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lives, evoked a chorus of bitter complaints from American producers and exporters. Commerce with neutral countries of Europe threatened to become completely interrupted. On the 21st of October and again on the 26th of December, the State Department sent notes of protest to the British Government. The tone of the discussion was notably sharpened by the seizure of the Wilhelmina, supposedly an American ship, though, as later developed, she had been chartered by a German agent in New York, Dr. Heinrich F. Albert, in order to bring the Anglo-American dispute to a head.
How far the interference with our trade by the British might have embittered relations, if other issues had not seemed more pressing, no one can say. Precisely at the moment when business men were beginning to call upon Wilson for a sturdier defense of American commercial rights, a controversy with Germany eclipsed, at least from the eye of the general public, all other foreign questions. From the moment when the defeat on the Marne showed the Germans that victory was not likely to come quickly to their arms, the Berlin Government realized the importance of preventing the export of American munitions. Since the allies held control of the seas an embargo on such export
would be entirely to German advantage, and the head of German propaganda in this country, a former Colonial Secretary, Dr. Bernhard Dernburg, attempted to mobilize German-American sentiment and to bring pressure upon Congressmen through their constituents in favor of such an embargo. It was easy to allege that the export of arms, since they went to the allied camp alone, was on its face, unneutral. Several Senators approved the embargo, among them the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, William J. Stone of Missouri. Against the proposed embargo Wilson set his face steadfastly. He perceived the fallacy of the German argument and insisted that to prevent the export of arms would be itself unneutral. The inability of the Central Powers to import arms from the United States resulted from their inferiority on the high seas; the Government would be departing from its position of impartiality if it failed to keep American markets open to every nation of the world, belligerent or neutral. The United States could not change the rules in the middle of the game for the advantage of one side. The perfect legality of Wilson's decision has been frankly recognized since the war by the German Ambassador.
But the execution of German military plans demanded that the allied shortage in munitions, upon which the Teutons counted for success in the spring campaigns, should not be replenished from American sources. Failing to budge Wilson on the proposal of an embargo, they launched themselves upon a more reckless course. On February 4, 1915) the German Admiralty issued a proclamation to the effect that after the 18th of February, German submarines would destroy every enemy merchant vessel found in the waters about the British Isles, which were declared a “war zone”; and that it might not be possible to provide for the safety of crew or passengers of destroyed vessels. Neutral ships were warned of the danger of destruction if they entered the zone. The excuse alleged for this decided departure from the custom of nations was the British blockade upon foodstuffs, which had been declared as a result of the control of food in Germany by the Government. Here was quite a different matter from British interference with American trade-rights; for if the German threat were carried into effect it signified not merely the destruction or loss of property, for which restitution might be made, but the possible drowning of American citizens, perhaps women and children, who would be entirely within their rights in traveling upon merchant vessels and to whom the Government owed protection.
Wilson's reply was prompt and definite. "If the commanders of German vessels of war should ... destroy on the high seas an American vessel or the lives of American citizens, it would be difficult for the Government of the United States to view the act in any other light than as an indefensible violation of neutral rights. ... The Government of the United States would be constrained to hold the Imperial German Government to a strict accountability for such acts of their naval authorities and to take any steps it might be necessary to take to safeguard American lives and property and to secure to American citizens the full enjoyment of their acknowledged rights on the high seas.” It was the clearest of warnings. Would Germany heed it? And if she did not, would Wilson surrender his pacific ideals and take the nation into war?
EARLY in the winter of 1914–1915 President Wilson apparently foresaw something of the complications likely to arise from the measures and countermeasures taken by the belligerents to secure control of overseas commerce, and sent his personal adviser, Colonel House, across the Atlantic to study the possibilities of reaching a modus vivendi. There was no man so well qualified for the mission. Edward Mandell House was a Texan by birth, but a cosmopolitan by nature. His hobby was practical politics; his avocation the study of history and government. His catholicity of taste is indicated by the nature of his library, which includes numerous volumes not merely on the social sciences but also on philosophy and poetry. His intellectual background was thus no less favorable than his political for the post which he assumed as Wilson's personal adviser. Disqualified by physical delicacy