this order: In accordance with the general principles of visit and search and the destruction of vessels recognized by international law, such vessels, both within and without the area declared a naval war zone, shall not be sunk without warning and without saving human lives, unless the ship attempt to escape or offer resistance.” A loophole for escape from this categorical promise was left, however, in the expression of hope that the United States Government would forthwith secure from the British Government a stricter observance of the rules of international law and the statement that “should steps taken by the United States not obtain the object it deserves, to have the laws of humanity followed by all the belligerent nations, the German Government would then be facing a new situation, in which it must reserve to itself complete liberty of decision.”
In its reply, taking cognizance of the German promise, the United States Government was careful to disclaim any obligation to offer a quid pro quo for the concession. “In order to avoid any possible misunderstanding,” the note declares, “the Government of the United States notifies the Imperial Government that it cannot for a moment entertain, much less discuss, a suggestion that respect by German naval authorities for the rights of citizens of the United States upon the high seas should in any way or in the slightest degree be made contingent upon the conduct of any other Government affecting the rights of neutrals and non-combatants. Responsibility in such matters is single, not joint; absolute, not relative.”
For a time after this promise was given, it was generally respected, and it began to seem as if actual participation by America in the war might be avoided. Although from British sources came the statement that by Oct. 1, 15 vessels had been sunk without the warning that Germany had explicitly promised to give, the American State Department had no satisfactory evidence to support the statement.
On July 9, 1916, the German submarine “Deutschland,” a commercial vessel entered the port of Norfolk and proceeded to Baltimore. No attempt was made by this Government to discriminate between it and any other commercial ship in the matter of port facilities. This led to a remonstrance on the part of the Allied nations, directed to all neutral nations, but primarily directed at the United States with the “Deutschland” incident in view. The Entente view was that the peculiar characteristics of submarines are such that they ought not to be allowed the same port privileges as other merchant vessels. Among these characteristics were the ability to dive, by which they could avoid control and identification, so that their character as neutral or belligerent, as naval or merchant vessel, could not be ascertained. The United States, however, refused to accept this reasoning as a rule of action.
Much less peaceful was the visit of the German war submarine, the “U-53,” which unannounced entered Newport harbor, Oct. 7, 1916, and after delivering mail for the German Embassy, departed after a few hours' stay. Within the next two days, the “U-53” had sunk in swift succession one Dutch, one Norwegian and three British ships, within sight of the American coast. Legal warning was given in each case, and the crews permitted to escape, some of the latter being picked up by American destroyers in the vicinity. The bringing of the submarine war to this side of the ocean created considerable excitement, and the question was raised whether the action of the submarine did not constitute a blockade of the American coast and an infringement upon American rights. The matter, however, was permitted to stay in abeyance.
On Oct. 30 the British ship “Marina” was torpedoed while on her way to this country and six Americans of fifty who were on board were killed. Then came an attack upon the American steamer “Chemung” and that on the steamer “Russian” with a loss of 17 American lives. No adequate explanation was forthcoming.
While the two countries were by these occurrences being brought nearer the brink of war, efforts were being made by the President of the United States to find some common grounds on which, peace might be secured, or negotiations at least opened, between the Entente and the Central Powers. The occasion was offered by the German announcement on Dec. 12, 1916, that the Imperial Government was ready to enter into peace negotiations. The terms were couched, however, so much in the spirit of a victor magnanimously offering peace to the vanquished that they were emphatically, almost curtly, refused by all the Allied nations. Despite this refusal, the time (Dec. 18), seemed auspicious for the President of the greatest of the neutrals to act as mediator, although he stated that the plan had been conceived long before the issuance of Germany's offer. What the President sought to obtain was a concrete statement of terms, on which negotiations might be initiated.