"Bear witness, Earth, we have made our choice With Freedom's Brotherhood!"
—Rudyard Kipling (on America, 1917).
"A MERICA declares War!"
This was the news flashed into every corner of the world on that fateful day, 6th April 1917. The story of how the great Western States turned from their firm attitude of peace and neutrality during the first three years of the war to that of co-operation on a gigantic scale is one of thrilling interest.
The man who upheld the peace for the first years, and finally led America into war, was President Woodrow Wilson. His representative in England was Walter Page, American Ambassador; England's representative in America was Cecil Spring-Rice, English Ambassador. "Steadfast as any soldier of the line," these men served through the strain of those three awful years of war. Both lived to know that America had "come in"; both died before the declaration of peace.
When the Great War broke out in 1914, America had at once declared for neutrality.
"Our first and fundamental maxim should be never to entangle ourselves in the broils of Europe," declared the President, who had entered the White House little over a year before. He had dedicated his life to the preservation of peace and a program of social reform. It was not till the spring of 1915 that Germany began her submarine warfare to prevent ships entering or leaving British waters, and torpedoing those that had already succeeded. Hundreds of British ships were thus destroyed off the coast of England and Ireland.
But on 7th May 1915, at two o'clock in the afternoon, a Cunard liner, the Lusitania, was struck by torpedoes fired from a German submarine. She heeled over and sank with her freight of 2000 passengers, over a thousand being drowned—men, women, and children. More than a hundred of those who were drowned were American subjects. It seemed like a deliberate attack on non-fighting travelers, citizens of a neutral State, and a wave of bitter anti-German feeling swept over America.
To the mind of the American Ambassador in England, Page, and Colonel House, the President's adviser, an impossible situation had been created. "We shall be at war with Germany within a month," declared Colonel House.
But America made no signs of yielding to the popular outcry. The President spoke of the healing influences of peace and his firm opposition to force.
Germany promised America not to torpedo another liner without warning.
On 19th August, the White Star liner Arabic was torpedoed without warning, and again American subjects lost their lives. Still the President satisfied himself by trying to extort pledges from Germany with regard to the ships, and on 1st September Germany gave a definite pledge: "Liners will not be sunk by our submarines without warning."
For the moment it seemed as if diplomacy and resolution might yet take the place of force. But within a few days of the pledge more ships were torpedoed, more American lives lost.
This time the President seemed stirred. "Germany," he told his country, "has broken a solemn pledge, and American patience is sorely tried. Unless Germany will abandon her present methods of warfare against passenger ships, America must sever all diplomatic relations with her. Submarine warfare is inhuman, and the only excuse America can ever have for the use of physical force is that she uses it in the interests of humanity."
Page, from the other side of the Atlantic, knew the worth of the German promise, and he warned the President again and again that America was losing prestige in Europe by her isolation policy of non-interference. It seemed as if the President grew more and more determined not to fight.
"An early peace is all that can prevent Germany from driving us at last into war," he said.
He pleaded before the "League to enforce Peace" at Washington for co-operation, instead of conflict with other nations, as a basis of permanent peace. He stood forth as a would-be mediator in the World War, rather than a fighter, and when in 1916 Germany sought to negotiate peace terms based on her conquests, another peace note was framed by the President and sent to the fighting Powers, only to be firmly refused by all.
"Nobody in Washington understands the War," explained Page. "In England there can be no peace till the German military despotism is broken."
Hurrying across to America to explain the whole situation, Page found the President out of touch with the entire world at war, absorbed only in the one idea of peace that should end war. The two old friends parted, never to meet again.
But a change came with the New Year. Early in 1917, Germany informed America that she was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. The President hesitated no longer. On 3rd February 1917, he announced that this act meant severing diplomatic relations with Germany. The war spirit was again sweeping over the land; Germany seemed utterly reckless. In the next few weeks American ships were torpedoed, American lives lost. At last Germany had roused the United States to fever heat. The country was ready for the final step. The long patient years of neutrality were over. With March came the Russian Revolution—England's ally had failed her. German troops set free were rushing to the Western Front. England looked across the Atlantic for help. And this time America did not fail.
The President's famous message to Congress stated the American case against Germany, of popular government against tyranny, of civilisation against barbarism.
"Ships of every kind, whatever their flag, their cargo, their destination, have been ruthlessly sent to the bottom without warning, without thought of help or mercy for those on board—even hospital ships have been sunk with the same reckless lack of pity or of principle. This warfare is a challenge to all mankind. The wrongs against which we now array ourselves cut to the very roots of human life. Our object is to uphold the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power. . . . The world must be made safe for democracy. The right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have carried nearest our hearts, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right and a union of the peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations, and make the world itself at last free. To such a task of peace and liberation we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, all that we are and all that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come, when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness, and the peace which she has treasured.
"God helping her, she can do no other."
The message was received with stormy enthusiasm by the audience, and a "thrill of assent ran through the length and breadth of the land." America had joined the Allies at last.
"And we are one with them—we rise With dawning thunder in our eyes, To join the embattled hosts that kept Their pact with freedom while we slept."
When the great news reached London, America's Ambassador, Page, went to break the glad tidings to the Prime Minister, Lloyd George. So great was the relief after the years of anguish and strain that he could but hold out his two hands in silence, with tears in his eyes.
Seven months later he died—the "friend of Britain in her sorest need." Hardly less strenuous had been the life of the English Ambassador in Washington. He, too, died in 1918. On his last night in office, he wrote these lines:
"I vow to thee, my country—all earthly things above, Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love The love that asks no questions; the love that stands the test, That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best; The love that never falters, the love that pays the price, The love that makes, undaunted, the final sacrifice."
America had declared war on 6th April, and all the resources of the richest nation in the world were at once put at the disposal of the Government. Arrangements were made for raising an army of 10,000,000 men and to increase the navy. Vast training camps sprang up everywhere, and dollars poured in for guns, munitions, and aeroplanes. A fleet of destroyers started at once to hunt for submarines, and by June an advance guard of troops under General Pershing marched through London on the way to France amid great outbursts of enthusiasm.
Before the year 1917 was ended, over 150,000 Americans had landed in Europe.
"Now we are pledged to win the Rights of man, Labour and justice now shall have their way."