II. Political and Strategic Setting

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The rules of blockade were largely embodied in a generally accepted customary law, rather than in clear written terms. The Paris Declaration of 1856 laid out only a few broad rules: privateering was abolished; neutral goods, except contraband (not defined), were not subject to capture; a neutral flag protected a belligerent's goods, except for contraband; and a blockade to be legal must be effective [Click here to read the text - part of WW1-WWW].

In 1908-1909 there was an international effort to codify the laws of maritime war in a more systematic fashion, resulting in the Declaration of London. The British House of Lords refused to ratify the accord and thus it did not come into legal force either for Britain or any other nation. There nonetheless was a sort of unofficial understanding that the Declaration would be treated as a statement of customary law. At the outset of the war Germany declared her intention to abide by it, and the United States tried without success to persuade Britain to make a similar pledge.

Almost immediately after the outbreak of war Britain took measures that violated the traditional laws of blockade, including the expansion of the definition of "contraband" to include all food and other traditionally exempt goods, the prolonged detention and search of neutral ships in British ports (as opposed to inspection at sea), and the announcement that the entire North Sea was a war zone and subject to mining.

The Royal Navy was also forced by the threat of the mine and torpedo to adopt a strategy of distant blockade rather than the traditional close blockade. Bailey at least regards this as a clear violation of the traditional law that blockade, to be legal, must be effective. The Paris Declaration of 1856 states only that "Blockades, in order to be binding, must be effective, that is to say, maintained by a force sufficient really to prevent access to the enemy." The British blockade was certainly effective--German commerce vanished from the seas--and it is not clear why a distant blockade would be inherently illegal. Article 1 of the Declaration of London states that "A blockade must not extend beyond the ports and coasts belonging to or occupied by the enemy," but this appears merely to state that neutral ports could not be directly blockaded, a prohibition stated more clearly in Article 18. Article 30 would seem to implicitly allow distant blockade, as it permits the blockading force to seize any "absolute contraband" (goods of a clearly military character) ultimately bound for the enemy, even if it is to be transhipped through a neutral port; a blockade confined to the immediate approaches to an enemy port clearly would not result in capture of such goods. The seizure of transhipped goods incorporated the concept of "continuous voyage," espoused by Britain. The British did in fact violate the unratified Declaration, and the traditional rules of blockade, by their expansion of the continuous-voyage principle to civilian goods, but this is a separate matter from the legality of distant blockade per se.

On 4 February 1915 Germany announced a blockade policy that, like Britain's, was in violation of the traditional rules of war. She declared a war zone around the British Isles and announced that all enemy merchant ships in that area, armed and unarmed, were subject to destruction "without its always being possible" to provide warning. International law clearly called for merchant ships to be warned, and their crews allowed to abandon ship, before they were sunk.

Bailey and Ryan are wrong in equally branding the British and German blockades as "unquestionably illegal 'paper blockades,'" and in simplistically referring to LUSITANIA as a "blockade runner." At this time the U-boat force was small, and only a small proportion of British merchant ships were being sunk. The British blockade was illegal in several respects, but in no way can its efficacy be compared to that of the German U-boat campaign at this stage of the war; British commerce continued to flow essentially unimpeded, albeit with some losses. [Bailey and Ryan, pp. 94-95, 334]


Criticism of U.S. policy during the neutrality period centers on our tolerance of British blockade methods and on the large-scale provision of war materiel and loans to the Allies.

Bailey and Ryan are critical of the U.S. failure to protest the illegalities of the British blockade as stridently as we did the German violations, remarking several times, for example, on the absence of any official U.S. protest over the mining of the North Sea. "The slow strangulation of Germany was achieved by an unorthodox long-range British blockade. Profit-hungry America, with a remarkable show of unneutrality, was acquiescing in it , while simultaneously shipping mountainous piles of munitions to the United Kingdom." [pp. 31, 38, 330]

By another interpretation, well expressed by Arthur Link, U.S. acquiescence in the British blockade, and continued trade with the Allies, was a proper policy. Trade by a neutral with a belligerent was not only permitted under international law but was in fact normal practice. To cut off British access to American goods and credits, in Link's view, would in itself be an unneutral action. Britain's command of the sea was a legitimate military advantage, and Britain was entitled to reap the benefits of it; navies exist not for show, but to protect one's own commerce and to choke off that of the enemy.

The Wilson Administration recognized the illegalities in British blockade practice. It did not oppose the Allied blockade as forcefully as it did German submarine operations, both because of its pro-Allied sympathies and because the British blockade, onerous as it was, did not cause direct destruction and death. There was nonetheless a great deal of friction between the United States and Britain on blockade policy almost to the moment the United States declared war on Germany. Tensions became especially severe in late 1916, after the resolution of the SUSSEX crisis. Wilson--angered by Britain's failure to cooperate in his peace efforts, by British blacklisting of U.S. firms, opening of U.S. mails, and other measures--was in Link's view moving rapidly toward a completely neutral position, as the President's private statements at the time suggest. Bailey and Ryan understate or ignore these disputes between the United States and the Allies, both before and after the LUSITANIA sinking. While their fundamental point of U.S. favoritism toward the Allies is undeniably true, Wilson's policy was much more nuanced than their work suggests.

Bailey and Ryan are critical of the U.S. trade in war materiel with Britain, while conceding that such trade between a neutral and a belligerent was not only legal but was normal international practice. They note that Congress did have the power to ban such trade with belligerents (as in fact it did in 1935, at a time when many saw this munitions trade as a major cause of U.S. involvement in the war). While a case can be made that Congress and the Wilson Administration should have restrained the arms trade to maintain U.S. neutrality, Bailey and Ryan take this to excess when they state that "Morally the Germans had a strong case when they urged the Washington government to clamp an embargo on such munitions in the interests of humanity, including a shortening of the blood-draining war." Neither Germany nor the Allies at this point was receptive to a compromise peace, and the only means by which either side proposed to shorten the war was by winning it. It is difficult, then, to see what moral standing Germany would have to call for the cessation of arms shipments to its enemies in the name of humanity; clearly Germany was not proposing to curtail its own arms production, and a domestically manufactured bullet or shell has much the same effect on human flesh as an imported one. To reiterate the point stressed by Link, British access to imports was the result of a naval superiority which was a perfectly legitimate military advantage, just as, say, German superiority in heavy artillery and staff organization was a legitimate advantage in the war on land. [Bailey and Ryan, p. 97]

The critics of U.S. policy, including Bailey and Ryan, have a much stronger case when we move from trade and blockade in the broadest sense to the operational nature of the U-boat war and the U.S. response to it. In the diplomatic wrangling over the German submarine campaign in 1915- 1916, the United States Government persistently failed to acknowledge the validity of the German point that it was not reasonable to expect a submarine to endanger herself by giving warning to a merchantman that was likely to be armed and under orders to ram any U-boat encountered (one exception to this was Secretary of State Lansing's abortive effort at a compromise arrangement in early 1916, which will be briefly discussed later). Furthermore, Wilson's rigid insistence that U.S. citizens were sacrosanct even when traveling on belligerent ships was not reasonable and had no foundation in international law. The President carried this point to an extreme in early 1916 when he quashed a Congressional effort to issue a mere warning--not a ban--advising Americans against traveling on armed belligerent merchantmen; in Wilson's view the presence of American citizens even on a defensively armed British merchantmen made an attack on such a ship an affront to the United States. Link's failure to criticize Wilson on these points is one sign of partiality in a generally excellent book.


Colin Simpson condemns U.S. support of Britain and the Allies, in a much more intemperate and less knowledgeable fashion than Thomas Bailey. Simpson, as his fashion, casts his story largely in conspiratorial terms with a liberal dose of personal scorn. At one point Simpson descends to the absurd--when he states in connection with the Secretary of State's support for a perfectly legal bank loan to the Allies that if Lansing's "inclinations had favoured the Germans, he would undoubtedly have eventually been convicted of high treason." [p. 57, ch. 4 in the Penguin edition]

There are serious flaws of fact as well in Simpson's treatment of U.S. neutrality policy. He states that the German liners in the United States "were interned on the grounds that they were auxiliary cruisers of the German Navy and there has never been a satisfactory explanation why the American authorities did not give the same treatment to the LUSITANIA. German sources, have, perhaps uncharitably, claimed that it was because Morgan and Co., who owned a large part of the equity the German liners represented, did not wish to expose their investments to the attentions of the British Navy which constantly patrolled the mouth of the Hudson River." Simpson's characteristic insinuation of venality would have more force if there were any truth in the broader premise. The United States Government did not classify German merchantmen in U.S. ports as "auxiliary cruisers," and these German ships were never forcibly detained until the U.S. declaration of war in April 1917. The German owners kept their ships in American ports for the perfectly simple and logical reason that they would be captured by patrolling British warships if they ventured out. In a book whose main subject is the maritime war between Britain and Germany, and the U.S. involvement in it during our period of neutrality, this is a serious error, and indicative of both bias and lack of knowledge. [Simpson, p. 101, fn.]


One diplomatic episode of early 1916, discussed by Simpson, deserves mention as it is pertinent to U.S. handling of the submarine campaign. This occurred after Wilson's three LUSITANIA notes to the Germans, and after Germany pledged, following the sinking of ARABIC, to refrain from sinking passenger ships without warning. While Colonel House was in Europe on a peace mission, Secretary of State Robert Lansing launched what Link describes as "one of the most maladroit blunders in American diplomatic history."

Lansing, with Wilson's approval, proposed a modus vivendi to end unrestricted submarine warfare. The Allies would pledge to disarm all their merchant ships, while Germany and Austria would agree not to sink merchantmen without warning. The British were dismayed, believing that such an agreement would leave their merchant fleet completely at the mercy of the Germans. The Central Powers were far more receptive. In a conversation with Austrian charge Baron Zwiedinek, Lansing gave the impression that the United States would welcome a German- Austrian declaration of unrestricted warfare against armed ships. The baron duly reported this, and in response on 10 February 1916 Germany announced that it would attack armed merchant ships without warning (although it had never exactly renounced such attacks; the ARABIC pledge applied only to unresisting liners). The Wilson Administration, though, almost immediately disowned the modus vivendi in the face of British resistance, and deplored the new submarine policy which the Germans and Austrians thought Lansing had approved. [This is a tangled story; for more details see Link, pp. 205-10, or especially Patrick Devlin, "Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson's Neutrality (Oxford, 1975), pp. 410-50.]

Simpson sees a dark plot in this fiasco. "Colonel House and Wilson had evolved a plan whereby America was to enter the war on the Allied side," although subsequently Simpson seems to suggest a more convoluted motivation which is not easy to follow--Wilson wanted to wreck the LUSITANIA negotiations to win the election, while simultaneously effecting a peace settlement in Europe and plotting American entry into the war. After Lansing proposed his modus vivendi, Wilson explained this master plan to him, and Lansing "devised a Machiavellian solution," deliberately enticing the Germans into declaring unrestricted submarine warfare against armed merchantmen, to embarrass them and destroy the negotiations over the LUSITANIA notes.

Lansing, Simpson says, "admitted the trick long after the war." This is one of many undocumented, or very vaguely documented, assertions in Simpson's work. If the source is Lansing's memoirs, Simpson is simply wrong, for Lansing does not admit a deliberate plot but only a mix-up involving an alleged misunderstanding of his words by Baron Zwiedinek, compounded by some machinations against Lansing on the part of Count Bernstorff, the German ambassador. Devlin believes that Lansing was covering up his own careless misstatement of the U.S. position by blaming the error on Zwiedinek's misinterpretation. In any event, there is absolutely no evidence for a deliberate set-up of the Germans by Lansing and Wilson. If Lansing's memoirs are the source of Simpson's assertion, he is grossly misusing the evidence to support his taste for conspiratorial theories. A more fundamental flaw is his implausible depiction of Woodrow Wilson as a devious practitioner of ruthless realpolitik, scheming in early 1916 to embroil the United States in war with Germany. Whatever the faults of Woodrow Wilson, there has never been a President who took this country to war with greater anguish and reluctance. [Simpson, p. 241, ch. 18; Devlin, p. 447; Lansing, "The War Memoirs of Robert Lansing," pp. 112-14]

Robert Lansing gets scant respect from many historians--a bumbler to some, a "weak man" to another (Robert H. Ferrell in "Woodrow Wilson & World War I"), a scheming, devious "chameleon" to Colin Simpson. To Bailey and Ryan (who barely mention this episode) he is a supine tool of the Allies, while Link on the other hand blames him for endangering relations with the Allies by proposing to disarm their merchant ships. Lansing no doubt deserves most of the blame for the modus vivendi fiasco. In retrospect, though, his basic idea--that merchant ships be disarmed in return for a German pledge to warn them before attacking--seems an honorable and fair-minded effort to stop the slide into unrestricted warfare at sea. In taking Lansing to task for the idea, Arthur Link again does not quite admit that there was justice in the German position that a U-boat could not be expected to expose itself to an armed merchantman--although in an indirect way he comes close to this in his statement in this context that Lansing's "sense of fairness sometimes outran his strategic thinking."


The traditional rules of war stipulated that a warship must warn a merchantman and allow its passengers and crew to abandon ship before sinking it, unless the merchant ship resisted or attempted to escape, or was in convoy under the protection of warships. A limited armament on a merchant ship, such as a gun or two for protection against pirates or lightly armed raiders, did not necessarily nullify the ship's immunity to attack without warning. A cargo of munitions or war materiel did not affect a merchant ship's status in this respect, although it certainly legitimized destruction of the ship and cargo after removal of passengers and crew. Traditional international law, however, did not anticipate the extensive arming of merchantmen that took place in 1914- 1918 or the advent of the submarine, a uniquely vulnerable craft, as a commerce raider.

Even before the war the British government publicly took steps toward the arming of merchantmen. On 17 March 1914 Winston Churchill told the Commons that forty merchant ships had each been armed with two 4.7-inch guns. He claimed that by the end of the fiscal year 1914- 1915, on 1 March 1915, seventy ships would be so armed. In Bailey and Ryan's account, "these formidable weapons would be mounted in the stern so that they could be fired only at a pursuer, and the vessels so armed were or would be ships engaged exclusively in carrying food to Britain. They would not be permitted to fight enemy surface warships and would be under instructions to surrender when overtaken by such foes." Presumably such an armament would be intended for use against lightly armed auxiliary cruisers, but it was bound to call the status of British merchantmen into question. Admiral Fisher, perceiving this, wrote to Prime Minister Asquith on 14 May 1914 that "the recent arming of our British merchant ships is unfortunate, for it gives the hostile submarine an excellent excuse (if she needs one) for sinking them." [Bailey and Ryan, pages 10-11]

After the outbreak of war the Admiralty issued orders to merchant ships dictating resistance to U- boats when possible. The orders of 10 February 1915 directed merchant ships to escape when possible, but "if a submarine comes up suddenly close ahead of you with obvious hostile intention, steer straight for her at your utmost speed..." Further instructions, issued ten days later, told armed steamers to open fire on a submarine even if it had not yet fired. Given the extreme vulnerability of a submarine, either to ramming or to even small-caliber shellfire, a U-boat that surfaced and gave warning against a merchantman so instructed was putting itself in serious peril. The Germans were well aware of these orders; although they were meant to be secret, copies were soon obtained from captured ships (and, Beesly indicates, from wireless intercepts as well). [Beesly, "Room 40," p. 94]

There were a number of instances of such resistance to U-boats before the sinking of LUSITANIA. The first recorded ramming of a U-boat by a merchant ship came on 28 February 1915, when the steamer THORDIS rammed and damaged a submarine off the south coast of England (Bailey and Ryan state that five U- boats were sunk by ramming before May 1915, but they are not clear on whether any of these sinkings were by merchant ships). Most merchant ships, however, did not yet have guns, and there are only two known cases of armed resistance to submarines before the sinking of LUSITANIA. [Bailey and Ryan, p. 53-54, p. 351n]

There is no clear indication that the United States Government was aware of the secret orders until December 1915, after the despatch of all three LUSITANIA notes. Bailey and Ryan imply that knowledge of such orders might have tempered the U.S. response to the sinking of LUSITANIA. [Bailey and Ryan, pp. 48-49, 54]

Bailey and Ryan rightly put much emphasis on the secret Admiralty orders to merchantmen to fire upon or ram U-boats when possible; it is not reasonable to expect a submarine to surface and give warning under such circumstances. This, not the phantom munitions, the nonexistent armament, or any other conspiracy notion, is much the best argument for the German case in the sinking of LUSITANIA and in the tactics of their submarines in general.

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