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do in fact what they have warned us they will feel at liberty to do. ... Only actual overt acts on their part can make me believe it even now. ... If American ships or American lives should in fact be sacrificed by their naval commanders in heedless contravention of the just and reasonable understandings of international law and the obvious dictates of humanity, I shall take the liberty of coming again before the Congress, to ask that authority be given me to use any means that may be necessary for the protection of our seamen and our people in the prosecution of their peaceful and legitimate errands on the high seas.12
When our ambassador at Berlin was notified of the break in relations, he immediately asked for his passports. They were denied him for the alleged reason that Count Bernstorff might be detained in America and the German ships in American harbors were reported to have been confiscated by the Government. Ambassador Gerard tells us that he was asked by the acting foreign minister to sign a document reaffirming and adding to the treaty of 1799 between Prussia and the United States and was told that if he refused to do so “it would be very difficult for Americans to leave the country, particularly the American correspondents.” Mr. Gerard declined to sign the paper, saying at the time, “I would stay here until hell freezes over before I would put my name to such a paper.
Our ambassador was in the meantime vir
12 Dip. Cor., 409–13.
tually a prisoner in his residence. He was cut off from telephone, mail, and telegraph privileges for a few days until a message was received in Berlin from the editor of the New York Times, stating that Bernstorff was being courteously treated in America and Germany's ships had not been confiscated. He was then allowed to leave for the United States. 13
Germany proceeded to put into practice the policy announced on January 31. The submarines became more active than ever, and nearly one hundred ships are said to have been sunk in two weeks. Two American ships were in this number and American lives had also been lost. These sinkings were, however, as President Wilson said, accompanied by “no circumstances which might not have been expected at any time in connection with the use of the submarine against merchantmen as the German Government has used it." In other words, the President took the position (February 26) that no overt act had been committed and the situation was virtually the same as it was when diplomatic relations were severed. But our vessels were afraid to leave port for the war zone and the effect of the German threat was to drive American and other neutral shipping off the high seas.14
13 Gerard, 375–385.
President Wilson felt that our Government should take steps to restore to American commerce its rights on the ocean. His plan was to arm our merchant ships so that they could effectively defend themselves from undersea attack. He considered that he had power to do this without any special authorization from Congress, but felt that a policy fraught with such serious possibilities should have the support of the representatives of the people. Accordingly, he appeared before Congress (February 26) and asked for authority to arm American merchantmen for defense "and to employ any other instrumentalities or methods that may be necessary and adequate to protect our ships and our people in their legitimate and peaceful pursuits on the seas." 15
Resolutions empowering the President to arm our merchant ships were offered in both the Senate and the House of Representatives and both houses were overwhelmingly in favor of the policy. There was, however, some opposition to the proposal that the President be given discretionary power as to the use of "other means and instrumentalities" and also to the inclusion in the list of ships to be protected by the Government those vessels carrying contraband of war.
While Congress was still considering the 15 Cong. Record, LIV, 4272, cited by Robinson and West.
question there was made public an important document which had come into the possession of our State Department. This was a letter written on January 19, 1917, by Dr. Alfred Zimmermann, German Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, to Von Eckhard, German minister to Mexico. In this letter Dr. Zimmermann stated that Germany would soon resume ruthless submarine warfare and that the United States might in consequence be drawn into the war. In case the United States should enter the war against Germany, the Mexican minister was to try to form an alliance between Germany and Mexico.
and Mexico. Financial support could be promised Mexico, and she would be encouraged by Germany “to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.” The German minister was also to suggest "that the President of Mexico, on his own initiative, should communicate with Japan suggesting adherence at once to this plan." 16
The publication of this note strengthened the sentiment in Congress in favor of a more vigorous policy toward Germany and the House of Representatives passed the armed neutrality bill by an almost unanimous vote.17 The bill as it passed the House omitted the
16 This letter can be found conveniently in the Handbook of the War (National Security League), pp. 37–8.
17 The vote was 403 to 13.
clause empowering the President to "employ any other instrumentalities or methods” that he might deem necessary. A very large majority of the senators were also in favor of the measure but a small “group of willful men” in the upper house were by filibustering opposition able to keep the resolution from coming to a vote before the session came to an end on March 4. The policy of armed neutrality had, however, received a virtual endorsement by Congress, and on March 12 a proclamation was issued stating that merchantmen passing through the war zone would be armed for defense.
In the meantime, Germany was carrying out her ruthless submarine warfare and many overt acts were committed. President Wilson had already (March 9) summoned Congress to meet in extra session on April 16. But the situation was becoming so grave that the President considered it necessary for Congress to convene at an earlier date. Accordingly, he issued another proclamation calling Congress together on April 2,"to receive a communication by the Executive on grave questions of national policy, which should be immediately taken under consideration."
On the opening day of this special session (April 2), President Wilson appeared before Congress in joint session and made his famous