by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent
The Capital Journal reported the response of the the United States to Austria-Hungary on the issue of commerce in munitions and neutrality:
UNITED STATES STRICTLY NEUTRAL, SECRETARY LANSING TELLS AUSTRIA
Washington, Aug. 16. – The Teutonic allies cannot expect to disrupt commerce and industry and produce economic confusion through appeals to neutral powers because Britain rules the seas.
This is the sense of the administration’s note replying to Austria’s protest against the shipment of munitions from the United States to the allies. It was expected today that with the receipt of the American note in Vienna, discussion of the subject may end, at least for the president. Austria protested that the shipment of munitions to the allies was not in keeping with this government’s position of neutrality, and the administration has merely reiterated its previously expressed views and has given further reasons why it would be an unneutral act to prohibit ammunition exportation.
Editorials in 1915 had substance. They were not dumbed down to the readers’s level, as is all too often the case today. In an editorial in the Capital Journal, the editor examines the nuances of a dispute between the US and Great Britain over the status of US products shipped to neutral ports.
The status of neutral vessels has appeared in earlier dispatches. An overview may help today’s readers place this complicated issue into context.
British and German navies patrolled the oceans, both on the surface and below. Ships flying either flag were subject to seizure or sinking by the opposing power. Ships traveling under escort were treated as if they were naval vessels.
The British actively blockaded German ports to prevent any vessel from arriving or departing. Germany sought to declare a zone surrounding Great Britain as a war zone and said they would attack any vessel in the proscribed zone, without regard to the flag being flown, unless it were under escort by a neutral naval vessel. An important point about the principle of the blockade requires that it have more than paper substance; for it to be respected by neutral powers required the belligerent to have the power to enforce the blockade.
Germany could not trade directly with the United States as she had not the power to protect her merchant ships. Germany, therefore, sought a back door through which she could import war material as well as food and other products. This took the form trans-shipments through neutral countries such as Holland and Norway.
The British suspected that cargo bound for Norway was in fact destined for Germany, with Norway serving merely as a transshipment point. In Britain’s dispute with this country, they relied upon a US Supreme Court decision from the Civil War.
From the Civil War? During the Civil War the Union navy sought to blockade Confederate ports. The case upon which the British based their justification for interdicting American shipping turned on a case in which the US seized a British vessel bound for Bermuda on the basis that Bermuda were being used merely as a transshipment point. Here is the paper’s analysis:
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ENGLISH AND GERMAN PROBLEMS
The United State government is finding great difficulty in meeting the claims of the British government that its seizure of American goods in neutral ships sailing to neutral ports is justified by decisions of our own supreme court during the civil war.
The most troublesome decision grew out of the seizing of the Bermuda, a ship sailing from Liverpool ostensibly for the islands of Bermuda bur really destined to Nassau, a port much used by ships running the blockade of southern ports then being maintained with not very great success by the Union navy.
The British are seizing ships loaded with goods apparently consigned to ports in Norway, Sweden and Holland but which it is claimed are really intended to go to Germany. The decision of our supreme court is that the ultimate destination of the goods determines whether they may be seized as contraband or not, and it is this which is giving the Washington lawyers much trouble.
As the point distinguishes the dispute with England from that with Germany our readers will like to see the exact language of the supreme court, which is as follows:
“It makes no difference,” says the court, “whether the destination to the rebel port be ulterior or direct; nor could the question of destination be affected by transshipment at Nassau, if transshipment was intended, for that could not break the continuity of transportation of the cargo. As transportation from one point to another remains continuous so long as intent remains unchanged, no matter what stoppages or transshipments intervene.”
Our government must of course abide by the decisions of its supreme court even though it does not agree with the general current of international law. But this decision will not justify the action of the British government except in cases where it can clearly prove that the contraband goods are intended for purchases in Germany. And just here is the heart of the controversy between Washington and London. London claims it has the proof that the ultimate destination of cargoes seized is Germany, and Washington, not knowing, demands that the proof be produced.
If the proof is forthcoming the seizures are lawful – if it fails they are unlawful and call for drastic dealing.
Another difference between the British and German problems lies in the fact that with Great Britain we have a treaty under the terms of which all questions such as are involved in the seizing of cargoes must be referred to arbitration while with Germany we have no such treaty.
When we consider that this is only one of the many problems of fateful importance pressing upon President Wilson it is not to be wondered that he is referred to as “the careworn, patient man to whom we have confided our destinies,” or that of a prominent statesman of the country concluded an address upon our flag with these words: “But whatever fate wills, we will stand b the land and its honor, and under the shadow of its dauntless flag – wave where it may.”