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This exhausted the patience of the American Government. On February 3d President Wilson directed that passports be given to the German Ambassador and that the American Ambassador be recalled from Berlin, thus severing diplomatic relations between the two countries. This, as the President made clear in a convincing address to Congress, was in fulfilment of the warning which had been given, as hitherto quoted, in the Sussex case. A few days later Germany, through Switzerland as an intermediary, sought to parley over the matter, but the President declined to receive the overtures which were offered.
ARMED NEUTRALITY The next step was that of armed neutrality. We were not at war with Germany, and it was still hoped by some that we should be able to avoid war. But Germany was putting into effect her threats of a resumption and intensification of the submarine campaign, and had sunk not only many British vessels but also two American vessels, the Housatonic and the Lyman M. Law. Accordingly on February 26th the President asked Congress for permission to supply defensive arms to merchant ships at his discretion.
The German press, by permission of the imperial censor and thus presumably with the approval of the Imperial Government, printed conspicuous articles, declaring that the submarines would thereafter destroy all vessels found within the war zone, regardless of their character or nationality. In fulfilment of that threat the armed American merchant steamer Aztec was attacked and sunk. This was on April ist, off the French coast, near Brest. Eleven of the crew were reported lost.
The next day, April 2d, the President asked Congress to declare war.
FUTILE EFFORTS FOR PEACE
Germany's Cynical Overtures — Their Rejection by the Allied Powers — Their Purposes Disclosed - President Wilson's Peace Note – His Conception of the Objects of the Belligerents - The Interests of the United States Involved - Seeking Acceptable Terms — Equivocal Acceptance by Germany - Rejection by the Allies — The President's Peace Message to the Senate — Proposing the Principles of the Monroe Doctrine for All the World.
WE TRIED peace first. That fact must be remembered, and it will be well to turn back a moment and recall the various overtures which were made for peace only a little while before Germany forced America into this monstrous war. Germany and her allies themselves suggested peace, in characteristic fashion. On December 12, 1916, they issued an identic note to the United States and other neutral powers, for transmission to the opposing belligerents, proposing a peace conference. They said:
"The four allied powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey) have been obliged to take up arms to defend justice and the liberty of national evolution. ... The spiritual and material progress which were the pride of Europe are threatened with ruin. ... If, in spite of this offer of peace and reconciliation, the struggle should go on, the four allied powers are resolved to continue to a victorious end, but they disclaim responsibility for this before humanity and history.".
REJECTED BY THE ALLIES This cynically insincere proposal, with its unblushing perversions of truth, was emphatically rejected by the Allies on December 30th. In their note of reply they said: “The putting forward by the Imperial Government of a sham proposal lacking all substance and precision would appear to be less an offer of peace than a war manœuvre. It is founded on calculated misinterpretation of the character of the struggle in the past, the present, and the future.
“As for the past, the German note takes no account of the facts, dates, and figures, which establish that the war was desired, provoked, and declared by Germany and Austria-Hungary
“At The Hague Conference it was a German delegate who refused all proposals for disarmament. Austria-Hungary, who, after having addressed to Serbia an unprecedented ultimatum, declared war upon her in spite of the satisfaction which had at once been accorded.
“The Central Empires then rejected all attempts made by the Entente to bring about a pacific solution of a purely local conflict. Great Britain suggested a conference; France proposed an international commission; the Emperor to go to arbitration, and Russia and Austria-Hungary came to an understanding on the eve of the conflict. But to all these efforts Germany gave neither answer nor effect.
“Belgium was invaded by an empire which had guaranteed her neutrality and which had the assurance to proclaim that treaties were 'scraps of paper,' and that 'necessity knows no law.' ...
PURPOSE OF THE OVERTURES “In reality these overtures made by the Central Powers are nothing more than a calculated attempt to influence the future course of war and to end it by imposing a German peace. The object of these overtures is to create dissension in public opinion in the allied countries. But that
public opinion has, in spite of all the sacrifices endured by the Allies, already given its answer with admirable firmness, and has denounced the empty pretense of the declaration of the enemy powers. ...
"Finally, these overtures attempt to justify in advance in the eyes of the world a new series of crimes-submarine warfare, deportations, forced labor and forced enlistment of the inhabitants against their own countries, and violations of neutrality.
"Fully conscious of the gravity of this moment, but equally conscious of its requirements, the allied governments, closely united to one another and in perfect sympathy with their peoples, refuse to consider a proposal which is empty and insincere.
“Once again the Allies declare that no peace is possible so long as they have not secured reparation for violated rights and liberties, the recognition of the principle of nationality and of the free existence of small states, so long as they have not brought about a settlement calculated to end once and for all forces which have constituted a perpetual menace to the nations, and to afford the only effective guarantee for the future security of the world. ..."
PRESIDENT WILSON'S PEACE NOTE At the very time when that German note was issued, President Wilson, in entire ignorance of it, had in preparation a note addressed to all the belligerent powers, inviting them to make an exchange of declarations of purposes and of terms on which peace would be acceptable. This was issued by him on December 18th, with a brief explanation that it had absolutely no connection whatever with the German note which had been issued a few days before.
This note, signed by the Secretary of State, ran in part as follows:
“The President suggests that an early occasion be sought to call out from all the nations now at war such an avowal of their respective views as to the terms upon which the war might be concluded, and the arrangements which would be deemed satisfactory as a guaranty against its renewal or the kindling of any similar conflict in the future as would make it possible frankly to compare them. He is indifferent as to the means taken to accomplish this. He would be happy himself to serve, or even to take the initiative in its accomplishment, in any way that might prove acceptable, but he has no desire to determine the method or the instrumentality. One way will be as acceptable to him as another, if only the great object he has in mind be attained.
OBJECTS OF THE BELLIGERENTS “He takes the liberty of calling attention to the fact that the objects, which the statesmen of the belligerents on both sides have in mind in this war, are virtually the same, as stated in general terms to their own people and to the world. Each side desires to make the rights and privileges of weak peoples and small states as secure against aggression or denial in the future as the rights and privileges of the great and powerful states now at war. Each wishes itself to be made secure in the future, along with all other nations and peoples, against the recurrence of wars like this and against aggression or selfish interference of any kind. Each would be jealous of the formation of any more rival leagues to preserve an uncertain balance of power amid multiplying suspicions; but each is ready to consider the formation of a league of nations to insure peace and justice throughout the world.