August 31, 1915

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

On 19 August 1915 a German U-boat sank the British White Star liner Arabic, outward bound for the USA. The Arabic was zigzagging at the time, and the and the German commander thought she was trying to ram the submarine. In response, he fired a single torpedo which struck the liner and she sank within 10 minutes, killing 44 passengers and crew, 3 of whom were American. In response the White House issued a statement to the effect that the Administration was speculating on what to do if the Arabic investigation indicated that there had been a deliberate German attack. If true, there was possible that the US would sever relations with Germany, while if it was untrue, negotiations were possible.

German submarines sinking British vessels increasingly led to the death of Americans, especially when the ships were passenger vessels; every sinking created a potential international crisis for the U.S. Government. The role of Congress and the powers of the President in the conduct of foreign relations was in the news in 1915, as much as it has been in the news a century later, as this editorial in the Oregon Statesman illustrates:

THE PRESIDENT’S POWERS

The day after the sinking of the Arabic, a message of advice and warning was telegraphed to President Wilson by representatives of an organization calling itself “The Friends of Peace.” Fearing that he might succumb to the war fever, they deemed it wise to call his attention to “the mandatory provisions of the constitution of the United States.”

The founders of the constitution, they explained, meant to separate “kingly power” from the presidency. “The most dangerous of kingly prerogatives,” they further explained, “is that of declaring war,” for which action authority was delegated to congress. Then came the meat of the cocoanut.

“Without question,” the message continued, “the issue of manifestos which put the country in the position of being obliged to declare ware in order to back up our declarations are direct assumptions of the kingly power so distinctly forbidden in the constitution and so expressly committed to congress and congress alone.”

The Friends of Peace therefore warned the president against “all action calculated to involve us in war.”

But, as the New York Times remarked the other day, “President Wilson is for the time being the sole judge of the measures to be taken concerning the sinking of the Arabic and the refusal of the German government to comply with our representations about the destruction of the Lusitania.”

It is true today as it was in Washington’s administration, when Thomas Jefferson found it necessary to impress the fact on the French minister, that from the president alone “foreign nations or their agents are to learn what is or has been the will of the nation.” Every diplomatic note sent to Germany has represented not “kingly power” but American constitutionalism. If the consequences of those notes, or of others to follow them, or of action entailed by them, is war, still the president will not have exceeded his lawful powers.

The president has power to recall ambassadors at will, and to dismiss the ambassadors of foreign powers. Congress thus far has nothing to do with our relations with Germany. If the president sees fit to sever diplomatic relations, it is none of the business of congress.

Whether he shall call congress in special session before its regular time for assembling rests with the president alone. If the nation were attacked, he could use army and navy without question. The only limitation of his authority in this direction is that if the United States is to make an actual declaration of war, or if money is to be voted for a war, congress must be summoned for that purpose.

And the very fact that the president has been in no haste to convene congress is in itself pretty good evidence that he has no intention of provoking war and no present fear that war will be forced on us.

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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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