The Pledge

When agreeing to the Sussex Pledge, Germany agreed to stop sinking unresisting liners and merchantmen without warning and with “proper humanitarian precautions,” but assumed that Washington would then insist that other belligerents enforce the “laws of humanity” and respect “the rules of international law” (a reference to the British starvation blockade). Should the relaxation of the blockade not occur, Germany stated it “would then be facing and new situation in which it must reserve to itself complete liberty of decision.” But there was not much hope there. While Wilson accepted the Sussex Pledge, he soundly rejected the last condition.

By January 1917, the situation had changed in Germany. Their people were actually starving because of the hunger embargo. They not only felt that the USA had jeopardized its neutrality by giving in to and even abetting to the insidious Allied blockade of Germany (which ensured that American trade was almost exclusively with the Allies), but that the USA could no longer be considered a neutral party since at that point they were blatantly supplying both munitions and money to the Allies.

The Germans felt betrayed. They also wrongly figured that a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare could help defeat Great Britain within a few months. The German Government decided to resume unrestricted submarine attacks on all Allied and neutral shipping within prescribed war zones, and accordingly, on January 31, 1917, the German Ambassador to the United States, Count Johann von Bernstorff, presented U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing with a note declaring Germany’s intention to restart unrestricted submarine warfare the following day.

Wilson went before Congress on February 3rd and broke diplomatic relations with Germany, but did not ask for a declaration of war because he doubted that the American public would support him unless there was ample proof that Germany intended to attack U.S. ships with no warning. Later that day, Ambassador von Bernstorff was kicked out with guaranteed safe passage out of the country, and in the wake of Wilson’s speech, all German cruisers docked in the United States were seized. On the same day, a German U-boat sunk the American cargo ship Housatonic off the Scilly Islands, just southwest of Britain (it was a former German ship named the Geogia which had been seized in 1914 and renamed). A British ship rescued the ship’s crew, but its entire cargo of grain was lost.

On February 26, Wilson asked Congress for authority to arm American merchant ships with U.S. naval personnel and equipment. Several anti-war Senators led a successful filibuster that ate up the remainder of the Congressional session. These men were labelled as “obstructionists.” Newspapers such as the Chicago Herald saw them “damned to everlasting fame.” One of the Senators was hanged in effigy, another received as a gift thirty pieces of silver and another was sent an iron cross weighing forty pounds made by a blacksmith and bearing the inscription, “lest the Kaiser forget.” State legislatures passed resolutions of condemnation which denounced the filibusterers as “disloyal, traitorous, and cowardly.” At a patriotic mass-meeting of the “American Rights League” held in New York, speakers called them treasonous and some in the audience shouted, “Traitors! Hang them!”

Disregarding the Senate, Wilson decided to arm American merchant ships by executive order, even though international law stipulated that the placing of U.S. naval personnel on civilian ships to protect them from German submarines would constitute an act of war against Germany. Wilson claimed that an archaic anti-piracy law gave him the authority to do so.

Ten U.S. ship losses between February 1, 1917 and April 4, 1917 served as the official “overt acts” or casus belli for U.S. declaration of war against Germany: Housatonic, Lyman M. Law, Algonquin, Vigilancia, Healdton, City of Memphis, Illinois, Aztec and Marguerite.*

In February of 1917, the British ship Laconia was sunk by a German submarine killing two American passengers. Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, Britain had turned the Laconia into an armed merchant cruiser and she was based in the South Atlantic. After being used as headquarters for the British operations to capture Tanga and the colony of German East Africa, she returned to the patrolling of the South Atlantic. She was then given back to Cunard and on September 9, 1916 and resumed service carrying passengers! On February 25, 1917, she was torpedoed and sunk by the Germans while returning from the United States to England with 75 passengers. Twelve people were killed, including two American citizens. A flamboyant reporter from the Chicago Tribune named Floyd Gibbons was aboard the Laconia when it was torpedoed and gained fame from his dramatic dispatches about the attack.

Gibbons was greatly influenced by anti-German sentiments. His musings were later published by an anti-German propaganda disseminator, George H. Doran Company of New York. Gibbons was a war correspondent later embedded with the US Marines and it appears that he totally made up the “fact” that the term Devil Dog or ‘Teufelshunde’ was used by the Germans to describe the Marines. He wrote several books about World War I, including what purports to be a biography of Baron von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” which was more akin to an inaccurate work of fiction and created to turn Richthofen into a fiendish, blood-thirsty hun.

From the last paragraph of “And They Thought We Wouldn’t Fight” by Floyd Gibbons, 1918:

As I stepped ashore, a Britisher, a fellow-passenger aboard the Laconia, who knew me as an American, stepped up to me. During the voyage, we had had many conversations concerning the possibility of America entering the war. Now he slapped me on the back with this question,

“Well, old Casus Belli,” he said, “is this your blooming overt act?”

I did not answer him, but thirty minutes afterward, I was rounding out on a typewriter the introduction to a four thousand-word newspaper article, which I cabled that night and which put the question up to the American public for an answer. Five weeks later the United States entered the war.

* In March of 1917, the S.S. Algonquin, an unarmed American merchantman carrying a ship full of food for Britain was sunk without warning but the crew escaped unharmed. Also in March, the American ships City of Memphis (the crew was let safely off), the Illinois (carrying a million dollars worth of oil for Britain) and the Vigilancia (with a loss of 15 men) were sunk. A Standard Oil Company steamer Healdton was sunk in a supposed “safety zone” off the Dutch coast (the Steamship Healdton, was described as torpedoed by a German submarine March 21, 1917, but current thought is that it probably struck a newly-laid mine in a minefield of 1,000 mines laid by the Royal Navy on March 19, 1917 25 miles north of Terschelling, Holland). On Feb.12, 1917, the American schooner Lyman M. Law was captured in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Sardinia by Austrians who released the crew of eight Americans and two British sailors before sinking the ship. The crew was uninjured. The ship Aztec, armed with two 3-inch 50-caliber guns, was either torpedoed or mined on April 1st. killing 28. The American steamship Missourian was sunk in the Mediterranean on April 4th, 1917 by an unmarked submarine