February 10, 1915

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

Trade and the fate of neutral vessels affected Marion County. The consequences, fought out on the high seas of the Atlantic, began their journey in the Willamette Valley. We were in a global economy. We sold our produce to Europe and required European products as key elements in our local economy.

Readers who have been following this chronicle have observed that the early expectations of the conflict were quickly shattered (The Kaiser told his troops that they would be “… home before the leaves have fallen from the trees”). The maw of war demanded being fed more than soldiers and the United States was the largest potential reservoir of resources and material that could support either side and as a neutral, our neutrality required the country to sell to whomever sought to purchase our goods. The United States had experienced depressions and panics for the preceding three decades and, as in World War II, war provided a way out of the deflation the nation had been experiencing since 1870.

The refusal of Germany, and to a lesser extent Great Britain, to respect our expectations regarding the rights of neutral ships on the high seas helped to tip the balance toward war in 1917. A second factor, Germany’s offer of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Mexico in return for Mexico joining the Central Powers, also in 1917, was sufficient to bring us into the war.

On the tenth, the United States responded to the German announcement of February 4th of its intent to target shipping in the vicinity of Great Britain as follows:

The Government of the United State views those possibilities with such grave concern that it feels it to be its privilege, and, indeed, its duty, in the circumstances, to request the Imperial German Government to consider, before action is taken, the critical situation in respect of the relation between this country and Germany — which might arise were the German naval force, in carrying out the policy foreshadowed in the Admiralty’s proclamation, to destroy any merchant vessel of the United States or cause the death of American citizens.

This initial response, couched diplomatically, suggests that the German government may want to revisit its policy and to think about the consequences “which might arise were the German naval force . . to destroy any merchant vessel of the United States or cause the death of American citizens.” The note proceeds to set out how the United States interprets the rights of neutral shipping on the high seas, and that the United States has no intention of deviating from its reading of international law, suggesting that it is beyond belief that Germany could so misread maritime law and practice:

It is, of course, not necessary to remind the German Government that the sole right of a belligerent in dealing with neutral vessels on the high seas is limited to visit and search, unless a blockade is proclaimed and effectively maintained, which this Government does not understand to be proposed in this case. To declare or exercise a right to attack and destroy any vessel entering a prescribed area of the high seas without first certainly determining its belligerent nationality and the contraband character of its cargo would be an act so unprecedented in naval warfare that this government is reluctant to believe that the Imperial Government of Germany in this case contemplates it as possible.

The United States then tells the German government (again, diplomatically) that it cannot infer of the presence of contraband cargo on the basis of the flag a ship flies while traversing the newly declared prohibited zone:

The suspicion that enemy ships are using neutral flags improperly can create no just presumption that all ships traversing a prescribed area are subject to the same suspicion. It is to determine exactly such questions that this Government understands the right of visit and search to have been recognized.

The government then responds to the imputation that American vessels, flying the American flag may nonetheless be carrying contraband cargo.

This Government . . . takes this occasion to remind the Imperial German Government very respectfully that the Government of the United States is open to none of the criticisms for unneutral action to which the German Government believes the governments of certain other neutral nations have laid themselves open; that the Government of the United State has not consented to or acquiesced in any measures which may have been taken by the other belligerent nations in the present war which operate to restrain neutral trade, but has, on the contrary, taken in all such matters a position which warrants it in holding those governments responsible in the proper way for any untoward effects on American shipping which the accepted principles of international law do not justify; and that it, therefore, regards itself as free in the present instance to take with a clear conscience and upon accepted principles the position indicated in this note.

The note then politely tells Germany that sinking American shipping on the basis of belief rather than evidence will have consequences:

If the commanders of German vessels of war should act upon the presumption that the flag of the United States was not being used in good faith and should destroy on the high seas an American vessel or the lives of American citizens, it would be difficult for the Government of the United States to view the act in any other light than as an indefensible violation of neutral rights, which it would be very hard, indeed, to reconcile with the friendly relations now happily subsisting between the two governments.

If such a deplorable situation should arise, the Imperial German Government can readily appreciate that the Government of the United States would be constrained to hold the Imperial Government of Germany to a strict accountability for such acts of their naval authorities, and to take any steps it might be necessary to take to safeguard American lives and property and to secure to American citizens the full enjoyment of their acknowledged rights on the high seas.

The note concludes by suggesting what Germany intends must be some kind of mistake and that, but for the sake of consistency, a similar note has been given to the British:

The Government of the United States, in view of these considerations, which it urges with the sincere purpose of making sure that no misunderstandings may arise, and no circumstances occur, that might even cloud the intercourse of the two governments, expresses the confident hope and expectation that the Imperial German Government can and will give assurance that American citizens and their vessels will not be molested by the naval forces of Germany otherwise than by visit and search, though their vessels may be traversing the sea area delimited in the proclamation of the German Admiralty.

It is stated for the information of the Imperial Government that representations have been made to his Britannic Majesty’s Government in respect to the unwarranted use of the American flag for the protection of British ships.

“Collateral damage,” a concept (euphemism?) that entered the language during the Viet Nam war, was not new. In an article, “Zeppelin Defends Use of Aerial Bombs in War,” Karl Von Wiegand explains to readers the value judgments implicit in policies that result in the deaths of noncombatants:

“Does any one for a moment believe that England, in her determination to crush Germany by every means in her power, even attempting to starve women and children, would not use Zeppelins if she had them!”

It was Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, creator of Germany’s dreaded fleet of aerial battleships, who spoke. This was his answer to the protests raised by Germany’s enemies against the use of Zeppelins and the dropping of bombs on unfortified places, killing women and children. His answer was a justification of what has taken place and what will continue while the world war goes on.

“No one regrets more than I,” – here the voice of the aged soldier and inventor carried a genuine note of grief unmistakable – “that non-combatants have been slain. But have not non-combatants been killed by other engines of warfare? Why then this outcry?

“Let me tell you: It is because England fears the Zeppelin dirigibles. She realizes that they promise to destroy her splendid isolation. It is because failing to succeed in building something similar, she hopes to arouse the world to bring pressure to bear to prevent the use [by] Germany of those great weapons of modern warfare which are not available for her own use.

“If the military effect of the Zeppelin airships tends toward the shortening of this terrible war by only one day, thereby saving perhaps thousands of lives; if the Zeppelins, even now only beginning their development as a new military arm,should prove so effective a weapon, that wars are less likely to occur in the future – then their advent will be a benefit to humanity, quite aside from their peaceful usages.

“If in this most critical hour, when Germany’s very existence is at stake, when an effort is being made to starve our women and children, the Zeppelins add the slightest strength to the Fatherland against the ring of enemies seeking her complete destruction, then my life will not have been in vain.”

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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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