June 30, 1917: Taking Control of German Boats

 

On June 30, 1917 President Wilson signed an executive order seizing German boats in American territory.   This was de jure seizure, de facto seizure of the vessels occurring immediately after the Declaration of War in April. I am surprised by the number of them, considering that the War had been raging since 1914 and the Allies controlled the seas.

 

Whereas the following joint resolution adopted by Congress was approved by the President May 12, 1917:

Joint Resolution Authorizing the President to take over for the United States the possession and title of any vessel within its jurisdiction, which at the time of coming therein was owned in whole or in part by any corporation, citizen, or subject of any nation with which the United States may be at war, or was under register of any such nation, and for other purposes.

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to take over to the United States the immediate possession and title of any vessel within the jurisdiction thereof, including the Canal Zone and all territories and insular possessions of the United States except the American Virgin Islands, which at the time of coming into such jurisdiction was owned in whole or in part by any corporation, citizen, or subject of any nation with which the United States may be at war when such vessel shall be taken, or was flying the flag of or was under register of any such nation or any political subdivision or municipality thereof; and, through the United States Shipping Board, or any department or agency of the Government, to operate, lease, charter, and equip such vessel in any service of the United States, or in any commerce, foreign or otherwise.

Sec. 2. That the Secretary of the Navy be, and he is hereby, authorized and directed to appoint, subject to the approval of the President, a board of survey, whose duty it shall be to ascertain the actual value of the vessel, its equipment, appurtenances, and all property contained therein, at the time of its taking, and to make a written report of their findings to the Secretary of the Navy, who shall preserve such report with the records of his department. These findings shall be considered as competent evidence in all proceedings on any claim for compensation.

And whereas the following vessels were, at the time of coming into the jurisdiction of the United States, owned in whole or in part by a corporation, citizen, or subject of the Empire of Germany, a nation with which the United States is now at war, or were flying the flag of or under the register of the Empire of Germany, or of a political subdivision or municipality thereof: (more…)

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June 14, 1917: President Wilson Speech

 

In 1917 Flag Day as an annual observance was one year old President Wilson’s speech, unsurprisingly, focused on the War that America was now a part of, and a rejection of any German peace feelers short of surrender:

 

My Fellow Citizens: We meet to celebrate Flag Day because this flag which we honour and under which we serve is the emblem of our unity, our power, our thought and purpose as a nation. It has no other character than that which we give it from generation to generation. The choices are ours. It floats in majestic silence above the hosts that execute those choices, whether in peace or in war. And yet, though silent, it speaks to us. —speaks to us of the past, * of the men and women who went before us and of the records they wrote upon it. We celebrate the day of its birth; and from its birth until now it has witnessed a great history, has floated on high the symbol of great, events, of a great plan of life worked out by a great people. We are about to carry it into battle, to lift it where it will draw the fire of our enemies. We are about to bid thousands, hundreds of thousands, it may be millions, of our men. the young, the strong, the capable men of the nation, to go forth and die beneath it on fields of blood far away, —for what? For some unaccustomed thing? For something for which it has never sought the fire before? American armies were never before sent across the seas. Why arc they sent now? For some new purpose, for which this great flag has never been carried before, or for some old. familiar, heroic purpose for which it has seen men, its own men, die on every battlefield upon which Americans have borne arms since the Revolution?

These are questions which must be answered. We are Americans. We in our turn serve America, and can serve her with no private purpose. We must use her flag as she has always used it. Wo are accountable at the bar of history and must plead in utter frankness what purpose it is we seek to serve. (more…)

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May 18, 1917: Wilson Signs Selective Service Act of 1917

 

The first draft imposed since the Civil War, the Selective Service Act of 1917, passed by overwhelming majorities in Congress, was signed by President Wilson a century ago.  The Act provided for the enlistment, at the discretion of the President, of the four volunteer divisions that Theodore Roosevelt planned to lead.  Go here to read about this provision.  Wilson, alarmed that Roosevelt would either be killed in France and he would be blamed, or that he would come back a national hero and be swept into the Presidency in 1920, would refuse to ever authorize the four volunteer divisions.  By the end of the War some 2 million Americans volunteered for service and some 2.8 million were drafted.

Individuals who belonged to religions or organizations opposed to War were exempted from combatant service but not from noncombatant service.  Members of the clergy were exempted from conscription as were seminarians. (more…)

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April 28, 1917: Executive Orders

 

It is sometimes assumed that executive orders are only a feature of modern American life.  Actually they have existed since the beginning of the Republic.  A century ago two war related executive orders were issued by President Wilson:

Whereas, the existence of a state of war between the United States and the Imperial German Government makes it essential to the public safety that no communication of a character which would aid the enemy or its allies shall be had,

Therefore, by virtue of the power vested in me under the Constitution and by the Joint Resolution passed by Congress on April 6, 1917, declaring the existence of a state of war, it is ordered that all companies or other persons, owning, controlling or operating telegraph and telephone lines or submarine cables, are hereby prohibited from transmitting messages to points without the United States, and from delivering messages received from such points, except those permitted under rules and regulations to be established by the Secretary of War for telegraph and telephone lines, and by the Secretary of the Navy for submarine cables,

To these Departments, respectively, is delegated the duty of preparing and enforcing rules and regulations under this order to accomplish the purpose mentioned.

This order shall take effect from this date.

WOODROW WILSON
THE WHITE HOUSE,
April 28, 1917. (more…)

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April 17, 1917: Message From the President

 

On April 17, 1917 President Wilson issued a message to the American people in which he discussed harnessing the American economy for the War effort.  Note that in the video above sheep are grazing on the White House lawn.  Their wool was harvested and auctioned with the funds received being used to support the War effort.  Here is the text of Wilson’s message;

 

 

My Fellow-Countrymen:
The entrance of our own beloved country into the grim and terrible war for democracy and human rights which has shaken the world creates so many problems of national life and action which call for immediate consideration and settlement that I hope you will permit me to address to you a few words of earnest counsel and appeal with regard to them.
We are rapidly putting our navy upon an effective war footing and are about to create and equip a great army, but these are the simplest parts of the great task to which we have addressed ourselves. There is not a single selfish element, so far as I can see, in the cause we are fighting for. We are fighting for what we believe and wish to be the rights of mankind and for the future peace and security of the world. To do this great thing worthily and successfully we must devote ourselves to the service without regard to profit or material advantage and with an energy and intelligence that will rise to the level of the enterprise itself. We must realize to the full how great the task is and how many things, how many kinds and elements of capacity and service and self-sacrifice, it involves.

(more…)

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April 2, 1917: Wilson Asks Congress to Declare War on Germany

 

 

Gentlemen of the Congress:

I have called the Congress into extraordinary session because there are serious, very serious, choices of policy to be made, and made immediately, which it was neither right nor constitutionally permissible that I should assume the responsibility of making.

On the 3d of February last I officially laid before you the extraordinary announcement of the Imperial German Government that on and after the 1st day of February it was its purpose to put aside all restraints of law or of humanity and use its submarines to sink every vessel that sought to approach either the ports of Great Britain and Ireland or the western coasts of Europe or any of the ports controlled by the enemies of Germany within the Mediterranean. That had seemed to be the object of the German submarine warfare earlier in the war, but since April of last year the Imperial Government had somewhat restrained the commanders of its undersea craft in conformity with its promise then given to us that passenger boats should not be sunk and that due warning would be given to all other vessels which its submarines might seek to destroy, when no resistance was offered or escape attempted, and care taken that their crews were given at least a fair chance to save their lives in their open boats. The precautions taken were meagre and haphazard enough, as was proved in distressing instance after instance in the progress of the cruel and unmanly business, but a certain degree of restraint was observed The new policy has swept every restriction aside. Vessels of every kind, whatever their flag, their character, their cargo, their destination, their errand, have been ruthlessly sent to the bottom without warning and without thought of help or mercy for those on board, the vessels of friendly neutrals along with those of belligerents. Even hospital ships and ships carrying relief to the sorely bereaved and stricken people of Belgium, though the latter were provided with safe-conduct through the proscribed areas by the German Government itself and were distinguished by unmistakable marks of identity, have been sunk with the same reckless lack of compassion or of principle.

I was for a little while unable to believe that such things would in fact be done by any government that had hitherto subscribed to the humane practices of civilized nations. International law had its origin in the at tempt to set up some law which would be respected and observed upon the seas, where no nation had right of dominion and where lay the free highways of the world. By painful stage after stage has that law been built up, with meagre enough results, indeed, after all was accomplished that could be accomplished, but always with a clear view, at least, of what the heart and conscience of mankind demanded. This minimum of right the German Government has swept aside under the plea of retaliation and necessity and because it had no weapons which it could use at sea except these which it is impossible to employ as it is employing them without throwing to the winds all scruples of humanity or of respect for the understandings that were supposed to underlie the intercourse of the world. I am not now thinking of the loss of property involved, immense and serious as that is, but only of the wanton and wholesale destruction of the lives of noncombatants, men, women, and children, engaged in pursuits which have always, even in the darkest periods of modern history, been deemed innocent and legitimate. Property can be paid for; the lives of peaceful and innocent people can not be. The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind.

It is a war against all nations. American ships have been sunk, American lives taken, in ways which it has stirred us very deeply to learn of, but the ships and people of other neutral and friendly nations have been sunk and overwhelmed in the waters in the same way. There has been no discrimination. The challenge is to all mankind. Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it. The choice we make for ourselves must be made with a moderation of counsel and a temperateness of judgment befitting our character and our motives as a nation. We must put excited feeling away. Our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.

When I addressed the Congress on the 26th of February last, I thought that it would suffice to assert our neutral rights with arms, our right to use the seas against unlawful interference, our right to keep our people safe against unlawful violence. But armed neutrality, it now appears, is impracticable. Because submarines are in effect outlaws when used as the German submarines have been used against merchant shipping, it is impossible to defend ships against their attacks as the law of nations has assumed that merchantmen would defend themselves against privateers or cruisers, visible craft giving chase upon the open sea. It is common prudence in such circumstances, grim necessity indeed, to endeavour to destroy them before they have shown their own intention. They must be dealt with upon sight, if dealt with at all. The German Government denies the right of neutrals to use arms at all within the areas of the sea which it has proscribed, even in the defense of rights which no modern publicist has ever before questioned their right to defend. The intimation is conveyed that the armed guards which we have placed on our merchant ships will be treated as beyond the pale of law and subject to be dealt with as pirates would be. Armed neutrality is ineffectual enough at best; in such circumstances and in the face of such pretensions it is worse than ineffectual; it is likely only to produce what it was meant to prevent; it is practically certain to draw us into the war without either the rights or the effectiveness of belligerents. There is one choice we can not make, we are incapable of making: we will not choose the path of submission and suffer the most sacred rights of our nation and our people to be ignored or violated. The wrongs against which we now array ourselves are no common wrongs; they cut to the very roots of human life.

With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the Government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it, and that it take immediate steps not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense but also to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the Government of the German Empire to terms and end the war. (more…)

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March 20, 1917: Lansing Memorandum

 

On March 17, 1917, President Wilson met with his Cabinet to consider the question of whether the US should enter the Great War.  Fortunately for historians of this period, Secretary of State Robert Lansing drafted a detailed memorandum of the meeting:

 

 

The Cabinet Meeting of today I consider the most momentous and therefore, the most historic of any of those which have been held since I became Secretary of State, since it involved, unless a miracle occurs the question of war with Germany and the abandonment of the policy of neutrality which has been pursued for two years and a half….

The corridors of the State Department and Executive Office swarmed with press correspondents seeking to get some inkling of what would be done from passing officials. It was through these eager crowds of news-gatherers that I forced my way at half-past two Tuesday afternoon under a bombardment of questions, to which I made no reply, and entered the Cabinet room where all the other members had arrived.

Three minutes later the President came in and passed to his place at the head of the table shaking hands with each member and smiling as genially and composedly as if nothing of importance was to be considered. Composure is a marked characteristic of the President. Nothing ruffles the calmness of his manner or address. It has a sobering effect on all who sit with him in council. Excitement would seem very much out of place at the Cabinet table with Woodrow Wilson presiding. (more…)

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March 12, 1917: Sinking of the Algonquin

 

The first American vessel sunk after the German government announced a return to unrestricted submarine warfare, the Algonquin, an unarmed merchant vessel, was sunk by the U-62 off the Scilly Islands on March 12, 1917.   The U-62 surfaced and fired four shots at the Algonquin, none of which hit.  The Captain of the Algonquin ordered his crew to take to lifeboats.  The U-62 skipper, U-boat Ace Kapitanleutnant Ernst Hashagen, sent a boarding crew to set bombs  on the Algonquin and sank her in that manner.  The crew of the Algonquin were unharmed, and after twenty-seven hours of arduous rowing reached Penzance in Cornwall.  On the same date, President Wilson ordered the arming of American merchant ships.

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March 5, 1917: Second Inaugural Address of Woodrow Wilson

 

A brief second inaugural address by President Wilson a hundred years ago during an odd time.  Everyone knew that war would soon exist between the United States and Imperial Germany but war had not yet been declared and the country was collectively holding its breath.  Wilson’s speech was all about the coming war in general terms and a defense of his policy of attempting to stay out of the Great War.  Here is the text of the speech: (more…)

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March 3, 1917: Zimmerman Telegram Confirmed

 

In the wake of the revelation of the Zimmerman telegram, President Wilson had a problem.  Large segments of the American population, most notably Irish-Americans and German-Americans, had doubts about the validity of the telegram.  The Hearst newspapers claimed it was a fake cooked up by British intelligence.  Incredibly in light of this, the German Foreign Secretary confirmed the validity of the telegram in an interview on March 3, 1917 when asked about it by an American journalist.  Overnight, American public opinion became almost unanimous that war against German was inevitable.  On March 29, 1917 Foreign Secretary Zimmerman in a speech to the Reichstag attempted to justify the telegram which only further enraged American public opinion, and solidified the status of the Zimmerman telegram as one of the greatest diplomatic blunders of all time:

 

 

I wrote no letter to General Carranza.  I was not so naive.  I merely addressed, by a route that appeared to me to be a safe one, instructions to our representative in Mexico.

It is being investigated how these instructions fell into the hands of the American authorities.  I instructed the Minister to Mexico, in the event of war with the United States, to propose a German alliance to Mexico, and simultaneously to suggest that Japan join the alliance.

I declared expressly that, despite the submarine war, we hoped that America would maintain neutrality.

My instructions were to be carried out only after the United States declared war and a state of war supervened.  I believe the instructions were absolutely loyal as regards the United States.

General Carranza would have heard nothing of it up to the present if the United States had not published the instructions which came into its hands in a way which was not unobjectionable.  Our behaviour contrasts considerably with the behaviour of the Washington Government.

President Wilson after our note of January 31, 1917, which avoided all aggressiveness in tone, deemed it proper immediately to break off relations with extraordinary roughness.  Our Ambassador no longer had the opportunity to explain or elucidate our attitude orally.

The United States Government thus declined to negotiate with us.  On the other hand, it addressed itself immediately to all the neutral powers to induce them to join the United States and break with us.

Every unprejudiced person must see in this the hostile attitude of the American Government, which seemed to consider it right, before being at war with us, to set the entire world against us.  It cannot deny us the right to seek allies when it has itself practically declared war on us.

Herr Haase [note: a German socialist] says that it caused great indignation in America.  Of course, in the first instance, the affair was employed as an incitement against us.  But the storm abated slowly and the calm and sensible politicians, and also the great mass of the American people, saw that there was nothing to object to in these instructions in themselves.  I refer especially to the statements of Senator Underwood.  Even at times newspapers felt obliged to admit regretfully that not so very much had been made out of this affair.

The Government was reproached for thinking just of Mexico and Japan.  First of all, Mexico was a neighbouring State to America.  If we wanted allies against America, Mexico would be the first to come into consideration.  The relations between Mexico and ourselves since the time of Porfirio Diaz have been extremely friendly and trustful.  The Mexicans, moreover, are known as good and efficient soldiers.

It can hardly be said that the relations between the United States and Mexico had been friendly and trustful.

But the world knows that antagonism exists between America and Japan.  I maintain that these antagonisms are stronger than those which, despite the war, exist between Germany and Japan.

When I also wished to persuade Carranza that Japan should join the alliance there was nothing extraordinary in this.  The relations between Japan and Mexico are long existent.  The Mexicans and Japanese are of a like race and good relations exist between both countries.

When, further, the Entente press affirms that it is shameless to take away allies, such reproach must have a peculiar effect coming from powers who, like our enemies, made no scruple in taking away from us two powers and peoples with whom we were bound by treaties for more than thirty years.

The powers who desire to make pliant an old European country of culture like Greece by unparalleled and violent means cannot raise such a reproach against us.

When I thought of this alliance with Mexico and Japan I allowed myself to be guided by the consideration that our brave troops already have to fight against a superior force of enemies, and my duty is, as far as possible, to keep further enemies away from them.  That Mexico and Japan suited that purpose even Herr Haase will not deny.

Thus, I considered it a patriotic duty to release those instructions, and I hold to the standpoint that I acted rightly.

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