Inside Story of How Walter H. Page Averted Anglo-American Friction.
BURTON J. HENDRICKFebruary11922
Inside Story of How Walter H. Page Averted Anglo-American Friction.
BURTON J. HENDRICK
THE difficulties amounting almost to a crisis caused by U. S. secretary W. J. Bryan’s insistence that Great Britain should adopt the rules of maritime warfare laid down in the Declaration of London are told of in “Waging Neutrality," the fifth of the series of “The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page.” contributed by Burton J. Hendrick to the World's Work. There were few men in Europe upon whom the war had a more depressing effect than Ambassador Page, relates Mr. Hendrick. His face became more deeply lined, his hair became greyer, his body thinner, his step lost something of its elasticity, his shoulders began to stoop, and his manner became more and more abstracted. Page’s convictions regarding the war were never in doubt with those most intimate with him. His personal secretary went to ask the American ambassador’s advice about enlisting in the British army. Page refused to advise him, saying that it was a matter that could only be settled by the secretary himself. Later, when Secretary Fowler had enlisted, Page said to him: “I could not advise you to do this Harold, but now that you’ve settled it yourself I’ll say this— if I"were a young man like you andin your circumstances, I should enlist myself.”
Yet during the days of America’s neutrality, Page maintained that attitude no matter what his inward sentiments might have been! “Neutral!” Page once exclaimed. “There’s nothing in the world so neutral as this embassy. Neutrality takes up all our time.”
During the days when Britain was stopping contraband being shipped to Germany in U. S. bottoms and the States was continually protesting to Britain about this proceeding, Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary had his troubles. He was criticised on both sides of the water and these criticisms undoubtedly caused Sir Edward great unhappiness. “He was one of the few Englishmen,” Mr. Hendrick remarks, “who in August, 1914, perceived the tremendous extent of the struggle in which Britain was engaged —the greatest crisis since William of Normandy in 1066 subjected their island to foreign rule. Proud as Sir Edward Grey was of his country he was modest in the presence of facts; and one fact of which he early became convinced was that Great Britain could not win unless the United States was ranged upon her side. Here was the country—so Sir Edward reasoned —which contained the largest effective white population in the world. This Power, the foreign secretary believed, could determine the issue of the war.
Ambassador Page finally wrote President Wilson that the British simply would not allow such materials as copper, rubber and petroleum to pass to Germany over the seas. He pointed out that representatives of Spain, Holland and all the Scandinavian countries had agreed that they could do nothing else but acquiesce and file claims and protests. They admitted that Great Britain had the right to revise the list of contraband. The pressing for a few rights by United States, principally to appease the shippers, would gain United States nothing and result in friction with Britain. “Great Britain,” he reminded, “can any day close the Channel to all shipping or can drive Holland to the enemy and close all her ports. . The present controversy seems here, where we are close to the struggle, academic. It seems to us a pretty matter when it is compared with the grave danger we incur of shutting ourselves off from a position to be of some service to civilization and to the peace of mankind. In Washington you seem to be indulging in a more or less theoretical discussion. As we see the issue here, it is a matter of life or death
for English-speaking civilization......So
far as our neutrality obligations are concerned, I do not believe that they require us to demand that Great Britain for our benefit, should adopt the Declaration of London. Great Britain has never ratified nor have any other nations except United States. In its application to the situation presented by this war it is altogether
advantageous to Germany......I have
delayed to write you this way too long.
I have feared that I might possibly seem to be influenced by sympathy with England and by the atmosphere here. But I write of course solely with reference to our own country’s interest and its position after the reorganization of Europe.”
The immediate cause of this bold stand on the part of Ambassador Page was the fact that the United States state department was insisting that Great Britain : should adopt the Declaration of London as a code of law for regulating its warfare on German shipping. Hostilities were scarcely more than started when Mr. Bryan made this proposal. “You will state,” said Mr. Bryan “that this government ¡ believes that the acceptance of these laws by the belligerents would prevent grave | misunderstandings which may arise as ! to the relations between belligerents and neutrals. It therefore hopes that this inquiry may receive favorable consideration.”
According to Page, this telegram was the first great mistake made by the American government in the matter of its relations with Great Britain. “That declaration,’’Page wrote afterwards to President Wilson, “would probably have given a victory to Germany if the Allies had adopted it. In spite of our neutrality we insisted vigorously on its adoption and aroused a distrust in our judgment, j Thus we started in wrong so far as the British government is concerned.... The Allies saw in the Declaration of London a German trick, and in our ratification of it, and especially in our insistence on it they saw, or thought they saw, an instance of the Germans fooling us and using us.”
When Mr. Bryan, therefore, blankly asked Great Britain to accept the Declaration as its code in maritime warfare, he was asking that country to accept a document which Great Britain, in peace time, had repudiated and which would, in all probability, cause Britain to lose the war. It appears that only the intervention of Colonel House prevented the whole thing from becoming a tragedy. The following is Colonel House’s letter to Ambassador Page:—
"I have just returned from Washington where I was with the President for nearly four days. He is looking well and is well. Sometimes his spirits droop, but then again, he is his normal self.
“I had the good fortune to be there at a time when the discussion of the Declaration of London had reached a critical stage. Bryan was away and Lansing, who had not mentioned the matter of Sir Cecil, prepared a long communication to you which he sent to the President for approval. The President and I went over it and I strongly urged not sending it until I could have a conference with Sir Cecil.
I had this conference the next day without the knowledge of any one excepting the President and had another the day following. Sir Cecil told me that if the dispatch had gone to you as written and you had shoivn it to Sir Edward Grey, it would almost have been a declaration of war; and that if, by any chance, the newspapers had got hold of it as they so often get things from our state department, the greatest panic would have prevailed. He said it would have been the Venezuela incident magnified by present conditions.
‘At the President’s suggestion, Lansing then prepared a cablegram to you. This, too, was objectionable and the President and I together softened it down into the one you received.
October 3. 1914. E. M. HOUSE, Germany, of course, promptly accepted the declaration, for the suggestion fathered by Mr. Bryan fitted in ideally with her program; but Great Britain was not ready to put her head into a noose. Four times was Ambassador Page instructed to ask the British government to accede unconditionally, and four times did the British government refuse. Page was in despair. In a subsequent letter, the American ambassador notified Colonel House that if he were again instructed to move he would resign his am-
lethod is the trouble,” he
in this matter bassadorship. “Lansing’s n
wrote. “He treats Great Britain, to start with, as if she were a criminal and an opponent......If that isn’t playing into
the hands of the Germans, what would be? And where’s the neutrality of this kind of
action?......The curse of the world is
little men, who, for an imagined small temporary advantage, throw away the long growth of good-will nurtured by wise and patient men, and who cannot see the lasting and far greater future evil that they do. Of all the years since 1776 this great war-year is the worst to break the one hundred years of our peace, or even to ruffle it. I pray you, good friend, get us out of these incompetent lawyerhands .... One more move such as this one and they (the British) will conclude that Dernburg and Bernstorff have seduced us.”
So the situation remained for several exciting weeks, the state department insisting on the Declaration in full, precisely as the legal luminaries had published it five years before, the Foreign Office courteously but inflexibly refusing to accede. Only the cordial personal relations which prevailed between Grey and Page prevented the crisis from producing the most disastrous results. Finally, on October 17th, Page proposed by cable an arrangement which he hoped would settle the matter. This was that the King should issue a proclamation accepting the Declaration with practically the modifications suggested above, and that a new order in council should be issued containing a new list of contraband. Sir Edward Grey was not to ask the American government to accept this proclamation; all that he asked was that Washington should offer no objections to it. It was proposed that the United States at the same time should publish a note withdrawing its suggestion for the adoption of the Declaration, and explaining that it proposed to rest the rights of its citizens upon the existing rules of international law and the treaties of the United States. This solution wasaccepted. The relief Page felt is shown in the following memorandum, written soon after the tension had ceased.
“The insistence on the Declaration entire came near to upsetting the whole kettle of fish. It put on me the task of insisting on a general code—at a time when the fiercest war in history was every day becoming fiercer and more desperate —which would have prevented the British from putting on their contraband list several of the most important war materials—accompanied by a proposal that' would have angered every neutral nation through which supplies can possibly reach Germany and prevented this Government from making friendly working arrangements with them; and after Sir Edward Grey had flatly declined for these reasons, I had to continue to insist, I confess it did look as though we were determined to dictate to him how he should conduct the war—and in a way that distinctly favored the Germans......I do
reverently thank God that we gave up that contention. We may have trouble yet, doubtless we shall, but it will not be trouble of our own making, as that was. . . . Tyrrell (private secretary to Sir Edward Grey) came into the reception room at the foreign office the day after our withdrawal, while I was waiting to see Sir Edward Grey, and he said: T wish to tell you personally—just privately between you and me—how infinite a relief it is to us all that your Government has withdrawn that demand. We couldn’t accept it; our refusal was not stubborn nor pigheaded; it was a physical necessity in order to carry on the war with any hope of success.’ Then, as I was going out, he volunteered this remark: T make this guess —that that programme was not the work of the President but of some international prize court enthusiast (I don’t know whom i who had failed to secure the adoption of the Declaration when parliaments and governments could discuss it at leisure and who hoped to ram it through under the pressure of war and thus get this prize court international.’ I made no answer for several reasons, one of which is,
I do not know whose program it was. All that I know is that I have here, on my desk at my house, a locked dispatch book half full of telegrams and letters insisting on it, which I do not wish (now at least) to put in the embassy files, and the sight of which brings the shuddering memory of the worst nightmare I have ever suffered.”
And so this crisis was passed: it was
the first great service that Page had rendered the cause of the Allies and his own country. Yet shipping difficulties had their more agreeable aspects. Had it not been for the fact that both Page and Grey had an understanding sense of humor,
neutrality would have proved a more difficult path than it actually was. Even amid the tragical problems with which these two men were dealing there was not lacking an occasional moment’s relaxation into the lighter aspect of things.
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