Early in January, 1916, German sympathizers throughout the country began a
drive on both Houses of Congress for the passage of a resolution warning
or forbidding Americans to travel on passenger ships belonging to citizens
or subjects of the belligerent nations. Petitions of various kinds,
demanding vigorous action in this matter, began to pour in upon us at the
White House from various parts of the country. While these petitions were
signed by many devoted, patriotic Americans, it was clear to those of us
who were on the inside of affairs that there lay back of this movement a
sinister purpose on the part of German sympathizers in this country to
give Germany full sway upon the high seas, in order that she might be
permitted to carry on her unlawful and inhuman submarine warfare. This
movement became so intense that leading Democratic and Republican senators
and representatives soon became its ardent advocates, until it looked as
if the resolution might pass with only a small minority found in
opposition to it. Those of us who were in the Executive offices, and
intimately associated with the President, kept in close touch with the
situation on Capitol Hill and were advised that the movement for the
resolution was in full swing and that it could not be checked. A
resolution was finally introduced by Representative McLemore, of Texas,
and quickly received the support of Senator Gore of Oklahoma, and Senator
Stone of Missouri, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations. What
the attitude of the President should be toward it was the subject of
discussion between the President, two of his Cabinet officers, and myself,
after a session of the Cabinet early in February, 1916.
The President was advised by the Cabinet officers with whom he conferred
regarding the matter that it would be a hopeless task on his part to
attempt to stem the tide that was now running in favour of the passage of
the McLemore resolution, and that were he to attempt to prevent its
passage it might result in a disastrous defeat of his leadership, that
would seriously embarrass him on Capitol Hill and throughout the nation.
At the conclusion of this conference the President asked me whether my
information about affairs on Capitol Hill and the attitude of the members
of the House and Senate toward the McLemore resolution was in accord with
the information he had just received from his Cabinet officers. I told him
that it was, but that so far as I was concerned I did not share the
opinion of the Cabinet officers and did not agree with the advice which
they had volunteered, to the effect that it would be useless for him to
throw down the gage of battle to those who sought to pass the McLemore
resolution. I informed him that regardless of what the attitude of those
on Capitol Hill was toward the resolution, he could not afford to allow
the matter to pass without a protest from him, and that, indeed, he could
afford to be defeated in making a fight to maintain American rights upon
the high seas. The discussion between the President, the Cabinet officers,
and myself became heated. They were reluctant to have the President go
into the fight, while I was most anxious to have him do so. Evidently,
what I said made an impression upon the President and he asked me, as our
conference was concluded, to let him have as soon as possible a memorandum
containing my views upon the subject.
Shortly after the conference, Senator Stone, chairman of the Committee on
Foreign Relations of the Senate, asked for an appointment with the
President, to confer with him on the next morning, February 25th,
regarding the McLemore resolution. I suggested to the President that
inasmuch as Senator Stone was to see him in the morning it would be wise
and prudent if, in answer to his letter asking for an appointment, the
President should frankly state his views with reference to the proposed
resolution. The President acted upon this suggestion and the letter was
immediately dispatched to Senator Stone.
My letter to the President, advising him of the situation, was as follows:
THE WHITE HOUSE,
February 24, 1916.
What I have heard since leaving you this morning confirms me in my
belief that now is the time (before the night passes) to set forth
your position to the country on the McLemore resolution in terms that
no one can misunderstand. In the last hour I have talked with Speaker
Clark, Senator Pittman, and Mr. Sims of Tennessee, and have received
impressions from them which lead me to conclude: first, that the
consideration of this resolution cannot much longer be postponed, as
Speaker Clark so informed me, although Congressman Doremus and Senator
Pittman say the situation on the hill is quieting down. I am more than
convinced that underlying this resolution is a purpose to discredit
your leadership, for the forces that are lined up for this fight
against you are the anti-preparedness crowd, the Bryan-Kitchen-Clark
group, and some of the anti-British Senators like Hoke Smith and Gore.
Therefore, I cannot urge you too strongly at once to send an identic
letter to both Representative Flood, chairman of the Foreign Relations
Committee of the House, and Senator Stone, chairman of the Foreign
Relations Committee of the Senate. The letter, in my opinion, should
embody the following ideas:
First, explain in the frankest fashion just what Secretary Lansing
attempted to obtain when he suggested to the Entente nations an
agreement on the arming of merchantmen, how this government was
informed by Germany of her intention to destroy armed merchantmen
without giving the passengers a moment of warning, and how, in order
to stave off such a contingency, we tried as the friend and in the
interest of humanity to get an agreement between both sides that would
bring submarine warfare within the bounds of international law.
Second, explain that a possible adjustment of this matter is in
process of negotiation right now, and that, of course, while we cannot
change international law upon our own initiative, we are still of the
hope that some general agreement among the belligerents may eventually
be obtained. Explain how embarrassing such a resolution as the
McLemore one will be to negotiations now being threshed out between
the executive branches of the Government charged with the conduct of
foreign relations, and foreign governments.
Third, then say that in the absence of any general agreement, the
United States cannot yield one inch of her rights without destroying
the whole fabric of international law, for in the last analysis this
is what is involved. To yield one right to-day means another to-
morrow. We cannot know where this process of yielding on the ground of
convenience or expediency may lead us. These laws are the product of
centuries. Our forefathers fought to establish their validity, and we
cannot afford for the sake of convenience when our very life is
threatened, to abandon them on any ground of convenience or
Fourth, to pass such a resolution at this time would seriously
embarrass the Department of State and the Executive in the conduct of
these most delicate matters at a time when everything is being done to
bring about a peaceful solution of these problems.
Fifth, might you not diplomatically suggest, in your letter to Senator
Stone, that to pass favorably upon a resolution of this kind at this
time would be showing lack of confidence in the Government, and
particularly in its Chief Executive?
The morning papers have outlined the details of the opposition among
the Democrats. The afternoon papers are repeating the same thing with
emphasis on the fact that Joe Cannon, Jim Mann, and Lodge are going to
support you. I would suggest that you insert the following in your
letter to Senator Stone:
"I think that not only would such a vote on this resolution be
construed as a lack of confidence in the executive branch of the
Government in this most delicate matter but if the division
continues as I am informed within the ranks of the Democratic
party, it will be difficult for me to consider that the majority
party speaks the will of the nation in these circumstances and as
between any faction in my party and the interests of the nation, I
must always choose the latter, irrespective of what the effect
will be on me or my personal fortunes. What we are contending for
in this matter is of the very essence of the things that have made
America a sovereign nation. She cannot yield them without
admitting and conceding her own impotency as a nation and the
surrender of her independent position among the nations of the
The letter of the President to Senator Stone was published in the morning
papers of February 25, 1916, and is as follows:
THE WHITE HOUSE,
February 25, 1916.
MY DEAR SENATOR:
I very warmly appreciate your kind and frank letter of to-day, and
feel that it calls for an equally frank reply. You are right in
assuming that I shall do everything in my power to keep the United
States out of war. I think the country will feel no uneasiness about
my course in that respect. Through many anxious months I have striven
for that object, amid difficulties more manifold than can have been
apparent upon the surface, and so far I have succeeded. I do not doubt
that I shall continue to succeed.
The course which the central European powers have announced their
intention of following in the future with regard to undersea warfare
seems for the moment to threaten insuperable obstacles, but its
apparent meaning is so manifestly inconsistent with explicit
assurances recently given us by those powers with regard to their
treatment of merchant vessels on the high seas that I must believe
that explanations will presently ensue which will put a different
aspect upon it. We have had no reason to question their good faith or
their fidelity to their promises in the past, and I for one feel
confident that we shall have none in the future.
But in any event our duty is clear. No nation, no group of nations,
has the right, while war is in progress, to alter or disregard the
principles which all nations have agreed upon in mitigation of the
horrors and sufferings of war; and if the clear rights of American
citizens should very unhappily be abridged or denied by any such
action we should, it seems to me, have in honour no choice as to what
our own course should be.
For my own part I cannot consent to any abridgment of the rights of
American citizens in any respect. The honour and self-respect of the
nation is involved. We covet peace, and shall preserve it at any cost
but the loss of honor. To forbid our people to exercise their rights
for fear we might be called upon to vindicate them would be a deep
humiliation, indeed. It would be an implicit, all but an explicit,
acquiescence in the violation of the rights of mankind everywhere and
of whatever nation or allegiance. It would be a deliberate abdication
of our hitherto proud position as spokesmen, even amid the turmoil of
war, for the law and the right. It would make everything this
government has attempted and everything that it has accomplished
during this terrible struggle of nations meaningless and futile.
It is important to reflect that if in this instance we allowed
expediency to take the place of principle the door would inevitably be
opened to still further concessions. Once accept a single abatement of
right, and many other humiliations would follow, and the whole fine
fabric of international law might crumble under our hands piece by
piece. What we are contending for in this matter is of the very
essence of the things that have made America a sovereign nation. She
cannot yield them without conceding her own impotency as a nation and
making virtual surrender of her independent position among the nations
of the world.
I am speaking, my dear Senator, in deep solemnity, without heat, with
a clear consciousness of the high responsibilities of my office and as
your sincere and devoted friend. If we should unhappily differ, we
shall differ as friends, but where issues so momentous as these are
involved we must, just because we are friends, speak our minds without
SENATOR WILLIAM J. STONE,
United States Senate.
The publication of the letter of the President to Senator Stone worked a
complete reversal of opinion on the Hill.
Quickly the effect of the President's letter was seen, and the McLemore
resolution was overwhelmingly defeated.
Early in August, 1916, the President took up his residence at Shadow Lawn,
New Jersey, and began the preparation of his speech of acceptance. He
forwarded me a draft of this speech which brought from me the following
comment upon it:
THE WHITE HOUSE,
August 22, 1916.
I think the failure to bring out the hyphen question in your speech of
acceptance will be vigorously criticized even by our loyal friends.
Mr. Hughes will soon be compelled to speak out on this question.
Roosevelt's speeches in the main will force him to do this. You might
open the subject in that part of your speech in which you discuss
neutrality, showing the embarrassments under which you have laboured
in trying to keep the Nation at peace. After discussing these
embarrassments, consisting of plots against our industries, etc.,
could you not introduce a sentence like this?: "While I am the
candidate of the Democratic party, I am above all else an American
citizen. I neither seek the favour nor fear the wrath of any alien
element in America which puts loyalty to any foreign power first."
As to Huerta: I believe your reference to him could be strengthened. I
think you ought to bring out the fact that the work of assassination
shall never receive the endorsement, so far as you are concerned, of
this American Republic. I suggest the following: "The United States
will refuse, so long as that power remains with me, to extend the hand
of welcome to one who gains power in a republic through treachery and
bloodshed." (This is not only sound statesmanship but good morals.)
"No permanency in the affairs of our sister republics can be attained
by a title based upon intrigue and assassination."
The President, always welcoming advice, approved and embodied some of
these suggestions in his speech of acceptance.
It has often been said by unfair critics that Mr. Wilson was so tenacious
of his own opinion and views that he resented suggestions from the outside
in any matter with which he was called upon to deal.
As an intimate associate of his for eleven years, I think I was in a
position to find out and to know how unfair the basis of this criticism
really was. In my contact with public men I never met a more open-minded
man; nor one who was more willing to act upon any suggestion that had
merit in it. I have seen him readily give up his own views and often yield
to the influence of a better argument. I always felt free in every public
matter that he discussed and in every attitude which he took on public
questions frankly to express my own opinion and openly to disagree with
him. In his speeches and public statements he had no pride of opinion, nor
did he attempt to hold his friends off at arms' length when they had
suggestions of any kind to make.
Here is the expurgated stuff. Do what you please with it.
* * * * *
19 Nov., 1916.
Here is the message. I wish you would read it and give me your
impression of it.
And please keep it very carefully from any eyes but your own. It is
still in provisional shape only, and there are a number of points I am
still keeping under advisement.
(signed) W. W.
* * * * *
17 May, 1916.
THE WHITE HOUSE.
Thank you for the memorandum about peace suggestions. I have read it
very carefully and find my own thoughts travelling very much the same
route. You may be sure I am doing a great deal of serious thinking
about it all.
(signed) W. W.
Some insights into day-to-day affairs at the White House]
In these reminiscences I am including my letters to him, embodying
suggestions of various kinds, many of which he acted upon and many of
which he rejected, in order that proof may be given of the fact, that
despite what his critics may say, he not only did not resent suggestions,
but openly invited them.