February 8, 1915

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

“False flags,” that favorite term of conspiracy theorists, was the maritime equivalent of the childhood “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and did raise concerns with the U.S. government. It is a crime to impersonate a peace officer, a member of the military, and of appropriating awards to which one is not entitled be they graduate theses, or professional credentials. Two articles in the Capital Journal address the improper use of the stars and stripes.


Senator Stone, of Missouri, chairman of the senate foreign relations committee, after a conference with President Wilson, indicated today that Great Britain probably would be asked within a few days to furnish the United States government all the facts regarding the use of the American flag by the liner Lusitania on a recent trans-Atlantic trip.

J.W.T. Mason describes the use of neutral flags by belligerents:

Ruse of Neutral Flag Old Plan To Deceive Enemy on the Seas

All nations of the world use neutral flags on the seas as a ruse to deceive the enemy. There is nothing new in the idea. It is old as naval sea fighting itself, and no nation will put itself on record in peace times as condemning the practice because that very nation may want to use the same device when its own war comes. Because neutral flags have been misused has never been held a reason for the indiscriminate sinking of any ship flying neutral colors. Civilized methods of warfare provide for search of a neutral merchantman to determine its character, if a belligerent has reason to suspect its good faith. If a search cannot be made, then the merchantman must be allied togo her way.

The only alternative is to risk war with the nation to which the neutral vessel belongs. As a strategic move, this task might be taken and exceptional conditions, if the belligerent had reason to believe that the neutral nation would not fight for the preservation of its merchant marine.

The rules of war permit belligerent sips to halt a neutral vessel on the high seas for investigation, but no rule can justify firing a torpedo first and investigating afterward. The limitations on the offensive power of submarines do not change the circumstances. What a submarine cannot accomplish by legitimate [means] must be abandoned just as civilized nations no longer poison an enemy’s water supply.

The captain of a liner using a neutral flag to protect his civilian passengers and crew from death cannot be censored under any provision in international law. If a ship were dangerously near an iceberg and if there were some magnetic quality of a foreign flag which might prevent disaster, the captain would not hesitate to fly it. Under an other circumstance of danger, the preceding would be the same. It is improbable that anything short of desperation would ever cause one of the great powers actually to break the law.


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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