War-Time Relations of America and Great Britain


THERE is no historian who does not appreciate the perils involved in a discussion of the history of day before yesterday. Try as we will, we cannot escape a certain uneasiness when deprived of our historical perspective, which, as E. T. Raymond points out, the unkind Philistine is apt to regard as nothing else than immunity from contradiction by some person who happened to witness the event described. ‘When effective contradiction becomes by the nature of things impossible,’ Mr. Raymond goes on, ‘we have not necessarily attained truth, but we have achieved what is called “historical perspective.”’ It is because the historian wants to have all his eyewitnesses dead, we may assume, that it takes anywhere from fifty to seventy years to secure adequate historical perspective.

Not all of us will agree with this point of view, which is not without its elements of humor, but there is this to be said for a critical review of recent events: that the opportunity for contradiction is at least presented, and that the fable which men may later agree to accept as history is subject in its earlier youth to the suspicious scrutiny without which the legitimacy of its birth can be questioned. A frank surrender of the immunity offered by historical perspective will sometimes provoke such dissent as may open new sources of information likely to establish something approaching the truth before the lie can be crystallized.

So much of justification, perhaps, there is for discussion of events that fell within the administration of the President who led this nation during the fateful years of the World War, and to which our attention has again been drawn closely by his death. President Wilson’s place in history will rest chiefly upon his attempt to achieve a revolution in international relations that might guarantee to the world a greater chance of tranquillity and might inaugurate an international code of morals not unlike that of the civilized individual. He was a great political prophet. But he was also a war president, and the eyes of historians will turn to his conduct of America’s war effort, not merely in the organization of a war-machine in the material sense, but in the realm of diplomacy as well.

There were two salient aspects to our war-time diplomacy. It sought to secure the maximum coordination with the war efforts of our associates, so as to strengthen the military attack upon the enemy; it sought also to break down his morale in order to weaken Germany’s military defense. Few, perhaps, realize the degree of cooperation established in 1917 and 1918 between the United States and the Entente Powers. Many, certainly, are confused as to the issues raised by Mr. Wilson’s plan to drive a wedge between the German Imperial Government and the German people, which admittedly played a role of importance in the final German collapse. The two topics should be considered in sequence; for only through the understanding with the leaders of the Entente, especially the British, was it possible to use as effective propaganda Wilson’s appeals to the German people.


It must not be imagined that this understanding with the British resulted naturally and easily from the fact that we were facing a common danger. Even in moments of acute peril national particularism persists. The difficulties between Great Britain and France in the matter of unified command indicate the degree to which nations are slow to surrender complete power of decision in the interests of logical coordination. The two and a half years of American neutrality had been, we may now freely admit, characterized by serious differences with the British, which seemed to offer a poor basis for satisfactory coöperation after we entered the war.

Previous to 1917, as the published state papers and the letters of Mr. Page indicate, the main issue was always the use made by the British Government of a naval power that permitted an interpretation of maritime conventions and usages supposedly favorable to British war policy and trade interests, and detrimental, in many respects at least, to the interests of neutrals. Naval power, with all that followed in its train, was the only effective defensive and probably the chief offensive weapon of Great Britain against Germany. There are few who cannot understand the warmth of public sentiment and the force of official determination which existed in England for the utilization of this weapon to its full capacity. And those Americans who in the early days of the war sympathized most definitely with the desperate efforts of the British to save themselves from defeat could appreciate and perhaps approve the irritation of John Bull’s petulant shrug of the shoulders as we jogged his elbow with a note of protest, and the impatience of his ‘Go away, don’t bother me. I’m busy with something really important.’ It is a point of view very clearly expressed in the letters of the American Ambassador at the Court of St. James.

But there were many others in the United States, less sympathetic and, along the northern Atlantic seaboard, not so articulate, who were none the less constant in the pressure which they brought to bear upon our Department of State for the protection of American commerce. Nor could that Department, even had it so desired, have disregarded their protests. American mails were seized, American ships held in British harbors, American trade restricted by a blacklist imposed and enforced by a foreign Government. Our Government protested, at first mildly, then with some acidity, and finally with a vehemence that was characterized by an American diplomat as approaching the verge of boorishness. With the utmost desire for friendly relations on both sides, the position taken by each seemed to indicate an impasse.

It is unnecessary to exaggerate the tension that resulted, but to remind ourselves of its reality we may recall that the British Ambassador in Washington, referring to a note of protest the verbiage of which was altered shortly before going upon the cable, remarked that had it not been changed the British Government would have had little choice but to break diplomatic relations. On the other hand, an American of long diplomatic experience asserted that if Great Britain had been fighting France and not Germany, or even if the German Government had played the game decently, refraining from its attack upon the rights of humanity through the submarine campaign, it was quite within the realm of possibility that the United States might have been found in the camp opposed to the British.

From such a disaster the two nations were rescued largely through the fortunate stupidity of the Germans themselves. By their ill-advised propaganda in this country and by the inhumanity of their naval methods they effectively barred themselves from capitalizing, for their own advantage, the dispute between the British and American Governments.

The problem of preserving cordial official relations between Washington and London in the face of British trade regulations was, furthermore, rendered less difficult because of certain personal factors which proved to be of the first importance. Those in charge of foreign affairs under the Asquith Government were profoundly grateful for President Wilson’s Panama tolls policy. It had convinced both Sir Edward Grey and Sir William Tyrrell that close cooperation with the United States must henceforth become the basis of British world policy. They believed that the two Governments ought to ‘speak the same language,’politically as well as in other respects. This conviction was strengthened by the personality of the American Ambassador. Mr. Page had captured the affections of the British public and, by his scarcely concealed bias, after the war broke out, he had saved some shred of the British popular estimate of Americans during the period when they were supposed to be too proud to fight. As President Wilson remarked, Page out-Britished the British, and they could not help liking it. The manner with which he presented American notes of protest may not have increased their chances of effective accomplishment, but it served to smooth troubled waters.

Of equal or greater importance, because he was known as the personal representative of President Wilson, were the visits which Colonel House made in England in 1914, 1915, and 1916. The purpose of those visits, conceived even before the World War began and never forgotten, was, as we learn from Mr. Page’s letters, to arrange some compromise basis upon which Germany might consent to cooperate with the Anglo-Saxon democracies for the peace of the world. In early June, 1914, Colonel House talked over with the Kaiser the possibility of arranging a plan of naval disarmament, or, rather, immediate limitation, which might tend to slacken the tension between Great Britain and Germany. He found plain indication in Berlin that the naval and military groups were prepared to run away with the situation; but from the Kaiser himself he received encouragement to proceed to England, where his plan was heartily endorsed by Sir Edward Grey and Sir William Tyrrell. Of this fact Colonel House sent direct word to the Kaiser. But before more definite steps could be taken the latter left for his Norwegian cruise, whence he was recalled by the crisis resulting from the Austrian ultimatum, only to find that the determination of events had passed from his control.

During the autumn of 1914, Colonel House was in frequent consultation with both the German and British ambassadors in Washington, seeking, under the direction of President Wilson, to make certain that no chance of ending the war by American mediation was overlooked. Early in the following spring, and not without encouragement from Germans as well as British, he crossed the Atlantic again. But he found the prospect of fruitful negotiations unpromising. The Germans had recovered from the despondency caused by the defeat of the Marne and were embittered by the British food-blockade; the temper of the British, on the other hand, was aroused by German submarine methods and especially by the use of poison gas. Peace was out of the circle of practical possibilities. This much, however, Colonel House was able to suggest: Germany should stop the use of poison gas and cease her submarine warfare upon merchant vessels; in return Great Britain should permit staple food products to go to neutral ports without question. Such a compromise would dispose of the most vexatious of the problems of neutral America, and it would allay somewhat the bitterness of feeling in belligerent countries. Sir Edward Grey agreed to use all his influence to arrange the compromise. But the Germans refused.


Once more, early in 1916, President Wilson scanned the political horizon for a possible rift in the clouds of war, and again Colonel House was sent to London and Berlin. ‘Was there any point,’ asks Mr. G. Lowes Dickinson, ‘in these terrible years at which, with greater wisdom and humanity on either side or on both, the war could have been terminated in such a way as to prepare that durable peace which all professed to have as their main object? . . . With this point historians are not likely to deal faithfully. When a war has ended with victory, history is hypnotized by the event just as contemporaries are. And it is supposed that because victory crowned the war, therefore victory was the best ending, and was worth the cost at which it was attained. In truth, however, with regard to this war and to all wars, the most important of all questions are these: Was it necessary that the youth of the world should perish year after year? Could the result desired be attained in no other way? Did the result, when attained, justify the sacrifice?’

Such questions must be answered by the German and Entente statesmen of 1916. Perhaps, when the entire story is told the efforts of Colonel House may be shown to have come close to success. But at the critical moment a German submarine sank the Sussex and destroyed the chance of a peace arranged in time to save the lives of millions and preserve the world from economic disaster.

The negotiations of Colonel House were not, however, without their value. The personal contacts which he formed in England and the intimacy with which he discussed all problems of foreign policy with British statesmen had effects of tremendous significance. So long as he exchanged views orally or in frequent letters with leaders both within and outside official circles,— with such men as Grey, Tyrrell, Balfour, Cecil, Bryce, Loreburn, and Plunkett,— President Wilson was far from isolated or without wise counsel. In view of such relationships it was certain that our official dispute with Great Britain over her trade regulations, despite the exchange of acrimonious notes, would not be allowed to approach the danger point. Of still greater importance was the foundation thus laid for whole-hearted coöperation with the British when, after the failure of all efforts to end the war, we were finally compelled to enter it.

Of such cooperation there was, of course, dire need. We may remind ourselves that in 1917 France was very tired, her man-power resources seemed to be approaching the verge of depletion, her desperate attack on the Chemin-des-Dames proved a fiasco; Russia had already collapsed as a belligerent, although the fact was not universally apparent until the close of the year; Italy was not far from Caporetto. The continental Powers of the Entente could see the end of their steel, their ships, their food, and, most sinister of all, their money. Upon Great Britain and the Lnited States the burden of finance and supply, at least, must largely rest until the war was won. Great Britain was still hale, perhaps, but no longer hearty. American resources were no mere luxury. They were a necessity of the most vital sort, and they must be applied at once scientifically and hurriedly. How to build up a cooperative system that might meet the situation?

Existing diplomatic agencies could not, apparently, be utilized effectively. Neither the American Ambassador at St. James, nor the British Ambassador in Washington could become the centre of such a cooperative system. Mr. Page was in England, while the centre of the system must be in the United States from where, as Lord Northcliffe insisted in the summer of 1917, the war must be won. Furthermore Mr. Page, despite the great services he had performed in the cause of Anglo-American friendship, was, as his published letters indicate, continually at odds with the American Department of State and often in thorough disagreement with the President’s policies. Careful study of Mr. Page’s papers reveals the fact, also, that he stressed almost exclusively purely official and high Tory opinion; there is no hint in his letters that he recognized, as political factors, the existence of the Manchester Guardian or the Labor party. That function of an ambassador which consists in concentrating and transmitting home all currents of opinion, was apparently one that he did not attempt.

In Washington the diplomatic situation seemed, perhaps, even more discouraging. The British Ambassador, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, was a cultured diplomat of long and successful experience. He was a gentleman of scholarship and charm. In times of peace unquestionably he would have become a worthy successor to Lord Bryce. But his health was shattered and his nerves were frazzled by the war. It is a fact not devoid of tragedy that, unlike Page, Spring-Rice did not live to see the final triumph of Allied arms. During the period of American neutrality he had been worried by exaggerated fears of German plots and propaganda, and he was intensely troubled by the refusal of our Government to deal more drastically with Germany in the matter of submarine outrages. His personal affiliations were largely with members of the party opposed to the Administration. Both the qualities and defects of Sir Cecil were recognized in England as they were in Washington, and it was presumably felt by his Government that except for the imperative necessity of the most cordial personal relationships, new and special arrangements would not be demanded. The necessity, however, was imperative and it was hardly to be hoped that through Spring-Rice the perfect cooperation essential to unity of war effort could be attained.

During his visit to the United States in the spring of 1917, Mr. Balfour, British Foreign Secretary, discussed with those in charge of American policy all the problems which the two Governments must face together, and with a frankness that cut through red tape and diplomatic etiquette. Could he have remained, there would have been little doubt of the immediate establishment of some working system which might have met the main problems of finance and supply and hastened the advent of ordered American assistance. No British statesman understood the American spirit better than Mr. Balfour and for no one had President Wilson higher respect. But the Foreign Secretary could not be spared from England. How could the frank intercourse which he had inaugurated be made a regular and daily procedure?


Even before Balfour’s return the British Government decided to send a special war mission under the leadership of Lord Northcliffe, and the summer of 1917 was spent in the first attempts at coordination in the vital problems. In this task the Napoleon of British journalism displayed an energy and a selflessness which were later to bear rich fruit. When the history of the Northcliffe mission comes to be written, the number and the complexity of the tasks which it undertook cannot but awaken wonder. Of itself, however, it was not enough. There was needed a British official of high rank, with all the prestige of a special ambassador, and with the technical experience that Northcliffe himself lacked, sufficient to enable him to settle the financial questions that lay at the root of all problems of cooperation.

The Entente Powers were dependent upon the United States for financial assistance and the demands which they made were naturally heavy. There is every indication that our Government was prepared to respond cordially and there can be no question of the extent of the advances that it hastened to make. The demands of our associates in the war, however, were presented in uncoordinated form; there was even at times some question as to whether credits were not being used to further national plans quite apart from immediate war necessities. Mr. McAdoo insisted that, if American aid were to be scientifically applied, there must be coordination in the presentation of European demands; he asked for what was ultimately to be developed, an Interallied board of experts able to regulate and harmonize all requisitions made upon America. He also asked for a British representative of high rank and endowed with complete authority to settle outstanding financial problems with the American Treasury. For if the Treasury were to advance the money of American taxpayers to our European associates, it must be able to offer as justification of such advances the opinion of Allied experts that they were essential to winning the war. But the British held back, during the early summer of 1917, both on the suggestion of an Interallied council to coordinate requisitions on America and that of a special British commissioner to the United States such as McAdoo and Lord Northcliffe demanded.

It had happened that toward the close of the year 1916 a young British baronet, Sir William Wiseman, who had been gassed while on active service, was sent to Washington in connection with the intelligence work of the British Embassy. Colonel House had at once come into close touch with Wiseman, and discovered in him a man who cared nothing about the difference between Democrats and Republicans, about English parties, or red tape, who, during most of his waking moments, was willing to forget whether he was himself English or American, so long as the all-important cooperation were obtained. He insisted upon nothing except the vital fact that Great Britain and America united could save the victory, and that that was the only chance. It was precisely the conviction of Colonel House himself, and to him Sir William opened his political soul. Through him, moreover, it was possible to impress upon the British Government an understanding of the factors in America that might help or hinder American assistance.

Wiseman was on terms of intimacy with both Spring-Rice and Northcliffe. The latter once said of him, ‘Wiseman is well named. He understands all the numberless delicate situations which arise here from week to week.’ He was furthermore one of the few who had constant access to the ear of President Wilson through Colonel House. With Wiseman, House, and Northcliffe working together, especially after Sir William returned to England early in the summer of 1917 to present the American situation personally, the chances of developing a close understanding that might lead to real coordination were greatly enhanced.

Concrete results appeared without delay. Early in the autumn of 1917 the British Government dispatched a special mission under Lord Reading, who combined the qualifications upon which Northcliffe had insisted — financial capacity of a high degree and political prestige sufficient to satisfy the demands of the United States Treasury officials. Through Reading the more immediate financial problems were settled. Later, upon the retirement of Spring-Rice, he became Ambassador and an intimacy of personal relations with American leaders developed which proved of inestimable value.

Of greater importance yet, perhaps, was the building-up of Interallied cooperation through the American mission which was sent to England at the end of October, 1917, under the leadership of Colonel House. President Wilson had been very slow to approve American intervention in the strictly political and military councils of the Entente Allies with whom, as he always maintained, we were merely ‘associated.’ The insistence of Lord Reading that an American delegate should participate in the Interallied council that was to be convened in the autumn of 1917 finally led him to yield to the demands of the British and French Governments. Colonel House had been named by both as the envoy whom they regarded as most likely to succeed in working out with them a cooperative system.


It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Reading and House missions, particularly the latter which included American representatives of the outstanding financial and supply boards. At the Interallied conferences held in London and Paris the demands of the Entente, especially of Great Britain, were coordinated, and for the first time the Americans were able to construct a scientific programme of priorities. On the other hand, the British learned exactly what they might expect and approximately when. It was also of importance that Colonel House thus happened to be in London at the time when the Supreme War Council was proposed. Through his close contact with the British he was able to appreciate the necessity of American participation and it was apparently through his influence that President Wilson was brought to approve the Supreme War Council and to appoint an American delegate to sit upon it. It is likely that this action helped to save the life of the Council in the storm of criticism which broke out in England against it in mid-November, 1917. For this was a period when a word from Wilson had tremendous effect abroad.

Complete unity of plan was, of course, never achieved in matters of detail. The problems involved were too vast and the organization that developed was too hurried. And yet in matters of general policy it may be said that, during the course of 1918, the American and British Governments came to act almost as a unit. Where they disagreed, they did so as two departments of the same Government might disagree; the factors of disagreement were fully and frankly discussed, and the motives which actuated each Government were explained in detail.

The situation is summarized in a dispatch sent from the United States to England by an able British correspondent: ‘This country is not in formal alliance with any Power, but her relations with Britain are rapidly developing into the same close friendship on equal terms which unites the rest of the English-speaking world. The bond has no political expression, but in naval and military matters and in finance it is woven more firmly every day. Really there is little to distinguish the present and prospective cooperation with you of the United States from the splendid assistance rendered by Canada and the great dominions.'

The nerve-centre of the system, if such a name may be given to personal intercourse devoid of all formality, was apparently to be found not in London but in the United States. In New York City, on East Fifty-Third Street, in the same building, Sir William Wiseman and Colonel House — who at this time may be fairly described as President Wilson’s alter ego in matters of foreign policy — both had apartments. Every day they spent long hours in conference. Here they were frequently joined by Lord Reading, whose habit it became to lay before them both the information and the problems of the British Embassy. From Colonel House’s apartment ran a private telephone wire to Washington. A message from the President or Mr. Lansing could be telephoned to New York and, by way of Wiseman’s cable to the Foreign Office, it could be placed without delay on the desk of Sir Eric Drummond, Balfour’s secretary. Conversely, news of importance might be sent as easily from Whitehall to the White House. The system made possible a continuity of intercourse and a degree of frankness between representatives of different Governments, probably unprecedented in history. It also ensured a minimum of red tape and a maximum of speed. One keen-sighted British diplomat had said in the summer of 1917 that Germany’s greatest asset was the 3000 miles that separated London from Washington. By the intimacy of relations thus established, that distance was annihilated.

Certain results of this state of affairs may be noted, entirely apart from coordination in matters of finance and supply which led directly to German defeat. Close contact with the British made possible the working-out of plans for the League of Nations, during the summer of 1918, on a basis of constant interchange of views; this fact as much as anything else, perhaps, enabled the committee of the Peace Conference to draft the first Covenant in February 1919 with the rapidity achieved. It was also largely the intimacy with the British, and the clear mutual understanding of the position taken on both sides, that led Mr. Lloyd George, in the pre-armistice conversations, to withdraw his fundamental objections to a discussion of the ‘freedom of the seas,’ and to accept Mr. Wilson’s Fourteen Points with only mild reservations, as the basis of the pre-armistice convention.

Let us note also that close association between British and American leaders during the final months of the war permitted a frank interchange of opinions upon the delicate topic of naval competition between Great Britain and the United States. From this, we may assume, resulted the British decision that they would not regard the increase of the United States navy as a danger to themselves, nor would they enter upon any race in naval armaments with the United States. Here, perhaps, was laid the firm basis upon which, later, the Washington Conference was able to build.

To Colonel House who, like Mr. Page, always insisted that the future stability of civilization depended upon the close friendship of Great Britain and the United States, these two questions— the ‘freedom of the seas’ and the elimination of naval competition — seemed of the first importance. It was inconceivable, he believed, that a serious quarrel between the two nations could ever arise over any other question. But in the restrictions that Great Britain claimed to impose upon neutral commerce in time of war, and in the naval rivalry that was threatened by the American programme of 1916, he saw political dynamite. Hence the insistence which House laid in the prearmistice conversations upon the need of a general reconsideration of maritime regulations and the law of blockade, and the hope which he cherished that the British would yield something of their claims to interfere with neutral commerce as advanced in 1915 and 1916. He pointed out constantly to Lloyd George the peril that lurked in this problem; the latter never perceived it, as had Lord Grey, although it was to be fully emphasized by such an authority as Admiral Consett.

Colonel House talked very plainly to all his English friends on this subject during the armistice negotiations, and told them that the United States would never permit any nation to interpret for them the rules under which American commerce might cross the high seas or approach neutral ports. The British took his warnings in excellent part and, although the discussions led to no final agreement, since Mr. Wilson did not raise the problem at the Peace Conference, they unquestionably prepared the way for the informal understanding upon the yet more vital matter of naval competition.

Cooperation with the British, furthermore, made possible the dissemination of Wilsonian doctrines in Germany. Under Northcliffe’s direction British airplanes carried into the enemy’s country millions of leaflets containing the essential parts of Wilson’s speeches. Naturally the question arises, How far did this contribute to the shattering of German morale, and to what extent did Wilson incur a responsibility to the German people which was disregarded in the Treaty of Versailles?

(In a further paper Professor Seymour will discuss President Wilson’s negotiations with Germany preceding the Conference.)