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The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I online

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consistent with his conception of "neutrality." That conception, as is
apparent from the letters already printed, was not the Wilsonian
conception. Probably no American diplomat was more aggrieved at the
President's definition of neutrality than his Ambassador to Great
Britain. Page had no quarrel with the original neutrality proclamation;
that was purely a routine governmental affair, and at the time it was
issued it represented the proper American attitude. But the President's
famous emendations filled him with astonishment and dismay. "We must be
impartial in thought as well as in action," said the President on August
19th[90], "we must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every
transaction that might be construed as a prejudice of one party to the
prejudice of another." Page was prepared to observe all the traditional
rules of neutrality, to insist on American rights with the British
Government, and to do full legal justice to the Germans, but he declined
to abrogate his conscience where his personal judgment of the rights and
wrongs of the conflict were concerned. "Neutrality," he said in a letter
to his brother, Mr. Henry A. Page, of Aberdeen, N.C., "is a quality of
government - an artificial unit. When a war comes a government must go in
it or stay out of it. It must make a declaration to the world of its
attitude. That's all that neutrality is. A government can be neutral,
but no _man_ can be."

"The President and the Government," Page afterward wrote, "in their
insistence upon the moral quality of neutrality, missed the larger
meaning of the war. It is at bottom nothing but the effort of the Berlin
absolute monarch and his group to impose their will on as large a part
of the world as they can overrun. The President started out with the
idea that it was a war brought on by many obscure causes - economic and
the like; and he thus missed its whole meaning. We have ever since been
dealing with the chips which fly from the war machine and have missed
the larger meaning of the conflict. Thus we have failed to render help
to the side of Liberalism and Democracy, which are at stake in the

Nor did Page think it his duty, in his private communications to his
Government and his friends, to maintain that attitude of moral
detachment which Mr. Wilson's pronouncement had evidently enjoined upon
him. It was not his business to announce his opinions to the world, for
he was not the man who determined the policy of the United States; that
was the responsibility of the President and his advisers. But an
ambassador did have a certain rôle to perform. It was his duty to
collect information and impressions, to discover what important people
thought of the United States and of its policies, and to send forward
all such data to Washington. According to Page's theory of the
Ambassadorial office, he was a kind of listening post on the front of
diplomacy, and he would have grievously failed had he not done his best
to keep headquarters informed. He did not regard it as "loyalty" merely
to forward only that kind of material which Washington apparently
preferred to obtain; with a frankness which Mr. Wilson's friends
regarded as almost ruthless, Page reported what he believed to be the
truth. That this practice was displeasing to the powers of Washington
there is abundant evidence. In early December, 1914, Colonel House was
compelled to transmit a warning to the American Ambassador at London.
"The President wished me to ask you to please be more careful not to
express any unneutral feeling, either by word of mouth, or by letter and
not even to the State Department. He said that both Mr. Bryan and Mr.
Lansing had remarked upon your leaning in that direction and he thought
that it would materially lessen your influence. He feels very strongly
about this."

Evidently Page did not regard his frank descriptions of England under
war as expressing unneutral feeling; at any rate, as the war went on,
his letters, even those which he wrote to President Wilson, became more
and more outspoken. Page's resignation was always at the President's
disposal; the time came, as will appear, when it was offered; so long as
he occupied his post, however, nothing could turn him from his
determination to make what he regarded as an accurate record of events.
This policy of maintaining an outward impartiality, and, at the same
time, of bringing pressure to bear on Washington in behalf of the
Allies, he called "waging neutrality."

Such was the mood in which Page now prepared to play his part in what
was probably the greatest diplomatic drama in history. The materials
with which this drama concerned itself were such apparently lifeless
subjects as ships and cargoes, learned discourses on such abstract
matters as the doctrine of continuous voyage, effective blockade, and
conditional contraband; yet the struggle, which lasted for three years,
involved the greatest issue of modern times - nothing less than the
survival of those conceptions of liberty, government, and society which
make the basis of English-speaking civilization. To the newspaper reader
of war days, shipping difficulties signified little more than a
newspaper headline which he hastily read, or a long and involved
lawyer's note which he seldom read at all - or, if he did, practically
never understood. Yet these minute and neglected controversies presented
to the American Nation the greatest decision in its history. Once
before, a century ago, a European struggle had laid before the United
States practically the same problem. Great Britain fought Napoleon, just
as it had now been compelled to fight the Hohenzollern, by blockade;
such warfare, in the early nineteenth century, led to retaliations, just
as did the maritime warfare in the recent conflict, and the United
States suffered, in 1812, as in 1914, from what were regarded as the
depredations of both sides. In Napoleon's days France and Great Britain,
according to the international lawyers, attacked American commerce in
illegal ways; on strictly technical grounds this infant nation had an
adequate cause of war against both belligerents; but the ultimate
consequence of a very confused situation was a declaration of war
against Great Britain. Though an England which was ruled by a George III
or a Prince Regent - an England of rotten boroughs, of an ignorant and
oppressed peasantry, and of a social organization in which caste was
almost as definitely drawn as in an Oriental despotism - could hardly
appeal to the enthusiastic democrat as embodying all the ideals of his
system, yet the England of 1800 did represent modern progress when
compared with the mediæval autocracy of Napoleon. If we take this broad
view, therefore, we must admit that, in 1812, we fought on the side of
darkness and injustice against the forces that were making for
enlightenment. The war of 1914 had not gone far when the thinking
American foresaw that it would present to the American people precisely
this same problem. What would the decision be? Would America repeat the
experience of 1812, or had the teachings of a century so dissipated
hatreds that it would be able to exert its influence in a way more
worthy of itself and more helpful to the progress of mankind?

There was one great difference, however, between the position of the
United States in 1812 and its position in 1914. A century ago we were a
small and feeble nation, of undeveloped industries and resources and of
immature character; our entrance into the European conflict, on one side
or the other, could have little influence upon its results, and, in
fact, it influenced it scarcely at all; the side we fought against
emerged triumphant. In 1914, we had the greatest industrial organization
and the greatest wealth of any nation and the largest white population
of any country except Russia; the energy of our people and our national
talent for success had long been the marvel of foreign observers. It
mattered little in 1812 on which side the United States took its stand;
in 1914 such a decision Mould inevitably determine the issue. Of all
European statesmen there was one man who saw this point with a
definiteness which, in itself, gives him a clear title to fame. That was
Sir Edward Grey. The time came when a section of the British public was
prepared almost to stone the Foreign Secretary in the streets of London,
because they believed that his "subservience" to American trade
interests was losing the war for Great Britain; his tenure of office was
a constant struggle with British naval and military chiefs who asserted
that the Foreign Office, in its efforts to maintain harmonious relations
with America, was hamstringing the British fleet, was rendering almost
impotent its control of the sea, and was thus throwing away the greatest
advantage which Great Britain possessed in its life and death struggle.
"Some blight has been at work in our Foreign Office for years," said the
_Quarterly Review_, "steadily undermining our mastery of the sea."

"The fleet is not allowed to act," cried Lord Charles Beresford in
Parliament; the Foreign Office was constantly interfering with its
operations. The word "traitor" was not infrequently heard; there were
hints that pro-Germanism was rampant and that officials in the Foreign
Office were drawing their pay from the Kaiser. It was constantly charged
that the navy was bringing in suspicious cargoes only to have the
Foreign Office order their release. "I fight Sir Edward about stopping
cargoes," Page wrote to Colonel House in December, 1914; "literally
fight. He yields and promises this or that. This or that doesn't happen
or only half happens. I know why. The military ministers balk him. I
inquire through the back door and hear that the Admiralty and the War
Office of course value American good-will, but they'll take their
chances of a quarrel with the United States rather than let copper get
to Germany. The cabinet has violent disagreements. But the military men
yield as little as possible. It was rumoured the other day that the
Prime Minister threatened to resign; and I know that Kitchener's sister
told her friends, with tears in her eyes, that the cabinet shamefully
hindered her brother."

These criticisms unquestionably caused Sir Edward great unhappiness, but
this did not for a moment move him from his course. His vision was
fixed upon a much greater purpose. Parliamentary orators might rage
because the British fleet was not permitted to make indiscriminate
warfare on commerce, but the patient and far-seeing British Foreign
Secretary was the man who was really trying to win the war. He was one
of the few Englishmen who, in August, 1914, perceived the tremendous
extent of the struggle in which Great Britain had engaged. He saw that
the English people were facing the greatest crisis since William of
Normandy, in 1066, subjected their island to foreign rule. Was England
to become the "Reichsland" of a European monarch, and was the British
Empire to pass under the sway of Germany? Proud as Sir Edward Grey was
of his country, he was modest in the presence of facts; and one fact of
which he early became convinced was that Great Britain could not win
unless the United States was ranged upon its side. Here was the
country - so Sir Edward reasoned - that contained the largest effective
white population in the world; that could train armies larger than those
of any other nation; that could make the most munitions, build the
largest number of battleships and merchant vessels, and raise food in
quantities great enough to feed itself and Europe besides. This power,
the Foreign Secretary believed, could determine the issue of the war. If
Great Britain secured American sympathy and support, she would win; if
Great Britain lost this sympathy and support, she would lose. A foreign
policy that would estrange the United States and perhaps even throw its
support to Germany would not only lose the war to Great Britain, but it
would be perhaps the blackest crime in history, for it would mean the
collapse of that British-American coöperation, and the destruction of
those British-American ideals and institutions which are the greatest
facts in the modern world. This conviction was the basis of Sir Edward's
policy from the day that Great Britain declared war. Whatever enemies he
might make in England, the Foreign Secretary was determined to shape his
course so that the support of the United States would be assured to his
country. A single illustration shows the skill and wisdom with which he
pursued this great purpose.

Perhaps nothing in the early days of the war enraged the British
military chiefs more than the fact that cotton was permitted to go from
the United States to Germany. That Germany was using this cotton in the
manufacture of torpedoes to sink British ships and of projectiles to
kill British soldiers in trenches was well known; nor did many people
deny that Great Britain had the right to put cotton on the contraband
list. Yet Grey, in the pursuit of his larger end, refused to take this
step. He knew that the prosperity of the Southern States depended
exclusively upon the cotton crop. He also knew that the South had raised
the 1914 crop with no knowledge that a war was impending and that to
deny the Southern planters their usual access to the German markets
would all but ruin them. He believed that such a ruling would
immediately alienate the sympathy of a large section of the United
States and make our Southern Senators and Congressmen enemies of Great
Britain. Sir Edward was also completely informed of the extent to which
the German-Americans and the Irish-Americans were active and he was
familiar with the aims of American pacifists. He believed that declaring
cotton contraband at this time would bring together in Congress the
Southern Senators and Congressmen, the representatives of the Irish and
the German causes and the pacifists, and that this combination would
exercise an influence that would be disastrous to Great Britain. Two
dangers constantly haunted Sir Edward's mind at this time. One was that
the enemies of Great Britain would assemble enough votes in Congress to
place an embargo upon the shipment of munitions from this country. Such
an embargo might well be fatal to Great Britain, for at this time she
was importing munitions, especially shells, in enormous quantities from
the United States. The other was that such pressure might force the
Government to convoy American cargoes with American warships. Great
Britain then could stop the cargoes only by attacking our cruisers, and
to attack a cruiser is an act of war. Had Congress taken either one of
these steps the Allies would have lost the war in the spring of 1915. At
a cabinet meeting held to consider this question, Sir Edward Grey set
forth this view and strongly advised that cotton should not be made
contraband at that time[91]. The Cabinet supported him and events
justified the decision. Afterward, in Washington, several of the most
influential Senators informed Sir Edward that this action had averted a
great crisis.

This was the motive, which, as will appear as the story of our relations
with Great Britain progresses, inspired the Foreign Secretary in all his
dealings with the United States. His purpose was to use the sea power of
Great Britain to keep war materials and foodstuffs out of Germany, but
never to go to the length of making an unbridgeable gulf between the
United States and Great Britain. The American Ambassador to Great
Britain completely sympathized with this programme. It was Page's
business to protect the rights of the United States, just as it was
Grey's to protect the rights of Great Britain. Both were vigilant in
protecting such rights, and animated differences between the two men on
this point were not infrequent. Great Britain did many absurd and
high-handed things in intercepting American cargoes, and Page was always
active in "protesting" when the basis for the protest actually existed.
But on the great overhanging issue the two men were at one. Like Grey,
Page believed that there were more important things involved than an
occasional cargo of copper or of oil cake. The American Ambassador
thought that the United States should protect its shipping interests,
but that it should realize that maritime law was not an exact science,
that its principles had been modified by every great conflict in which
the blockade had been an effective agency, and that the United States
itself, in the Civil War, had not hesitated to make such changes as the
changed methods of modern transportation had required. In other words he
believed that we could safeguard our rights in a way that would not
prevent Great Britain from keeping war materials and foodstuffs out of
Germany. And like Sir Edward Grey, Page was obliged to contend with
forces at home which maintained a contrary view. In this early period
Mr. Bryan was nominally Secretary of State, but the man who directed the
national policy in shipping matters was Robert Lansing, then counsellor
of the Department. It is somewhat difficult to appraise Mr. Lansing
justly, for in his conduct of his office there was not the slightest
taint of malice. His methods were tactless, the phrasing of his notes
lacked deftness and courtesy, his literary style was crude and
irritating; but Mr. Lansing was not anti-British, he was not pro-German;
he was nothing more nor less than a lawyer. The protection of American
rights at sea was to him simply a "case" in which he had been retained
as counsel for the plaintiff. As a good lawyer it was his business to
score as many points as possible for his client and the more weak joints
he found in the enemy's armour the better did he do his job. It was his
duty to scan the law books, to look up the precedents, to examine facts,
and to prepare briefs that would be unassailable from a technical
standpoint. To Mr. Lansing this European conflict was the opportunity of
a lifetime. He had spent thirty years studying the intricate problems
that now became his daily companions. His mind revelled in such minute
details as ultimate destination, the continuous voyage as applied to
conditional contraband, the searching of cargoes upon the high seas,
belligerent trading through neutral ports, war zones, orders in council,
and all the other jargon of maritime rights in time of war. These topics
engrossed him as completely as the extension of democracy and the
significance of British-American coöperation engrossed all the thoughts
of Page and Grey.

That Page took this larger view is evident from the communications which
he now began sending to the President. One that he wrote on October 15,
1915, is especially to the point. The date is extremely important; so
early had Page formulated the standards that should guide the United
States and so early had he begun his work of attempting to make
President Wilson understand the real nature of the conflict. The
position which Page now assumed was one from which he never departed.

_To the President_

In this great argument about shipping I cannot help being alarmed
because we are getting into deep water uselessly. The Foreign
Office has yielded unquestioningly to all our requests and has
shown the sincerest wish to meet all our suggestions, so long as
it is not called upon to admit war materials into Germany. It will
not give way to us in that. We would not yield it if we were in
their place. Neither would the Germans. England will risk a serious
quarrel or even hostilities with us rather than yield. You may look
upon this as the final word.

Since the last lists of contraband and conditional contraband were
published, such materials as rubber and copper and petroleum have
developed entirely new uses in war. The British simply will not let
Germany import them. Nothing that can be used for war purposes in
Germany now will be used for anything else. Representatives of
Spain, Holland, and all the Scandinavian states agree that they can
do nothing but acquiesce and file protests and claims, and they
admit that Great Britain has the right to revise the list of
contraband. This is not a war in the sense in which we have
hitherto used that word. It is a world-clash of systems of
government, a struggle to the extermination of English civilization
or of Prussian military autocracy. Precedents have gone to the
scrap heap. We have a new measure for military and diplomatic
action. Let us suppose that we press for a few rights to which the
shippers have a theoretical claim. The American people gain nothing
and the result is friction with this country; and that is what a
very small minority of the agitators in the United States would
like. Great Britain can any day close the Channel to all shipping
or can drive Holland to the enemy and blockade her ports.

Let us take a little farther view into the future. If Germany win,
will it make any difference what position Great Britain took on the
Declaration of London? The Monroe Doctrine will be shot through. We
shall have to have a great army and a great navy. But suppose that
England win. We shall then have an ugly academic dispute with her
because of this controversy. Moreover, we shall not hold a good
position for helping to compose the quarrel or for any other

The present controversy seems here, where we are close to the
struggle, academic. It seems to us a petty matter when it is
compared with the grave danger we incur of shutting ourselves off
from a position to be of some service to civilization and to the
peace of mankind.

In Washington you seem to be indulging in a more or less
theoretical discussion. As we see the issue here, it is a matter of
life and death for English-speaking civilization. It is not a happy
time to raise controversies that can be avoided or postponed. We
gain nothing, we lose every chance for useful coöperation for
peace. In jeopardy also are our friendly relations with Great
Britain in the sorest need and the greatest crisis in her history.
I know that this is the correct view. I recommend most earnestly
that we shall substantially accept the new Order in Council or
acquiesce in it and reserve whatever rights we may have. I
recommend prompt information be sent to the British Government of
such action. I should like to inform Grey that this is our

So far as our neutrality obligations are concerned, I do not
believe that they require us to demand that Great Britain should
adopt for our benefit the Declaration of London. Great Britain has
never ratified it, nor have any other nations except the United
States. In its application to the situation presented by this war
it is altogether to the advantage of Germany.

I have delayed to write you this way too long. I have feared that I
might possibly seem to be influenced by sympathy with England and
by the atmosphere here. But I write of course solely with reference
to our own country's interest and its position after the
reorganization of Europe.

Anderson[92] and Laughlin[93] agree with me emphatically.



The immediate cause of this protest was, as its context shows, the fact
that the State Department was insisting that Great Britain should adopt
the Declaration of London as a code of law for regulating its warfare on
German shipping. Hostilities had hardly started when Mr. Bryan made this
proposal; his telegram on this subject is dated August 7, 1914. "You
will further state," said Mr. Bryan, "that this Government believes that
the acceptance of these laws by the belligerents would prevent grave
misunderstandings which may arise as to the relations between
belligerents and neutrals. It therefore hopes that this inquiry may
receive favourable consideration." At the same time Germany and the
other belligerents were asked to adopt this Declaration.

The communication was thus more than a suggestion; it was a
recommendation that was strongly urged. According to Page this telegram
was the first great mistake the American Government made in its
relations with Great Britain. In September, 1916, the Ambassador
submitted to President Wilson a memorandum which he called "Rough notes
toward an explanation of the British feeling toward the United States."
"Of recent years," he said, "and particularly during the first year of

Online LibraryBurton Jesse HendrickThe Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I → online text (page 27 of 32)