The Impossibility of Neutrality


My Dear Mr. President: Your more than generous note received with draft of protest to Germany. I have gone over it very carefully and will give it to Mr. Lansing at once, for I agree with you that it is well to act without delay in order to give direction to public opinion. I do not see that you could have stated your position more clearly or more forcibly. In one sentence I suggest "as the last few weeks have shown" so that it will read: "Submarines, we respectfully submit, cannot be used against Merchantmen, as the last few weeks have shown, without an inevitable violation of many sacred principles of justice and humanity." The only other amendment that occurs to me relates to the Cushing and Gulflight. Would it not be wise to make same reference to the rules sent us and the offer to apologize and make reparation in case a neutral ship was sunk by mistake? I suggest something like this: "Apology and reparation for destruction of neutral ships, sunk by mistake, while they may satisfy international obligation, if no loss of life results, can not justify or excuse a practice, the natural and almost necessary effect of which is to subject neutral nations to new and innumerable risks, for it must be remembered that peace, not war, is the normal state and that nations that resort to war for a settlement of interna- tional disputes are not at liberty to subordinate the rights of neutrals to the supposed or even actual needs of belligerents." I am in doubt of the propriety of referring to the note published by [German ambassador] BernstorK

But, my dear Mr. President, I join in this document with a heavy heart. I am as sure of your patriotic purpose as I am of my bwn, but after long consideration both careful and prayerful, I cannot bring myself to the belief that it is wise to relinquish the hope of playing the part of a friend to both sides in the role of peace maker and this note will, I fear, result in such relinquishment a hope which requires for its realization the retention of the confidence of both sides. It will be popular in this country for a time at least, and possibly permanently, because public sentiment, already favorable to the Allies, has been perceptibly increased by the Lusitania tragedy, but there is peril in this very fact. Your position being the position of the government will be approved that approval varying in emphasis in proportion to the intensity of the feeling against Germany. There being no intimation that the final accounting will be postponed until the war is over, the jingo element will not only predict but demand war (see enclosed editor- ial from Washington Post of this morning), and the line will be more distinctly drawn between those who sympathize with Germany and the rest of the people. Outside of the country the demand will be applauded by the Allies and the more they applaud the more Germany will be embinered, because we unsparingly denounce the retaliatory methods employed by her, without condemning the an- nounced purpose of the Allies to starve the non-combatants of Germany and without complaining of the conduct of Great Britain in relying on passengers including men, women and children of the United States to give immunity to vessels carrying munitions of war without even suggesting that she should convoy passenger ships as carefully as she does ships carrying horses and gasoline.

This enumeration does not include a reference to Great Britain's indifference to the increased dangers thrown upon us by the misuse of our flag or to her unwarranted interference with our trade with neutral nations. Germany cannot but construe the strong statement of the case against her, coupled with silence as to the unjustifiable action of the Allies as evidence of partiality toward the latter an impression which will be deepened in proportion to the loudness of the praise which the Allies bestow upon the statement of this government's position. The only way, as I see it, to prevent irreparable injury being done by the statement is to issue simultaneously a protest against the objectionable conduct of the Allies which will keep them from rejoicing and show Germany that we are defending our rights against aggression from both sides.

I am only giving you, my dear Mr. President, the situa tion as it appears to me and praying all the while that I may be wholly mistaken and that your judgement may be vindicated by events....

source: William Jennings Bryan to Woodrow Wilson (n.d.), in Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States: The Lansing Papers (1914-1920) (Washington, D.C., 1939) vol. 1, pp. 392-393.

American Neutrality
Entering the War
The Home Front