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

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the present Administration, the British feeling toward the United States
was most friendly and cordial. About the time of the repeal of the
tolls clause in the Panama Act, the admiration and friendliness of the
whole British public (governmental and private) reached the highest
point in our history. In considering the change that has taken place
since, it is well to bear this cordiality in mind as a starting point.
When the war came on there was at first nothing to change this attitude.
The hysterical hope of many persons that our Government might protest
against the German invasion of Belgium caused some feeling of
disappointment, but thinking men did not share it; and, if this had been
the sole cause of criticism of us, the criticism would have died out.
The unusually high regard in which the President - and hence our
Government - was then held was to a degree new. The British had for many
years held the people of the United States in high esteem: they had not,
as a rule, so favourably regarded the Government at Washington,
especially in its conduct of foreign relations. They had long regarded
our Government as ignorant of European affairs and amateurish in its
cockiness. When I first got to London I found evidence of this feeling,
even in the most friendly atmosphere that surrounded us. Mr. Bryan was
looked on as a joke. They forgot him - rather, they never took serious
notice of him. But, when the Panama tolls incident was closed, they
regarded the President as his own Foreign Secretary; and thus our
Government as well as our Nation came into this high measure of esteem.

"The war began. We, of course, took a neutral attitude, wholly to their
satisfaction. But we at once interfered - or tried to interfere - by
insisting on the Declaration of London, which no Great Power but the
United States (I think) had ratified and which the British House of
Lords had distinctly rejected. That Declaration would probably have
given a victory to Germany if the Allies had adopted it. In spite of
our neutrality we insisted vigorously on its adoption and aroused a
distrust in our judgment. Thus we started in wrong, so far as the
British Government is concerned."

The rules of maritime warfare which the American State Department so
disastrously insisted upon were the direct outcome of the Hague
Conference of 1907. That assembly of the nations recognized, what had
long been a palpable fact, that the utmost confusion existed in the
operations of warring powers upon the high seas. About the fundamental
principle that a belligerent had the right, if it had the power, to keep
certain materials of commerce from reaching its enemy, there was no
dispute. But as to the particular articles which it could legally
exclude there were as many different ideas as there were nations. That
the blockade, a term which means the complete exclusion of cargoes and
ships from an enemy's ports, was a legitimate means of warfare, was also
an accepted fact, but as to the precise means in which the blockade
could be enforced there was the widest difference of opinion. The Hague
Conference provided that an attempt should be made to codify these laws
into a fixed system, and the representatives of the nations met in
London in 1908, under the presidency of the Earl of Desart, for this
purpose. The outcome of their two months' deliberations was that
document of seven chapters and seventy articles which has ever since
been known as the Declaration of London. Here at last was the thing for
which the world had been waiting so long - a complete system of maritime
law for the regulation of belligerents and the protection of neutrals,
which would be definitely binding upon all nations because all nations
were expected to ratify it.

But the work of all these learned gentlemen was thrown away. The United
States was the only party to the negotiations that put the stamp of
approval upon its labours. All other nations declined to commit
themselves. In Great Britain the Declaration had an especially
interesting course. In that country it became a football of party
politics. The Liberal Government was at first inclined to look upon it
favourably; the Liberal House of Commons actually ratified it. It soon
became apparent, however, that this vote did not represent the opinion
of the British public. In fact, few measures have ever aroused such
hostility as this Declaration, once its details became known. For more
than a year the hubbub against it filled the daily press, the magazines,
the two Houses of Parliament and the hustings; Rudyard Kipling even
wrote a poem denouncing it. The adoption of the Declaration, these
critics asserted, would destroy the usefulness of the British fleet. In
many quarters it was denounced as a German plot - as merely a part of the
preparations which Germany was making for world conquest. The fact is
that the Declaration could not successfully stand the analysis to which
it was now mercilessly submitted; the House of Lords rejected it, and
this action met with more approbation than had for years been accorded
the legislative pronouncements of that chamber. The Liberal House of
Commons was not in the least dissatisfied with this conclusion, for it
realized that it had made a mistake and it was only too happy to be
permitted to forget it.

When the war broke out there was therefore no single aspect of maritime
law which was quite so odious as the Declaration of London. Great
Britain realized that she could never win unless her fleet were
permitted to keep contraband out of Germany and, if necessary,
completely to blockade that country. The two greatest conflicts of the
nineteenth century were the European struggle with Napoleon and the
American Civil War. In both the blockade had been the decisive element,
and that this great agency would similarly determine events in this even
greater struggle was apparent. What enraged the British public against
any suggestion of the Declaration was that it practically deprived Great
Britain of this indispensable means of weakening the enemy. In this
Declaration were drawn up lists of contraband, non-contraband, and
conditional contraband, and all of these, in English eyes, worked to the
advantage of Germany and against the advantage of Great Britain. How
absurd this classification was is evident from the fact that airplanes
were not listed as absolute contraband of war. Germany's difficulty in
getting copper was one of the causes of her collapse; yet the
Declaration put copper for ever on the non-contraband list; had this new
code been adopted, Germany could have imported enormous quantities from
this country, instead of being compelled to reinforce her scanty supply
by robbing housewives of their kitchen utensils, buildings of their
hardware, and church steeples of their bells. Germany's constant
scramble for rubber formed a diverting episode in the struggle; there
are indeed few things so indispensable in modern warfare; yet the
Declaration included rubber among the innocent articles and thus opened
up to Germany the world's supply. But the most serious matter was that
the Declaration would have prevented Great Britain from keeping
foodstuffs out of the Fatherland.

When Mr. Bryan, therefore, blandly asked Great Britain to accept the
Declaration as its code of maritime warfare, he was asking that country
to accept a document which Great Britain, in peace time, had repudiated
and which would, in all probability, have caused that country to lose
the war. The substance of this request was bad enough, but the language
in which it was phrased made matters much worse. It appears that only
the intervention of Colonel House prevented the whole thing from
becoming a tragedy.

_From Edward M. House_
115 East 53rd Street,
New York City.
October 3, 1914.


The American Ambassador, London, England.


. . . I have just returned from Washington where I was with the
President for nearly four days. He is looking well and is well.
Sometimes his spirits droop, but then, again, he is his normal

I had the good fortune to be there at a time when the discussion of
the Declaration of London had reached a critical stage. Bryan was
away and Lansing, who had not mentioned the matter to Sir
Cecil[94], prepared a long communication to you which he sent to
the President for approval. The President and I went over it and I
strongly urged not sending it until I could have a conference with
Sir Cecil. I had this conference the next day without the knowledge
of any one excepting the President, and had another the day
following. Sir Cecil told me that if the dispatch had gone to you
as written and you had shown it to Sir Edward Grey, it would almost
have been a declaration of war; and that if, by any chance, the
newspapers had got hold of it as they so often get things from our
State Department, the greatest panic would have prevailed. He said
it would have been the Venezuela incident magnified by present

At the President's suggestion, Lansing then prepared a cablegram
to you. This, too, was objectionable and the President and I
together softened it down into the one you received.

Faithfully yours,

In justice to Mr. Lansing, a passage in a later letter of Colonel House
must be quoted: "It seems that Lansing did not write the particular
dispatch to you that was objected to. Someone else prepared it and
Lansing rather too hastily submitted it to the President, with the
result you know."

This suppressed communication is probably for ever lost, but its tenor
may perhaps be gathered from instructions which were actually sent to
the Ambassador about this time. After eighteen typewritten pages of not
too urbanely expressed discussion of the Declaration of London and the
general subject of contraband, Page was instructed to call the British
Government's attention to the consequences which followed shipping
troubles in previous times. It is hard to construe this in any other way
than as a threat to Great Britain of a repetition of 1812:

_Confidential_. You will not fail to impress upon His
Excellency[95] the gravity of the issues which the enforcement of
the Order in Council seems to presage, and say to him in substance
as follows:

It is a matter of grave concern to this Government that the
particular conditions of this unfortunate war should be considered
by His Britannic Majesty's Government to be such as to justify them
in advancing doctrines and advocating practices which in the past
aroused strong opposition on the part of the Government of the
United States, and bitter feeling among the American people. This
Government feels bound to express the fear, though it does so
reluctantly, that the publicity, which must be given to the rules
which His Majesty's Government announce that they intend to
enforce, will awaken memories of controversies, which it is the
earnest desire of the United States to forget or to pass over in
silence. . . .

Germany, of course, promptly accepted the Declaration, for the
suggestion fitted in perfectly with her programme; but Great Britain was
not so acquiescent. Four times was Page instructed to ask the British
Government to accede unconditionally, and four times did the Foreign
Office refuse. Page was in despair. In the following letter he notified
Colonel House that if he were instructed again to move in this matter he
would resign his ambassadorship.

_To Edward M. House_
American Embassy, London,
October 22, 1914.


This is about the United States and England. Lets get that settled
before we try our hands at making peace in Europe.

One of our greatest assets is the friendship of Great Britain, and
our friendship is a still bigger asset for her, and she knows it
and values it. Now, if either country should be damfool enough to
throw this away because old Stone[96] roars in the Senate about
something that hasn't happened, then this crazy world would be
completely mad all round, and there would be no good-will left on
earth at all.

The case is plain enough to me. England is going to keep
war-materials out of Germany as far as she can. We'd do it in her
place. Germany would do it. Any nation would do it. That's all she
has declared her intention of doing. And, if she be let alone,
she'll do it in a way to give us the very least annoyance possible;
for she'll go any length to keep our friendship and good will. And
_she has not confiscated a single one of our cargoes even of
unconditional contraband_. She has stopped some of them and bought
them herself, but confiscated not one. All right; what do we do? We
set out on a comprehensive plan to regulate the naval warfare of
the world and we up and ask 'em all, "Now, boys, all be good, damn
you, and agree to the Declaration of London."

"Yah," says Germany, "if England will."

Now Germany isn't engaged in naval warfare to count, and she never
even paid the slightest attention to the Declaration all these
years. But she saw that it would hinder England and help her now,
by forbidding England to stop certain very important war materials
from reaching Germany. "Yah," said Germany. But England said that
her Parliament had rejected the Declaration in times of peace and
that she could now hardly be expected to adopt it in the face of
this Parliamentary rejection. But, to please us, she agreed to
adopt it with only two changes.

Then Lansing to the bat:

"No, no," says Lansing, "you've got to adopt it all."

Four times he's made me ask for its adoption, the last time coupled
with a proposition that if England would adopt it, she might issue
a subsequent proclamation saying that, since the Declaration is
contradictory, she will construe it her own way, and the United
States will raise no objection!

Then he sends eighteen pages of fine-spun legal arguments (not all
sound by any means) against the sections of the English
proclamations that have been put forth, giving them a strained and
unfriendly interpretation.

In a word, England has acted in a friendly way to us and will so
act, if we allow her. But Lansing, instead of trusting to her good
faith and reserving all our rights under international law and
usage, imagines that he can force her to agree to a code that the
Germans now agree to because, in Germany's present predicament, it
will be especially advantageous to Germany. Instead of trusting
her, he assumes that she means to do wrong and proceeds to try to
bind her in advance. He hauls her up and tries her in court - that's
his tone.

Now the relations that I have established with Sir Edward Grey have
been built up on frankness, fairness and friendship. I can't have
relations of any other sort nor can England and the United States
have relations of any other sort. This is the place we've got to
now. Lansing seems to assume that the way to an amicable agreement
is through an angry controversy.

Lansing's method is the trouble. He treats Great Britain, to start
with, as if she were a criminal and an opponent. That's the best
way I know to cause trouble to American shipping and to bring back
the good old days of mutual hatred and distrust for a generation or
two. If that isn't playing into the hands of the Germans, what
would be? And where's the "neutrality" of this kind of action?

See here: If we let England go on, we can throw the whole
responsibility on her and reserve all our rights under
international law and usage and claim damages (and get 'em) for
every act of injury, if acts of injury occur; and we can keep her
friendship and good-will. Every other neutral nation is doing that.
Or we can insist on regulating all naval warfare and have a quarrel
and refer it to a Bryan-Peace-Treaty Commission and claim at most
the selfsame damages with a less chance to get 'em. We can get
damages without a quarrel; or we can have a quarrel and probably
get damages. Now, why, in God's name, should we provoke a quarrel?

The curse of the world is little men who for an imagined small
temporary advantage throw away the long growth of good-will
nurtured by wise and patient men and who cannot see the lasting and
far greater future evil they do. Of all the years since 1776 this
great war-year is the worst to break the 100 years of our peace, or
even to ruffle it. I pray you, good friend, get us out of these
incompetent lawyer-hands.

Now about the peace of Europe. Nothing can yet be done, perhaps
nothing now can ever be done by us. The Foreign Office doubts our
wisdom and prudence since Lansing came into action. The whole
atmosphere is changing. One more such move and they will conclude
that Dernburg and Bernstorff have seduced us - without our knowing
it, to be sure; but their confidence in our judgment will be gone.
God knows I have tried to keep this confidence intact and our good
friendship secure. But I have begun to get despondent over the
outlook since the President telegraphed me that Lansing's proposal
would settle the matter. I still believe he did not understand
it - he couldn't have done so. Else he could not have approved it.
But that tied my hands. If Lansing again brings up the Declaration
of London - after four flat and reasonable rejections - I shall
resign. I will not be the instrument of a perfectly gratuitous and
ineffective insult to this patient and fair and friendly
government and people who in my time have done us many kindnesses
and never an injury but Carden[97], and who sincerely try now to
meet our wishes. It would be too asinine an act ever to merit
forgiveness or ever to be forgotten. I should blame myself the rest
of my life. It would grieve Sir Edward more than anything except
this war. It would knock the management of foreign affairs by this
Administration into the region of sheer idiocy. I'm afraid any
peace talk from us, as it is, would merely be whistling down the
wind. If we break with England - not on any case or act of violence
to our shipping - but on a useless discussion, in advance, of
general principles of conduct during the war - just for a
discussion - we've needlessly thrown away our great chance to be of
some service to this world gone mad. If Lansing isn't stopped,
that's what he will do. Why doesn't the President see Spring Rice?
Why don't you take him to see him?

Good night, my good friend. I still have hope that the President
himself will take this in hand.

Yours always,

The letters and the cablegrams which Page was sending to Colonel House
and the State Department at this time evidently ended the matter. By the
middle of October the two nations were fairly deadlocked. Sir Edward
Grey's reply to the American proposal had been an acceptance of the
Declaration of London with certain modifications. For the list of
contraband in the Declaration he had submitted the list already adopted
by Great Britain in its Order in Council, and he had also rejected that
article which made it impossible for Great Britain to apply the
doctrine of "continuous voyage" to conditional contraband. The modified
acceptance, declared Mr. Lansing, was a practical rejection - as of
course it was, and as it was intended to be. So the situation remained
for several exciting weeks, the State Department insisting on the
Declaration in full, precisely as the legal luminaries had published it
five years before, the Foreign Office courteously but inflexibly
refusing to accede. Only the cordial personal relations which prevailed
between Grey and Page prevented the crisis from producing the most
disastrous results. Finally, on October 17th, Page proposed by cable an
arrangement which he hoped would settle the matter. This was that the
King should issue a proclamation accepting the Declaration with
practically the modifications suggested above, and that a new Order in
Council should be issued containing a new list of contraband. Sir Edward
Grey was not to ask the American Government to accept this proclamation;
all that he asked was that Washington should offer no objections to it.
It was proposed that the United States at the same time should publish a
note withdrawing its suggestion for the adoption of the Declaration, and
explaining that it proposed to rest the rights of its citizens upon the
existing rules of international law and the treaties of the United
States. This solution was accepted. It was a defeat for Mr. Lansing, of
course, but he had no alternative. The relief that Page felt is shown in
the following memorandum, written soon after the tension had ceased:

* * * * *

"That insistence on the Declaration entire came near to upsetting the
whole kettle of fish. It put on me the task of insisting on a general
code - at a time when the fiercest war in history was every day becoming
fiercer and more desperate - which would have prevented the British from
putting on their contraband list several of the most important war
materials - accompanied by a proposal that would have angered every
neutral nation through which supplies can possibly reach Germany and
prevented this Government from making friendly working arrangements with
them; and, after Sir Edward Grey had flatly declined for these reasons,
I had to continue to insist. I confess it did look as if we were
determined to dictate to him how he should conduct the war - and in a way
that distinctly favoured the Germans.

"I presented every insistence; for I should, of course, not have been
excusable if I had failed in any case vigorously to carry out my
instructions. But every time I plainly saw matters getting worse and
worse; and I should have failed of my duty also if I had not so informed
the President and the Department. I can conceive of no more awkward
situation for an Ambassador or for any other man under Heaven. I turned
the whole thing over in my mind backward and forward a hundred times
every day. For the first time in this stress and strain, I lost my
appetite and digestion and did not know the day of the week nor what
month it was - seeing the two governments rushing toward a very serious
clash, which would have made my mission a failure and done the
Administration much hurt, and have sowed the seeds of bitterness for
generations to come.

"One day I said to Anderson (whose assistance is in many ways
invaluable): 'Of course nobody is infallible - least of all we. Is it
possible that we are mistaken? You and Laughlin and I, who are close to
it all, are absolutely agreed. But may there not be some important
element in the problem that we do not see? Summon and nurse every doubt
that you can possibly muster up of the correctness of our view, put
yourself on the defensive, recall every mood you may have had of the
slightest hesitation, and tell me to-morrow of every possible weak place
there may be in our judgment and conclusions.' The next day Anderson
handed me seventeen reasons why it was unwise to persist in this demand
for the adoption of the Declaration of London. Laughlin gave a similar
opinion. I swear I spent the night in searching every nook and corner of
my mind and I was of the same opinion the next morning. There was
nothing to do then but the most unwelcome double duty: (1) Of continuing
to carry out instructions, at every step making a bad situation worse
and running the risk of a rupture (which would be the only great crime
that now remains uncommitted in the world); and (2) of trying to
persuade our own Government that this method was the wrong method to
pursue. I know it is not my business to make policies, but I conceive it
to be my business to report when they fail or succeed. Now if I were
commanded to look throughout the whole universe for the most unwelcome
task a man may have, I think I should select this. But, after all, a man
has nothing but his own best judgment to guide him; and, if he follow

Online LibraryBurton Jesse HendrickThe Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, Volume I → online text (page 28 of 32)