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President Woodrow Wilson and the Sussex Pledge

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President Woodrow Wilson and the Sussex Pledge

Extended Essay
May 2012

Word Count: 3,622

Woodrow Wilson

In 1939 a committee was formed to investigate the reasons for Wilson 's involvement in World War One. In conclusion it was documented that business and economics were the reason that Wilson’s Moral Diplomacy failed to keep America out of a conflict that was defined as simply a “European Problem”. However, Nye, the leader of the committee commissioned to investigate never got to finish his work in the committee because he was dismissed. The reason he was dismissed, because when presenting to Congress Nye started to suggest that Woodrow Wilson 's moral diplomacy and the way he implemented it was the reason for which businesses were able to wedge themselves into the war and eventually fall into the responsibility of leaving no choice but to lead America into battle. Woodrow Wilson has been a point of dispute for many generations of historians with a broad spectrum of opinions towards his policies and the method by which he implemented them. One of the most controversial actions of Woodrow Wilson is his handling of the Sussex incident. Woodrow Wilson responded to the Sussex incident by conceding to an agreement with Germany where, if broken, would mean war, yet Wilson held on strong. After Germany had decided, on January 9th 1917, that unrestricted submarine warfare would resume, Wilson knew this meant war. It would only take a Zimmerman Telegram and an Address to Congress to declare that America was officially a belligerent nation in the War to End All Wars. Word count:245

Table of Contents

Abstract

2
German Submarine Warfare and the United States

4

The Beginning of a Distant War
4

The Sussex Incident
6

The Inevitable
8

Declaration of War
9
Analysis of Sources

11
Conclusion

13

German Submarine Warfare and the United States

The Beginning of a Distant War

World War One started in 1914 for a culmination of reasons, the roots of the causes date back anywhere from the fall of the roman empire or the Napoleonic conquering of continental Europe depending on what historian’s research is taken into account. These reasons did not include America however, and President Woodrow Wilson, as well as the majority of Americans, did not want to get involved in the war. For this reason, Wilson announced later in 1914 that America would be a neutral nation.
Throughout all the reports of War and stories that immigrants had brought, President Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to remain “be neutral in fact as well as in name...impartial in thought as well as in action” (Blum 95). According to an article written about America being reluctant to enter called “Reluctant Warriors: The United States in World War I” Americans were in agreement with their current president, “Americans noted with pride the national characteristics that helped them avoid war,” (Reluctant). In 1915, Germany proclaimed a war zone around the British Isles, and also warned that, “enemy ships would be sunk on sight and neutral ships would be in danger because of British misuse of neutral flags.”(Blum 100). Wilson replied to this threat by admonishing that Britain stop flying under the American flag, but they did not stop. Wilson’s reply to Germany, however, was much more threatening, “declaring that the destruction of American Ships or American lives on belligerent ships would be regarded as ‘a flagrant violation of neutral rights’ offensive if not hostile to the United States, for which he would hold the German government to a ‘strict accountability’” (Blum 100). This stand was followed with multiple incidents of German aggression. On March 28, 1915, a U.S. citizen was killed when the British liner Falaba was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Later that same year, May 1st 1915 and American ship was torpedoed. That same month May 7, 1915, 128 Americans were among the 1,200 people killed when a German sub sank the British liner Lusitania. This shocked the entire country. Wilson, however said, “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight,” (Blum 100) trying not to go to war with all he can even after multiple attacks. Germany sent messages to America showing regret for the loss of American lives, “German Chancellor explained to the American people that he could do no more, for he could not permit the submarine to be neutralized.”(Blum 103). This calmed the American people, and secretary of State, Lansing, who subsequently fought with Wilson to convince Britain to unarm their merchant ships thinking that it would make Germany have to give warning before an attack. Germany was on board with this proposal; they did not care about harming the people on board as much as they did sinking the supplies. Britain, however, did not comply with Lansing’s proposal and instead left its merchant ships armed. Lansing then proposed unrestricted warfare with all armed vessels. Germany was willing to comply, yet Britain did not budge to the threat. Lansing and Wilson had brought America into a dangerous position because if a German U-boat were to fire upon an American ship or a ship with an American on board without warning they would have to react accordingly because it would be violating "sacred human principles” (Blum 103).
According to “Reluctant Warriors” Wilson was opposed to the war because, “He believed in diplomacy and thought that war was tremendously disruptive to the smooth flow of trade that would most benefit all nations.” The American economy was doing well at the time, coming out of the industrial revolution, and it had used the allied war effort to become a major supplier of capital and goods. Most American’s supported the Allies, however, “To them, the war was a European issue” (Reluctant). Because the opinion was so popular, Wilson campaigned on a platform of keeping the United States out of the war and was reelected to the presidency in 1916.

The Sussex Incident
On March 24th 1916, -boat torpedoed the French Chanel Steamer Sussex. Initial reports sent back to America stated that two Americans had died, though later it was found that they were just wounded. Edward House, Wilson’s foreign policy advisor, and Lansing both advised Wilson to give an Ultimatum. Lansing then delivers a message to Germany saying, “Unless the Imperial Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present method of submarine warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the United States would cut all diplomatic ties.” (Blum 104). The Kaiser held a council that agreed that it was more beneficial for America to be neutral than to have open warfare.
On May 4th, Germany agrees to the Sussex Pledge in which Germany promised not to attack unresisting merchant vessels without providing for the safety of passengers and crew by firing a warning shot. At the same time, however, it suggested that attacks would resume if the United States did not reciprocate by forcing Britain to ease its blockade. Lansing was cautious with Germany and suggested perhaps reconsidering, “But the President was in no mood for war over the niceties of language- because he knew the American people weren’t. Seizing on the German promise, while ignoring the conditions, he presented the Sussex pledge as a triumph for American – which was to say Wilsonian- Diplomacy…In Doing so he borrowed trouble, but he guessed the repayment wouldn’t be required till after the election,” (Brands 71). For Germany, the Sussex pledge was nothing but compliance until it was calculated that unrestricted warfare was feasible with America. Brands states that by accepting the terms to the Sussex pledge, “he had handed to Germany effective control over America’s fate. If berlin resumed the submarine campaign, Wilson would have to sever relations and almost certainly ask Congress for way. To do less would require him to go back on his word- a word he had insisted on giving in the most public forum he could command- and would give the lie to all the noble principles he had expounded.” (Brands 74)
America saw the President’s work and, “The President had seemed to have mastered the torpedo with his pen.”(Blum 105). There were, however, split factions. William Jennings Bryan, former Secretary of State under Wilson and leader of the noninterventionists, thought that a policy of non-intercourse could keep America out was what was thought to be “an irrelevant episode,” (Blum 105). Bryan was opposed by Former President Theodore Roosevelt who was an interventionist and who often called Wilson “Yellow” because of his reaction to all the attacks the U-boats had managed on Americans without reproach. Most Americans, however, stood loyally with Wilson in the middle.
Wilson had attempted to end the war even before the Sussex pledge. On February 22, House and Grey, a Texan and an Englishman, made a memorandum to try and get the belligerent nations to work out differences. It was a double edge sword against Germany; if they didn’t go America would be on the side of the allies, if they went and Germany didn’t surrender America would be a belligerent nation for the allies. This failed because at the time Wilson still had a strong mindset not to go to war and had the support of America in that decision. After the Sussex pledge towards the end of 1916 Wilson followed up on the memorandum when he asked both sides to state what conditions they had for peacemaking. Wilson suggested unconditional surrender, “Victory would mean peace forever upon the loser, a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished. It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand,” (Brands 75). Wilson was a man of Principle and Policy, he held that “They are the principles of mankind and must prevail,” (Brands 77). Wilson was preparing for a war that may happen, yet it did not prepare him or the American people for January 31, 1917, when Berlin announced the revival of Submarine warfare.

The Inevitable
The announcement had been the result of a decision made January 9th when an imperial council met at the baroque Pless Castle in the hills of Silesia. Cooper describes the decisions:
“The hour and a quarter of discussion around a bid table there was a charade. The army chiefs, who effectively controlled the government, had already browbeaten the week willed Kaiser into unleashing the submarines. The naval chief of staff had also swung around and now maintained that the navy had sufficient submarines to knock Britain out of the war long before the United States could transport any forces across the Atlantic. The Kaiser himself signed an order to open the submarine campaign at the beginning of February, and he said he expected America to declare war.” (Cooper 373)
Cooper continued to say what this meant for Wilson saying it “turned the world upside down. Now, instead of pressing forward with his peace offensive, he had to grapple with the specter of war.” (Cooper 375). Wilson’s Private Secretary recalls the day that Wilson received the slip with the news that Germany was resuming unrestricted warfare saying, “I seemed to read his mind in the expressions that raced across his strong features: first, blank amazement; then incredulity that even Germany could be guilty of such perfidy; then gravity and stunned, a sudden grayness of colour, a compression of the lips and the familiar locking of the jaw which always characterized him in moments of supreme resolution. Handing the paper back to me, he said in quiet tones: ‘This means war. The break that we have tried so hard to prevent now seems inevitable,” (Tumulty 254). This event spurred politics into chaos as the inevitable seemed close at hand, yet socially Americans was not fully united until after a catalyst was introduced. The Zimmeremann Telegram was, “an offer from the Germans to the Mexican government that promised German support if Mexico would declare war on the United States,” (Reluctant). Later however the final actions that led to war happened in March when German U-Boats sank three American ships, the City of Memphis, Illinois, and Vigilencia.

Declaration of War On April 2nd, 1917, Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress with a request for a Declaration of War against Germany. Wilson starts with a brief recollection of events that had occurred leading America into a position of war. He specifically the news of the breaking of the Sussex pledge the February past when he, “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,” (Woodrow). He starts off his speech with this attitude of inevitable war, and goes more into the history of their submarine warfare, making Germany the one at fault. He describes the Germans strategy of war as, “warfare against mankind,” also stating that it is politically, “It is a war against all nations,” (Woodrow). We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling toward them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their government acted in entering this war. Characterized as the instigators, Wilson illustrates time and time again in his speech, giving examples very generically of events that had occurred. Towards the middle of the speech he states, “We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling toward them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their government acted in entering this war,” (Wilson), thereby relieving any responsibility that America had in bringing about the request he was currently giving. He mentions the Zimmerman Telegram as an example of how Germany does not want to be a friend, but rather chooses to, “stir up enemies against us at our very doors” stating that the Zimmerman is, “eloquent evidence” to Germany’s intentions. He ends his speech with an emotionally charged idea that America should do all it can in this fight. Making it seem like the Sussex pledge and the Zimmerman Telegram had only called the attention of an innocent nation that must now go to war to defend its political ideals. This was Wilson’s moral diplomacy.

It is a distressing and oppressive duty, gentlemen of the Congress, which I have performed in thus addressing you. There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts-for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.
To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other. (Woodrow)

Analysis of Sources The sources used for the paper are for the most part secondary sources with a couple exceptions. One of the exceptions is actually a primary source. The Address to congress by Woodrow Wilson on April 2nd was quoted multiple times. The source is the direct transcript of the address from the University of Virginia’s Miller Center that holds a collection of many of the transcripts, audio, and video of presidential speeches. The second exception is a primary source in that it is a book of memoirs from Wilson’s private secretary Joseph P. Tumulty, who often gives his own opinions as to what he thought Wilson was thinking through controversial situations. Tumulty’s book was only quoted once, and the quote used was, according to Tumulty, a direct quote from Woodrow Wilson himself. The rest of the sources were secondary sources.
Two of the secondary sources are articles that were published under the Gale Research website database made available for educational research. The articles themselves come from different sources, but Gale backs its sources with its own name and validation. John Milton Cooper and his book Woodrow Wilson: a Biography offered supporting opinion into the gravity of the breaking of the Sussex pledge. Cooper is a Professor of American Institutions ad Gordon Fox, who has written many articles and books on Woodrow Wilson. He also taught many courses focusing on America in the time period of Wilson.
The two most quoted books are those of Oscar and Blum, Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality, and H.W. Brands, Woodrow Wilson. Brands is a Professor at the University of Texas at Austin where he earned his Ph.D. in history. He also has written many books, two of which were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Oscar Handlin is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and was Harvard Professor where he was the chief editor for The Harvard Guide to American History. John Morton Blum has been a department chair and librarian at Yale as well as a member of the Corporation at Harvard. He has written 11 scholarly books and a collection of essays and co-authored the college textbook The National Experience: A History of the United States. All the secondary sources are written by authors holding experience and the credentials to support their position. The credentials lead to knowing that the authors opinions are founded in not only their own thoughts but a culmination of their experience after spending time researching Woodrow Wilson, therefore they are trustworthy.
Bias is another aspect of the secondary sources that is not as present in the primary sources. For Woodrow Wilson’s address to congress there is a bias as to only mentioning German Submarine warfare without focusing on the fault that American citizens and American businesses had in travelling in belligerent waters even after so many deaths. Wilson focused on the German Warfare in order to emphasize the fault on the part of the Germans, not Americans. Tumulty also had bias as to his interpretation of Wilson’s thoughts; however, his bias is balanced throughout the book where he realizes some of Wilson’s mistakes and takes note of them. The secondary sources all have some bias from one angle or another. All of them, however, are quoted in fact. Not much opinion is used in the paper except for when the Wilson receives the German message that unrestricted submarine warfare would resume, yet even the different levels of how important the event is depicted all point to the same conclusion.

Conclusion Though history classes recall a culmination of reasons for America’s entrance into World War I, the importance of the breaking of the Sussex pledge is seldom remembered for the influence that it actually had. The Zimmerman Telegram, occurring after the breaking of the Sussex Pledge, where Germany had promised Mexico land in America if it were to join, was only a catalyst to America’s public interest in the war. Also, American investors and American investments had been involved from the beginning of the War. These two variables, however, do not hold the same gravity as to the situation that the Sussex Pledge had put Wilson in politically and socially. Even in Wilson’s speech to congress requesting a declaration of war he only directly addresses the dangers of the Germany’s submarine warfare saying, “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,” (Woodrow).
There is no doubt to the importance of the Sussex pledge, but there is one as to whether the responsibility of America’s entrance to the war was due to Wilson’s reactions to Germany’s actions or whether Americas entrance into the war was inevitable from the start. America’s history starts with Britain and a separation that took two wars. Separating from England, America was simply viewed as a colony that had rebelled in terms of European powers. To secure such separation President Monroe set a foreign policy in his doctrine that would hold until the late 1800’s when Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt, along with yellow journalism, pushed America into a battle with Spain over an island about 90 miles away. The Spanish American war established America as a world power in both the Americas and in England. Following the Spanish American war, three presidents, along with their respective foreign policies, all contributed to the growing influence America had in the world around it. American investment in the war and the Zimmerman telegram were both important contributors to the entrance of America into World War One. Just before the war, Wilson and Taft both had problems with Mexico as is progressed through multiple shifts in power. The Zimmerman Telegram held behind it the weight of diplomatic ties between America and Mexico, and thus brought the reality of war close to home with the American people. American investments, as investigated by the Nye committee, were a large part of the reason American ships were in belligerent waters in the first place. This goes to show that Germany had reasons to sink the American ships. While Wilson believed in the old rules of war Germany was fighting the war with machines that had never been used to this extent. Thus, the American investments and merchant ships participating in delivering supplies put Germany in a place where they had the decision of whether America would go to war or not. Germany had control over this because Woodrow Wilson let American businesses put America in that position.
Letting American investments continue after the attacks was a controversial decision for the Nye committee. During the years leading up to American involvement there were moments when Wilson’s advisors believed more cautious decisions could have been made on the part of Wilson’s handling of German actions, there were moments when Germany thought it could defeat the United States or at least had control over when America would enter the war, but overall it came down to Woodrow Wilson putting America in a position of war. The final consequence of war came when Germany sent the message that it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare, thereby breaking the Sussex pledge which Wilson had weighed America’s involvement of war on. The Sussex pledge, then, serves as a culmination of American responsibility towards entering the war, and also serves as a driving force, catalyzed by the Zimmerman Telegram and the destruction of more American ships, pushing America into the inevitable entrance into war. Wilson once said before his inauguration, “It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs,” (Brands 74), yet it was not the irony of fate, but the inevitable culmination of long term and short term history of American actions.

Bibliography
Blum, John Morton., and Oscar Handlin. Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality. Boston [u.a.: Little, Brown, 1956. Print.
Brands, H. W. Woodrow Wilson. New York: Times, 2003. Print.
Cooper, John Milton. Woodrow Wilson: a Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Print.
Dos, Passos John. Mr. Wilson 's War. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962. Print.
MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. New York: Random House, 2002. Print.
"Reluctant Warriors: The United States in World War I." World War I Reference Library. Ed. Sara Pendergast, Christine Slovey, and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 1: Almanac. Detroit: UXL, 2002. 171-186. Gale World History In Context. Web. 4 Jan. 2012.
Thomsen, Paul A., and David J. Ulbrich. "Allied Economics: Was the Economic Contribution of the United States a Decisive Factor in World War I?" History in Dispute. Ed. Dennis Showalter. Vol. 9: World War I: Second Series. Detroit: St. James Press, 2002. 18-25. Gale World History In Context. Web. 4 Jan. 2012.
Tumulty, Joseph P. Woodrow Wilson as I Know Him,. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page &, 1921. Print.
Wilson, Woodrow. "Address to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War Against Germany (April 2, 1917) Woodrow Wilson." Address. Request for Declaration of War. Congress, Washington D.C. University of Viriginia Miller Center. Web. .

Bibliography: Blum, John Morton., and Oscar Handlin. Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality. Boston [u.a.: Little, Brown, 1956. Print. Brands, H. W. Woodrow Wilson. New York: Times, 2003. Print. Cooper, John Milton. Woodrow Wilson: a Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Print. Dos, Passos John. Mr. Wilson 's War. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962. Print. MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. New York: Random House, 2002. Print. "Reluctant Warriors: The United States in World War I." World War I Reference Library. Ed. Sara Pendergast, Christine Slovey, and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 1: Almanac. Detroit: UXL, 2002. 171-186. Gale World History In Context. Web. 4 Jan. 2012. Thomsen, Paul A., and David J. Ulbrich. "Allied Economics: Was the Economic Contribution of the United States a Decisive Factor in World War I?" History in Dispute. Ed. Dennis Showalter. Vol. 9: World War I: Second Series. Detroit: St. James Press, 2002. 18-25. Gale World History In Context. Web. 4 Jan. 2012. Tumulty, Joseph P. Woodrow Wilson as I Know Him,. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page &, 1921. Print. Wilson, Woodrow. "Address to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War Against Germany (April 2, 1917) Woodrow Wilson." Address. Request for Declaration of War. Congress, Washington D.C. University of Viriginia Miller Center. Web. .

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