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Neutrality and the World War

ISSUE:  Spring 1936

Neutrality, 1914-1915. By Ray Stannard Baker. Garden City:  Doubleday, Doran and Company. $4.00.

At Washington, as the reviewer sits down to write this review, the sagacious statesmen of the post-war period are busy framing neutrality legislation. This legislation, it appears, is to end forever any danger of American involvement in a foreign war; by a formula more or less rigid—as many Senators would have it, more rigid than less so—the way is to be paved for the avoidance of those manifold difficulties that confronted the administration of Woodrow Wilson nearly twenty years ago.

All this, no doubt, is laudable effort; but it omits to take account of the state of mind which a general European war might be expected to breed in the United States, and the public opinion which some future administration may face when the war drums beat once more on the other side of the Atlantic. No less does it fail to take account of the economic forces which may operate upon that public opinion and upon that administration, making choices less easy and less simple than our national legislators now suppose. Amidst a host of lesser matters, these are the two large facts which stand out from the Memoirs of Robert Lansing and the fifth volume of Ray Stannard Baker’s notable biography of Woodrow Wilson. It is easy to talk of neutrality and of dispassionate judgment even when the rest of the world has lost its head. But it is not so easy to be completely detached in practice, and most of the men of 1914 have little right to claim that virtue.

Woodrow Wilson, says his biographer, made a tremendous effort to preserve the objective point of view. His ancestry, his studies, his literary tastes, all gave him a strong personal feeling for the British people. Yet he was aware that the issues of the war were not simple; he urged the American people “to put a curb” upon its sentiment, to remain “impartial in thought”; he was keenly aware that the presence of Russia on the side of the Allies meant that a great despotism would be one of the chief beneficiaries of Allied victory; he refused to protest against the invasion of Belgium. Only after the submarine warfare, perhaps early in May of 1915, thinks Mr. Baker, did his sympathy with the Allies become pronounced.

I wish that I could be fully convinced that this were so. Mr. Wilson seems to have revealed strong feeling in an interview with Sir Cecil Spring-Rice in September of 1914; and he was certainly aware of and approved the remarkable proposal of Councillor Lansing at the beginning of October, by which the State Department was good enough to point out to the British government how it might accept the Declaration of London, and keep out of trouble with the United States, and yet do much as it pleased in interrupting neutral trade. Mr. Baker himself indeed recognizes that as early as January, 1915, Wilson was clearly committed to the policy of avoiding any real contest with Great Britain; such a decision in itself seems to show that there was already an important parti pris in his thinking.

To say this is to cast no disparagement upon a great man and a great statesman. In the policy of restraint toward Great Britain which Woodrow Wilson pursued in 1914 and 1915, he was faithfully interpreting the public opinion of the United States, whose first reaction, then, as now, was to “keep out of trouble.” Those gentlemen who complain because no threats went from Washington to Downing Street, and because a “strong policy” was not adopted towards the British, have ceased to remember what 1914 was really like. The President of the United States does not act in a vacuum; Wilson, in dealing none too severely with the Allied interruptions to American trade, was doing what was wanted, beyond a doubt, and was no more pro-Ally than most Americans. He was never swept off his feet by his sympathies, as is clear when it comes to the study of our relations with Germany. He was no hot-head when the Lusitania went down. Despite his resentment at German policy, he clung to neutrality when German provocations threatened to sweep us into war.

If not completely neutral, indeed, how much cooler was Woodrow Wilson than was Robert Lansing. On taking office in June, 1915, Lansing confided to his diary the following significant observations: “Germany must not be permitted to win this war or to break even, though to prevent it this country is forced to take an active part. This ultimate necessity must be constantly in our minds in all our controversies with the belligerents. American public opinion must be prepared for the time, which may come, when we will have to cast aside our neutrality and become one of the champions of democracy.” Not much impartiality in this!

Or consider, shall we say, the position of Colonel House. Reflect upon the nervousness with which the Colonel viewed one of the first of a long series of protests to Great Britain; reflect upon his friendship with Grey; reflect upon his protracted stay in Great Britain in the early spring of 1915, at a time when, as Mr. Baker points out, the President was urging him to get in touch with the Germans, and Ambassador Gerard had warned that peace proposals were a question of hours; reflect upon his attitude in the Lusitania and Sussex crises.

As for Walter Hines Page, it is useless to emphasize the story of his almost hysterical Anglophilia. Mr. Baker has brought out this matter well; and on this subject he has said what needs to be said, even though said before.

Now all this involves no dogmatic criticism of any of these men. This reviewer is not debating the great, the insoluble, question, as to whether, after all, the issues which men thought they saw in 1914 were the genuine issues of the World War; he is not re-opening the argument as to whether Allied victory was as indispensable as Mr. Lansing thought it to be, or whether some other ending of the war might have been a happy one. After all, we live in a world of actualities ; and the “might have beens” and the “would have beens” of history are at the best the mere hypotheses which can never be proved or disproved. No, the essence of the matter is not there; it lies in the fact, neglected by many of our present legislators, that men will not be really neutral in a great world struggle, any more than the New England Federalists were neutral in 1805 or 1807; any more than Wilson or House or Page or Lansing was completely neutral in 1914 and 1915.

But what of Mr. Bryan? It is sometimes stated nowadays that Mr. Bryan was the only intelligently neutral member of the cabinet. He was certainly less pro-Ally than most of the others. Mr. Baker himself believes that he loomed up as “the statesman of largest calibre” among the President’s advisers, basing this judgment largely upon the Secretary of State’s desire to press American mediation upon the belligerents and upon his attitude on war loans. But against this view it must be stated (and Mr. Baker states it) that at more than one critical period the Secretary was absent from Washington, and that without having had any hand in its drafting he signed the important note of February 10 warning Germany that she would be held to strict accountability in the submarine warfare. He was, it would appear, “befuddled with legalisms,” and one feels by no means confident that he had a clear and consistent view of the situation. It may have been brave, and even wise, for him to have resigned in June, but the statesman who put his name to the note of February 10 was surely inconsistent in refusing to face its consequences when the German submarine question reached an acute crisis. This is no severe condemnation; for to see clearly was not easy in the midst of the hurly-burly; and the logicians of 1935 who perceive what ought to have been done in 1914 and 1915 hardly realize how much wisdom hindsight has given them.

In the painful confusion of the war years economic forces played a part that remains to be determined. That they were all-controlling would be very difficult to maintain; but it is interesting to trace in Mr. Baker’s volume the evolution of our policy with regard to loans to belligerents. At first the State Department set itself against such loans; both Mr. Bryan and Mr. Lansing held this point of view. But circumstances altered the position taken. In order to meet American indebtedness in London, it was necessary to reestablish the export commerce interrupted by the war; and to do this the granting of short-term credits was almost essential. By October, 1914, the first of these had been granted the French government, and the way was paved for commitments on a larger and larger scale. By another year both Lansing and McAdoo were in favor of loans reaching to hitherto unsuspected heights; the preservation—and the expansion—of American trade, McAdoo argued, made such action imperative. The President reluctantly yielded, and another link was forged in the increasing connection between American interest and Allied victory.

But let not the economic interpretation of diplomatic history mislead the student. Mr. Baker wisely does not claim, or assert, that the war loans shaped Wilsonian policy. By the fall of 1915 the submarine issue had been defined; and it was fairly clear that German insistence on underseas warfare might end in a diplomatic rupture with the United States. The administration did have one opportunity to alter its position; in the winter of that year the rejection by Great Britain of the Lansing proposal that Allied merchant ships should not carry arms, and that German submarines should not sink without warning, offered an opportunity to warn Americans off the armed vessels of the Entente powers, and thus avoid the issue. Standing on its strict legal rights, the administration demanded the defeat of House and Senate resolutions which would have accomplished this object; and this momentous decision is insufficiently explained in the War Memoirs. But it would be difficult to show that it was influenced by any economic motive.

It is not possible, in a brief review, to mention more than the salient features of the two books under consideration. Mr. Baker’s volume has some interesting chapters on some of the domestic problems of the administration; it might have been wished that it dealt in more detail with the second half of the year 1915. Mr. Lansing’s Memoirs cover the period from his taking office as Secretary to the end of the war, and one of the most interesting chapters is that on the Lansing-Ishii agreement, in which the United States for the first time recognized the “special interests” of Japan in China. The former Secretary of State defends this phrase by declaring it to be obvious that “geographical propinquity” does create such interests, and by referring to the assurances given by Japan with regard to the territorial integrity of China and the Open Door. None the less, the note caused grave misgivings, especially amongst the Chinese, and it is difficult to think of it as a triumph of American diplomacy.

The historian who surveys those troubled years from 1914 to 1919 ought, if he is to interpret the period, to recapture the spirit of the time. Mr. Lansing’s volume is interesting from this point of view, because it is so largely the history of a state of mind; and Mr. Baker’s researches in the Wilson papers furnish a valuable new record of the thinking of the President. We are apt, from the vantage point of twenty years, to ask more of these men than it was humanly possible for them to give; to under-emphasize the tremendous forces that swirled around them; to forget the mood of the American people and the necessities of the situation. New analysis of the events of those years we shall always need; new interpretation we are likely to have; but both should start from a whole-hearted attempt to seize the psychology of war. When this is done, harsh judgment will be difficult; we shall recognize that Wilson and his colleagues were surrounded by forces stronger than themselves, and yet find room for admiration for the conscientious, the high-minded, the disciplined statesman who occupied the centre of the stage.


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