June 17, 1915

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

In the second installment of Bryan’s assessment of the war, the paper reports:


Washington, June 17. – William J. Bryan, former secretary of state, today issued the second installment of his statement dealing with “The Causeless War.” The statement follows:

“This conflict has been described as the ‘causeless war,’ but since none is bold enough to blame the overruling Providence, I must find its origin in acts were for man is alone responsible.

“Race, religion and family, each with many wars to answer for, can plead not guilty for the present. If I have correctly analyzed the situation, the war is the natural result of the false philosophy and fundamental principle that ‘might makes right.’

“By what sophistry can rulers convince themselves that while petit larceny is criminal, grand larceny is patriotic? While it is reprehensible for one man to kill another for his money, it is glorious for one nation to put to the sword the inhabitants of another in order to extend its boundaries. . . “

William Jennings Bryan remained the topic of editorial opinion as “The Mind Of The Radical” in this day’s Capital Journal illustrates:

With the world at peace, careful inquiry into grounds of dispute, patient arbitration and a full year of waiting before beginning hostilities would be good indeed. But with half the world already at war, with international law outraged, neutral nations being crushed, peaceful merchant shopping torpedoed on the open seas, and innocent neutral citizens subjected to all the dangers of ruthless warfare, a year of inquiry, arbitration and waiting is quite different.

Mr. Bryan cannot see that difference. And that is what is the matter with Bryan. His sincerity cannot be questioned, but it is sincerity minus sound judgment; President Wilson’s sincerity is just as genuine, plus judgment.

Mr. Bryan’s prominence and power are due to his natural radicalism. Like all radicals, like most reformers, he is a man of only one idea at a time and only one viewpoint. It is a type of mind that throws all its force into one thing and sees only one side of that thing.

Such a mind is always sincere, honest and forceful, but it has not the comprehensive reach and selective soundness for good judgment. It make a brilliant advocate, a pronounced Chautauqua platform success, but leave one far short of safe statesmanship.


While Mr. Bryan may be sincere, the American people will not surrender their conviction that President Wilson is both sincere and right, remarks the Polk County Observer.

The sinking of the Lusitania brought to a head the problems a neutral has during times of war. For Bryan, as for many readers of the Capital Journal and Oregon Statesman, neutrality meant staying out of a conflict in which we had no interest. Many readers came to this country precisely to escape the conflicts that led to war, or whose ancestors came to this country for that reason. When states oppress some of their subjects at the expense of others, or use their power to alter the liberties of the subjects of other countries, the United States stood as a refuge. Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, “The New Colossus” contains the lines, now engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Immigration, and the grounds for immigration, was (in 1915, though sadly less true today) deeply ingrained in our cultural and national DNA. Neutrality was important for precisely those reasons. Tyranny and oppression characterized where immigrants came from; the United States represented a safe haven. Our status as that safe haven required we remain neutral.

The demographics of Marion County illustrate why neutrality was important. The residents were of English, Scottish, German, and Austrian descent and ancestry. To place descent and ancestry above mutual citizenship meant turning the United States from the metaphor of a melting pot into something curdled and toxic.

The strength of the nation is built upon a foundation of diversity, and that diversity and energy produced a nation with a latent economic power dwarfing that of any of the belligerents. Throughout history, trade and the balance of trade was a critical element for the wealth and prosperity of a nation; war disrupted that balance because that which was traded would be seen by one belligerent or the other as “contraband of war.”

As The Daily Oregon Statesman wrote on the sixteenth:

The high seas are the world’s joint property, not the property of England or Germany or another nation. Every American has precisely as much right anywhere three miles or more from German soil as any German has. It is outlawry and insult for any belligerent to warn us to keep away from any bit of the world’s free water.

We have an inalienable right to sail those waters of the “war zone” not merely under the American flag, but under any flag flown by a peaceful ship. Contraband of war many properly be seized and destroyed, but there is no such thing as “human contraband.” The lives of neutrals and non-combatants are sacred. and by the immemorial rule of nations, shaped during many generations by common experience and consent of mankind, any nation that violates these rights does so its own peril.

For the United States the Lusitania lay on the floor of the Atlantic, at the intersection of prudence and self-interest. Prudent passengers had advance warning from the German government that travel on belligerent vessels could be perilous.

For Germany, the Lusitania was caught in the cross-hairs of the necessities of war and of preventing contraband reaching enemy shores; for Germany (as well as Great Britain) “contraband” was a term with Cheshire Cat-like characteristics.

For the United States, the sinking of the Lusitania compromised our rights as neutrals to travel, to buy and to sell products internationally. For Germany, as for the United States since 9-11, survival and national interest often meant drawing bright lines where international law recognized broad swaths of gray or had that bright line drawn far differently.


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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