31 January 2007

For the Love of It

Some bloggers associated with the American Civil War, such as J. David Petruzzi and Brooks Simpson, have recently posted about some division between professional and amateur historians.

I have actually spent most of my working life not with academically respectable publishers, but those who produce "coffee table" books. When I worked at another place, I found myself beside a PhD candidate who had the worst possible opinion of any writer who signed a contract for a "coffee table" book (although he was happy to do them himself, under a different name). Far from wanting to appease this snob, he only made me more determined to bring the good qualities of book editing I learned with the mass market publisher into his snooty world. It's not easy producing a book for the Masses.

I'd go so far as to say that if one wants to spend time debating amateur versus professional, it's not just the historian's craft that needs to be categorized, but also the writer's. It's easily possible for a professional historian to be an amateur writer, the sort of person better off writing for the plaudits of their peers and not for real readers.

Hat tip to Civil War Memory.

Woodrow Wilson and the American Way of War, Part 8

The sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 gave birth to a synthesis conceived in policy choices made by key players in the Woodrow Wilson Administration during the preceding nine months. This synthesis determined that the United States would eventually enter the war on the side of Britain, France and Russia - unless Germany could somehow develop the sort of diplomatic package that would entice the Allied powers to a negotiating table.

In the wake of the sinking, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan issued the first Lusitania note on May 13, 1915. This focused on the immoral character of an attack without warning on a passenger liner. A second note, issued on June 11, reiterated, more strongly, the administration's view that the sinking had an immoral quality and in so posing a threat to American lives represented a provocation Wilson would not ignore. This anti-German tone adopted by this note provoked the resignation of Bryan, who believed that the American government's national interest was better served by a more even-handed response. American citizens sailing on Allied vessels into a designated war zone were taking on a certain amount of risk that the American government could not offer protection against. For Bryan, the problem was not the manner of making war, as emphasized by Wilson's notes, but the war itself.

To replace Bryan, Wilson appointed the State Department counselor, Robert Lansing. Lansing, in his memoirs published in 1935, clearly stated that he believed the American interest had more in common with Britain than with "German absolutism". Much of his activity prior to his promotion had been to protest violations of neutral rights by both sides, but to stretch out the negotiation of these points with Britain as long as possible in order to gain time for the rest of America to come round to his view.

A third note, issued on July 21, described the sinking of a liner without warning as a "deliberately unfriendly" act. Although the sinking of the liner Arabic in which three Americans died followed on August 19, Wilson withdrew from making further public protest, although his private comments led the Germans to abandon the sinking of liners without warning.

However, reviewing earlier parts of this series, in particular part 5, we see here how the American Way of War works. The initial response focuses on a general statement of American interests. However, the course of subsequent responses will be determined by lower-level functionaries in the Administration who, by being less visible to the general public, can pursue their private agendas more energetically than they might be able to in higher positions. The president retains a degree of control over the overall direction, but the policy's implementation owes more to the men (and nowadays women) he has appointed. When the crisis erupts, what has gone before will influence what comes after. The losers in the debate over American policy drop out of the picture, and the new synthesis subsequently adapts itself to future situations, but without overturning the broad policy position that has been established.

In this specific case, Wilson tried to balance neutrality with American interests, as was demanded by his political situation, while Lansing pursued a more biased strategy. "German absolutism" is perhaps best seen as a code reflecting his negative characterization of a system of economic organization in which the state played a larger role than Americans were necessarily comfortable with, at least superficially. British liberal capitalism had much more in common with America's business structures. To adopt a pseudo-marxist phrasing of the situation, Lansing acted as the agent of American capital, which preferred to see the victory of its British relative than its German rival.

Bryan would move into the anti-war movement, and it is to this oft-forgotten collection of strange bedfellows that I will next turn.

22 January 2007

Woodrow Wilson and the American Way of War, Part 7

Leon C. Thrasher probably never would have acquired historical fame had he not booked passage aboard the steamer Falaba in early 1915. The ship was torpedoed on 28 March, and he died, the first American victim of German unrestricted submarine warfare.

The event stimulated a great debate between State Department counsellor Robert Lansing and the Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. Lansing followed the view that Germany had violated traditional methods of warfare resulting in the avoidable death of an innocent neutral, while Bryan argued that Thrasher had been negligent in choosing a British vessel sailing to a designated war zone where it was at risk of being attacked and sunk. Wilson took his time in deciding between these two views of the incident, in part because Colonel Edward House, his personal envoy, was in Europe seeking to attract the warring nations to the idea of a mediated peace.

While President Woodrow Wilson pondered his response, the Germans made two further attacks that challenged neutral rights in the war zone. An American freighter, the Cushing, was attacked by a German aircraft on April 29, while on 1 May the tanker Gulflight was torpedoed by the U-30. At the following cabinet meeting, on 4 May, Bryan found the mood of the cabinet was for a protest. Wilson stated: "It may be that there is no way to meet a situation like this except by war. It is important that we should show how sincere is our belief that there are other ways to settle questions like this." The tension in the Democratic party and the Progressive movement could not be made any more clear. To threaten war was the traditional response, but the Democrats had hoped to avoid "bad" European traditions in the creation of new, "good" American ones. However, there was no guarantee that the rest of the world would go along.

The sinking of the Lusitania on 7 May 1915 was the turning point for American diplomacy in the war, although it was not apparent in the days immediately afterwards. That the Lusitania was carrying ammunition, a legitimate target as contraband of war, is not disputed. However, sinking a passenger liner without warning, which is what U-20 did, was at the time an action that was open to question as to its legitimacy. Therefore the Wilson administration's response was bound to be stern.

[NB - This strand has become longer and longer as I study more about it, and it might be argued I have lost my way somewhat. However, I think the extensive background will help when I come to the anti-war movement.]

17 January 2007

Woodrow Wilson and the American Way of War, Part 6

The crisis for the Woodrow Wilson administration came in February 1915, when the Germans declared a war zone around the British Isles in order to prosecute an unrestricted submarine blockade. The Germans warned that the British use of neutral flags to disguise their merchant ships placed all shipping in the vicinity in peril. The British had imposed a blockade on Germany at the war's outbreak, and the war zone was an attempt by the Germans to affect British imports similarly.

The problem for the Germans lay in the limitations of the submarine, their only feasible choice of a weapon to impose a blockade. Their fleet, while large, was outnumbered by the British and unlikely to win a battle between the two. The recent defeat on 24 January 1915 of a small German squadron by a slightly superior British one at the battle of Dogger Bank seemed to demonstrate the proof of this situation. The submarine, however, could evade superior British surface forces using its ability to travel submerged. This advantage came at a cost. Submarines were small, slower than many small surface ships such as cruisers and destroyers, and unarmoured. Nor did they carry much heavy weaponry, at best a single gun. Their weapon was the torpedo.

Under the rules of naval warfare, ships en route to a blockaded country could be stopped by warships and searched. If carrying "contraband", they could be seized or sunk. However, merchant ships were allowed to be armed, although the British did not have enough guns to arm all that many. So there was some risk for a submarine trying to stop a merchant ship. The captain had to decide the likelihood of it carrying a large enough gun manned by an efficient crew that could sink his vessel. Furthermore, in November 1914, the British had begun employing Q-ships, merchant vessels turned into warships specifically intended to decoy German submarines. As of February 1915, the Q-ships hadn't actually sunk a submarine, but the threat was there.

In these circumstances, the German declaration made some practical sense. The British had already made their own adjustments to the London Declaration of 1909, an adjustment the Wilson administration had accepted. Why should they not also agree to a German adjustment of the rules governing stopping merchant ships? The American merchant fleet did not play a substantial role in American commerce, as only 10 percent of American trade was carried in American vessels. This would not stop Woodrow Wilson from allowing the German declaration to determine the broad direction of American foreign policy in response to the war.

12 January 2007

Battle of Windsor

I grew up in Detroit, and it is often forgotten by non-Canadians that this is a border city. Yesterday, I discovered (or possibly rediscovered) that there had been a Battle of Windsor, just south of Detroit in Canada, in 1838. It was part of the Patriot War, a conflict that attempted to blow at the embers of Canadian republicanism after the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837. The most complete account of the Battle of Windsor that I have found on the Web is in this biographical article on the Canadien Francis Baby.

10 January 2007

Woodrow Wilson and the American Way of War, Part 5

The administration of President Woodrow Wilson immediately faced important questions about American interests in the months following the outbreak of the major European war in August 1914. The United States was already a significant economic power in global terms, although it owed more money to foreign creditors than it was owed, and largely was a big economic power because of its sizable domestic market - foreign trade, while significant, played a much lesser role in the Gross National Product than in Britain, for example. However, the American economy was in recession, and the business opportunities offered by the war tempted American manufacturers and exporters. One of the most seriously affected regions of the country was the South, a key element in the coalition that elected Wilson in 1912, and of the Democratic party at this time generally. Unable to export their cotton to Europe, farmers faced ruin.

For William Jennings Bryan, the secretary of state, the sinews of modern war were provided by finance. Cut off the supply of money to belligerents, and the war might stop. But while the U.S. government was willing to cut off the public finance of loans or credits to European states, the free enterprise ideology that was one of the Gospels of Americanism at this time (and remains so) would not allow the government to halt initiatives by private financial institutions. Although Bryan exhorted American banks to refuse to lend to the warring nations, some saw a useful opportunity and took it. By October 1914, the policy of exhortation had been set aside by Wilson and the Counselor at the State Department, the Anglophile Robert Lansing, one of America's leading experts in international law.

A month after the outbreak of war, and a month before the abandonment of the exhortation policy, the Wilson administration chose not to impose an arms embargo, allowing American manufacturers to sell weapons to anyone who could afford to buy them and ship them across the Atlantic. Given that the British had imposed a fairly tight blockade on Germany, this meant that only the French and British were able to take advantage of the American decision.

The British blockade of Germany created yet another problem for Bryan and the administration, in that they followed, but not quite to the letter, an agreement concerning shipping in time of war. The British amended the definition of contraband that could be seized to suit themselves, expanding it slightly. Wilson, under Lansing's influence, agreed to go along with the British interpretation, in spite of the existence of an internationally recognized agreement that the British had helped negotiate, although one that had not been ratified by the British government. One major reason for this was the relatively small size of the American merchant fleet. American shipping was unlikely to be affected significantly by the British interpretation.

Finally, at the outbreak of war, the British began arming their merchant ships. Under international agreements, warships were not allowed to remain in a neutral port for more than 24 hours. But the British insisted that these armed vessels were not warships, because they were only armed for self-defence, and would be hopelessly outclassed by any but the weakest naval vessel. In practical terms, the Germans did not have the naval force on the high seas to make the matter significant. A few cruisers were based in the Pacific, and another in German East Africa. At this stage, British ships ruled the waves, especially the Atlantic between Europe and America. Lansing again pointed out the practical effect of the British policy, and set aside German insistence on the principle.

In each case here, the American Way of War, at least in the diplomatic dimension, is shown. American public policy is traditionally built out of practical responses to immediate problems, tending to favour the dominant interest group on the issue, rather than implementing an idealistic philosophy. Bryan represented a genuine American enthusiasm, at this time another of the Gospels of Americanism, for pacifist ideals. However, a search for practical responses to problems set aside the ideals. The Wilson administration could have imposed an arms and loans ban on the belligerents, insisted on the sanctity of international agreements, and required that the rules of war be implemented to the letter. They did not, and each step taken antagonized one side in the European conflict. When the next major crisis came, the Germans were hardly surprised by the American response, but the consequences fatally undermined the strong anti-war movement in the United States.

08 January 2007

Woodrow Wilson and the American Way of War, Part 4

Woodrow Wilson appointed as his secretary of state a three-time presidential loser, William Jennings Bryan (Illinois College, '81), defeated in the campaigns of 1896, 1900 and 1908. Bryan, in spite of this record, was a major power in the Democratic party, and his endorsement of Wilson in the 1912 election would have done much to help Wilson gain support of Bryan's constituency - populist, moralist, anti-imperialist, suspicious of the Eastern Establishment. However, another member of the State department under Wilson was its Counsellor, Robert Lansing (Amherst College '86), who was appointed in April 1914, following the resignation of his predecessor. Lansing was an acknowledged expert in international law, while Bryan offered passionate leadership in support of pacifist causes such as the use of arbitration to resolve international disputes instead of war.

Complicating this picture was Wilson's close associate, Colonel Edward House (Cornell, did not graduate). House held no official position, but was an important member of Wilson's administration nonetheless. He was an intimate of the president, especially after the death of Wilson's first wife on 6 August 1914, just days after the outbreak of the First World War. Wilson valued House's opinion as an unbiased perspective, unlike that of his rival Bryan. House had been to Europe in the spring, to sound out the possibility of some kind of agreement over naval strength between Germany and Britain. House had played a part in securing Lansing's appointment to the State Department, and represented the more conservative wing of the Democrats, while Bryan was known as the standard-bearer of the radical faction.

The interplay between these four men played an important role in developing the American response to the war in Europe. As the July Crisis of 1914, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, developed, Wilson was coping with the grief consequent on the death of his beloved Ellen, who suffered from Bright's disease. Bryan was more concerned with cutting the kind of public figure he had done all his life, and also was aware of Wilson's view that the presidency ought to be the focus of international initiatives, such as Wilson's offer on 4 August to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Accepting Wilson's attitude freed Bryan to pursue his own agenda from a pulpit at the pinnacle of American politics.

04 January 2007

Military Capitalists

According to American officials, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has gone into business for itself. Nor would the Iranians be the largest military force to start a new front in the field of commerce. Definitely a case of life imitating art.

03 January 2007

Woodrow Wilson and the American Way of War, Part 3

To resume my Woodrow Wilson series, it's important to note that the position of the United States itself had changed during his lifetime. When he was born in 1856, the United States was a regional power, having defeated its closest rival Mexico in war only eight years before. America in 1856 was much more like the the Protestant, largely British, society of the newly independent colonies than the superpower of 2007, teeming with liberated huddle masses drawn from all over the world and following many different religions. Given its size and population, it had a tiny army and navy, and was regarded as a minor threat by most European powers, and really only had overseas interests in East Asia and the Caribbean basin.

The Civil War changed this. The demands of the Federal war effort led to a massive expansion in the industrial base, funded by government debt, led by a grasping managerial class that seized control of Congress in the late 1860s. The legal and fiscal policies that protected their interests continued for another forty years, maintaining their wealth and power, while the kind of immigration that had provoked the bigoted anti-immigrant Know-Nothing movement in the antebellum years continued. Although America continued to have a tiny army and navy, it's growing wealth was an obvious harbinger of the future. During this time, Wilson resided in the defeated South, failing at a law career, until in 1883 he began studying for a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. From this point on he would reside in the industrialized northeast.

Spain's troubles in Cuba, in one of America's traditional areas of interest, resulted in one of the most popular foreign wars in American history. Wilson's response to the aftermath of this war has an important bearing not only on his future policies in relation to World War I, but also to his potential electability. In the end he lent his support for the annexation of the Philippines and a more prominent role for America in foreign affairs. These issues were more dear to the Northern victors among whom he dwelled, than the Southern defeated, among whom he ahd been born and raised. More importantly, as the linked article shows, he believed the authority of the president had been substantially increased by the war, and even goes so far as to say, "As long as we have only domestic subjects we have no real leaders."

Wilson had turned his back on the principles of the Founding Fathers, who were suspicious of concentrating power in the hands of an individual, in the course of writing his book Congressional Government in which he wrote: "I
t is, therefore, manifestly a radical defect in our federal system that it parcels out power and confuses responsibility as it does." In this context, how mindful was he likely to be of sage advice from George Washington's Farewell Address? "Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification."

02 January 2007

The Trial of Saddam Hussein

The execution of Saddam Hussein is firmly with a long tradition in the history of the aftermath of wars. Although parallels with the Nuremburg Trials might come to mind, the fact is that Saddam Hussein was found guilty and executed by a domestic court, trying him for domestic crimes. To some degree, this represents a kind of "victor's justice". The postwar trials of Pierre Laval and Marshal Petain in France in 1945 may offer a better comparison. (Although the notorious Riom trial might be a more appealing parallel to Saddam sympathizers.) Had Critias survived the Athenian revolution of 403 BC, he might too have been subjected to a trial by his conquerors.

The absence of a widespread urge to subject Saddam Hussein to an international tribunal is of more interest here. No doubt political reasons were involved, but the inability of the "Hang the Kaiser" movement in 1918-19 to achieve its goal is instructive. The fact is that Saddam Hussein was often acting in his capacity as the sovereign authority of the Iraqi state. At the time of the exile of Napoleon to St Helena, similar questions were raised and answered, as this quote, drawn from Chapter Two here, illustrates.

In this letter the Lord Chancellor outlines the legal status of the imprisonment of Napoleon for the private information of the Prime Minister. He frankly admits that the imprisonment of Napoleon is not a legal matter. To the contrary, he saw it as an act which in terms of the "Law of Nations" would be "excessively difficult to justify", primarily a violation of French sovereignty, made necessary in order to secure the safety of the world.

However, had Saddam not been president of Iraq, (say he had been prime minister) it's quite possible we'd be facing a very different situation.