May 12, 1915

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

Former President Theodore Roosevelt responded to President Wilson’s speech in Philadelphia. As the headline in the Statesman illustrates, partisan reactions to issues of foreign policy were no different in 1915 than they are today:

SAYS AMERICA SHOULD SEVER GERMAN TRADE
Roosevelt Would Forbid all Commerce Within 24 Hours.

NOT A WAR DECLARATION
Expresses Hope That President Wilson Will Act Promptly

THINGS WORSE THAN WAR
Colonel Believes in Maintaining Self Respect

A Policy of Blood and Iron Can Be Met With a Policy Blood and Water, Declares Former President – Wrong Policy Would Bring U.S. Into Position of China.

The former president took issue with President Wilson’s assertion that there is “such a thing as a man being too proud to fight,” and to “a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” Roosevelt compared this policy with that of China:

“I think that China is entitled to draw all the comfort she can from this statement,” said Mr. Roosevelt, “and it would be well for the United States to ponder seriously what the effect upon China has been of managing her foreign affairs during the last fifteen years on the theory thus enunciated.

“If the United States is satisfied with occupying, sometime in the future, the precise international position that China now occupies, then the United States can afford to act on this theory. But it cannot act on this theory if it desires to retain or regain the position won for it under Washington and men who in the days of Abraham Lincoln wore the blue under Grant and the gray under Lee.

A short recapitulation may help readers today understand the complexities of navigating international waters during a time of war:

On 4 February, Germany declared that the waters surrounding the United Kingdom would be considered a ‘war region’ in two weeks’ time. Any shipping (mercantile and domestic) of doubtful provenance found sailing within those waters would be in grave danger.

Three days later, the British Foreign Office issued a statement justifying the use of neutral flag ‘for the purpose of evading capture at sea’. Freely translated, this meant that HM Government considered that the Germans were not bluffing and that the merchant navy needed to take every possible precaution. On 8 February, the Daily Express announced that the Cunard liner SS Lusitania was believed to have flown the American flag while passing through the Irish Sea. “British merchant ships” it declared, “sail under the red ensign, which has the Union Jack in its corner”.

Understandably, the neutral Americans were distinctly uneasy about the escalation of risk to their own vessels. The Daily Express continued: “The storm of indignation has evidently caused Germany to pause, and the egregious Count John Bernstorff, the German Ambassador at Washington… declares that there is no intention of sinking American vessels carrying non-contraband cargo…”

For the moment, the First Lord of the Admiralty seemed characteristically sanguine. In an interview to Le Matin on 2 February, Churchill reminded readers that “The action of a navy is necessarily slow. The pressure which it exerts on the adversary does not stop. Compare it to the forces of nature, to the inexorable grip of winter, and remember that nothing can resist that pressure. This pressure will not be relaxed until Germany cries for mercy. Even if you and our ally Russia decided to stop the struggle—which is unthinkable—we should continue alone to the bitter end.”

In other words, all is fair in love and 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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