31 January 2007

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.

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