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9 The Break with Germany January–March 1917 On January 31, Ambassador Bernstorff presented Lansing with Germany’s response to Wilson’s recent “peace without victory” plea. The ambassador endorsed Wilson’s call for an economic open door, freedom of the seas, and equal rights for all nations. He backed the president’s plea for self-government of subject peoples, though he pointedly referred to British domination of Ireland and India. He denied that Germany sought to annex Belgium; Germany simply wanted to assure itself that enemies could not use the neighboring state as a base for instigating hostile intrigues. He accused the Allies of engaging in a “lust for conquest,” seeking to dismember Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria. Britain in particular insisted on continuing its “war of starvation” against women and children, the sick and the aged. But the ambassador conveyed a far more important message as well: his nation was about to launch an unrestricted submarine campaign, thereby declaring total maritime war against all neutrals. After February 1, the communiqué noted, German U-boats would sink without warning belligerent and neutral ships found in a designated zone comprising waters around Great Britain, France, and Italy, and in the eastern Mediterranean. The Admiralty made one minor exception: it would permit one American steamer a week to sail between New York and Falmouth provided it carried no contraband , was painted with red and white stripes, and sported a special red and white checkered flag. Initially Germany would grant a period of grace, during which its submarines would not harm neutral ships that either were en route to the war zone or had already arrived.1 Much of the American press reacted with rage. The Brooklyn Eagle mourned, “The freedom of the seas will now be enjoyed by icebergs and 250 The Break with Germany 251 fish.” “A Malay pirate could not have made the announcement more brutally ,” remarked the New York Evening Post. The Nation accused Germany of madness. The Outlook called Germany’s note “a declaration of war against the whole world.” Senator Sherman noted that even Attila the Hun spared civilians. The New Republic sought immediate diplomatic, economic, and military conferences between the Allies and neutral powers. The United States, it continued, should help the Entente police the oceans, send American volunteers to Europe, and train a large army on U.S. soil. Roosevelt asked the War Department for permission to raise an infantry division.2 Several voices dissented. Hearst’s New York American remarked: “No sensible American expected that a high-spirited and powerful people, such as the Germans are, would continue to submit to seeing their women and children starved by sea warfare without eventually striking back at their enemies by sea.” It nevertheless endorsed Wilson’s peacemaking efforts: “Whither he leads, there we will follow him.” Forming a league of neutral nations, a favorite Hearst scheme, could end the world war in ninety days; the body should simply refuse to trade with any belligerent that continued aggressive behavior or declined to negotiate.3 The American’s Berlin correspondent, William Bayard Hale, who had directed the German Information Service, denied that Germany would either jeopardize the lives of traveling Americans or engage in indiscriminate submarine warfare. Viereck accused Britain, not Germany, of engaging in the real “reign of terror,” for it converted merchantmen into auxiliary cruisers and mined the entire North Sea. Other German American journals pointed to the British “hunger blockade” and the Allies’ rejection of recent peace offers. Senator Wesley L. Jones advised every “real American” to “say nothing and stay at home.”4 Those with pacifist leanings expressed particular concern. Speaking to five thousand people in New York’s Madison Square Garden, Bryan told supporters of the American Neutral Conference Committee that the United States should seek arbitration, resorting to war solely in case of invasion. The American Union Against Militarism opposed any breach with Germany. An emergency committee of the Socialist Party sought to embargo shipments bound for any belligerent nation. Such prominent reformers as philanthropist George Foster Peabody and settlement worker Lillian Wald petitioned Wilson, asking him to offer personal mediation.5 Had Germany limited its U-boat attacks to armed ships or merchantmen belonging to the belligerent powers, argues Arthur S. Link, Wilson would 252 Nothing Less Than War have acquiesced in Germany’s decision, thereby accepting a modification of the Sussex pledge. Under certain circumstances, U-boat commanders could have even sunk American craft. By declaring war on...


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