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no responsibility for the loss of neutral lives.'
If the Allies had acceded to this proposition they would have voluntarily given up all the protection that their merchantmen had against the submarines and would have placed them at the mercy of the undersea craft. That they would voluntarily make such a sacrifice in order to relieve Germany of the embarrassment in which international law had placed her could hardly be expected of the best-natured belligerents. Consequently, they all politely declined the offer of State Department. The British ambassador in his reply made this statement: "Great Britain is unable to agree that upon a non-guaranteed German promise, human life may be surrendered defenseless to the mercy of an enemy who has shown himself to be both faithless and lawless." 10
At this juncture Congress unfortunately took up the question and resolutions were offered providing that American citizens be warned to keep off of armed merchantmen. It looked as if the resolution would be supported by a large majority in both houses. President Wilson now took a firm stand with reference to the right of American citizens to travel on defensively-armed vessels and used his influence against the resolutions. 9 Jour. (10), 313, 318.
10 Jour. (10), 336–8, 340-1.
The supporters of the President's policy mustered their forces against the resolutions and succeeded in having them tabled in both houses early in March. The executive was now free to deal with the situation without Congressional interference and final action was taken by our State Department on April 26. At that time there was published a memorandum (dated March 25) which definitely outlined the future attitude of the Government toward armed merchantmen. The position taken in this memorandum was, in brief, as follows:
A merchant vessel has the right to arm for defense and when so armed must be treated by both neutrals and belligerents as a merchantman. If armed for offense it assumes the status of a war ship and must be so regarded by both belligerents and neutrals. In determining whether the armament of a merchant vessel is for offense or defense the neutral must take into account all evidence, such as instructions to the commander, previous career of the vessel, size and position of the guns, etc. The neutral may act upon a reasonable presumption in withholding hospitality from an armed merchantman. On the other hand, a belligerent must act only on proof in treating an armed vessel as a war ship.11 11 Jour. (10), 367–72.
The negotiations regarding armed merchantmen proved to be of only academic interest, as the only important controversies between America and Germany before the break in relations resulted from the latter's attacks on unarmed merchantmen. In March four English vessels and one French liner 12 on which were American citizens were sunk by German submarines and a number of American lives were lost. Secretary Lansing made prompt inquiry of Germany as to whether she or her allies were responsible for these sinkings.13 The most important of these cases was that of the Sussex. The Sussex was an unarmed French steamer, was sunk without warning in the British Channel on March 24, 1916, and about eighty non-combatant passengers “of all ages and sexes, including citizens of the United States, were killed or injured.'
The German foreign office made its reply to Lansing's inquiries in a note bearing date of April 10. The sinking of three of the vessels was admitted and the case of another was still being investigated. The foreign minister contended, however, that these three vessels had tried to escape after having been summoned to stop and that in every case they were sunk only
12 The Englishman, the Manchester Engineer, the Berwindale, the Eagle Point, and the Sussex.
13 Jour. (10), 181-3.
after the passengers had been put in life boats. The opinion was expressed that the Sussex could not have been injured by a German submarine but had probably been sunk by a British mine. It was admitted that a German submarine had torpedoed a vessel in the British Channel at about the time and place that the Sussex was sunk, but the submarine commander said that the vessel attacked by him had the appearance of a war ship. It could not have been the Sussex, the note contended, inasmuch as the picture of his victim drawn by the German commander did not correspond with a picture of the Sussex found in an English newspaper. The German foreign office went on to state that it would, however, welcome any additional evidence that the American Government might have at its disposal. In case the two Governments could not come to an agreement, Germany was willing to settle the facts by a mixed commission in accordance with the Hague Convention of 1907.14
A week later (April 18) Secretary Lansing made a reply which was a vigorous arraignment of Germany not only for this offense but for her whole submarine policy. He made the charge and backed it up with incontrovertible evidence that the Sussex had been sunk without warning by a German torpedo. The of14 Jour. (10), 183–186.
fense was aggravated, he said, by the fact that it was not an isolated case but only an extreme instance of an unjustifiable policy which had resulted in the loss of hundreds of American lives. This practice had been maintained in spite of assurances given by the German Government "to the Government of the United States that at least passenger ships would not be thus dealt with.” At the end the note assumed the tone of an ultimatum. It said:
Unless the Imperial Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government of the United States can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire altogether. This action the Government of the United States contemplates with the greatest reluctance but feels constrained to take in behalf of humanity and the rights of neutral nations.15
This vigorous assertion of American rights seemed to bring the German Government to a realization of the gravity of the situation. Lansing's note was followed by a speech made by President Wilson before a joint session of Congress in which the same principles were emphatically enunciated.16 Wilhelmstrasse was now doubtless convinced that the American Government had reached the limit of its
15 Jour. (10), 186–195.