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Theodore Roosevelt; An Intimate Biography
Chapter XXVII - Neutrality
by Thayer, William Roscoe


While President Wilson was giving his whole thought and effort to the solution of exacting domestic tasks, the European war broke upon him and thus turned his attention and study to the age-long and complicated political struggle between Germany, France, and England.

Fully conscious from the very beginning of the difficulties that lay in his path, he was aware of the eventualities the war now beginning might lead to. As a profound student of history he saw with a clear vision the necessity of neutrality and of America remaining disentangled in every way from the embroilments of Europe. To the people of the country it at first appeared that the war was one more in a long series of European quarrels and that we must play our part in the great conflict as mere spectators and strictly adhere to the American policy of traditional aloofness and isolation, which had been our immemorial custom and habit. Although we were bound to maintain a policy of isolation, Woodrow Wilson from the beginning foresaw its futility, and afterward gave expression to this conviction in a campaign speech in 1916, when he said:
This is the last war [meaning the World War] of its kind or of any kind that involves the world that the United States can keep out of. I say that because I believe that the business of neutrality is over; not because I want it to be over, but I mean this, that war now has such a scale that the position of neutrals sooner or later becomes intolerable.
He knew how difficult it would be to keep a people so variously constituted strictly neutral. No sooner was his proclamation of neutrality announced than the differences in points of view in racial stocks began to manifest themselves in language both intemperate and passionate, until his advice to his country "to be neutral in fact as well as in name" became a dead and spiritless thing.

I have often been asked if the policy of neutrality which the President announced, and which brought a fire of criticism upon him, represented his own personal feelings toward the European war, and whether if he had been a private citizen, he would have derided it as now his critics were engaged in doing.

As an intimate associate of Woodrow Wilson during the whole of the European war, and witnessing from day to day the play of his feelings, especially after the violation of the neutrality of Belgium, I am certain that had he been free to do so he would have yielded to the impulse of championing a cause that in his heart of hearts he felt involved the civilization of the world. But it was his devotion to the idea of trusteeship that held him in check, and the consciousness that in carrying out that trusteeship he had no right to permit his own passionate feelings to govern his public acts.

It would have been a dramatic adventure to accept Germany's assault on Belgium as a challenge to the humane interest of America, but the acceptance would have been only a gesture, for we were unable to transport armies to the theatre of war in time to check the outrage. Such action would have pleased some people in the East, but the President knew that this quixotic knight errantry would not appeal to the country at large, particularly the West, still strongly grounded in the Washingtonian tradition of non-interference in European quarrels.

Colonel Roosevelt himself, who subsequently attacked so strongly the "pusillanimity" of the Administration's course, said on September 23, 1914:
A deputation of Belgians has arrived in this country to invoke our assistance in the time of their dreadful need. What action our government can or will take I know not. It has been announced that no action can be taken that will interfere with our entire neutrality. It is certainly eminently desirable that we should remain entirely neutral and nothing but urgent need would warrant breaking our neutrality and taking sides one way or the other.
It was not the policy of a weakling or a timid man. It was the policy of a prudent leader and statesman, who was feeling his way amid dangers and who as an historian himself knew the difficulties of an imprudent or incautious move.

I recall the day he prepared his neutrality proclamation. At the end of one of the most strenuous days of his life in Washington, he left the Executive offices where he was engaged in meeting and conferring with senators and congressmen, and I found him comfortably seated under an elm tree, serenely engaged with pad and pencil in preparing his neutrality proclamation, which was soon to loose a fierce storm of opposition and ridicule upon him. He and I had often discussed the war and its effect upon our own country, and one day in August, 1914, just after the Great War had begun, he said to me: "We are going through deep waters in the days to come. The passions now lying dormant will soon be aroused and my motives and purposes at every turn will soon be challenged until there will be left but few friends to justify my course. It does not seem clear now, but as this war grows in intensity it will soon resolve itself into a war between autocracy and democracy. Various racial groups in America will seek to lead us now one way and then another. We must sit steady in the boat and bow our heads to meet the storm."

Bound as he was by the responsibilities of trusteeship to adhere to a policy of neutrality, personally he saw that the inevitable results would be only bitter disappointment. "We cannot remain isolated in this war," he said, "for soon the contagion of it will spread until it reaches our own shores. On the one side Mr. Bryan will censure the Administration for being too militaristic, and on the other we will find Mr. Roosevelt criticizing us because we are too pacifist in our tendencies."

Dr. William E. Dodd, in his book "Woodrow Wilson and His Work," has sensed the complicated situation in which the President found himself: "The British blockade, becoming more effective every day, barred the way of American goods to Germany and even neutral countries. Hoke Smith and a score of southern senators and representatives urged him to protest against the blockade. Representatives of the packers of Chicago and the farmers of the Northwest urged him to open the way to hungry markets for their goods. He made his fight during the autumn of 1914 and 1915 against all the more drastic phases of the British blockade, against British interference with our cargoes for neutral ports." Every artificial device for increasing our trade with neutral countries was suggested by those who sought his aid and counsel in the matter. Cotton of all the commodities was the hardest hit. When a friend from Georgia urged action by the President to help in the matter of cotton, the President tried to impress upon him that, with the World War in progress, the law of supply and demand was deeply affected and that the sales of cotton were necessarily restricted by reason of the closure of certain markets to our goods. This friend, in urging his views upon the President, said: "But you, Mr. President, can suspend the law of supply and demand." The President responded fey saying: "If I did, Judge, and you ran your head up against it, you might get hurt."

Every sympathizer with Germany pursued the President relentlessly with insistent demand that England should be brought to book for the unreasonable character of the blockade which she was carrying on against our commerce on the high seas. The President in every diplomatic way possible pressed America's claims against England, but these demands did not satisfy the German sympathizers throughout the country who covertly sought to bring about a real breach between the two countries. Even I felt that we should go further in our demands upon England than the President seemed willing to go.

The pressure upon us at the White House for satisfaction at the hands of England grew more intense with each day. I recall a conversation I had with the President shortly before the Congressional elections when the President's political enemies were decrying his kind treatment of England and excoriating him for the stern manner in which he was holding Germany to strict accountability for her actions. This conversation was held while we were on board the President's train on our way to the West. After dinner one evening I tactfully broached the subject of the British blockade and laid before the President the use our enemies were making of his patient action toward England. My frank criticism deeply aroused him. Replying to me he pitilessly attacked those who were criticizing him for "letting up on Great Britain." Looking across the table at me he said: "I am aware of the demands that are daily being made upon me by my friends for more vigorous action against England in the matter of the blockade; I am aware also of the sinister political purpose that lies back of many of these demands. Many senators and congressmen who urge radical action against England are thinking only of German votes in their districts and are not thinking of the world crisis that would inevitably occur should there be an actual breach at this time between England and America over the blockade." Then looking squarely at me, he said: "I have gone to the very limit in pressing our claims upon England and in urging the British Foreign Office to modify the blockade. Walter Page, our Ambassador to England, has placed every emphasis upon our insistence that something be done, and something will be done, but England, now in the throes of a great war crisis, must at least be given a chance to adjust these matters. Only a few days ago Mr. Page wrote me a most interesting letter, describing the details of a conference he had had with Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, to discuss our protests against the British blockade. Mr. Page described the room in which the conference was held, on the wall of which was hung as a memorial the fifteen-million-dollar check with which Great Britain paid the Alabama claims in the Civil War. Mr. Page pointed to this Alabama check and said: 'If you don't stop these seizures, Sir Edward, some day you will have your entire room papered with things like that.' Sir Edward replied: 'That may be so, but we will pay every cent. Of course, many of the restrictions we have laid down and which seriously interfere with your trade are unreasonable. But America must remember that we are fighting her fight, as well as our own, to save the civilization of the world. You dare not press us too far!'" Turning to me, the President said: "He was right. England is fighting our fight and you may well understand that I shall not, in the present state of the world's affairs, place obstacles in her way. Many of our critics suggest war with England in order to force reparation in these matters. War with England would result in a German triumph. No matter what may happen to me personally in the next election, I will not take any action to embarrass England when she is fighting for her life and the life of the world. Let those who clamour for radical action against England understand this!"

While the critics of the President were busily engaged in embarrassing and "hazing" him at every point and insisting upon a "show-down" with Great Britain over the blockade, the world was startled on May 7, 1915, by the news of the sinking of the Lusitania, off the coast of Ireland, resulting in the loss of many American lives. A few days later came the news that the German people were rejoicing at the fine stroke of the submarine commander in consummating this horrible tragedy.

The President's critics who, a few days before, were assailing him for his supposed surrender to England, were now demanding an immediate declaration of war against Germany, but not for a moment did the President waver before these clamorous demands. To such an extent did he carry this attitude of calmness and steadiness of purpose that on "the outside" the people felt that there was in him a heartlessness and an indifference to the deep tragedy of the Lusitania. At my first meeting with him I tried to call to his attention many of the tragic details of the sinking of the great ship in an effort to force his hands, so to speak, but he quickly checked what appeared to be my youthful impetuosity and said: "Tumulty, it would be much wiser for us not to dwell too much upon these matters." When he uttered this admonition there was no suggestion of coldness about him. In fact, he seemed to be deeply moved as I adverted to some of the facts surrounding this regrettable and tragic affair. At times tears stood in his eyes, and turning to me he said: "If I pondered over those tragic items that daily appear in the newspapers about the Lusitania, I should see red in everything, and I am afraid that when I am called upon to act with reference to this situation I could not be just to any one. I dare not act unjustly and cannot indulge my own passionate feelings."

Evidently he saw that his turning away from the topic in this apparently indifferent way did not sit well with me. Quickly he understood my dissatisfaction and said: "I suppose you think I am cold and indifferent and little less than human, but, my dear fellow, you are mistaken, for I have spent many sleepless hours thinking about this tragedy. It has hung over me like a terrible nightmare. In God's name, how could any nation calling itself civilized purpose so horrible a thing?"

At the time we were discussing this grave matter we were seated in the President's study in the White House. I had never seen him more serious or careworn. I was aware that he was suffering under the criticism that had been heaped upon him for his apparent inaction in the matter of the Lusitania. Turning to me he said: "Let me try to make my attitude in this matter plain to you, so that you at least will try to understand what lies in my thoughts. I am bound to consider in the most careful and cautious way the first step I shall take, because once having taken it I cannot withdraw from it. I am bound to consider beforehand all the facts and circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania and to calculate the effect upon the country of every incautious or unwise move. I am keenly aware that the feeling of the country is now at fever heat and that it is ready to move with me in any direction I shall suggest, but I am bound to weigh carefully the effect of radical action now based upon the present emotionalism of the people. I am not sure whether the present emotionalism of the country would last long enough to sustain any action I would suggest to Congress, and thus in case of failure we should be left without that fine backing and support so necessary to maintain a great cause. I could go to Congress to-morrow and advocate war with Germany and I feel certain that Congress would support me, but what would the country say when war was declared, and finally came, and we were witnessing all of its horrors and bloody aftermath. As the people pored over the casualty lists, would they not say: 'Why did Wilson move so fast in this matter? Why didn't he try peaceably to settle this question with Germany? Why could he not have waited a little longer? Why was he so anxious to go to war with Germany, yet at the same time why was he so tender of the feelings of Great Britain in the matter of the blockade?' Were I to advise radical action now, we should have nothing, I am afraid, but regrets and heartbreaks. The vastness of this country; its variegated elements; the conflicting cross-currents of national feelings bid us wait and withhold ourselves from hasty or precipitate action. When we move against Germany we must be certain that the whole country not only moves with us but is willing to go forward to the end with enthusiasm. I know that we shall be condemned for waiting, but in the last analysis I am the trustee of this nation, and the cost of it all must be considered in the reckoning before we go forward."

Then leaning closer to me, he said: "It will not do for me to act as if I had been hurried into precipitate action against Germany. I must answer for the consequences of my action. What is the picture that lies before me? All the great nations of Europe at war, engaged in a death grapple that may involve civilization. My earnest hope and fervent prayer has been that America could withhold herself and remain out of this terrible mess and steer clear of European embroilments, and at the right time offer herself as the only mediating influence to bring about peace. We are the only great nation now free to do this. If we should go in, then the whole civilized world will become involved. What a pretty mess it would be! America, the only nation disconnected from this thing and now she is surrendering the leadership she occupies and becomes involved as other nations have. Think of the tragedy! I am not afraid to go to war. No man fit to be President of this nation, knowing the way its people would respond to any demand that might be made upon them, need have fears or doubts as to what stand it would finally take. But what I fear more than anything else is the possibility of world bankruptcy that will inevitably follow our getting into this thing, Not only world chaos and bankruptcy, but all of the distempers, social, moral, and industrial, that will flow from this world cataclysm. No sane man, therefore, who knows the dangerous elements that are abroad in the world would, without feeling out every move, seek to lead his people without counting the cost and dispassionately deliberating upon every move."

In a speech delivered at Helena, Montana, he frankly spoke of the "break down" of neutrality in these words:
In the Providence of God, the leadership of this nation was intrusted to me during those early years of the war when we were not in it. I was aware through many subtle channels of the movements of opinion in this country, and I know that the thing that this country chiefly desired, the thing that you men out here in the West chiefly desired and the thing that of course every loving woman had at her heart, was that we should keep out of the war, and we tried to persuade ourselves that the European business was not our business. We tried to convince ourselves that no matter what happened on the other side of the sea, no obligation of duty rested upon us, and finally we found the currents of humanity too strong for us. We found that a great consciousness was welling up in us that this was not a local cause, that this was not a struggle which was to be confined to Europe, or confined to Asia, to which it had spread, but that it was something that involved the very fate of civilization; and there was one great nation in the world that could not afford to stay out of it. There are gentlemen opposing the ratification of this treaty who at that time taunted the Administration of the United States that it had lost touch with its international conscience. They were eager to go in, and now that they have got in, and are caught in the whole network of human conscience, they want to break out and stay out. We were caught in this thing by the action of a nation utterly unlike ourselves. What I mean to say is that the German nation, the German people, had no choice whatever as to whether it was to go into that war or not, did not know that it was going into it until its men were summoned to the colours. I remember, not once, but often, that while sitting at the Cabinet table in Washington I asked my colleagues what their impression was of the opinion of the country before we went into the war, and I remember one day one of my colleagues said to me: "Mr. President, I think the people of the country would take your advice and do what you suggested." "Why," I said, "that is not what I am waiting for; that is not enough. If they cannot go in with a whoop there is no use of their going in at all. I do not want them to wait on me. I am waiting on them. I want to know what the conscience of this country is speaking. I want to know what purpose is arising in the minds of the people of this country with regard to this world situation." When I thought I heard that voice, it was then that I proposed to the Congress of the United States that we should include ourselves in the challenge that Germany was giving to mankind.
On May 10, 1915, he made a speech in Philadelphia, which contained the regrettable and much-criticized phrase, "Too proud to fight." Unfortunately, the headlines of the papers carried only the phrase, "Too proud to fight," and little or no attention was paid to the context of the speech in which the phrase was lodged. As a matter of fact, there was nothing unusual about the character of this speech. The phrase, "Too proud to fight," was simply expressive of the President's policy since the outbreak of the war. It was not a new thought with him. Some weeks before he had said the same thing, only in different words, in a speech delivered at a banquet of the Associated Press in New York: "My interest in the neutrality of the United States is not a petty desire to keep out of trouble. I am interested in neutrality because there is something so much greater to do than fight. There is a distinction awaiting this nation that no nation has ever yet got. That is the distinction of absolute self- control and mastery." The phrase, "Too proud to fight," was simply expressive of the idea that was close to his heart: a reliance upon means of settling our difficulties with Germany other than a resort to war. On our way to Philadelphia on the day of the delivery of this speech I read a copy of it which the President handed to me, and when I ran across the phrase, "Too proud to fight," I scented the political danger in it and warned him, but he declined to be admonished because he was confident in the moral strength of his position, namely, that self-mastery is sometimes more heroic than fighting, or as the Bible states it, "He that ruleth his own spirit is greater than he that taketh a city," and trusted the people to understand his full meaning. The President himself was so above the petty tricks by which politicians wrest words from their context and force upon them unfavourable meaning that he sometimes incautiously played into the hands of this type of foe. Nor did he fully realize that his gift for making striking and quotable phrases added to the danger. It was an unfortunate phrase, "Too proud to fight," but none who thoughtfully read the context with unprejudiced mind could fail to see the moral grandeur of the President's position.

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