by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent
The resignation of the Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, dominated the front page. Bryan’s position argued that the United States should avoid war at any cost.
BRYAN QUITS WITH HOPE THAT WILSON POLICIES WILL WIN
President and Ex-Secretary Wish Each Other God Speed At Farewell
BIDS TOUCHING GOODBYE TO OFFICIAL STAFF
As Private Citizen Can Work for Ends Not Permitted As Cabinet Member
KEEP OUT OF WAR AT ALL COSTS WAS ADVICE OF BRYAN
Suggestion Made When First Cause For Complaint Against Germany Arose
WOULD SUBMIT ALL TO ARBITRATION COMMITTEE
Secretary Resigned When He Saw That His Policies Would Fail To Carry
NO SURRENDER OF AMERICAN RIGHTS IS WILSON’S STAND
President Is Firm In Face of Greatest Crisis In American History
CABINET SOLIDLY BEHIND POLICIES OF WILSON
Rumor That Daniels Will Follow Bryan Emphatically Denied By Him
Bryan and Wilson disagreed over the protections and privileges each believed Americans were entitled to when traveling on vessels not flying the American flag. Wilson’s protests to the German government stressed the right of neutrals to travel on belligerent vessels. In Wilson’s first note to the German government, he sets out American expectations regarding the right of a neutral to travel, even aboard a belligerent vessel:
[The United States] takes it for granted that, at least within the practical possibilities of every such case, the commanders even of submarines were expected to do nothing that would involve the lives of non-combatants or the safety of neutral ships, even at the cost of failing of their object of capture or destruction.
Bryan argued that Wilson adhered to concepts governing the recognition of blockades, neutral transport of contraband goods, and travel of civilians to belligerent nations on combatant ships that were no longer feasible, given modern technology (mines, submarines, aircraft). These advances in warfare altered the nature of international law and made it impossible to protect US citizens traveling into a war zone. Bryan’s position was that Americans traveling abroad had the responsibility to weigh the moral consequences of traveling aboard belligerent vessels and had to assume some responsibility for their actions.
Bryan’s resignation in the wake of the Lusitania sinking begins to expose the sentiments of public opinion for and against American involvement in the war. The paper included excerpts of editorial comments on the resignation from West Coast papers:
Oregonian (republican), Portland, Ore.: “We know that he [President Wilson] abhors war, but he has proven that he abhors peace with dishonor more. Therefore we can trust him to preserve peace with honor, if it be possible, and we shall support him the more readily if war comes.”
Oregon Journal (independent), Portland: “Mr. Bryan’s retirement will not shake the confidence of the country in President Wilson and his administration. The constructive powers and far-reaching vision of the chief executive are universally confessed, and the confidence of the country will follow him almost illicitly in the course he has chosen in his negotiations with Berlin.”
The Tacoma (Wash.) Tribune (independent): “The action of Secretary Bryan in resigning his post was the best solution of an embarrassing situation.
“He was not in sympathy with the rest of the cabinet in their administration of immediate international affairs. He would temporize when the time for temporizing was past. He pleaded for delay when there should be no delay. The Tribune believes Bryan’s resignation was the best thing. The present is no time for division of opinion in the cabinet.
Los Angeles Tribune: “It is certain that Bryan’s resignation will be accepted by the country rightly or wrongly as proof that jingo is in ascendancy.”
Oakland (Cal.) Enquirer: “By Bryan’s resignation Wilson’s cabinet is strengthened and his administration relieved of an incubus. The fantastic Nebraskan is out of touch with the twentieth century world, living in a sphere of his own creation.”
In an editorial, “The Penalties of War,” addresses the conflict between sex and war’s demands for cannon fodder:
The penalties of war are many. In fact the list is so long and it has been reiterated so often that the public in a peaceful country wearies of it, after the first horror of its contemplation passes. Murder, looting, destruction of property, the suffering of the innocent – all these are the penalty that a nation at war must suffer. Miss Jane Addams has, however, made discoveries in Europe which open the discussion of the subject from a new angle and leads the San Francisco Town Talk to say:
“This is not a time in Europe to be squeamish about the sex relation. The perpetuation of a race is a matter of more than the merely decorous virtues. And assuredly as a result of this terrible struggle with its prodigious slaughter there will be unprecedented looseness of manners in Europe for many years. The increase of the birth rate will be found to be the paramount desideratum in several nations. It will not be surprising if a least one of the customs of ancient Greece be revived. Already France is looking to the future, and a law has been passed by the Chamber of Deputies which provides that there shall be no such thing as illegitimacy in the country during the war. The object of this law is not sentimental. The object is to stimulate the propagation of the species. It is notice to all the women of France that it is their patriotic duty to bear children. According to Jane Addams who has been gathering data on the subject the “foundlings’ boxes” which were confiscated by the government have been put back in the churches, and she asserts that this is deliberate “encouragement of the dissolution of the family ties.” Miss Addams wishes to make the point that the war is reviving the tribal conception of patriotism and putting women back many centuries to the times when she had to bear children to increase the power of the tribe. She says that Germany has gone further than France: that she is making every effort to get hold of the children of her own soldiers, and to that end has sent midwives and nurses in the wake of her armies. As to England, she says that the government has been conniving at the “excesses of English soldiers in the training camps.” It is on account of these things that Miss Addams wishes to abolish war.”
Today yesterday’s news is often suitable for little more than cat litter. A century ago the events of the day remained what they were – events. They were not shaded, pared, or journalistically photoshopped to frame an ideological or rhetorical end. The sinking of the Lusitania was not taken as an opportunity to cudgel or to sharpen a partisan axe.