The Story of a Diplomatic Struggle That Ended Well
Did Switzerland Save Allied Cause?
The Story of a Diplomatic Struggle That Ended Well
THERE was a time when Switzerland held the fate of the Allies in her hands. So at least declares Samuel Hopkins Adams, writing in Collier’s Weekly. Here was the situation as he saw it:
Switzerland has no seaport. There was no way of obtaining outside supplies except through warring countries which were extremely busy with other considerations. Switzerland’s food was getting low, her business was waning, her herds and crops were deteriorating at an alarming rate, and she had no coal. Farreaching propaganda was being carried on by the Kaiser’s emissaries; it is said that there were more than fifteen hundred German propagandists, secret agents, and spies in Berne alone.
A large portion of the country’s German-speaking populace naturally leaned toward the Central Powers. For a time the German element appeared to be gaining the upper hand, and, either by pressure of insidious influences or by a well-timed coup, there was danger that the Swiss Government might be turned from its policy of defensive neutrality, which would have been fatal to the hopes of the Allies. For the German armies, augmented by the forces withdrawn from the east after Russia’s collapse, now outnumbered the French and were taxing their utmost powers of resistance. Should the Swiss army withdraw from the German frontier, the mere fear of a Hun advance through the neutral territory would have compelled an extension and re-enforcement of the French lines along the Swiss border, and this, in the face of a superior enemy force, the French could not afford. Had Switzerland yielded still further to pressure and either joined Germany or, having demobilized, tacitly permitted her to go through, pleading helplessness as did Luxemburg, the right flank of the French army would have crumpled under the new assault, Paris would have been taken, and the way opened to a complete German victory. What would have been the subsequent fate of Switzerland at the hands of a conquering Germany is another question, and one which, operating potently upon the minds of those most concerned, constituted an incentive to continued neutrality.
Meantime the problem was becoming poignant for the shut-in republic; how to live through to the end of the struggle. Her representatives went to the Allies to present their desperate case. Translated from the formula of international comity into the everyday language of give-and-take, the conversations would run about in this wise:
Said Switzerland to the Allies: “We
are short of food. We have no coal. We have no ships nor any avenues of supply. What will you do for us?”
Said the Allies to Switzerland: “We
have not enough coal for ourselves. Food is scarce. Our own people are on short rations. We lack ships properly to move the munitions and supplies for our own people.”
To which Switzerland replied: “What can we do? You tell us that we must maintain our defenses against the Germans and that we should not deal with them. Then we have no alternative but to die. If you cannot or will not help, we must do something for ourselves at once.”
The Allies knew well what this might mean at its worst. It might mean a yielding to the constantly urged German propaganda, backed by German promises. They were even promising food, though they had none which they could send to the Swiss; anything to persuade their neighbors to the Hun argument: “Get your mobilized men back to the land if you expect to escape starvation. The Allies will do nothing for you. You must look to yourselves and trust to our good faith.”
So the Allies countered by saying to the Swiss : “Why do you sell food to the Germans? Why do your skilled workmen make munitions for them?”
“Because we must have their coal,” said the Swiss. “We are freezing.”
It is difficult to withstand the logic of a radical necessity. The Allies abandoned that line of logic and tried another. “Suppose,” they proposed, “we manage to get food to you, even though we stint ourselves to do so, what guaranty have we that you will not turn it over to Germany in exchange for coal?”
As a matter of fact, Germany had been forcing Switzerland’s hand by demanding, in return for the coal which the little republic must have and could get nowhere else but from Germany (France having lost her mines in the Hun advance, and England having her hands full in supplying the French) , cattle, milk, and other essential foods which the Swiss could ill spare from their own stock. To the Allies’ demand the Swiss therefore responded frankly: “Better go hungry than freeze to death. Unless you can get coal to us, we must trade with Germany for it.”
This was the crux of the situation as presented to the War Tax Trade Board at Washington by the Swiss representatives in the early winter of 1917. Would the United States stand by and see a helpless nation either starved into a more or less open German liaison, or, as alternative, compelled to face the danger of revolution inspired alike by Germany and hunger? Now, because without its license no smallest article may be exported from this country, the War Trade Board practically controlled the supply situation for Europe, exercising a power which made its compulsions felt in the farthest corners of the world. And this power could be turned to the uses of diplomacy and of humanity as well, in this case. The War Trade Board lost no time—there was none to be lost—in bringing the matter before the Allied Conference and went back to the Swiss representatives with this reply:
“We will send the food to enable you to hang on.”
But here inti'uded another difficulty. The shipments must land either at a west coast French port or go down into the Mediterranean to the south coast of France. Either way they must traverse the “barred zones” which the Germans had established for their submarine depredations.
“How can we guarantee these shipments to you,” asked the Allies, “when the submarines may sink them in transit?”
“That will be all right,” replied the Swiss confidently. “The Germans have promised us safe conducts for vessels going to Cette.”
For a time this worked well. The vessels landed at the port of Cette and the food got through to Switzerland. But the German spies there presently awoke to the fact that this food was just so much ammunition against them,
J since the Swiss, with their fature assured, were constantly less amenable to their influence, and the hope of corrupting either the Government, the army, or the people into relaxing their jealous guardianship of Swiss soil waned. Suddenly the submarines began to run amuck and sink Swiss cargoes. Switzerland protested vigorously. Safe-conduct had been granted, and now here was food that they needed being sent to the ocean’s bottom. What about the pledged faith of the German Government? Said the Germans:
“That’s all very well for you. You get the food, and the Americans get from you the instruments and chronometers that you manufacture, and lumber which they need for their building operations in France. But what do we get out of it?”
The Swiss answered:
“You represent yourselves as our friends and sympathizers in the privations which you say the Allies have forced upon us. Now that food is sent to us will you cut it off and see us starve?”
“Will you trade the food you get, or part of it, for our coal?” demanded the Germans.
“There will be barely enough for ourselves,” returned the Swiss truthfully.
Here was a problem for Hun diplomacy. If German subs now with official authorization sunk food destined for Swiss stomachs, Germany’s protestations of friendship would appear equally empty. On the other hand, if she lived up to the safe-conduct, the conditions of want, which was her strongest card, since it would sooner or later force the demobilization of the Swiss army, would be alleviated. So she paltered, and her submarine commanders went out and sent American food destined for Swiss mouths to the bottom of the sea— “in error,” as the German diplomats explained, since they “could not distinguish these ships from other enemy craft.”
Now the struggle of diplomacy x-eached its crucial stage. Shipments promised by the Allies and anxiously awaited by the Swiss failed to arrive.
“See how the Allies have tricked you!” proclaimed the Hun propagandists at Berne. “You may gorge yourselves on false promises and eat empty words or starve.”
To which tne American representatives in the hungry republic replied : “We have sent the food and the Germans have sunk it.”
“Lies; all lies!” cried the Germans. “They have diverted the supplies which should have come to you to the luxurious
French and the fat and overfed English.”
“What about that abrogated safeconduct?” retorted the Americans.
But the Huns had the best of it. The hard facts argued their case. The food as promised was not there. Part of it had arrived, but not enough. The German pi'opaganda for demobilization of the Swiss army took on new vigor. The army itself was restive. Anti-Ally and even anti-American sentiment found expression among politicians and in the press.
Thexe was just one answer fi’om the Allies to the Germans that the Swiss were of the temper to understand— food, promptly delivered.
Meantime the War Trade Board had been busy with the Swiss problem at the Washington end. And its brief deliberations culminated in positive action. It detei-mined to get food to Switzerland if it had to mount a gun on every box. It went to the Shipping Board and said: “We must have ships at any cost for Switzerland.” It said to the navy: “We must have convoys for the Swiss food ships”; and to the Food Administration: “Is the supply ready?” know-
ing that it would be at call. It got them all—food, ships, convoys—and the powerful influence of publicity, for it at once spread abroad through the press of Switzerland the glad news that at last food was assured. The American Government had determined to get it over if it took the entire American navy to convoy it! Subs or no subs, the Swiss might count upon it. In vain the fifteen hundred mouthpieces shouted: “Fraud! Lies! American brag!” Day after day the press was kept supplied with that news which the public was most eager to hear, the tidings of food on the way across the ocean. And when the first of the convoyed consignments arrived, the Hun plot was shattered. In this pliase, food if it had not won the war, had at least saved it from being lost.
It got there none too soon. Shortly after came the April drive. Then had the German element in Switzerland prevailed to the extent of bringing about a relaxation of the Swiss military readiness, the German army might have come through and history Üave been written to a different purport. But the German army on the border was faced always with that line of active, wasplike mountain fighters, probably the best natural marksmen in Europe. So the chance for German victory from this source—a chance for weeks and months almost within the grasp of their diplomacy— was gone.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.