Neutral Rights and Submarine Warfare

The aim of naval actions in World War I was to destroy the enemy’s ability to wage war by means of disrupting its commerce. A nation denied the ability to trade would lose its ability to feed and defend itself, and descend into economic chaos.

International rules of conduct on the high seas during wartime were open to considerable interpretation. However, some principles were widely accepted:

  • The merchant ships of enemy nations were legitimate targets, but provisions were to be made for the lives of the passengers and crews
  • Neutral nations could conduct trade with belligerent nations in non-contraband items (contraband meaning goods used in waging war)
  • Blockades (sealing off enemy ports by other warring parties) had to be active and effective in order to be recognized internationally; this rule was accepted as a means to prevent a belligerent from declaring a “paper blockade," the practice of declaring a blockade without the means to actually stop ships from entering the specified ports.

President Wilson was firmly committed to keeping the United States out of the war. He issued a proclamation of neutrality on August 4 and made nine other such declarations over the next few months. However, the country's need to remain viable on the seas would quickly provoke problems with both of the major belligerents.

Neutral Rights and Britain

From the perspective of the United States, the first crisis on the seas was not German submarine warfare, but the British blockade policy. The British had acted with dispatch when the war began, declaring a blockade of German ports and laying mines in the North Sea; their control extended to all areas except the Baltic Sea. They also began the practice of stopping neutral ships (including those of the United States) on the high seas in order to examine cargoes. Some American ships were taken into British ports and detained for months; mail was seized and closely scrutinized by British intelligence. A further irritant was introduced when the British unilaterally broadened the meaning of contraband to include food and other normal trade items destined for the continent.

These British rules were the subject of numerous diplomatic exchanges between the two nations. Relations were frequently strained, but did not develop to the extent that war was contemplated. American shipping interests that suffered losses at British hands generally believed that financial settlements would be made at the end of the war. British policies caused inconveniences for Americans, but not the loss of lives.

German Warfare on the Seas

The German government resented the rather cozy relationship between the United States and Britain. They objected to the fact that the Americans made only feeble protests against the British blockade of Germany and actively traded arms in English ports.

The United States' first wartime loss on the seas occurred in January 1915, a few days before Germany declared the existence of a war zone around the British Isles. From February 4 onward, all enemy shipping encountered within the area was subject to attack and no guarantees were to be made for the safety of the passengers and crews. President Wilson reacted with a warning to Germany, informing them that they would be held to "strict accountability" for the safety of American lives.

The Germans maintained with good reason that traditional rules of the sea could not be observed by the commanders of their submarines (unterzeebooten or U-boats). The hulls of these boats were easily breached, making it very unwise to hail and warn an enemy vessel before attacking.

Little notice was taken of the U-boat attack on an American tanker in early May, but an eruption of public fury followed the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7. Wilson resisted calls for military action and devoted his energies to diplomacy. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned during this crisis; he was not alone in his opinion that Wilson was leaning too far in Britain's direction. Many Americans in the West and South wondered how some citizens could contemplate involvement in a European conflict; in 1915, pro-war sentiment was largely confined to the Eastern maritime states.

Wilson's and new Secretary of State Robert Lansing's protests drew the desired response from Germany—attacks on passenger ships were halted for the time being.

However, in August, the British liner Arabic was sunk with the loss of two American lives. Formal protests brought German promises of reformed policies for passenger ships in the "Arabic Pledge." Nevertheless, an Italian liner was torpedoed by an Austrian U-boat in November.

The next crisis occurred in March 1916, when the French steamer Sussex was torpedoed in the English channel; one American was killed. Wilson threatened a diplomatic rupture, eliciting the "Sussex Pledge" (May 1916) from the German government.

Nine months of relative calm on the seas followed the Sussex crisis, but on January 31, 1917 Germany announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. The General Staff was convinced that they had U-boat strength great enough to defeat the British fleet and force a surrender before the United States would be able to enter the conflict.

On February 3, 1917 President Wilson announced the severing of diplomatic ties with Germany.

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