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

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its success was regarded as inevitable. Page had an opportunity to
observe the state of optimism which prevailed in high British circles.
In March of 1915 he was visiting the Prime Minister at Walmer Castle;
one afternoon Mr. Asquith took him aside, informed him of the
Dardanelles preparations and declared that the Allies would have
possession of Constantinople in two weeks. The Prime Minister's attitude
was not one of hope; it was one of confidence. The capture of
Constantinople, of course, would have brought an early success to the
allied army on all fronts[108]. This was the mood that was spurring on
the British public to its utmost exertions, and, with such a
determination prevailing everywhere, a step in the direction of peace
was the last thing that the British desired; such a step could have been
interpreted only as an attempt to deprive the Allies of their victory
and as an effort to assist Germany in escaping the consequences of her
crimes. Combined with this stout popular resolve, however, there was a
lack of confidence in the Asquith ministry. An impression was broadcast
that it was pacifist, even "defeatist," in its thinking, and that it
harboured a weak humanitarianism which was disposed to look gently even
upon the behaviour of the Prussians. The masses suspected that the
ministry would welcome a peace with Germany which would mean little more
than a cessation of hostilities and which would leave the great problems
of the war unsolved. That this opinion was unjust, that, on the
contrary, the British Foreign Office was steadily resisting all attempts
to end the war on an unsatisfactory basis, Page's correspondence,
already quoted, abundantly proves, but this unreasoning belief did
prevail and it was an important factor in the situation. This is the
reason why the British Cabinet regarded Colonel House's visit at that
time with positive alarm. It feared that, should the purpose become
known, the British public and press would conclude that the Government
had invited a peace discussion. Had any such idea seized the popular
mind in February and March, 1915, a scandal would have developed which
would probably have caused the downfall of the Asquith Ministry. "Don't
fool yourself about peace," Page writes to his son Arthur, about this
time. "If any one should talk about peace, or doves, or ploughshares
here, they'd shoot him."

Colonel House reached London early in February and was soon in close
consultation with the Prime Minister and Sir Edward Grey. He made a
great personal success; the British statesmen gained a high regard for
his disinterestedness and his general desire to serve the cause of
decency among nations; but he made little progress in his peace plans,
simply because the facts were so discouraging and so impregnable. Sir
Edward repeated to him what he had already said to Page many times: that
Great Britain was prepared to discuss a peace that would really
safeguard the future of Europe, but was not prepared to discuss one that
would merely reinstate the régime that had existed before 1914. The fact
that the Germans were not ready to accept such a peace made discussion
useless. Disappointed at this failure, Colonel House left for Berlin.
His letters to Page show that the British judgment of Germany was not
unjust and that the warnings which Page had sent to Washington were
based on facts:

_From Edward M. House_
Embassy of the United States of America,
Berlin, Germany,
March 20, 1915.


I arrived yesterday morning and I saw Zimmermann[109] almost
immediately. He was very cordial and talked to me frankly and

I tried to bring about a better feeling toward England, and told
him how closely their interests touched at certain points. I also
told him of the broad way in which Sir Edward was looking at the
difficult problems that confronted Europe, and I expressed the hope
that this view would be reciprocated elsewhere, so that, when the
final settlement came, it could be made in a way that would be to
the advantage of mankind.

The Chancellor is out of town for a few days and I shall see him
when he returns. I shall also see Ballin, Von Gwinner, and many
others. I had lunch yesterday with Baron von Wimpsch who is a very
close friend of the Emperor.

Zimmermann said that it was impossible for them to make any peace
overtures, and he gave me to understand that, for the moment, even
what England would perhaps consent to now, could not be accepted by
Germany, to say nothing of what France had in mind.

I shall hope to establish good relations here and then go somewhere
and await further developments. I even doubt whether more can be
done until some decisive military result is obtained by one or
other of the belligerents.

I will write further if there is any change in the situation. I
shall probably be here until at least the 27th.

Faithfully yours,

_From Edward M. House_
Embassy of the United States of America,
Berlin, Germany.
March 26, 1915.


While I have accomplished here much that is of value, yet I leave
sadly disappointed that no direct move can be made toward peace.

The Civil Government are ready, and upon terms that would at least
make an opening. There is also a large number in military and naval
circles that I believe would be glad to begin parleys, but the
trouble is mainly with the people. It is a very dangerous thing to
permit a people to be misled and their minds inflamed either by the
press, by speeches, or otherwise.

In my opinion, no government could live here at this time if peace
was proposed upon terms that would have any chance of acceptance.
Those in civil authority that I have met are as reasonable and
fairminded as their counterparts in England or America, but, for
the moment, they are impotent.

I hear on every side the old story that all Germany wants is a
permanent guaranty of peace, so that she may proceed upon her
industrial career undisturbed.

I have talked of the second convention[110], and it has been
cordially received, and there is a sentiment here, as well as
elsewhere, to make settlement upon lines broad enough to prevent a
recurrence of present conditions.

There is much to tell you verbally, which I prefer not to write.

Faithfully yours,

Colonel House's next letter is most important, for it records the birth
of that new idea which afterward became a ruling thought with President
Wilson and the cause of almost endless difficulties in his dealings with
Great Britain. The "new phase of the situation" to which he refers is
"the Freedom of the Seas" and this brief note to Page, dated March 27,
1915, contains the first reference to this idea on record. Indeed, it is
evident from the letter itself that Colonel House made this notation the
very day the plan occurred to him.

_From Edward M. House_
Embassy of the United States of America,
Berlin, Germany.
March 27, 1915.


I have had a most satisfactory talk with the Chancellor. After
conferring with Stovall[111], Page[112], and Willard[113], I shall
return to Paris and then to London to discuss with Sir Edward a
phase of the situation which promises results.

I did not think of it until to-day and have mentioned it to both
the Chancellor and Zimmermann, who have received it cordially, and
who join me in the belief that it may be the first thread to bridge
the chasm.

I am writing hastily, for the pouch is waiting to be closed.

Faithfully yours,

The "freedom of the seas" was merely a proposal to make all merchant
shipping, enemy and neutral, free from attack in time of war. It would
automatically have ended all blockades and all interference with
commerce. Germany would have been at liberty to send all her merchant
ships to sea for undisturbed trade with all parts of the world in war
time as in peace, and, in future, navies would be used simply for
fighting. Offensively, their purpose would be to bombard enemy
fortifications, to meet enemy ships in battle, and to convoy ships which
were transporting troops for the invasion of enemy soil; defensively,
their usefulness would consist in protecting the homeland from such
attacks and such invasions. Perhaps an argument can be made for this new
rule of warfare, but it is at once apparent that it is the most
startling proposal brought forth in modern times in the direction of
disarmament. It meant that Great Britain should abandon that agency of
warfare with which she had destroyed Napoleon, and with which she
expected to destroy Germany in the prevailing struggle - the blockade.
From a defensive standpoint, Colonel House's proposed reform would have
been a great advantage to Britain, for an honourable observance of the
rule would have insured the British people its food supply in wartime.
With Great Britain, however, the blockade has been historically an
offensive measure: it is the way in which England has always made war.
Just what reception this idea would have had with official London, in
April, 1915, had Colonel House been able to present it as his own
proposal, is not clear, but the Germans, with characteristic stupidity,
prevented the American from having a fair chance. The Berlin Foreign
Office at once cabled to Count Bernstorff and Bernhard Dernburg - the
latter a bovine publicity agent who was then promoting the German cause
in the American press - with instructions to start a "propaganda" in
behalf of the "freedom of the seas." By the time Colonel House reached
London, therefore, these four words had been adorned with the Germanic
label. British statesmen regarded the suggestion as coming from Germany
and not from America, and the reception was worse than cold.

And another tragedy now roughly interrupted President Wilson's attempts
at mediation. Page's letters have disclosed that he possessed almost a
clairvoyant faculty of foreseeing approaching events. The letters of the
latter part of April and of early May contain many forebodings of
tragedy. "Peace? Lord knows when!" he writes to his son Arthur on May
2nd. "The blowing up of a liner with American passengers may be the
prelude. I almost expect such a thing." And again on the same date: "If
a British liner full of American passengers be blown up, what will Uncle
Sam do? That's what's going to happen." "We all have the feeling here,"
the Ambassador writes on May 6th, "that more and more frightful things
are about to happen."

The ink on those words was scarcely dry when a message from Queenstown
was handed to the American Ambassador. A German submarine had torpedoed
and sunk the _Lusitania_ off the Old head of Kinsale, and one hundred
and twenty-four American men, women, and children had been drowned.


[Footnote 100: On September 5, 1914, Great Britain, France, and Russia
signed the Pact of London, an agreement which bound the three powers of
the Entente to make war and peace as a unit. Each power specifically
pledged itself not to make a separate peace.]

[Footnote 101: Published in Chapter XI, page 327.]

[Footnote 102: Colonel House's summer home in Massachusetts.]

[Footnote 103: Ambassador from Austria-Hungary to the United States.]

[Footnote 104: This, with certain modifications is Article 10 of the
Covenant of the League of Nations.]

[Footnote 105: There is a suggestion of these provisions in Article 8 of
the League Covenant.]

[Footnote 106: Article 11 of the League Covenant reflects the influence
of this idea.]

[Footnote 107: From the President's second message to Congress, December
8, 1914: "It is our dearest present hope that this character and
reputation may presently, in God's providence, bring us an opportunity,
such as has seldom been vouchsafed any nation, to counsel and obtain
peace in the world and reconciliation and a healing settlement of many a
matter that has cooled and interrupted the friendship of nations."]

[Footnote 108: The opening of the Dardanelles would have given Russian
agricultural products access to the markets of the world and thus have
preserved the Russian economic structure. It would also have enabled the
Entente to munition the Russian Army. With a completely equipped Russian
Army in the East and the Entente Army in the West, Germany could not
long have survived the pressure.]

[Footnote 109: German Under Foreign Secretary.]

[Footnote 110: It was the Wilson Administration's plan that there should
be two peace gatherings, one of the belligerents to settle the war, and
the other of belligerents and neutrals, to settle questions of general
importance growing out of the war. This latter is what Colonel House
means by "the second convention."]

[Footnote 111: Mr. Pleasant A. Stovall, American Minister to

[Footnote 112: Mr. Thomas Nelson Page, American Ambassador to Italy.]

[Footnote 113: Mr. Joseph E. Willard. American Ambassador to Spain.]

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