December 22, 1914

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” What Rumsfeld said in bureaucratese, Robert Burns said more poetically: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” For the belligerents, squaring their reasons for embarking upon this war meant reconciling 1,616,015 casualties during August, September, October, and November of 1914 with both of these sentiments. Only a few of the handful of politicians and generals who made those fatal decisions in July understood that the reality of this war could be expressed in terms of 400,000 casualties a month in a war that would last 53 months.

As events go pear shaped, the ability to accept responsibility turns to finger-pointing in direct relation to the decision-maker’s proximity to the decision. President Truman’s “the buck stops here” is not a principle to be found among those whose decisions triggered having to contemplate 1,616,015 casualties after only four months of a war for which none could see a light at the end of the tunnel. (to use an expression from the Viet Nam war)

The blame game would corrupt the debate and each side would use the horrors of the reality to enflame support for their side. As Les McCann sang in “Compared to What:”

The President’s got his war,
Most people don’t know what it’s for.
If you have half of one doubt they call it treason.
Stormy clouds march across the sky and still the people cry
And the people die without rhyme or reason.

The Capital Journal reported how German Grand Admiral Von Tirpitz viewed the course of the war’s first months. I am printing the entire interview as it effectively frames the German argument for the war. “Framing” is a late Twentieth Century concept associated with George Lakoff. Frames are the mental structures that allow humans to understand reality, and if done well, to create what we see to be real. Von Tirpitz’ interview frames how Germans came to understand the war, thus shaping how the reasoned about the war, at the time, and especially after 1918.

Says England’s Supremacy at Sea was Founded on Piracy, on Land, on Robbery
“England Is Impartial – It Will Cut the Throat of Any Who Get In Its Way”

By Karl H. Von Wiegand

“The United States raised no voice of protest and has taken little or no action against the closing of the North sea by Great Britain to neutral shipping. What will the United States say if Germany declares a submarine war on all the enemy’s merchant ships?”

Grand Admiral Von Tirpitz, German minister of marine and regarded as the strongest man in the kaiser’s government possibly next to the imperial chancellor . . . peered sharply at me as he leaned forward and put this question to me at the first interview he ever granted to an American correspondent.

To Bottle Up England

“Why not?” he continued. “Great Britain wants to starve us. We can play the same game. We can bottle England up by torpedoing every British or allied ship which nears any English harbor, thereby cutting off the island’s large food supplies.

Then the admiral slowly repeated his first question.

“What would the United States say?” he asked again. “Would not such action be only meting out to Great Britain what Great Britain is doing to us? Yes.” [This is a question the United States would be forced to answer in the coming months, reaching a crescendo with the sinking of the Lusitania at the beginning of May]

Causes of the War

He plunged immediately into an analysis, according to his views, of the causes which led to the war, tracing the growth of the sea and world power developed by Great Britain until, as he put it, the “domineering arrogance of the British culminated in the present conflict, which they engineered in order to crush the natural growth and development of the power of the German empire.

“Great Britain’s domination of the sea,” he declared, “originally was founded on piracy, while its power on land was established by robbery in all parts of the world.

“England alone was responsible for this war.

“Did Germany want anything? Did Germany make any demands upon any one? Did Germany have any quarrel with any one?

“No. Germany only wanted to be let alone, to continue its peaceful growth and development.

“England’s anti-German policy dates back as far as 1870, after our victory over France.

“Always dictatorial and domineering, England did not want Germany to expand commercially or to take the place in the world to which its power entitled it.

An Impartial Assassin

“England is impartial. It will cut the throat of anyone who gets in its way.

“It has no white man’s scruples. Its alliance with Japan shows that. It will form an alliance with anyone, regardless of race or color, if it can profit by it.

“Germany was developing too fast, was growing too strong, and powerful, was getting in England’s way. So its throat had to be cut.

“That’s it, in a nut shell.

“King Edward VII, laid plans for it years ago. He had an explicable antipathy to Germany. He looked about and seized upon the growing Pan-Slav movement in the east and ‘revanche’ idea in the west as his means.

“England thereupon formed an alliance with the yellow race in the Orient with the Russian barbarians in eastern Europe, and in the west with the French, who were unable to shake themselves lose from their obsession of the ‘revanche.’

Militarism or Marineism

“Thus situated between walls of Pan-Slavism on one side and of ‘revanche’ on the other, and with England dominating the sea, Germany was to be crushed, to be put back into the place assigned to it by England.

“With these means, England set out to destroy and crush Germany and all Germany stands for, and it has the audacity to proclaim to the world that, in crushing Germany, England and its allies – Russian Tartars, Japanese, Hindus, Senegalese, Tureos and all the rest- are fighting for the holiest, highest ideals of civilization.

“Does the world really believe this?”

“The impression abroad,” I remark the admiral. “That’s a question you Americans have to meet and face, with us as onlookers.”

Then he straightened up. Pointing his finger at me, he said quietly:

“I meant that in jest – that we would be onlookers. That would depend on circumstances.

“One thing I will say – German would never abandon the white race.

“Japan will make china its vassal and militarize its millions. Then it will be for your country to look out.

“Admiral Togo once told a European that next would come a general European, and then a great war in which his race would be against ours.”

Great Britain’s act in bringing Japan into the present conflict, Admiral Tirpitz holds to be high treason in the white race. It is inexplicable to him that Americans can view with apparent indifference Japanese activity in the Pacific. He spoke in tones of deep sadness, bordering on bitterness, as he dwelt on the American attitude toward the war.


. . . I asked Admiral Von Tirpitz how long the struggle might last.

“That depends upon England,” was his reply. “It is said England wants the war to the hilt. If England insists upon that, we can accommodate her, but there are some who still hope England will be sensible and listen to reason.”

The word “sensible: struck me as significant, and I asked:

“Is your excellency one of those who have this hope that England will be sensible and listen to reason?”

“Do you believe that England will be sensible?” countered the admiral.

“That depends,” I rejoined, “upon what your excellency may mean by the word ‘sensible.’ If you mean as an inclination upon England’s part to accept an early and easily adjusted peace, I am not optimistic.”

The interview went on to discuss the Admiral’s assessment of the U.S. Navy, the ability of Germany to continue to fight, and the role of Japan in a future conflict in the Pacific.

The editorial in the Oregon Statesman sought to address the issue of neutrality. Neutrality as a matter of foreign policy precluded the nation taking sides or in any way favoring one belligerent over another. At the individual level the editorial submits that it is our responsibility as citizens to be informed and to frame our opinions based upon the evidence.


We are a genuinely neutral nation. We are neutral in our diplomacy and our commerce. We are neutral in our national attitude toward the war, in the sense that we started with no prejudice for or against any nation, and we are still open minded enough to permit our opinions to be shaped by events.

Our wise and proper public neutrality naturally imposes silence regarding war topics on all official representatives of the government. But it is a peculiar interpretation of neutrality that would seek to interfere with either the formation or the expression of opinion on the part of any private citizen.

Thought and speech are free in this country. Any citizen has the right to form his own judgments about public affairs and public officials, and to express them without hindrance as long as he does so decently. We are not afraid of ideas. We have no fear of logic or criticism applied to our own domestic affairs. Why should we hesitate to look facts in the face when those facts have to do with foreign nations whose conduct and ideals intimately concern our own interests?

Charles W. Eliot, president emeritus of Harvard university, pronounces the war the greatest catastrophe that has ever befallen the human race. Other scholars call it the greatest crime of history. It is now, and may long continue, the most important event in the world. Nothing within the experience of living men has been so fraught with vital import for the destiny of the race. The problem of warfare, the most insistent of all the problems of civilization, is now being worked out before our eyes – and worked out just as effectually within our own minds. No man or woman of intelligence can help pondering on the war, seeking for its causes, watching its progress, speculating on its results, and assigning praiser blame to the statesmen and nations involved. And no person who thinks deeply and feels deeply can help giving expression now and then to his opinions.

It would be cowardice, rather than praiseworthy neutrality, for individual Americans to shut their eye and close their minds to the moral consideration involved. Every citizen owes it to himself to think about the war with all the clearness and concentration at his command. He owes it also to his country and to the world; for nothing but a great volume of clear thought can put a stop to war.

The more definite opinions we hold, and the more clearly and powerfully we are able to express them as individuals and as a nation whenever opportunity serves, the more we shall justify our citizenship and the more we shall be able to do for humanity.

The Capital Journal’s lead editorial addressed Patriotism. Though the editorial does not quote Samuel Johnson’s observation that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” it does, as did Johnson, criticize false patriotism:


A false patriotism, which always has prevailed, is the real basis for the present war, as it has been of most others.

What we call patriotism, and which we are accustomed to idealize as one of the noblest qualities, began in the patriarchal family, extended to the tribe, and broadened to the nation; and this is as far as it has gone.

The patriotism which is bounded by national border lines, while often calling forth almost godlike devotion, is in reality one of the narrowest and cruelest forces in the world. It is the cause not only of most wars, but of constant jealousies and enmities; and it is one of the greatest obstacles to broader human progress.

Patriotism, as fostered by governments, is a monster that must now and then be fed with human blood lest he perish from lack of sustenance, and must be kept drunk on hates lest he come to his senses.

The youngest, the bravest, the best, dying by countless thousands – for what? They do not know. They have only the shibboleth, “Patriotism.”

Such patriotism is worse than a failure. Civilization is having a hard time these days trying to appear consistent and logical and to read God’s mind. Each nation reads His mind and interprets His will in a different way, according to the different nations’ selfish desires and jealousies.

Who knows whether God is laughing at the maddened millions of insane murderers, or weeping with the wives and children at home? In any event, He knows that such patriotism is a mockery and a delusion and a snare.

This great war will not have been in vain, if it results in broadening patriotism beyond national border lines and making it stand for high principle instead of the selfish interests of communities. Many believe that this will be the last great war. If so, it will be by reason of tremendous change in the character of patriotism.


About whclarc

We are devoted to providing information fresh from the Archives, Library and Collections of the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, Oregon. We specialize in the history of Marion County and the greater Salem area.
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