CHAPTER XXIV. WOODROW WILSON
Within a few days of the Lusitania catastrophe and before the protest of our government was made public, President Wilson spoke in Philadelphia, and in the course of his remarks said, "There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight." The address had no relation to the international situation, and moreover the objectionable phrase carried an unexpected and different meaning when separated from its context and linked to the Lusitania affair. The words were seized upon by the President's critics, however, as an indication of the policy of the government in the crisis and were severely condemned. On the other hand the formal protest was received with marked satisfaction. It was understood to be the work of Wilson himself, who practically took over the conduct of the more important foreign affairs. When the German government replied without meeting the demands of the President, he framed a second note which brought the possibility of war so near that Secretary Bryan resigned rather than sign it. A second reply merely prolonged the controversy and Wilson thereupon renewed his demands and declared that a repetition of submarine attacks would be regarded as "deliberately unfriendly." The statement brought the nation appreciably nearer war, but if the comments of the newspaper press may be relied upon as an index of public opinion, the President had again expressed the feelings of the people. In the meanwhile German submarine warfare was modified in the direction desired by the United States. Instead of sinking merchant vessels on sight and without warning, the commanders of submarines stopped them, visited and searched them, and gave the passengers and crews opportunity to escape. On August 19, 1915, the Arabic was sunk without warning, but the German government in conformity with its new policy disavowed the act, apologized and agreed to pay an indemnity for American lives lost. The negotiations concerning the Lusitania continued to drag on, but otherwise relations between Germany and the United States had reached the point where peace could be maintained if no further accident or provocation intervened.
Despite the general approval of the President's firm stand against Germany, there was an inclination in some quarters to do everything possible to avoid a conflict, even if the effort necessitated the relinquishment of rights that had hitherto been well recognized. In February, 1916, Representative McLemore introduced a resolution requesting the President to warn American citizens to refrain from traveling on armed belligerent vessels, whether merchantmen or otherwise and to state that if they persisted they would do so at their own peril. The House, according to the Speaker, was prepared to pass the resolution. The positions taken on this subject by the administration had not been entirely consistent, but the President was now holding that Americans had the right under international law to travel on such vessels and that the government could not honorably refuse to uphold them in exercising their right. "Once accept a single abatement of right," he asserted, "and many other humiliations would certainly follow, and the whole fine fabric of international law might crumble under our hands piece by piece." Moreover he felt that the conduct of international relations lay in the hands of the executive and that divided counsels would embarrass him in dealing with Germany. He therefore asked the House to discuss the McLemore resolution at once and come to a vote. Under this pressure the House gave way and tabled the resolution, ninety-three Republicans joining with 182 Democrats against thirty-three Democrats and 102 Republicans.
On March 24 the French channel steamer Sussex was sunk, with the loss of several Americans, and the submarine issue was thus brought forward again. The President accordingly appeared before Congress and reviewed the entire controversy. "Again and again," he reminded his hearers, "the Imperial German Government has given this Government its solemn assurances that at least passenger ships would not be thus dealt with, and yet it has again and again permitted its undersea commanders to disregard those assurances with entire impunity." He asserted that America had been very patient, while the toll of lives had mounted into the hundreds, and informed Congress that he was presenting a warning that "unless the Imperial German Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of warfare against passenger and freight carrying vessels this Government can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the Government of the German Empire altogether." The Lusitanianotes, the Sussex address and other speeches made by the President wore read all over the United States and, indeed, throughout a great part of the world. He was attempting the novel and daring experiment of framing a foreign policy in public view, and was thus becoming the recognized spokesman of the neutral world.