Monday, February 29, 2016

February 1916

It's February 1916.  The war in Europe shows no signs of abating.  As negotiations over the sinking of the Lusitania come perilously close to a breach in relations with Germany, President Woodrow Wilson is embarked on a speaking tour through the Midwest to sell his "preparedness" program.  Pacifists and isolationists are opposed, but his audiences are mostly receptive to his message.  His message is not strong enough, however, for his Secretary of War, who resigns.  Having assured his audiences that his program is meant to ensure peace, not prepare for war, the president puts the brakes on the slide toward a break in relations with Germany; but just as an acceptable formula appears to have been found, Germany announces a new aggressive submarine policy.  As Congress is about to adopt measures to prevent Americans from traveling on belligerent ships, the president heads it off with a letter stoutly defending American rights.  Meanwhile Colonel House ends his tour of European capitals in London by signing on to a memorandum written by the British Foreign Secretary that might or might not commit the United States to entering the war on the side of the Allies.  On the battlefield, the German Army commences a massive assault on the French city of Verdun and surrounding forts.  Winston Churchill is on the Western Front with his Aide de Camp Sir Archibald Sinclair, who will become his Secretary of State for Air in the Second World War and later be elevated to the peerage as Viscount Thurso.  (After the 1999 House of Lords reforms, Lord Thurso's grandson, the third viscount, will become the first peer to be elected to the House of Commons.)  In Ottawa the Canadian Parliament building is destroyed by fire.  In this presidential election year in the United States, no one has announced his (or her) candidacy for the office, but President Wilson gives permission for the use of his name in the Ohio Democratic primary.  His eventual opponent, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, writes a letter opposing any use of his name in connection with the nominating process.


Convention Hall in Kansas City

The beginning of February found President Wilson in the midst of his Preparedness Tour through the Midwestern United States.  Traveling from Milwaukee to Des Moines on February 1, he made brief speeches at stops in Joliet, Rock Island, Davenport and Iowa City.  That evening he gave a major address at the Coliseum in Des Moines, a Republican stronghold with strong isolationist sympathies.  He told the friendly audience of 10,000, said to be the largest crowd ever assembled in that city, that while he had worked tirelessly to keep America out of the war, and that while America was at peace with the world and faced no immediate danger of international crises, he was sure Americans did not wish to maintain "peace at the expense of the honor of the United States."  The next day in Topeka, he faced a less receptive audience of Kansas farmers, but that evening in Kansas City a crowd of 18,000, the largest and most enthusiastic of his trip, packed Convention Hall and cheered his message urging America to be prepared to play its part in "the redemption of the affairs of mankind."  Arguing for a greatly expanded navy, he told them "the flame from a world on fire" threatens to "creep in from both coasts," and pointed out that in the Pacific alone "the sweep of the coast from the canal to Alaska ... is nearly one fourth the circumference of the earth."  He said "there is not a day to be lost, for the peace of the United States does not depend on what I can do; it depends on what the commander of some ship at sea does, or the commander of some submarine, or those in charge of a blockade" and "America must see that we are ready to defend our rights."  The President ended his tour the following evening in St. Louis, a city with a large German-American population, where he told a friendly audience in the Coliseum that his goal was to defend American neutrality by strengthening the army and building "incomparably the greatest navy in the world."  He returned to Washington on February 4, refreshed and invigorated by his reception in a part of the country known for its Republican leanings and isolationist sympathies.

Lindley Garrison

Secretary of War Lindley Garrison has been a voice within the administration for a more aggressive military posture, both in urging more use of the military in Mexico and in advocating measures to increase the nation's military strength in light of the war in Europe.  Though both he and the president supported an increase in military spending, Garrison was a strong and insistent advocate of a "Continental Army" plan to increase the standing army to 400,000 men.  Garrison's plan encountered Congressional opposition, which preferred an expanded role for the State National Guards.  President Wilson's refusal to push Congress to adopt Garrison's Continental Army plan led to his resignation, along with that of Assistant Secretary of War Henry Breckinridge, on February 10.  Army Chief of Staff General Hugh Scott is serving as acting Secretary of War until a replacement is appointed and confirmed.

Secretary of State Robert Lansing

Throughout his preparedness tour, President Wilson emphasized that there was no immediate crisis, that the United States is at peace with the world, and that his constant goal is to keep America out of the war.  The success of the tour rested largely on the President's assurances that he sought military strength to keep the United States out of the war, not to take aggressive action that might involve it in hostilities.  Meanwhile, however, back in Washington, Secretary of State Lansing with the President's approval was pursuing a hard line against Germany over the sinking of the Lusitania, insisting on an admission of liability and reparations for the deaths of American citizens.  By the end of January, negotiations in Washington and Berlin had reached an impasse, with the German government rejecting Lansing's final demands.  A break in diplomatic relations seemed imminent.  When President Wilson was advised by telegram of the state of negotiations as he was on his way back to Washington, he instructed Lansing to take no further action until his return.  Back at the White House on February 8, in a meeting with Lansing and the rest of the Cabinet, language was agreed upon that represented a retreat from the United States' previous position, and that appeared to satisfy both President Wilson and the German government.  Just as the Lusitania crisis appeared to be approaching resolution, however, Germany announced on February 10 that, beginning February 29, its submarines would treat all armed merchant ships as auxiliary cruisers, subject to being sunk without warning.  This announcement has made resolution of the Lusitania issue impossible for the present.  Attention has now shifted from the choice of words to be used in diplomatic notes regarding past grievances to the broader issue of how decisions regarding the arming of merchant ships will affect future policy.

Armed merchant ships have been central to the diplomatic controversy over submarine warfare.  On the one hand, traditional international law requires that warships intercepting merchant ships obey "cruiser rules," which provide that the warship may not attack or sink the merchant ship, unless it resists or tries to evade capture, without first removing the crew and passengers to a place of safety (at least to lifeboats).  On the other hand, a merchant ship armed with a deck gun (sometimes concealed) is quite capable of attacking and sinking any submarine that surfaces within range; indeed, in that circumstance the submarine is at a decided disadvantage.  Last month Secretary Lansing proposed a modus vivendi, under which merchant ships would not be allowed to carry armament and in return German submarines would be required to follow cruiser rules.  This proposal was promptly rejected by Great Britain, and was never officially submitted to Germany.  Its announcement, however, had the unfortunate effect of laying a foundation for the German announcement of February 10:  If merchant ships were to be prohibited from carrying guns, why would German submarines not be justified in attacking any merchant ships they thought were armed?  Lansing has been forced to tell the German ambassador that, because his proposed modus vivendi was not acceptable to Great Britain, it should no longer be considered as a basis for discussion or as a justification for Germany's February 10 announcement.  The appearance that the two might be connected, meanwhile, has torpedoed for now the proposed Lusitania settlement.

Senator Gore

Representative McLemore

Among the factors affecting the Lusitania negotiations and the armed merchant ship issue has been the attitude of Congress.  Since it convened in December, the mood on Capitol Hill has shifted decisively against any policy threatening a rupture in relations with Germany and toward taking a firmer stand against Great Britain regarding its blockade policies.  On February 17, Representative A.J. McLemore (Dem., Tex.) introduced a resolution requesting that the president warn American citizens not to travel on armed merchant vessels.  This caused Senator Thomas Gore (Dem., Okla.) to begin a push to bring to the floor a bill he introduced in January that would prohibit the issuance of passports to Americans traveling on belligerent ships and also prohibit neutral ships from carrying American citizens as passengers while carrying contraband.  On February 21, Senator William J. Stone (D., Mo.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, accompanied by Senate Majority Leader John W. Kern (D., Ind.) and Representative Hal D. Flood (D., Va.), Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, called on President Wilson to ascertain the administration's view.  The president's answer, that he was determined to defend the right of Americans to travel on defensively armed merchant ships, set off a rebellion in Congress.

On February 24, with passage of the Gore and McLemore measures appearing increasingly likely, Senator Stone wrote a letter to the president in which he said that, while he was "striving to prevent anything being done by any Senator or Member calculated to embarrass your diplomatic negotiations," he would "find it difficult from my sense of duty and responsibility to consent to plunge this nation into the vortex of this world war because of the unreasonable obstinacy of any of the Powers on the one hand, or, on the other hand, of fool-hardiness, amounting to a sort of moral treason against the Republic, of our own people recklessly risking their lives on armed belligerent ships."  Seeing an opportunity to defuse the domestic crisis with a strong statement for public consumption, President Wilson immediately replied to Senator Stone and released both letters to the press.  He refused to back down, saying that while "I shall do everything in my power to keep the United States out of war, ... I cannot consent to any abridgement of the rights of American citizens in any respect.  The honor and self-respect of the nation is involved.  We covet peace, and shall preserve it at any cost but the loss of honor.  To forbid our people to exercise their rights for fear we might be called upon to vindicate them would be a deep humiliation indeed."  Release of the letters has had the desired effect: Congressional opposition to the president's policy appears to have collapsed.  On February 29, seeking to remove any doubt in foreign capitals about American policy, President Wilson sent a letter to the acting chairman of the House Rules Committee demanding that the McLemore resolution be brought to the floor for a vote, which he is confident will result in its defeat.

Colonel House

The Lusitania negotiations and related discussions about armed merchant ships took place in Washington between Secretary of State Lansing and German Ambassador Bernstorff, and simultaneously in Berlin between American Ambassador James Gerard and Deputy Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann.  President Wilson's private emissary Colonel House was in Europe throughout the negotiations, and was instrumental in persuading the president to avoid a break with Germany over the wording of the Lusitania notes.  He left Berlin at the end of January and arrived in Paris on February 1.  There he met with Foreign Minister Jules Cambon and Prime Minister Aristide Briand, then proceeded to London, where he met over the next several days with Prime Minister Asquith, Foreign Minister Grey and others, continuing to promote the idea of a peace conference to be called by President Wilson.  To make it acceptable to the Allies, he assured the French and British that the United States would endeavor to bring about a settlement favorable to them.  On February 22, House and Grey agreed on the content of a memorandum, drafted and signed by Grey, which stated as follows:

"Colonel House told me that President Wilson was ready, on hearing from France and England that the moment was opportune, to propose that a Conference should be summoned to put an end to the war.  Should the Allies accept this proposal, and should Germany refuse it, the United States would probably enter the war against Germany.

"Colonel House expressed the opinion that, if such a Conference met, it would secure peace on terms not unfavorable to the Allies, and, if it failed to secure peace, the United States would leave the conference as a belligerent on the side of the Allies, if Germany was unreasonable.  Colonel House expressed an opinion decidedly favourable to the restoration of Belgium, the transfer of Alsace and Lorraine to France, and the acquisition by Russia of an outlet to the sea . . . .

"I said that I felt the statement, coming from the President of the United States, to be a matter of such importance that I should inform the Prime Minister and my colleagues; but that I could say nothing until it had received their consideration.  The British Government could, under no circumstances, accept or make any proposal except in consultation and agreement with the Allies. . . ."

The House-Grey Memorandum has not been made public, and probably will not be.  If it were, it would inevitably reignite this month's Congressional controversy, since it is difficult to reconcile its contents with President Wilson's letter to Senator Stone, sent two days later, in which he insists he is doing everything in his power to avoid war.  In addition, it is inconsistent with the public reason given for Colonel House's trip (only to brief ambassadors), and disregards House's original understanding with the president that he would avoid expressing any opinion on specific territorial issues and would suggest only the convening of a conference, not the United States' actual entry into the war.

Having completed his mission in Europe, Colonel House boarded the SS Rotterdam in Falmouth on February 25 for his return voyage to New York.

Fort Douaumont Before the Battle

On February 21 the German Fifth Army, under the command of Crown Prince Wilhelm, began a major attack on Verdun, a French city occupying a strategic position on the Meuse River.  The offensive began with a 9-hour artillery bombardment.  850 heavy guns pounded the city and its surrounding fortresses along an eight mile front.  The artillery barrage was followed by an infantry advance that resulted in the capture of Fort Douaumont, a formidable fortification northeast of the city that had been stripped of much of its artillery and defenders, on February 25.  On the same day the defense of Verdun was assigned to the French Second Army, under the command of General Philippe Petain.  Almost surrounded by the German army and with all but a single small rail line cut off, Verdun is relying for reinforcements and supplies on truck convoys using a single road from Bar-le-Duc, which the French Army has closed to non-military traffic.  Military guards patrol every mile of it, maintenance workers are on constant duty, and the departure of truck convoys is strictly regulated to minimize traffic delays.

Churchill and Sinclair in Armentieres

Farther north, the Western Front has been relatively quiet, but plans are under way by the French and British high commands for a major summer offensive on the Somme.  Former British First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill spent the month with his new infantry battalion in Belgium.  On February 10 he went with his aide de camp Major Sir Archibald Sinclair and his division commander General Sir Henry Tudor to observe a British artillery bombardment near Ploegsteert Wood.  The next day he and Sinclair crossed the border to Armentieres, where they had their photograph taken before returning to the front.

 The Canadian Parliament Building Afire

Parliaments on both sides of the Atlantic were in the news this month.  The Canadian Parliament Building in Ottawa was destroyed by fire on February 3.  In Westminster, Prime Minister Asquith told the British House of Commons that additional war taxes would be necessary to fund ongoing war costs of $25 million a day.  On February 16, Great Britain, France and Italy renewed their pledge to continue the war until the independence of Belgium is reestablished.

The Supreme Court Before Justice Lamar's Death Last Month
(Justice Hughes Front Row Extreme Right; Justice Lamar Second from the Right in the Back Row)

In the United States, this is a presidential election year.  Some leading Republicans would like to see their party nominate Supreme Court Justice and former New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes.  Representative C. Bascom Slemp, the only Republican member of Congress from Virginia, wrote to Justice Hughes informing him of a "Hughes boom" started in the state by Frank Hitchcock, a former Postmaster General and chairman of the Republican National Committee.  In a letter made public on February 9, Justice Hughes tried to put an end to Hitchcock's efforts.  He wrote, "I am entirely out of politics and I know nothing whatever of the matters to which you refer."  He added, "I am entirely opposed to the use of my name in connection with the nomination and selection or instruction of any delegates in my interest, either directly or indirectly."

On the Democratic side, President Wilson has allowed himself to be put forward as a candidate for the nomination while making a show of reluctance.  In a February 14 letter to the Ohio Secretary of State, he said was being sent only to "satisfy the technical requirements of the statutes of the State of Ohio," he wrote, "While I am entirely unwilling to enter into any contest for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, I am willing to permit the use of my name that the Democrats in Ohio may make known their preference in regard to that nomination."  The president's letter made no mention of the Democratic Party's 1912 platform, which pledged to limit presidents to a single term.  It is expected that President Wilson will be nominated easily this year, unlike at the 1912 Baltimore convention in which he trailed for twenty-eight ballots before finally receiving the nomination on the forty-sixth.

Meanwhile, former President Roosevelt, who led the Progressive Party in its split from the Republicans in 1912, is being mentioned as a possible Republican nominee if the 1912 rift can be healed.  He is on holiday with his wife in the Caribbean, and has been quoted as saying that he is "for anybody who can beat Woodrow Wilson."

February 1916 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, March and April 1916
New York Times, February 1916

Books and Articles:
A. Scott Berg, Wilson
Britain at War Magazine, The Third Year of the Great War: 1916
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
Patrick Devlin, Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson's Neutrality
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume III: The Challenge of War, 1914-1916
Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917
Peter Hart, Gallipoli
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
Paul Jankowski, Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War
Keith Jeffrey, 1916: A Global History
John Keegan, The First World War
Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War
Arthur S. Link, Wilson: Confusions and Crises, 1915-1916 
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
J. Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram   
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History