese Navy, which had been emboldened by the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1902: “A long time must elapse before America would be sufficiently strong to meet the Asiatic power on even terms.”12
At the time, he was described by The New York Times as a “Captain Lieutenant” in the German navy and “editor in chief of the Armee und Marine (Army and Navy Journal).”13 An opponent of the 1907 Hague Peace Conference, Reventlow had written a book, World Peace or World War, Which Way is Germany to Turn?14 His purpose was “to prove that what Germany needs for self-preservation is not disarmament, but the immediate increase of its navy to a point where it could hope to fight with England on something approaching equal terms.”15 In such a struggle, he said, the United States should be allied with Germany, not Great Britain. The New York Times summarized Reventlow’s counsel to America: “Our best friend among the powers is Germany, our bitterest though secret foe is England. . . . Germany is our friend, not because she loves us more, but because we endanger her less.”16
Three years later, in 1910, the cruise of the battleships of the Atlantic Fleet to Europe, the rousing reception given them in England, and the speeches in the Guildhall all shattered Reventlow’s chimerical vision. He struck out in a wire cable from Berlin to American newspapers: “As the program [of visits by American warships] was set up by President Taft and the heads of the Navy and State Departments the whole government is implicated in this anti-German demonstration.”17 Regarding the speeches of Sims and other officers in England, he was quoted as saying, “The officers of the United States Navy appeared to be infected with the same hatred of Germany which characterizes Admiral Mahon [sic], and it is important to register this fact.”18
The ardent German nationalist had a point. The 16 U.S. battleships deployed in the visit to Europe were the same number that had constituted the Great White Fleet in its historic and admonitory global cruise from 1907 to 1909. Eight of them had participated in the earlier voyage, and one, the venerable USS Connecticut, served as the flagship in both deployments. Japan was the target of the warning in the earlier cruise. Now, a year and a half later, a more powerful Fleet—comprised in part of two battleships larger than HMS Dreadnought—was in European waters.
The exclusion of German ports from the itinerary became the subject of a media frenzy in late December. Hopeful rumors circulated in Berlin that the schedule would be altered to include a visit to Germany, but the Navy Department quashed this easy means of swiftly assuaging hurt feelings. The Washington Post and The New York Times reported the department’s position: “it is regarded as unwise to send the ships into the North Sea in the season of inclement weather.”19
The flimsy official explanation might have appeased Berlin, but others were not so easily quieted—namely, German immigrants and their descendants living in the United States. One of those was Friedrich Grosse, a U.S. citizen and medical doctor in New York City. Exhibiting a fine flair, he wrote bitterly to Sims on 8 December, five days after the Guildhall Speech:
Though I do not understand how a naval officer may in such a way and with such intensity fraternize with England, the open ally of Japan, I wish impressedly [sic] to point out to you the fact that this Republic is rather German-Irish than Anglo-Saxon, and that the percentage of Anglo-Saxon blood is fading away every day more. Neither our people of Irish descent, nor those of German, nor of another except Anglo-Saxon have any interest in picking the chestnuts out of the fire for Britain and her Mongolian mate. The cause of our Republic is best served when it remains neutral. . . .20
Dr. Grosse’s passionate and unneutral reaction to the speech demonstrates why naval officers such as Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sims had to tread very carefully in making public pronouncements praising the advantages of close cooperation between the American and British navies. Two very strong ethnic groups in the United States—the Germans and the Irish—were antipathetic to the British at the deepest personal level, and this animosity found its expression in voting booths.
As early as 19 December, Sims became aware that his speech was generating public criticism in the United States. He pinpointed to his wife the ethnic roots of the hostile chorus: “I suppose the trouble is that some of the rabid Irish politicians have protested against the sentiments expressed. Probably some of the Germans also.” Accurate about his domestic critics, he airily dismissed the impact of his speech overseas: “I can hardly think that any government would notice the personal remarks of an officer of my grade.”21 But he was more honest when several British naval officers told him “they believed that it would make a decided impression upon Germany.” He succinctly wrote his wife on 5 December, “I hope it does.”22 His wish was granted, but the personal consequences were not those he would have sought.
President Taft Intervenes
The public indiscretion of a relatively junior officer of the U.S. Navy in a foreign country quickly became a matter of political concern for President Taft, who was highly displeased by the possibility of alienating German-American voters and by any complications that might ensue with Germany. At his direction, on 20 December Secretary of the Navy George von Lengerke Meyer cabled Sims at the French naval base in Brest, asking for an explanation of the episode.
Sims emphasized that his remarks had been extemporaneous, but the President was not satisfied. On 9 January 1911, Taft reminded Meyer, “It should be . . . the business and training of a naval officer . . . to restrain himself within the limits of diplomatic intercourse. To depart from it is not only a blunder but a fault for which his Government cannot excuse him.” The President continued: “Commander Sims cannot escape censure on the ground that what he said was a mere expression of his personal opinion . . . he should have known that the words he used would at once call for severe comment in other countries than Great Britain. . . .” With Germany in mind, the President directed that “a public reprimand be given to Commander Sims. His offence has been so conspicuous that the action of the Department in reproving it should be equally so.”23
On 13 January, the Navy Department’s censure took the very public form of “General Order 100,” which stated that by his remarks Commander Sims had indicated “to the naval service the lack of tact and knowledge of the plain duty of an officer of the navy. . . .”24 Henceforth, officers were forbidden from making statements abroad that might embarrass the U.S. government. At that point the administration effectively ended the matter by sending Sims into genteel exile at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, where he was to be kept out of harm’s way as a student. He reasonably could have been forced into retirement as a commander.
‘The Ways of History Are Strange’
Less than two months after the reprimand, on 4 March, as if to placate Sims and his Republican allies within the administration, President Taft promoted him to captain. In that rank he commanded the Atlantic Torpedo Flotilla and the battleship USS Nevada. He was appointed president of the Naval War College and made a rear admiral in early 1917. His tenure was abruptly terminated in March, when Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to send him to England as the senior naval representative of the United States, a position he maintained until the end of World War I.25
In England, Sims built on his long-standing friendships with officers of the Royal Navy. He took the previously unthinkable step of placing U.S. destroyers under British operational command for convoy duty and antisubmarine patrols. In 17 months of cooperation, the Anglo-Americans safely ferried two million American Soldiers and Marines to France without loss of life. No less a “naval person” than former First Lord of the Admiralty Winston S. Churchill rhapsodized to Sims: “the harmony and success of this cooperation form a new precedent, and one which is of the highest value to the future in which such vast issues hang on unity between our two countries in ideals and in action.”26
Former President Taft could only marvel at this final turn of events: “The ways of history are strange. When I was President I reprimanded a naval officer for saying exactly what he is doing now. That officer was Commander, now Vice Admiral, Sims in command of the American Navy in Europe.”27
1. “Commander Sims’s Guildhall Speech: Action by President Taft,” London Times, 11 January 1911.
2. “The American Naval Visit,” London Times, 3 December 1910. “Ambassador Reid Dines Naval Men,” Christian Science Monitor, 2 December 1910.
3. Barry M. Gough, “A War of Combinations: First Lord of the Admiralty and First Sea Lord,” Proceedings of the International Churchill Societies 1994-95 (The Churchill Center, Inc., n.p., n.d.).
4. William S. Sims to Anne H. Sims, 25 December 1906, William S. Sims Collection, No. 168, Box 8, Folder 11, U.S. Naval War College.
5. “America and the City: U.S.A. Officers at Guildhall,” City Press, 3 December 1910, William S. Sims Collection, Cont. 115, Folder “Clippings 1910,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. For Roosevelt’s speech on 31 May 1910, see “Roosevelt Voice of Kitchener Faction,” The New York Times, 4 June 1910.
6. “America and the City: U.S.A. Officers at Guildhall,” City Press, 3 December 1910, Williams S. Sims Collection, Cont. 115, Folder “Clippings 1910,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. See also St. Louis Post-Dispatch and New York World, 21 December 1910, William S. Sims Collection, Cont. 115, Folder “Clippings 1910,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
7. “American Jack Tars March Through London,” Daily News, 4 December 1910, William S. Sims Collection, Cont. 115, Folder “Clippings 1910,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
8. Sims quoted in “Commander Sims’s Guildhall Speech,” London Times, 11 January 1911. For a slightly different version, see William S. Sims to Anne H. Sims, n.p., n.d., quoted in Elting E. Morison, Admiral Sims and the Modern American Navy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942), pp. 278-79.
9. Sims quoted in “The American Naval Visit: Sailors at Guildhall,” London Times, 5 December 1910. See also, “Memorable Scene at Guildhall,” Daily News, 4 December 1910, William S. Sims Collection, Cont. 115, Folder “Clippings 1910,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
10. William S. Sims to Anne H. Sims, n.p., n.d., quoted in Morison, Sims, p. 280.
11. “The American Naval Visit,” London Times, 14 November 1910.
12. Reventlow quoted in “German Says Hawaii Is Weak Naval Base,” Los Angeles Times, 19 March 1907. See also “Celebrated German Naval Expert Thinks American System of Promotion Tends to Mental Ossification,” The New York Times, 4 August 1907.
13. “The ‘Next War’ As Seen By German Eyes,” The New York Times, 28 April 1907.
14. Ernst zu Reventlow, Weltfrieden odor Weltkrieg!: wohin geht Deutschlands Weg?; poiltisch-militärische Betrachtungen vor der Haager Friedenskonferenz (Berlin: K. Curtius, 1907).
15. Reventlow quoted in “The ‘Next War’ As Seen By German Eyes,” The New York Times, 28 April 1907.
16. “The ‘Next War’ As Seen By German Eyes,” The New York Times, 28 April 1907. The wording is that of the Times, not Reventlow’s.
17. Cable from Berlin to St. Louis Post-Dispatch and New York World, 21 December 1910. William S. Sims Collection, Cont. 115, Folder “Clippings 1910,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
18. Reventlow quoted in Cable from Berlin to St. Louis Post-Dispatch and New York World, 21 December 1910. William S. Sims Collection, Cont. 115, Folder “Clippings 1910,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
19. “Fleet Won’t Go to Germany,” The Washington Post, 23 December 1910; No Title, The New York Times, 23 December 1910. For Germany’s reaction, see, “Wonder at Fleet’s Excuse,” The New York Times, 25 December 1910.
20. Friedrich Grosse to William S. Sims, 8 December 1910, Williams S. Sims Collection, Cont. 115, Folder “Clippings 1910,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
21. Both quotations in William S. Sims to Anne H. Sims, 19 December 1910, William S. Sims Collection, No. 168, Box 8, Folder 11, U.S. Naval War College.
22. William S. Sims to Anne H. Sims, 5 December 1910, William S. Sims Collection, No. 168, Box 8, Folder 10, U.S. Naval War College.
23. “Public Reprimand for Sims,” The Sun, 10 January 1911, William S. Sims collection, Cont. 115, Folder “Clippings 1911,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
24. General Order quoted in “Sims Is Reprimanded for Last-Drop-of-Blood Speech,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 21 January 1911, William S. Sims Collection, Cont. 115, Folder “Clippings 1911,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
25. “Broke Law For Navy F. D. Roosevelt Says,” The New York Times, 2 February 1920.
26. Churchill to Sims, 19 March 1919, quoted in Branden Little and Kenneth J. Hagan, “Radical But Right: William Sowden Sims (1858-1936)” in John B. Hattendorf and Bruce A. Elleman, eds., Nineteen-Gun Salute (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2010), p. 2.
27. Taft quoted in Morison, Sims, p. 184. See also Montreal Gazette, 29 September 1936.