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PAPERS RELATING TO THE FOREIGN RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES. THE LANSING PAPERS. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1939-1940, two volumes.
ONE evening in the spring of 1919, immediately after the plenary conference had approved the amended Covenant of the League of Nations, a member of the American Peace Commission walking home with a young French diplomat noted the lighted windows of the War Office on the Boulevard Saint Germain. "What are they doing so late?" he asked. "Working on the plans for the coming war with Germany," was the reply. "This is a repeat performance. Only next time we may not be so lucky." The pathetic irony of the remark, and its prophetic accuracy, will strike the student who, after immersing himself in the two volumes of the "Lansing Papers," lays them down to pick up the day's newspaper. Here is the story of how the United States came to appreciate the close relation between European turmoil and American interests; of the assumption by America of a responsibility for protecting and maintaining an international régime based upon respect for law rather than power; and of the promise, through victory, of a new international organization that would guarantee peace. We read the story at a moment when the German conquest of the European continent and the deadly threat to the British Empire have created a menace to American security more direct than any in our history as an independent nation, when law as a principle of intercourse among nations has all but disappeared, when the hope of peace through understanding has been eliminated and our only chance for security lies in the achievement of predominating power.
Yet a reading of these documents does not leave one with a sense of futility. They confirm the belief that, regardless of what the ultimate results of the last war may have been, the American effort was worth making; that indeed it would have been shortsighted cowardice had we evaded our responsibility for seeking to establish a new and better world order; and that the victory which we helped to bring about created an opportunity that would not have existed without our effort and that might have been capitalized. The results of victory may have been wasted and transformed into elements of disaster by the mistakes of those who followed the peacemakers. Nevertheless, the courage and essential wisdom of those responsible for the American effort reflect credit upon our national history.
The documents now published by the Department of State consist of selections from the correspondence of Secretary Lansing which were obtained after his death and were thus not available when the volumes covering the World War were published. These documents, most of them now published for the first time, provide an invaluable amplification and clarification of the numerous official and personal documents which students have hitherto had at their disposal. Their scope is naturally broad, touching not only our relations with the belligerents, but affairs in the Far East and questions of Latin American policy.
The first volume covers the period of American neutrality. Its opening pages deal with technical questions relating to the rights and duties of a neutral; they are followed by documents which reflect the increasing realization of Americans that the vital interests of this country must be affected by the course of the European conflict. By the spring of 1915 it had become clear that the central problem facing Wilson, the one to which he could ultimately find no solution, was how to secure the maintenance of certain essential principles which everyone demanded, without actually going to war. The second volume, covering the period of American participation in the conflict, deals primarily with the processes, diplomatic and administrative, by which a general system of inter-Allied coördination was created and by which we provided the Allies with our material resources at the right moment and at the right place.
The two volumes contain a mass of information upon single topics not immediately connected with the problem of American neutrality or intervention. Considerable light is thrown upon the plan for a Pan American Pact which, at the suggestion of President Wilson, Colonel House discussed with the Ambassadors of the ABC Powers and which Mr. Lansing brought to a point not far from general approval. The Secretary's memoranda upon the Monroe Doctrine and the implications of a new policy to be found in Pan Americanism are of particular interest at this time. The telegrams from our diplomatic representatives in European capitals vividly picture wartime conditions and national policies. They are perhaps more useful to the historian than they were to our government. President Wilson commented with some justice upon the reports of one of our ambassadors: "It is odd how his information seems never to point to any conclusions whatever; but in spite of that his letters are worth reading and do leave a certain impression." Of another he wrote: "His letters are singularly lacking in definiteness of impression, and yet, taken as wholes, they do serve to give one something of the atmosphere of the court at which he is living and of the politics that is stirring Europe just now."
Certain documents, now published for the first time, are of especial historical interest. Particular note should be made of Mr. Balfour's statement on foreign policy, which he had made to the Imperial War Council and a copy of which he gave to Mr. Lansing at the time of the visit of the British Mission, on May 18, 1917. The statement covers the entire range of the diplomatic problems of the war as they were faced by the British at that moment, with particular reference to territorial readjustments on the assumption of Allied victory. There is clear and detailed reference to the terms of the secret treaties as they affected Turkey, Italy, and Rumania. Mr. Balfour emphasized the "promises" that had been made to the Allies in order to win support. The document is of historical importance in view of the charges which have been made to the effect that the American Government was left in the dark by the British with regard to the content of the secret treaties and that President Wilson was derelict in failing to secure exact information as to Allied war aims. There has already been published a letter which Mr. Balfour wrote to President Wilson in January of 1918, in which he discussed specifically the Italian territorial claims under the Treaty of London. The comprehensive and detailed nature of the Balfour statement to the Imperial War Council corresponds with the tone of Colonel House's entry in his diary of April 28, detailing his conversation with Balfour which indicated the nature and scope of the secret treaties. It is possible, but historically inconceivable, that Mr. Lansing should not have communicated to the President the text of the Balfour statement now published. The mystery of Wilson's statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in August 1919, to the effect that he had no knowledge of the secret treaties as a whole, before he reached Paris, remains unsolved.
A single document of outstanding historical importance, now published, is the report of General Bliss to the Secretary of State, on the Supreme War Council, dated February 6, 1920. No one was better qualified to write the story of Allied coördination than Bliss, both because of his personal experience and also because of the qualities of mind and soul that made him an outstanding leader in the cause of international coöperation. This report, composed immediately after the Peace Conference, terse, comprehensive, objective, and yet vivid, is one of the great documents of the war. In it he described the American Mission of 1917, concluding with the report which forecast the great military crisis of the following spring and the necessity of military assistance by the United States to the Allies if a German victory was to be prevented. He sets forth the conditions that led to setting up the Supreme War Council, its development as an organ of coordination, and the ultimate achievement of a unified command. He gives a detailed description of the organization and business methods of the Council and of the auxiliary Inter-Allied committees and councils and the establishment of the Executive War Board. He traces the results of the failure to accept the recommendations of the Executive War Board and describes the problems in the conduct of the war that were faced by the Supreme War Council during the spring and summer of 1918. He concludes with his report on the preparation and approval of the armistice terms. The development of a plan of international coöperation obviated many of the inevitable disadvantages of a coalition. It was a major contribution of the United States to Allied victory. Bliss's report is impersonal in the extreme, but the reader cannot but realize the importance of his remarks.
In considering the Lansing Papers as a whole, what the historical student will doubtless look for first of all -- and will to some extent discover -- is help in answering the question: "Why did the United States enter the war?" The question cannot be answered dogmatically, but the Papers are of great assistance in isolating the factors that finally led Wilson and Lansing to accept war with Germany as unavoidable.
We may emphasize the fact that nothing in these documents gives support to the thesis that American policy was directly affected by the influence of international bankers or by munitions manufacturers. In nearly eight hundred pages of confidential correspondence, such factors receive the scantiest notice. There are various references to the problem of American loans to belligerents. Such references appear only in the earlier stages of the neutrality period and simply illuminate, without altering, the sense of the comments made in Secretary Lansing's letter of September 6, 1915, to President Wilson.
It will be remembered that in this letter Mr. Lansing reviewed the reasons for Mr. Bryan's original statement of August 1914 to the effect that a loan to a belligerent "is inconsistent with the true spirit of neutrality." With the sense of that declaration Mr. Lansing was apparently in agreement at the time it was made. Secretary Bryan reported to the President in the same month that Mr. Lansing had called attention to the fact that an American citizen "who goes abroad and voluntarily enlists in the army of a belligerent nation loses the protection of his citizenship while so engaged, and asks why dollars, going abroad and enlisting in war, should be more protected." By the early autumn of 1915 Lansing had changed his mind, and while confessing his embarrassment urged a change in the government's policy toward general loans. ". . . we are face to face with what appears to be a critical economic situation, which can be relieved apparently by the investment of American capital in foreign loans to be used in liquidating the enormous balance of trade in favor of the United States. Can we afford to let a declaration as to our conception of 'the true spirit of neutrality' made in the first days of the war stand in the way of our national interests which seem to be seriously threatened?"
In this matter, as in others, Lansing's conception of "national interest," providing it did not conflict with his understanding of the law, was for him the determining factor. But we should note that the change of policy had no relationship to the chances of our becoming involved as a belligerent. He did not believe that it would affect our attitude towards the warring powers. "Popular sympathy," he wrote, "has become crystallized in favor of one or another of the belligerents to such an extent that the purchase of bonds would in no way increase the bitterness of partisanship or cause a possibly serious situation." Whether Mr. Lansing was right or not in his estimate of the effect upon public opinion must be determined from other historical sources. But it is important to note that from these documents it is clear that so far as the President and the Secretary of State were concerned, national policy as relating to the belligerents was not in the least affected by the loans to France and Great Britain. Nowhere in these papers is there the suggestion that it was a duty of the Government to protect American investments or that our diplomacy should be affected in the slightest by their existence. From the insinuations that characterized the investigations of the Nye Committee we should expect at least brief references to the danger that American bankers as well as small investors might incur tremendous losses in case of German victory. To any such danger, or to the need of American help for British credit on the eve of our entering the war, there is no allusion. Nor is there any document referring to the interests of munitions makers.
No one can read these volumes without appreciating the intense desire of both President Wilson and Secretary Lansing to avoid American participation in the European War. But rightly or wrongly, they placed the protection of what they regarded as essential national interests above the maintenance of peace. From the early spring of 1915 both were convinced that Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare involved "rights" that could not be surrendered, though they did not agree as to exactly what constituted these rights. The President was impressed primarily by humanitarian factors. He was willing to negotiate endlessly with the British over interference with cargoes; but the German submarine campaign involved human lives. As he wrote to Bryan on June 2, 1915, "It is interesting and significant how often the German Foreign Office goes over the same ground in different words, and always misses the essential point involved, that England's violation of neutral rights is different from Germany's violation of the rights of humanity."
Mr. Lansing's attitude was that of the honest lawyer. Despite the vigor of the notes which he wrote protesting British interference with our trade, he recognized the legal complexities which often rendered the issue uncertain. He recognized, also, that the precedents of our own historical policy weakened the legal strength of our case. In a memorandum to the President he notes that "As the Government of the United States has in the past placed 'all articles from which ammunition is manufactured' in its contraband list . . . it necessarily finds some embarrassment in dealing with the subject. The doctrine of 'ultimate destination' and of 'continuous voyage' . . . is an American doctrine supported by the decisions of the United States Supreme Court." In such matters negotiation was desirable and permissible. But the claim of the German Government of a right to torpedo enemy ships without warning and without regard to the safety of passengers and crew, with the possibility that some of the passengers might be American citizens, seemed to him inadmissible.
Lansing was assiduous in seeking a course that might avoid a diplomatic rupture with Germany, but he was unwilling to make concessions that involved surrender of what he believed to be essential rights of a sovereign nation. Even before the sinking of the Lusitania Mr. Bryan had suggested that the Government ought not to carry responsibility for the safety of citizens travelling on belligerent ships. President Wilson, at the moment of drafting the second Lusitania note, apparently agreed in principle and went so far as to write the Secretary: "I am inclined to think that we ought to take steps, as you suggest, to prevent our citizens from travelling on ships carrying munitions of war, and I shall seek to find the legal way to do it." Mr. Johnson, Solicitor for the State Department, strongly supported the suggestion. "Is it of the essence of the right of an American citizen," he wrote in a memorandum upon the second German note on the Lusitania, "to travel in European waters that he be allowed to take passage on any and all of the ships of the belligerents, whatever may be their cargo or destination? I hardly think so." He went on to propose "an adequate number of ships upon which our people may take passage and travel unmolested in European waters, those ships not to carry mixed cargoes of babies and bullets."
President Wilson, however, was unwilling at the moment to take steps interfering with the travel rights of American citizens, lest it should appear that he was weakening in the diplomatic controversy with Germany. Referring to the Bryan proposal on June 5 he wrote, "I fear that, whatever it may be best to do about that, it is clearly impossible to act before the new note goes to Germany." Mr. Bryan protested in vain, urging the President to announce that, pending negotiations "and without any surrender of our rights," he felt "impelled to refuse clearance to belligerent ships carrying American passengers and to refuse clearance to American passenger ships carrying ammunition. I believe that the moral effect of such an announcement, coupled with the suggestion in regard to investigation, would, without in the least subtracting from the strength of the note, relieve the tension, deny to the jingoes foundation for their alarming statements and win the approval of our people." Mr. Lansing refused to admit that such restrictive action by the President would not constitute surrender of an essential right. He believed that by the note of February 10, 1915, the American Government had declared that it would hold Germany to a "strict accountability" for the loss of American lives and property within the "war zone." "I do not see," he wrote, "how this Government can avoid responsibility now by asserting that an American in traveling by a British vessel took a risk, which he should not have taken . . . . It is my opinion . . . that it would cause general condemnation and indignant criticism in this country, if the Government should attempt now to avoid vigorous action by asserting that the Americans drowned by the torpedoing of the Lusitania were blamable in having taken passage on that vessel. They had the right to rely on the note of February 10th."
Mr. Lansing thus based his opposition to restrictions upon American travel largely on the principle that it would be dangerous for the Government to withdraw from the initial stand it had taken in February 1915, at the time of the declaration of the German war zone. Both he and Wilson were probably correct in believing that such a withdrawal from an established position would have encouraged Germany to proceed with other invasions of neutral rights, and would certainly destroy the position we had assumed against the submarine campaign as an inhuman form of warfare. In a memorandum prepared for Mr. Flood on the Gore-McLemore Resolution, the Secretary of State wrote on March 3, 1916: "to give up a right of travel as a matter of expediency is in a sense to approve the circumstances which force such an expedient act, namely, because submarines will sink merchant vessels without placing persons on board in safety. The consequence would be to take up a position in favor of this kind of inhuman warfare which the United States has denounced from the beginning and to assume a position against carrying out the well-known and fully established simple, practicable rules of naval warfare, which are based on the immutable principles of humanity, that human life is to be protected at sea when not engaged in resistance to belligerent right to warn and visit and search."
Not less important in Lansing's mind was the danger that by yielding on certain rights the United States would destroy the very basis of its neutral position. "To begin now in the midst of a war to give up a right as a matter of expediency is to open the door for similar concessions to either one of the other groups of opposing belligerents. A concession to one side might immediately be called to the attention of the Government by the other side with the request for some sort of concession to that side in order to balance matters. The Government would thus be placed in a most embarrassing position, for it would be subject to the charge of having favored one of the belligerents and refusing to favor the other belligerent -- a charge which amounts to saying that the United States had broken its obligation as a neutral in the present war." Such arguments President Wilson found unanswerable. To them he added his own subjective conviction that Germany was not to be trusted and that one concession to her would inevitably be followed by demands for another. "Once accept a single abatement of right," he wrote to Senator Stone, "and many other humiliations would certainly follow, and the whole fine fabric of international law might crumble under our hands piece by piece. What we are contending for in this matter is of the very essence of the things that have made America a sovereign nation."
In the controversy over armed merchantmen Mr. Lansing was clear in his opinion that the altered conditions of naval warfare resulting from the use of the submarine made it logical that the status of armed merchant vessels should be changed so that they could no longer enjoy immunity from attack without warning. Such a change in the rules would have gone far towards preventing incidents that might bring us into the war and could have been made without the obvious concession of a clear American right. On September 12, 1915, while the Arabic crisis was still unsettled, he wrote to Wilson urging him to make a new declaration regarding the armament of merchantmen, "because an armament, which under previous conditions, was clearly defensive, may now be employed for offensive operations against so small and unarmored a craft as a submarine." He went on to suggest that "this Government will hereafter treat as a ship of war any merchant vessel of belligerent nationality which enters an American port with any armament." Wilson did not object; indeed, he was rather sympathetic. But he urged delay until the diplomatic crisis with Germany was liquidated. In January 1916, Lansing returned to the attack. "If some merchant vessels carry arms and others do not," he wrote Wilson, "how can a submarine determine this fact without exposing itself to great risk of being sunk? Unless the Entente Allies positively agree not to arm any of their merchant vessels and notify the Central Powers to that effect, is there not strong reason why a submarine should not warn a vessel before launching an attack?" Wilson approved the argument and authorized the drafting of a letter presenting the proposal to the Allied Governments.
Lansing's enthusiasm did not blind him to the fact that his proposal did in reality involve a change in the rules that could be made only with the approval of all the belligerents. A sudden alteration in our treatment of Allied armed merchantmen without the agreement of the Allies might fairly be regarded by them as an unfair if not a hostile act. In making the suggestion he had evidently not determined whether, if the Allies refused, we should or should not go ahead anyway. Thus, on the eve of handing this proposal to the Allied Ambassadors he explained to Wilson that it "can be kept secret if it is refused by the Entente Governments and if it is considered inexpedient to make it public." Later, in reporting to the President on his interview with the Austrian chargé d'affaires, Zwiedenek, he emphasized the fact that the proposal was a request to the Allies "to modify the law," whereas we were merely asking the Central Powers to "abide by the law."
Such scruples, characteristic of a good lawyer's appreciation of points that tell against his own case, may have weakened Lansing's determination to proceed with the proposal after the Allies refused to accept it. He evidently made no strong effort to urge Wilson to go forward with it, and in sending to the President the text of the Allied refusal together with his own draft reply, he concluded, "I assume that it will close the incident." An important factor, affecting both Wilson's and Lansing's attitude toward the proposal, was the ill-advised haste of the Germans, who without waiting for a public declaration by the United States announced on February 8, 1916, that "within a short period" armed merchant vessels would be regarded as ships of war and treated accordingly. The President was evidently annoyed by what he regarded as an attempt to force his hand, and later, in two notes to Lansing, referred irritably to "Zweidenek's misrepresentation of your position," and to "the use the German representatives have tried to make of the proposal." Mr. Lansing himself was troubled by the fear that he might appear to have been used as an instrument of German policy. "I feel that the members of the Cabinet ought to know something of the difficulties which have we had to face," he wrote to Wilson on March 6, "and particularly the adroit efforts which have been made by the German Ambassador, for I consider Zwiedenek acting more or less under his direction, to cause embarrassment and place this Government in a false light." Unquestionably, both Wilson and Lansing were affected by the "sharpened submarine campaign" culminating in the sinking of the Sussex on March 24. Lansing made plain to Bernstorff on February 17, following the announcement of Germany's new submarine campaign, that the United States Government was in a less complaisant mood. Of equal importance were the delicate negotiations for peace which Colonel House was conducting and which on February 22 took form in the House-Grey Memorandum. On February 14, House telegraphed to Lansing from London regarding the discussion over armed merchantmen, "I sincerely hope you will leave it in abeyance until I return. I cannot emphasize too strongly the importance of this." All these factors combined to postpone and finally to eliminate Mr. Lansing's suggestion of altering the status of armed merchantmen.
Various writers have assumed that, had the United States put the Lansing proposal into effect against Allied vessels entering our ports, our difficulties with Germany would have ended. The assumption is a broad one. Despite the Allies' complete distrust of a German promise not to attack unarmed vessels without warning, a distrust expressed in Balfour's comments on the proposal and shared by Wilson, they would probably have had to accept the change in American policy and disarm their ships entering our ports. But it is certain that the general course of the war during 1916 would have compelled Germany ultimately to embark upon the unrestricted submarine campaign as the only means for destroying Allied tonnage and thus starving the British. All the German naval experts were convinced, then and later, that an effective blockade of the British Isles could not be accomplished by restricted submarine warfare. British ships, whether armed or unarmed, had to be sunk if there was to be any hope of a German victory.
Against the unrestricted submarine campaign both Wilson and Lansing had from the beginning taken a firm stand on the basis of international law and of human rights. On every page of these two volumes relating to the submarine there is implied the necessity of using armed force in behalf of that position, if Germany persisted in her chosen course. The issue arose immediately upon the declaration of the German "war zone" in February 1915, long before general loans were made to the Allies. The documents show Lansing as believing that we were on the verge of war in June 1915, not as the result of popular hysteria over the sinking of the Lusitania but because Germany had attacked a position from which we could not withdraw. On this occasion, as in the Sussex crisis, a diplomatic rupture was avoided only by Germany's promise not to renew the attack. It was assumed, and the German Ambassador accepted the assumption, that a renewal of the attack in the form of an unrestricted submarine campaign would inevitably lead to a diplomatic rupture and presumably to war.
That Wilson and Lansing as individuals sympathized with the cause of the Allies we know from other sources, and it is possible to find in these papers some trace of that sympathy. Lansing had early become convinced that a German victory would destroy the spread throughout the world of the democratic principle, a principle which he looked upon as offering a far better chance of fostering international peace than any League. But there is nothing to indicate that either he or Wilson believed that a German victory was so imminent, or that the resulting danger to the United States was so real, as to lead us to regard intervention in the war as a measure of national safety. Lansing comments critically upon Ambassador Page's pro-British sentiments, and there is no response to Gerard's warnings that if the Germans should win "we are next on the list -- in some part of South or Central America which is the same thing." The tone of all the letters, throughout the period of neutrality, is colored by the assumption that the obvious interests of the nation demand that we remain neutral. But there is also the assumption that over and above these interests there is a higher principle, more important even than peace, which the United States must defend in its own behalf and in that of humanity. This principle was respect for international law and customs, without which civilization could not survive.
For the sake of this principle, Wilson and Lansing believed, we entered the war and made our contribution to victory. Who shall say that the decision was not inspired by the highest ideals and the highest wisdom? Who can escape realization of the awful consequences that come from the application of force without principle to international affairs?