The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 186th installment in the series.
June 9, 1915: Bryan Resigns Amid Neutrality Controversy
As the first year of the war drew to a close, political casualties were starting to accumulate in all the Allied capitals. In London criticism over Gallipoli and the “shell scandal” forced Prime Minister Asquith to dissolve his Liberal government and form a new coalition government with leaders of the opposition. The new cabinet, announced on May 25, 1915, included the Welsh Radical David Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions, while Winston Churchill—the public face of the disastrous Dardanelles mission— gave up his position as First Lord of the Admiralty, to be replaced by Arthur Balfour.
In Petrograd War Minister Sukhomlinov would be forced out by the end of June 1915 over Russia’s own shell shortage and accusations of pro-German sympathies. In France, on May 29 and 31, 1915 the irascible opposition leader Georges Clemenceau lashed out at the government and chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre over what he called criminal mismanagement of the war effort, foreshadowing more political upheaval in Paris.
Given the scale of the conflict, it’s no surprise its impact extended beyond the belligerent nations, spreading political upheaval to neutral countries around the world—including the U.S., where on June 9, 1915 Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned in protest over President Woodrow Wilson’s response to German submarine warfare (top, Wilson on the left, Bryan to his right).
Cartridges, Credit, Cotton, and Contraband
After war broke out in August 1914 the United States, safe at peace behind 3000 miles of ocean, proclaimed its neutrality but nonetheless became embroiled in diplomatic controversies with both sides over trade and finance. In 1914 the State Department condemned the British naval blockade of Germany, which disrupted American trade, and also protested the Admiralty’s order that British ships should fly neutral flags in the war zone to deceive German submarines. Then in the first months of 1915 the U.S., along with other maritime neutrals, strongly objected to Germany’s countermove of unrestricted U-boat warfare including the sinking of neutral ships.
Like other Progressives, Wilson was pacifist by inclination and prepared to go to considerable lengths to keep the United States out of the war, and most Americans supported this stance. It also accorded with the views of Secretary of State Bryan, an agrarian populist and committed pacifist who condemned war for religious as well as ideological reasons, arguing it merely served to line the pockets of plutocrats while ordinary people suffered. Beyond this, however, the Secretary of State’s position was also rooted in economic and regional factors.
Bryan’s political base consisted of farmers in the rural Midwest and South, including Southern cotton growers whose prewar livelihood depended on selling cotton to Germany as well as France and Britain. With German buyers cut off by the blockade, and Britain and France not consuming any more cotton than before (if anything probably less), the price per bale tumbled from 13.2¢ in May 1914 to 6.6¢ in November 1914. By May 1915 it had crept back up to 8.8¢, still well below previous years’ prices.
At the same time Northeastern industrial and financial concerns enjoyed a growing business with Britain and France, which were asking for loans and placing huge orders for munitions—all over the objections of Secretary of State Bryan, who argued that trading with the one side but not the other jeopardized U.S. neutrality (in 1914-1915 the Germans tried, with some success, to covertly sway broader public opinion to the same view through secret payments to editors, journalists, academics, and pundits, among others).
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In short, while northeastern industrialists were enjoying boom times thanks to Allied war orders, Southern cotton growers were suffering because of the British blockade. Striving to preserve friendly relations with the United States, the British moved to placate the cotton growers by agreeing to buy all the cotton on the market in 1914, temporarily relieving tensions—but the cash-strapped Allies were unlikely to offer a similar deal in 1915. Thus Bryan’s cotton constituency still bitterly opposed the British naval blockade, demanding at the very least that cotton be removed from the list of war contraband so their trade with Germany could resume.
After the Lusitania
But following the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, in which 128 Americans lost their lives, Wilson came under enormous pressure from powerful interests calling for an aggressive response to what they viewed as a hostile act by Germany—even if this meant going to war, should Germany refuse to back down. Led by former President Teddy Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Republicans accused the Democratic administration of failing to protect American interests and the rights of U.S. citizens, now threatened by a military autocracy waging war beyond the bounds of traditional morality. Northeastern industrial and financial concerns also clamored for a robust response to secure their growing business with Britain and France.
Thus, as Wilson tried to steer the U.S. through deepening international turmoil he was also engaged in a tricky balancing act at home. On one hand the majority of Americans wanted to stay out of the war, even after the Lusitania, a fact which Wilson acknowledged with his statement on May 10, 1915, that “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight.” On the other hand, Wilson simply couldn’t ignore the affront to American sovereignty, or the likelihood that Germany would escalate the U-boat campaign in the absence of strong American protests—thereby actually increasing the chances the U.S. would get dragged into war in the long run.
In short Wilson had little choice but to quietly, firmly demand that Berlin abandon unrestricted submarine warfare, backed if need by by a concrete threat of U.S. countermeasures, while treading carefully around domestic public opinion. This brought him into direct conflict with Bryan, who continued to argue that both sides should abandon their current policies, allowing Americans and American goods to travel by sea to any part of Europe unimpeded, and still rejected any strategy involving threats of force as likely to make the situation even worse.
To carry out his carefully calibrated plan Wilson was working more and more closely with State Department counselor Robert Lansing, an advisor on international law whose views aligned with Wilson’s, and his personal friend and emissary Colonel House, while the intransigent Secretary of State found himself sidelined.
In the immediate aftermath of the Lusitania sinking, on May 15 Wilson sent a diplomatic note to Berlin demanding Germany offer reparations for the dead U.S. citizens (in the form of monetary payments) and desist from any actions that would endanger Americans at sea. Bryan reluctantly agreed to sign the note, complaining that Wilson should send a similar note to Britain demanding the blockade be loosened, foreshadowing a wider breach as the diplomatic exchange with Germany escalated.
On May 28, 1915 German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow sent a politely evasive reply noting that the Lusitania had been carrying munitions bound for Britain and was therefore a legitimate target, while again blaming the “misuse of flags by the British Government” for neutral sinkings (the Lusitania, a British liner, was flying a U.S. flag in the war zone per Admiralty instructions). Jagow added:
The German Government believes that it acts in just self-defence when it seeks to protect the lives of its soldiers by destroying ammunition destined for the enemy with the means of war at its command. The English steamship company must have been aware of the dangers to which passengers on board the Lusitania were exposed under the circumstances.
On June 8, 1915 Wilson and Lansing drew up a second note to Germany, much more strongly worded, which stated flatly that the sinking of the Lusitania had been illegal under international maritime law and demanded Germany abandon unrestricted U-boat warfare against unarmed merchant ships. While questioning whether the Lusitania was actually carrying munitions (in fact it was) the note asserted that whatever the case was, “in the view of this Government these contentions are irrelevant to the question of the legality of the methods used by the German naval authorities in sinking the vessel,” and continued:
Whatever be the other facts regarding the Lusitania, the principal fact is that a great steamer, primarily and chiefly a conveyance for passengers, and carrying more than a thousand souls who had no part or lot in the conduct of the war, was torpedoed and sunk without so much as a challenge or a warning, and that men, women, and children were sent to their death in circumstances unparalleled in modern warfare… The Government of the United States is contending for something much greater than mere rights of property or privileges of commerce. It is contending for nothing less high and sacred than the rights of humanity, which every Government honours itself in respecting and which no Government is justified in resigning on behalf of those under its care and authority.
Although Wilson still refrained from threatening war in this second note, the wording and tone left little doubt that Germany and the U.S. were on a collision course over the submarine campaign. At the same time Wilson once again refused Bryan’s request to send a note to Britain demanding the end of the naval blockade. Seeing himself repeatedly ignored by Wilson and increasingly eclipsed by Lansing and House, on June 9, 1915 Bryan submitted his resignation.
Bryan was succeeded as Secretary of State by Lansing, who maintained the neutrality line in public, but privately believed that the U.S. would not be able to stand aside from the spreading conflagration forever.