CHAPTER VI. Venezuela
Perhaps no American document relating to diplomacy ever before made so great a stir in the world. Its unexpectedness enhanced its effect, even in the United States, for the public had not been sufficiently aware of the shaping of this international episode to be psychologically prepared for the imminence of war. Unlike most Anglo-American diplomacy, this had been a long-range negotiation, with notes exchanged between the home offices instead of personal conferences. People blenched at the thought of war; stocks fell; the attention of the whole world was arrested. The innumerable and intimate bonds of friendship and interest which would thus have to be broken merely because of an insignificant jog in a boundary remote from both the nations made war between the United States and Great Britain seem absolutely inconceivable, until people realized that neither country could yield without an admission of defeat both galling to national pride and involving fundamental principles of conduct and policy for the future.
Great Britain in particular stood amazed at Cleveland's position. The general opinion was that peace must be maintained and that diplomats must find a formula which would save both peace and appearances. Yet before this public opinion could be diplomatically formulated, a new episode shook the British sense of security. Germany again appeared as a menace and, as in the case of Samoa, the international situation thus produced tended to develop a realization of the kinship between Great Britain and the United States. Early in January, 1896, the Jameson raid into the Transvaal was defeated, and the Kaiser immediately telegraphed his congratulations to President Krtiger. In view of the possibilities involved in this South African situation, British public opinion demanded that her diplomats maintain peace with the United States, with or without the desired formula.
The British Government, however, was not inclined to act with undue haste. It became apparent even to the most panicky that war with the United States could not come immediately, for the American Commission of Inquiry must first report. For a time Lord Salisbury hoped that Congress would not support the President - a contingency which not infrequently happened under Cleveland's Administration. On this question of foreign relations, however, Congress stood squarely behind the President. Lord Salisbury then toyed with the hope that the matter might be delayed until Cleveland's term expired, in the hope he might have an opportunity of dealing with a less strenuous successor.
In the summer of 1896, John Hay, an intimate friend of Major McKinley, the probable Republican candidate for the presidency, was in England, where he was a well-known figure. There he met privately Arthur J. Balfour, representing Lord Salisbury, and Sir William Harcourt, the leader of the Opposition. Hay convinced them that a change in the Administration of his country would involve no retreat from the existing American position. The British Government thereupon determined to yield but attempted to cover its retreat by merging the question with one of general arbitration. This proposal, however, was rejected, and Lord Salisbury then agreed to "an equitable settlement" of the Venezuela question by empowering the British Ambassador at Washington to begin negotiations "either with the representative of Venezuela or with the Government of the United States acting as the friend of Venezuela."
The achievement of the Administration consisted in forcing Great Britain to recognize the interest of the United States in the dispute with Venezuela, on the ground that Venezuela was one of the nations of the Western Hemisphere. This concession practically involved recognition of the interest of the United States in case of future disputes with other American powers. The arbitration treaty thus arranged between Great Britain and Venezuela under the auspices of the United States submitted the whole disputed area to judicial decision but adopted the rule that fifty years of occupation should give a sufficient title for possession. The arbitration tribunal, which met in Paris in 1899, decided on a division of the disputed territory but found that the claim of Great Britain was, on the whole, more nearly correct than that of Venezuela.
Cleveland's startling and unconventional method of dealing with this controversy has been explained by all kinds of conjectures. For example, it has been charged that his message was the product of a fishing trip on which whisky flowed too freely; on the other hand, it has been asserted that the message was an astute political play for the thunder of patriotic applause. More seriously, Cleveland has been charged by one set of critics with bluffing, and by another with recklessly running the risk of war on a trivial provocation. The charge of bluffing comes nearer the fact, for President Cleveland probably had never a moment's doubt that the forces making for peace between the two nations would be victorious. If he may be said to have thrown a bomb, he certainly had attached a safety valve to it, for the investigation which he proposed could not but give time for the passions produced by his message to cool. It is interesting to note in passing that delay for investigation was a device which that other great Democrat, William Jennings Bryan, Cleveland's greatest political enemy, sought, during his short term as Secretary of State under President Wilson, to make universal in a series of arbitration treaties - treaties which now bind the United States and many other countries, how tightly no man can tell.