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America Fallen!/Chapter 6

 
 

VI


THE CABINET MEETING AT WASHINGTON


On the morning of March 20th, there appeared in the morning papers of the United States a dispatch from Berlin, stating that negotiations were believed to be under way between the governments of Germany and Denmark, having in view the purchase by Germany of the Danish island of St. Thomas in the West Indies. "This movement," read the dispatch, "is the first step in a policy of the German Empire of acquiring, by purchase, certain coaling and refitting stations for the use of its great merchant marine, whose activities, released by the Peace of Geneva, are once more in full swing. Germany realizes and accepts the new conditions which have been brought about by the great war. For the future, the resources, energy, and skill of the German people will be directed less to naval and military achievements and more than ever to the upbuilding and enlargement of her internal industries, the multiplication of the ships of her merchant marine, and the greater extension of her trade and commerce in all the countries of the world."

On the following morning there appeared in one of the leading New York dailies the following letter from Washington: "Had not yesterday's dispatch from Berlin, stating that negotiations were under way for the purchase by Germany of the Danish West Indian Island of St. Thomas, been given such unusually widespread publicity, the matter would not have attracted the serious attention which is being devoted to it in Washington. It is the general impression in well-informed circles in this city that the tone of the dispatch and its worldwide circulation bear the earmarks of the German official press bureau. Were it not for this, its moderate and pacific tone would carry more conviction. Be that as it may, the least that can be done is to take the assurances of Germany's new point of view as to her destiny at their face value. The serious side of this matter for the Government of the United States, however, is not the question as to what will be Germany's future world policy, so much as the fact that the suggested purchase of St. Thomas, should it take place, would be a broad violation of the principles of the 'Monroe Doctrine,' and a very direct challenge to the reaffirmation by Congress of that Doctrine, with particular respect to the waters and territory adjacent to the Panama Canal and therefore within easy striking distance of the same. It is stated in well-informed quarters that our foreign office has lost no time in directing its Ambassador in Berlin to make the necessary official inquiry and, if necessary, follow it up with the strongest representations to the German Government."

On March 24th the representatives of the leading papers throughout the country were invited to meet the Secretary of State, who wished to make a communication on the subject of St. Thomas. They found him in the very best of humor, and he stated that he was pleased to tell them, that the slight cloud which had settled down upon the mutual relations of the United States and Germany had been completely dispelled by the announcement of the German Government, that no negotiations of any kind whatsoever were in progress for the purchase of the Danish West India Island of St. Thomas.

One week later the early editions of the evening papers of March 31st displayed in full-face headlines the news, that the German Government had announced that it had purchased St. Thomas and that it proposed to make of it one of the strongest naval bases in the world.

At the call of the President, a meeting of the Cabinet convened that night at the White House at 9 P.M. In view of the crisis, the members of the Cabinet arrived early, eager to ascertain from the Secretary of State the facts of the grave diplomatic situation. From him they learned, informally, that, having returned late that afternoon from lecturing in the West on "The Perils of Militarism," he was able to find time only for brief interviews with the German and the British Ambassadors. The German Ambassador had informed him that the dispatch published in the afternoon papers was essentially correct.

The President entered, seated himself, and at once asked the Secretary of State to give the latest information available from his department. "I have to inform you, sir, that the German Ambassador practically confirms the Berlin dispatch, and that, in my opinion, the island of St. Thomas is at this hour the property of the German Government."

"In that case, gentlemen," said the President, "the situation is free from any ambiguity. By the purchase of St. Thomas, in the face of our recent protest, Germany challenges one of the most vital policies of the United States. The issues are clean-cut; either Germany must abrogate this sale, or we must abandon the 'Monroe Doctrine,' or the matter must be submitted to the test of war."

"I am for peace," said the Secretary of the Navy; "but I believe that our answer to this affront should be a sharp ultimatum offering to Germany the alternative of a return of St. Thomas to Denmark or—war! Germany will never dare to fight us over the 'Monroe Doctrine'; for she knows that back of that policy lies not only our own battle-fleet but that of Great Britain as well."

"Can the Secretary of State give us any definite assurance as to Great Britain's attitude?" asked the President.

"I had a conversation with the British Ambassador before coming to this meeting, relative to the attitude of Great Britain in the event of hostilities. He stated that he was advised by his government that the failure of the United States Government to make any protest against the violation of Belgian neutrality, or against the strewing of mines on the high seas, the bombardment of peaceful villages and undefended coast towns, and other violations of the humanitarian laws of war, had so far estranged the sympathies of the British nation that the most its government could pledge itself to, in the event of our becoming embroiled with Germany over the 'Monroe Doctrine,' was an attitude of strict neutrality."

Of all the men around that board the President alone seemed to realize the tremendous significance of this announcement. He bowed his head in deep thought, oblivious, for the time, to the discussion among the members as to whether Germany, exhausted as she must be by the terrific struggle of the past twenty months, would be willing and able to take up arms almost before she had laid them down.

Suddenly, and with powerful emphasis, the President said:

"Gentlemen, would it not be more sane and more consistent with the dignity of the Cabinet if, instead of indulging in speculation as to whether Germany would fight, we find out definitely whether we are in a position to do so ourselves." Turning to the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy, he said: "Send for the Chief of Staff of the Army and the President of the General Board of the Navy, and I will ask for their expert opinion as to our preparedness for a conflict with the greatest military and second greatest naval power in the world."

Immediately upon their entrance the President said: "I have asked your attendance here, so that I may inform you that the Secretary of State has learned that the purchase of St. Thomas by Germany has been accomplished, and that the British Government has made it clear that, in the event of war over this violation of the 'Monroe Doctrine,' it can pledge itself only to an attitude of strict neutrality. The questions have arisen, first, as to whether Germany, in view of her defeat in the recent struggle, would be willing to risk another war; and, second, as to whether, if she did, our naval and military forces are in such a condition of strength and preparedness as to warrant our entertaining a reasonable hope of carrying it to a successful issue."

The first to reply was the President of the General Board of the Navy: "In a crisis so serious as this I presume, Mr. President, that you wish me to speak with absolute candor and without reserve. There is no reason to suppose that Germany has emerged from this war exhausted and broken down. Her main fleet having remained within her ports throughout the war, is not only intact, but has been increased by the addition of several dreadnoughts of the most modern design. Some light cruisers also have been added, together with a considerable number of seagoing destroyers and submarines of the largest and latest type. So far as her main fleet is concerned, there can be no doubt that it is stronger and even better prepared for battle than it was at the commencement of the late war. With the menace of the British fleet removed, Germany is free to concentrate on our coast the whole strength of her navy. The General Board has reason to believe that Germany several years ago worked out a plan for the invasion of the United States, and it is believed also that, in the event of war, she would strike at once with all her available forces. It would be her object to overwhelm our fleet, obtain command of the sea, and land an expeditionary force, say, of 150,000 to 200,000 men, which, if our fleet were destroyed, she would be able to accomplish within ten or twelve days from the commencement of hostilities. The decisive action would have to be fought between the dreadnought fleets of the two nations, and, if we gave battle, we should find ourselves opposed by a fighting line of double the strength of our own; for Germany can oppose twenty dreadnoughts to our ten, and judging from such naval actions as were fought in the late war, in which both the gunnery and the seamanship of the Germans were excellent, there can be little doubt that with such great odds against us, we should be defeated. Had the Congress in past years seen fit to listen to the warnings of the Board, and built up a fleet sufficient for the defence of the United States, we should have been prepared at this hour to match ship with ship and gun with gun.

"The seriousness of the situation is aggravated by the fact that all of the ships of our pre-dreadnought classes in commission are now distributed in the various ports of the Pacific Coast, and therefore will not be available to meet that swift attack which the enemy would undoubtedly make immediately upon the declaration of war. This division of the fleet was opposed to the very first principles of naval strategy, and it was done against the strongest protest of this Board, backed by the judgment of every naval officer of the service. Mr. President, I have answered your question, and I repeat, first, that the German Navy is in a state of the highest preparedness and efficiency; secondly, that despite the excellence of our ships and the high quality of our officers and men, the relative weakness of our navy and the wide dispersion of its forces, to say nothing of the shortage of men and officers and lack of adequate reserves, would render a successful issue to the war practically impossible."

The President of the General Board took his seat amid a profound silence.

He was followed by the Chief of Staff of the Army, who said: "In answer to your first question, Mr. President, as to whether Germany, having emerged from a great war, would be ready to undertake another, I have this to say: that all history teaches us that a nation never fights more readily and valiantly than immediately after the close of a war in which it was involved. In proof of this I would call your attention to the fact that the North showed no signs of being exhausted by the Civil War in the sense of being unready for further military effort. On the contrary, it was the possession of a great army of well-trained and veteran soldiers, amply equipped and provided with all the munitions of war, that enabled her to assume an uncompromising attitude to France over the Mexican difficulty. So far from exhausting Russia, the unsuccessful war which that country waged against Japan redounded greatly to her benefit; so much so, that when the recent war opened, the morale of her army was higher than ever before, and in equipment, arms, and organization she proved to be one of the great surprises of that conflict. Even the little kingdom of Servia fought first Turkey, then Bulgaria, and finally, and with scarcely a spell of rest, she waged the most remarkable campaign of her history against a first-class military power.

"In the event of the probable defeat of our fleet due to scattered forces and the overwhelming strength of the enemy, Germany would at once commence the invasion of our territory. And the question which I have been called here to answer is: what would be our chances of successfully resisting such an invasion and driving the enemy back to the sea?

"We have at the present hour, within the Continental United States, only about 30,000 men of the regular army, including mobile troops, cavalry, infantry, and field artillery; and we have about 16,000 men manning the coast defences, which is about one-half the necessary number. In the militia of the United States, which totals 127,000 men and officers on paper, only 104,000 are actually mustered. Of these 104,000, only some 60,000 are ready for immediate service in the field; so that our total forces in the United States consist of 16,000 men scattered in the coast defences throughout our Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific Coast fortifications, which would not be available for service in the field; 30,000 regulars and 60,000 militia. That is to say, our mobile troops capable of taking the field number only 90,000 men, and these, we must remember, are scattered from Maine to California and from Canada to the Gulf.

"In the event of invasion by Germany in great force, with a thoroughly equipped army provided with the full complement of field-guns, howitzers, and other necessary equipment, the first contingent of which expeditionary force might readily amount to 150,000 veterans of the late war, where should we stand? It would be an optimistic forecast for me to say that we could concentrate these 90,000 men at any point on the Atlantic Coast within thirty days of the declaration of war. And when the concentration had been made, the troops would be without properly trained artillery and cavalry organization, and without ammunition trains; they would be hastily organized and assembled for the first time in large bodies; they would be unprepared to act effectively as an army; and should these troops be defeated, the country would have back of them practically no reserve of men and supplies. There is a shortage of men and guns in the regular field artillery; we possess less than half the needed militia field batteries; and it would require three months of training to render what we have efficient.

"Practically all of our coast fortifications can be taken in reverse. Many of them to-day are manned only by a few companies, and it would be possible for the enemy, by a night landing and surprise attack, to capture the fortifications from the rear, thus rendering it possible for the enemy's fleet to enter our harbors and lay our seacoast cities under tribute. With our seacoast cities and fortifications in the hands of the enemy, it would be possible for him, having at hand unlimited transport, a vast army, and complete equipment, to land in the first week of the war sufficient forces to capture all the arsenals, ammunition, supplies, and factories for the manufacture of guns, rifles, and powder, long before our widely-scattered mobile army of 30,000 regulars and 60,000 militia could be brought together, effectively to stay his progress. Modern wars, Mr. President, are machine-made, and without the proper machinery war cannot be waged. You, Mr. Secretary of State, have recently affirmed that such is the patriotism of our people, that you could raise an army of one million men between sun and sun; but I tell you that your million men, without the proper equipment of artillery and the other machinery of war, would be but a mob one million strong. Before I take my seat, Mr. President, I shall make so bold as to suggest to you in this hour of great peril (in which I see you actually facing the very crisis and conditions against which my predecessors in office have warned the country and its Congress for many years past), that the naval, and particularly the military situation, is such that, in his dealings with the German Government, it would be advisable that your Secretary of State should put on kid gloves of the very softest texture."

And the Secretary of State did so.

But, six hours after that Cabinet meeting closed, Germany declared war on the United States.