CHAPTER XXV. THE UNITED STATES AND THE WORLD WAR

The reelection of Wilson in November, 1916, could hardly be interpreted in any other light than as an approval of his patient foreign policy. Nevertheless, for the ensuing five months the problem of our international relations, and especially the question whether we ought to enter the World War, continued to divide the American people into hostile camps. The opponents of the President, led by Roosevelt, contended that Wilson was lacking in "patriotism, courage and foresight"; that the failure of the administration to protest against Germany's march across Belgium was due to timidity and a "mean commercial opportunism" which caused the President to act in the spirit of refusing to perform a duty unless there was a pecuniary profit to be gained thereby; and that the interchanges of diplomatic notes with the German government were "benevolent phrase-mongering" which did not accomplish anything. When Germany used the submarine to sink vessels despite the President's "strict accountability" note and when the administration did not then take forceful action against the offender, his opponents declared that the President meant "precisely and exactly nothing" by his words. Late in 1915 Wilson became convinced of the necessity of an increase in our means of defense, and in order to arouse Congress to action he went out into the Middle West where he addressed large audiences on "preparedness." After long discussion Congress passed the National Defense Act by the provisions of which the military strength of the country was to be expanded to 645,000 officers and men during a period of five years. The President's conversion to preparedness was interpreted as a tardy recognition of an obvious duty, and his plan deprecated as no more than a "shadow program." And later, as his attitude became more warlike, the opposition declared that he had at last acted because of "pressure" and "criticism," rather than because of a definite and positive purpose of his own. In brief, then, a considerable portion of the country insisted upon America's early entrance into the European conflict, and judged Wilson to be a timid politician who lacked a courageous foreign policy and who was being driven toward war by the force of public opinion.

On the other hand, the traditional American disinclination to become entangled in foreign complications was the decisive force with the majority. In an address which the President delivered in New York he said that he received a great many letters from unknown and uninfluential people whose one prayer was, "Mr. President, do not allow anybody to persuade you that the people of this country want war with anybody." There were, moreover, Americans who still retained the traditional dislike of England and who hesitated to support an alliance with that nation; others did not relish association with Russia, which had long been looked upon as the arch-representative of autocracy; and others were indifferent or confused or inclined to the German side.

The attitude of the President, meanwhile, constantly found expression in addresses to Congress and the people, which were so widely read and discussed and which had so great an influence in forming public opinion that the more prominent of them must be mentioned. Beginning with the proclamation of neutrality on August 18, 1914, and a speech at Indianapolis on January 8, 1915, he asserted the belief that the United States should remain neutral, not only because it was the traditional policy to stand aloof from European controversies but also because "it was necessary, if a universal catastrophe was to be avoided, that a limit should be set to the sweep of destructive war ... if only to prevent collective economic ruin and the breakdown throughout the world of the industries by which its populations are fed and sustained." He also hoped that the time might quickly come when both sides would welcome mediation by a great people that had preserved itself neutral, self-possessed and sympathetic with the burdens of the warring powers. Before the close of 1915 he gave up his earlier opposition to military preparation, as has been seen, and while the project for a larger defensive force was being discussed, he made a significant address on May 27, 1916, to the League to Enforce Peace. With the causes and objects of the war, he declared, America was not concerned; the "obscure fountains" of its origins we were not interested to explore; in its spread, however, it had so "profoundly affected" America that we were no longer "disconnected lookers-on," but deeply concerned. "We are participants," he asserted, "whether we would or not, in the life of the world. The interests of all nations are our own also. We are partners with the rest." Oddly enough the statement that the origins of the war and the purposes for which it was started did not concern us was widely circulated, and misinterpreted as indicating a lack of sympathy with the ideals for which the Allies were fighting at the time speech, while the remainder of the address, which was far more significant, was largely overlooked. Nevertheless the declaration that the war had become our concern was an important part of Wilson's series of utterances on the issues of the day, and demands emphasis at this point because the President was representative, in holding this opinion, of a great body of his countrymen. The conviction that the European war had become our affair was deepened in the minds of many Americans when news arrived late in 1916, that the Teutonic military authorities were seizing and deporting Belgian workmen and compelling them to labor in German fields and factories.

In December, President Wilson again claimed the attention of the world by his reply to a proposal by Germany that peace negotiations be entered upon. He declared - and his note was sent to all belligerents - that the leaders of the two sides had stated their objects in general terms only: