April 21, 1915

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

As much as the United States sought to remain on the sidelines, our status as a neutral left us subject to the collateral damage that is a fact of war. Inherent in any decision predicated on an outcome which cannot be known with a high degree of certainty are uncertainties that are apparent, all too often, only in hindsight. The chains of reasoning we use to justify support or opposition to a policy become tangled webs we have woven to deceive ourselves as well as others; they are the sins of omission that define hubris and the sins of commission that constitute crimes against humanity.

Ignoring uncertainties can be fatal; and the German decision to begin unrestricted submarine warfare would bring us into the war. Neutral powers could usually be ignored or summarily treated as they were generally weak and inconsequential. The United States was neither. The Capital Journal addressed the position of neutrals in an editorial, “Neutral Nations Have Few Rights:”

The position of a neutral nation in such a war as the one now raging is very uncertain and unsatisfactory, because warring nations make international law fit their necessities. The rules of the war game are very unjust as it is being played now, ut so is everything connected with war. As a neutral nation we may protest but that counts little – unless we want to get into the fight ourselves, and that is the one thing we are devoutly trying to avoid.

The editorial lays out the quandary and then discusses the haunting uncertainty in the background of the debate:

Most of the corner-grocery and newspaper talk about the current war is from the standpoint of one or the other of the contending parties. The neutral angle is overlooked. (emphasis added). Yet it is wholly from that standpoint that we as Americans are directly interested in the struggle now going on.

The editor writes that “War is an abrogation of law and an appeal to brute force, and, in the last analysis, the power of the warring nations is the only measure we have of what may or may not be done.” The first rule of warfare is to crush your enemy, and the means to that end are ever in flux. The editorial describes how the safeguards of one era are negated by changes in the methods of warfare:

The old three mile neutral limit, for example, was agreed to by the nations when that was the extreme range of artillery. Great Britain and Germany, by establishing “war zones” in the open sea adjacent to the other’s coasts, have virtually repudiated this worn-out agreement, and have recognized the present-day fact that an enemy’s shores begin where the lines of shipping converge toward his ports.

The problem this poses for neutrals is stark:

Neutrals, forced by these new rules to take added precautions, may protest, but they must remember that war and not peace establishes the working rules of warfare, and of all the privileges of neutrals within the war area.

If this seems abstruse, consider the recent cyber-attacks on Sony Pictures. Borders are meaningless in the 21st Century, as meaningless as a merchant ship flying the US flag was during World War I in the face of a belligerent determined to prevent that vessel from proceeding to a hostile port.

“What is or is not contraband of war is for the nations at war and not for neutrals to determine,” the editor writes. What is carried in the hold of a merchant vessel is a mutable term, defined by the self-interest of the belligerents. The editor points out that the United States was guilty during the Civil War of enforcing restrictions that a it now opposes in her status as a neutral:

During the Civil War, northern fleets blockaded the southern coast, confiscated cotton on its way to England, stopped food of all kinds from entering the Confederacy, in short, hermetically sealed the South, and paid no attention whatever to the distress such action caused either the civilian population of the South or the wavers of England. Because we had the sea power to do it, we did, fifty years ago, exactly what both England and Germany are today attempting to do.

The editor is wrong here on substance, though not effect. The United States did not recognize the existence of the Confederacy as a independent state and neither did any other nation. If the United States chooses to restrict access to one of its ports it has the latitude to do so. Had we been at war with Canada, different rules would have applied and what we could do at Charleston or New Orleans we would not have been able to do at Vancouver or Halifax.

The editorial concludes by laying out the principle of total war:

The modern state, as organized, is virtually all under arms in time of war. The lives of its citizens are ordered to the end of crushing the enemy. Factories, workingmen and women, farms, all the industries may be and are being made use of in a military way. From a military standpoint there are no noncombatants except the non-workers. . .

In other words, all commerce to or from a national war is subject to seizure, due notice of such action having been made. Where this seizure is made, and the manner of making it, is for sea-power to determine. Neutral nations have no rights whatever, save in the protection of life and of property not contraband, but they have no voice in determining what articles of commerce shall be designated as contraband.


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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