February 16, 1915

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

A rare banner headline dominated the front page of the Capital Journal:

INTERNATIONAL SITUATION NEARS CRISIS TODAY
Anti-American Feeling Is High In Germany As Result of News Reports

Berlin, by courier to Copenhagen and cabled to New York, Feb. 16. – The American government, press and public, evidently do not realize the depth and bitterness of the feeling that is spreading throughout Germany against Americans.

With the German newspapers publishing dispatches tending to show that the United States is siding more and more with the allies and reprinting dispatches from English newspapers indicating extreme hostility toward Germany, the people of Germany are being worked up to a point that it is difficult to exaggerate. Officials and Americans were cannot disguise their serious fears that some incident may occur which will lead to a crisis.

Wounded German officers and men openly charge that the losses among the German troops are becoming much greater since the French have begun to use arms and ammunition manufactured in the United States. This has created an atmosphere for Americans which is becoming more frigid daily.

Hitherto Germans have maintained an attitude of composure towards American business. Now the are beginning to complain bitterly.

Peasants and landlords of Bavaria and other parts of Germany refuse [any] longer to buy American agriculture implements.

The Berliner Zeitung yesterday published a pamphlet which it charged had been prepared by Colonel Roosevelt, urging the United States to join the allies and crush Germany.

In another headline, the depth of Germany’s problems arising from a war that failed to be as short as all had hoped, describes increasing food shortages:

Germany Short of Foodstuffs Is Explanation of Attitude

New York, Feb. 16. – Germany’s anxiety concerning food inevitably suggests a shortage of supplies in the empire. At the same time it is difficult to understand why the government so suddenly became impressed with the seriousness of the situation. Normally Austria-Hungary and Germany, between them, could supply almost enough foodstuffs for the joint population; certainly little economy would be necessary under average conditions to prevent not only starvation but discomfort.

The Germans had no fear when the war began of their ability to feed themselves. The government believed the slight economies necessary to consider could safely be left to private initiative. Now, however, the government is compelled to regulate the bread supply, which gives increasing evidence of uneasiness.

German anger at the United States stemmed from the empire’s frustration that it did not have access to American markets. American and other neutral vessels could in theory ship cargo to Germany. The theoretical access to American markets had to confront the reality of the Royal Navy, which could effectively blockade Germany and turn away any vessel, regardless of the cargo it carried. Britain did not make an exception for food.

Germany’s emerging policy of attempting to blockade Great Britain through submarine warfare was ineffective at best and alienated neutrals such as the United States. Germany wanted the United States to remain neutral and not trade with the allies as long Great Britain maintained its stranglehold on the North Sea.

The United States was caught in the middle. On the 19th of August, 1914, President Wilson declared American neutrality and warned against taking sides out of fear that this would endanger American foreign policy. In a speech to Congress he said:

The effect of the war upon the United States will depend upon what American citizens say and do. Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned.

The spirit of the nation in this critical matter will be determined largely by what individuals and society and those gathered in public meetings do and say, upon what newspapers and magazines contain, upon what ministers utter in their pulpits, and men proclaim as their opinions upon the street.

The people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war. It is natural and inevitable that there should be the utmost variety of sympathy and desire among them with regard to the issues and circumstances of the conflict.

Some will wish one nation, others another, to succeed in the momentous struggle. It will be easy to excite passion and difficult to allay it. Those responsible for exciting it will assume a heavy responsibility, responsibility for no less a thing than that the people of the United States, whose love of their country and whose loyalty to its government should unite them as Americans all, bound in honour and affection to think first of her and her interests, may be divided in camps of hostile opinion, hot against each other, involved in the war itself in impulse and opinion if not in action.

Such divisions amongst us would be fatal to our peace of mind and might seriously stand in the way of the proper performance of our duty as the one great nation at peace, the one people holding itself ready to play a part of impartial mediation and speak the counsels of peace and accommodation, not as a partisan, but as a friend.

I venture, therefore, my fellow countrymen, to speak a solemn word of warning to you against that deepest, most subtle, most essential breach of neutrality which may spring out of partisanship, out of passionately taking sides.

The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men’s souls. We must be impartial in thought, as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments, as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.

In order to preserve friendly relations with all of the belligerents in order to effectively mediate between the warring factions meant that the United States “must be neutral in fact, as well as in name.” There was another side to the coin. This rigid interpretation of neutrality required the government to uphold the rights of American citizens which were, to one degree or another, infringed by belligerents on both sides. Where the British would interfere with commerce, the Germans tended to sink it. America could remain friendly with all sides; we would sell to everyone. America was the wholesaler; only the Entente powers had the effective ability to purchase our goods.

Americans were not upset at the blockade of Germany, Wilson’s attempt to foster friendship toward all of the warring nations and to keep all belligerents happy with the United States was doomed to failure. There was never any overwhelming sympathy toward Germany and Austria, except in those parts of the country (such as Marion County) where large concentrations of Germans and Austrians had settled.

On the editorial page, the Capital Journal addressed this issue:

Neutrality and the Shipping Bill

We do not pretend to know much about international law but it seems to us that the course to be pursued by a strictly neutral nation in this crisis is plain. It is simply to go ahead buying and selling and doing business much as before the war broke out. We ought to sell to all warring nations alike, but take no contracts to deliver the goods safely at their destination if within the war zone. With neutral nations we all should insist upon no interference with our commerce from any belligerent if the goods are carried in neutral bottoms or ships flying the American flag. This would apply to the usual course of trade between the United States and the nations of Europe not engaged in the war, like the Scandinavian counties, Italy, Spain and several others.

The objection of England to this country buying the German steamers, as provided for in the administration’s ship purchase bill, is as unjust as Germany’s contention that we should not sell any goods to the allies that will in any way assist them in the prosecution of the war. Both of these belligerents are simply taking a selfish view of the question with the hope of gaining a partisan advantage. We should insist on our right to buy goods or ships which we want from any belligerent nation just the same now as at any other time. It is not our fight.

The opponents of the ship purchase bill, however, are not concerned because the buying of these ships might be considered an unfriendly act by the allies. That is a plaint set up only to cloak the real issues, which is the desire of the shopping trust to continue levying tribute on American commerce. It is anxious to keep the government out of the shipping business in order to perpetuate its monopoly.

The senators who are opposing the shipping bill are no doubt influenced by the strong lobby always maintained at the national capital by the capitalists who own the comparatively few ships which fly our flag on the ocean.

The reference in the Journal editorial to the purchase of German merchant ships referred to the efforts of President Wilson to purchase German ships trapped in American ports at the outbreak of the war. The United States had virtually no merchant marine and these ships were not going anywhere because of the overwhelming dominance of the Royal Navy

The Oregon Statesman, too, discussed the trade policies of neutral nations:

Taft On War Supplies

Ex-President Taft seems to have given the best answer yet to those who, in their professed zeal for neutrality, insist that our government should prohibit the sale of war munitions to belligerents. Addressing a German professor of Harvard university, who had asked him to lend his support to Senator Hitchcock’s bill establishing such a prohibition, Mr. Taft explained that he could not do so for two reasons.

One of them is a reason already familiar to the public. It is the explanation given by President Wilson himself, that it would be an unnatural act to change, at this particular time, the long established rule of international law regarding the sale of ammunition and arms by neutrals to belligerents, because as matters stand “it would unsure only to the benefit of one of the belligerents.”

The other argument is new, but none the less forcible. “To interdict the supply of ammunition and arms from this country to the belligerents,” says Mr. Taft, “would be to adopt a policy that would seriously interfere with our own welfare, should we ever be drawn into a war against our will by the invasion of some power who was fully prepared and who would find us unprepared.

“Such a policy would mean that the power who is armed cap-a-pie would always have at disadvantage those countries what were not in such a state of preparation. It would lead, therefore, to even greater pressure upon all the countries of the world than we have seen in the last to decades, to increase their armaments.”

Obviously we must act not only for today’s needs, but with a view to our own future safety. We cannot afford to establish any precedent which might make it impossible for the United States at some subsequent time to buy war supplies abroad in defending ourselves against our enemies. We cannot afford to jeopardize our own future for the transient whims of well meaning neutrals or the angry demands of unreasoning partisans. Neither can we afford to do anything prejudicial, in the long run, to the disarmament of the world. There could be no sounder argument for standing pat on the established procedure of nations – recognized as legitimate even by the German government – and maintaining open markets for munitions of war.

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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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