Failures of Woodrow Wilson: Neutrality In War by Peter Moon

There are some portions of the 20th century that have been forgotten in history by our school systems. In cases of World War I, this is especially true. In this next installment of the Failures Of Woodrow Wilson, we’ll examine how the President failed at staying “Neutral” during America’s isolation in World War I.

World War I was one of Europe’s deadliest wars before 1930. In it, over 60 million people were killed. America did not get involved in the conflict until it had raged on for 3 years. Britain and France had been standing with Russia for those 3 years, but then Russian forces were called home due to revolutions in their nation in late 1917. Beforehand, Germany and its allies had declared all-out war on the Russian alliance, and this alliance had mobilized to meet German-Turkish forces in France by the late summer of 1914. However, the long lines of men on both sides had grown into mile-long trenches by the time September had rolled around. No one was going out, and no one was daring to push forward. By the war’s first month’s end, over half a million men had lost their lives; a testament to the bloody four years which would follow.

At home, however, Americans were not worried about leaving to fight overseas in a war they cared little about. Issues like workers’ strikes, food price increases, and neighbors’ civil wars were what concerned the majority of the lonely U.S. at the time.

However, these issues were not nonexistent in the mind and activity in the nation’s capital. Woodrow Wilson, the progressive Democratic president in the Oval Office at the time, had to deal with the issues involving Europe with a delicate hand. The problem with dealing through an overseas war is that one in power needs to stay popular. Wilson did this by attempting to approach The Great War through a ‘neutral’ path.

While Wilson may have privately supported Britain, France, and Russia in their war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, he did not want to publicly come out and join them in the conflict against the two empires. Wilson urged American citizens to be “Neutral in fact, as well as in name. Impartial in thought, as well as in action.”

In Wilson’s cabinet, William Jennings Bryan (you’ll remember him from last time) was the ‘truest’ neutrality-focused member. Bryan helped adopt a foreign policy which called for neutrality on all fronts, which included aide sales to either side during the war. He also advised Wilson on adopting rules that would discourage private loans to the belligerents in the war. To back this up, Jennings once wrote, “Money is the worst of all contraband because it commands everything else. The refusal of the United States to loan to any belligerent would naturally tend to hasten a conclusion to the war.” He also believed that such a ban would prevent Americans from taking sides through the war. On August 15th, Wilson and Bryan implemented the ‘Loan ban’ on both sides of the war. Even if the Loan Ban was benevolent in its initial implementation, history shows us that this ban was ultimately one-sided in its effect.

On our eventual side, this ban forced the British and Russian governments to pay cash for the goods they bought. The biggest issue of this soon appeared: in a war, money is usually scarce. So naturally, this ban forced the Allies to liquify their assets. This, in turn, caused the monetary reserves of the Allied nations to dry up. One might ask, “Didn’t this hurt the Central Powers, too? Weren’t they loaning money from America as well?”
Even if Germany, the Turks, and Austria-Hungary had been loaning from the U.S., they weren’t borrowing from us at the rate their enemies were (again, if is the key word). Some speculate that this ban if prolonged, would eventually end the war for the Allied powers; something Wilson did not want happening.

In addition, this ban hurt trade from America. Manufactures and farmers were the ones most affected by this. Like the classic phrase goes, “Guns or butter: which one should we focus on?” The Allies needed food, material, and weaponry. America wasn’t being bombed at the time; they had open shipping docks and farmland. America also had the Great Plains states like Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma; these areas were far from any conflict and were hubs of production for agricultural export. This stoppage on trade affected the farmers the worst; their trade prior to the ban was going to help America out of a possible recession. However, this ban cut off that source of additional income and halted income from Europe for these farmers. In two months, this ban was starting to cripple the Allies and America both.

In October, Wilson and Counselor Lansing modified the bill in order to offset the effects it was showing. This modification allowed American companies to extend lines of credit to foreign purchasers in order to increase trade. However, direct loans were still discouraged. This modification was sorely needed; from October to March, 80 million dollars in credit from the Allies had already been opened to these American companies. However, this ban was growing increasingly unpopular among Americans; thus, the ban was dropped one year later under the new Secretary of State Lansing. However, this one-year ban had affected the attitudes of U.S. bankers to a negative extent; when the British and French tried to get a 500-million-dollar loan from America (12 billion in 2019’s money), it was widely rejected, and ultimately failed.

With the resignation of William Jennings Bryan came a shift in American foreign policy when it regarded the war. Unlike Bryan, Lansing was increasingly pro-Allied. Lansing’s appointment was not based on his prior political experience, though; he was put into the vacated position because Wilson wanted to control foreign policy himself. He only wanted Lansing there to take care of the small things, like the details of new laws. The resignation of Bryan also showed that Wilson’s administration had lost one of the only strong advisors to the President; while Bryan was moderately close to Wilson in belief, he wasn’t afraid to push Wilson into seeing things from a different perspective.

Bryan’s Loan Ban originated out of the ideas that the Great War wouldn’t affect American interests, and that it could be shortened if its belligerents were starved. However, one quick look at the sides would prove the first assumption wrong; Britain and France were major trading partners with the U.S. If they were taken down by Germany, then that would mean the end to a free Europe as well as the end of two major allies.

On August 6th, 1914, Secretary Bryan sent a letter to both the Allies and Central Powers’ capitals, which requested that they honor an agreement called “The Declaration of London” (if you want to know what it was, then short notes will be provided at the end of this article under “Further Notes”). The Central Powers quickly agreed to this idea, since it would help them go around any British blockades. Britain predictably replied that they would not adopt these rules unless extensive changes were made. One such promoted change was the “Allowance of the British to seize almost any goods that were intended for enemy ports.” However, in the long run, this proposal was beneficial to the Island Empire. This is because Britain has always been known for its insanely strong naval power. If they were given allowance to use this power against Germany, this would cripple the German trading effort during the war. The British government slowly added a growing list of raw materials to the list of contraband that could be seized. These actions led to increasing domestic pressure in the U.S. for the government to reach an accommodation with the British government of these rules. Panic was so heavy among businesses that the New York Stock Exchange closed from July 31st to December 12th. Cotton prices fell by almost 50%, and farmers in the South demanded that the government determine fixed prices. The Treasury faced a massive deficit thanks to declining customs revenue, and congressional elections were coming up soon. These problems were going to be dealt with by the Wilson government, but a fast resolution could have come in the form of an agreement with the British government which could restore trade.
Colonel House (the same “House” from last time) was the saving grace of the situation. A month after receiving the British reply, the American State Department drafted a reply to the British. Finally, Robert Lansing sent out a reply letter to be reviewed by Wilson. House, who was with Wilson at the time, said the letter was “exceedingly undiplomatic”. In today’s speech, the letter was an utter diplomatic failure. He got Wilson to defer sending the letter to Britain and instead suggested other people should meet to discuss the possible resolutions to the issue. Wilson then sent Lansing to meet with Spring-Rice to tell him, “If the British would accept the Declaration of London, then the United States would consent to the addition of petroleum, wire fencing, and motors to the contraband list. Moreover, [the U.S.] would look the other way if food shipments were cut off from the Central Powers.” In retrospect, one can clearly see the non-neutral stance the proposed concessions put the Americans into. There is a chance, though, that Lansing included some things originally not allowed by Wilson. But, whatever the case, these concessions were massive for America to take. One month later, this issue was finally resolved when America announced that they would no longer push for acceptance of the declaration, and would instead rely on existing international law to protect its’ rights.
However, this announcement actually helped the British overall; traditional international law placed less restriction on what the British could do with their navy.

In the end, this whole debacle did not help the Americans in their attempt to stay neutral. Instead, the weakness of the American government allowed the British to bluff their way through the situation. In the end, the Americans’ decision to stop pushing for adherence to the Declaration showed that we were willing to interfere with our future Allies’ war effort, which would have killed the Allies’ overall war effort in the long run. The failed negotiations showed American weakness, which damaged our national presence on the world stage. This also showed our enemies that we were willing to go to unneutral places in order to regulate the war. These actions would eventually lead to unnecessary deaths and our entrance into the war.

On February 4th, 1915, Germany declared that 11 days later (on February 15th), it’s nations submarines would be authorized to sink enemy merchant vessels without warning in an area encircling the British Islands. To prevent the sinking of more vessels, the German government suggested a simple solution: stay away from this area. This immediately made several problems arise: one of them was the targeting of American and British liners who were shipping goods back and forth from America and other nations. To be fair, however, Germany only had 22 submarines to enforce this warzone. However, that’s not a fact that everyone was privy to back then. This action confirmed American belief that Germany was a militarist empire, where concessions would be very difficult. Of course, America sent a response to the Germans; in short, it said that Germany would be held responsible for any and all actions its military took from now on.

The real first casualty of the new German policy was William Thrasher, an American who died with the UK liner Falaba on March 28th, 1915. After this, Secretary Bryan brought up the idea that any American sailing on a ‘belligerent-owned ship’ was guilty of “contributory negligence”. He also joined Robert Lansing in the man’s assertion that submarine warfare was considered illegal; this was because submarines could not follow the same rules required of surface-vessel warfare. Wilson took both men’s assertions but also thought that the central issue was that Thrasher had died because of German military action. He believed the men on the U-28 (the sub that sank the Falaba) were in direct violation of international law. However, the Thrasher case was not clear enough to prosecute or imply German fault; thus, the case was not brought up again.

American ships began to continuously be targeted (or be the victim of) German naval entities. On May 1st, the American tanker Gulflight lost 3 lives when it was damaged by a German U-boat’s torpedo. Then, on May 7th, the UK ship Lusitania was sunk by a torpedo from a German submarine. 128 Americans joined 1,073 passengers and crew. This loss of life horrified Americans, and Woodrow Wilson secluded himself in the White House for 3 days afterward. After this, Wilson revealed that he thought joining the Great War would disqualify America’s moral standing in the world, as well as remove its’ “neutral” status from the list. On May 11th, Wilson read a letter to his cabinet that basically called for Germany to stop the submarine warfare. He was not going to be swayed from this stand, and unknowingly had put the decision to bring America into the Great War strongly into the German government’s hands.

Bryan didn’t like this stance, and he let his protest be known to Wilson. He suggested multiple different solutions to the problem. They ranged from: waiting to resolve the issue until after the war, or even presenting the letter alongside one from Britain. However, Wilson ignored and rejected every one of these suggestions. Thanks to these actions, Bryan resigned on June 8th in protest of Wilson’s policies, which he believed would lead America to war. Everyone was sad about the resignation since Bryan was a likable person. Sadly, the man who was appointed to replace him was more ready to enter the war.

Wilson was not helpful in solving the submarine warfare issue. In many meetings with advisors and aides, he would get angry and bored with the presenters for various reasons. He would welcome knowledgeable people but wanted advice from those who more readily agreed with him.
In a rare accomplishment, the German military announced it would stop attacking passenger liners unwarranted. This was a win for Wilson; it seemed at the time that the Germans had finally come around to the fact that they were antagonizing a sleeping bear. However, two more British liners were sunk in both November and December, both in questionable circumstances.

The issues with the attacks on unarmed and unwarned ships brought Wilson around to the idea that the United States needed to build it’s military up. In 1914, America’s military only numbered in the area of 100,000. By 1917, this number of American military forces had more than doubled.
There is a problem with Wilson’s “Preparedness” policy. In 1916, Wilson won his re-election bid on the idea that he would not go into World War I. However, his military buildup would suggest he was planning on possible intervention into the Great War some time on the horizon.

In 1915, Wilson’s cabinet and British government officials decided to come up with an “international league” of allied nations which would maintain peace in the coming future. This proposal would come later in 1918 as the failed League of Nations. The set-up of the League came in stages. In the first stage, Wilson and his cabinet announced they’d hold a conference which would try to make Germany stop the war and declare a negotiated peace. However, this conference never came to be, and thus the memorandum was scrapped.

In 1916, the Democratic House tried to propose a memorandum which would warn Americans from going on vessels which were unsafe in the waters at the time. However, Wilson and his cabinet got the resolution killed. This resolution could have saved lives, yet Wilson did not want it to pass.

Through the summer of 1916, American and British relations soured to the near point of collapse. However, on the other hand, American-German relations warmed to a point they hadn’t been at before 1915.

In 1916, Wilson sent a letter to Allied governments who were fighting against the Central Powers at the time. In his letter, Wilson claimed he didn’t know what the Allied aims were, nor did he understand the reasons they were fighting. This angered the Allies to a point, but Secretary Lansing assured them in private the Americans were closer and closer to war. In addition, Lansing said that the Americans were willing to join the Allies, and would never fight with Germany in the war. This stupid move was a complete one-eighty on the whole “Neutrality” idea the Wilson government had tried to show itself as being. Then, on April 6th, 1917, we declared war on Germany. Finally, after 2 ½ years of “isolation”, the Sleeping Giant had been awakened.

While some may say Wilson handled the non-interventionism before WWI skillfully, one look at history tells a different story. Under his watch, Britain threatened American shippers with possible “contraband seizures” and many, many times where American ships were taken by British vessels. In this time before 1917, American lives were lost due to little or no action by the Wilson administration. Finally, we jumped into the war in its 3rd year. By then, more than half the overall deaths had already been taken. These actions by Wilson were not skillful; they were inept. If Wilson had started to directly help Britain earlier in the war, then what would have happened? Would the war have gone down faster? Would 60 million lives had been lost? No one knows. But, alternate timelines could be established. The world will never know. However, one thing is for sure: Wilson failed in his attempt to stay neutral before he joined the war. This failure will be scrutinized by historians for decades to come and will be used as a “what not to do” guide by military analysts for years to come.

Much of the information written in this article was taken from “The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, Chapter 7: Neutrality And War, 1914-1917”. Many of the dates and names were directly cited from the chapter, and all of the quotes were taken from the book as well.
The Declaration of London (established in 1909)
1. Sought to outlaw “general capture” of enemy commerce on the high seas during wartime.
2. A wartime blockade is illegal unless it actually prevents ships from entering or leaving blockaded ports.
3. Also limits contraband items which can be legally seized from enemy combatants (extension of rule 1). ‘Raw Materials’ and cotton were not to be considered on this list of items.

Follow Peter, @realPeterMoon. He also writes for The Political Curriculum.

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