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terrupted by a new controversy as to the position of enemy merchantmen "armed for defense,” which the German government, claiming that they were under instructions to act offensively, gave notice would be attacked without warning. In an "informal and confidential letter” sent to the ambassadors of Great Britain, France, Italy, and Russia, and the minister of Belgium, on January 18th, and to the ambassador of Japan on January 24, 1916, Mr. Lansing proposed an arrangement to the effect that merchant-vessels should be prohibited from carrying any armament, while submarines should be required to adhere strictly to the rules of international law in regard to visit and search and the safety of passengers and crews. The letter stated, in conclusion, that the United States was "impressed with the reasonableness of the argument that a merchant-vessel carrying armament of any sort, in view of the character of submarine warfare and the defensive weakness of undersea craft, should be held to be an auxiliary cruiser and so treated by a neutral as well as by a belligerent government,” and that the United States was "seriously considering instructing its officials accordingly.”
The substance of this letter, the text of which was not officially published till the following August, appeared in the press, without explanation, about the middle of February, 1916. The proposal which it conveyed was formally declined by Great Britain on the 23d of March. Meanwhile, a movement took
place in Congress to pass a resolution warning citizens of the United States against tavelling on armed enemy merchantmen. This movement, which assumed formidable proportions, was publicly opposed by President Wilson. It eventually failed; and a memorandum "prepared during March, 1916," “by direction of the President," on the status of armed merchantmen, was made public by the Department of State, under date of the 25th of that month, as a statement of the government's attitude on the subject. This memorandum, while reasserting the right of neutrals to travel on armed belligerent merchantmen, declared that the determination by a belligerent war-ship of the “war-like character" of such an enemy vessel “must rest in no case upon presumption, but upon conclusive evidence"; that, “in the absence of conclusive evidence,” the belligerent must "act on the presumption that an armed merchantman is of peaceful character,” even though the armament were such as a neutral government, in performing its neutral duties, might "presume to be intended for aggression." The explanation given of this distinction was that the belligerent war-ship “can on the high seas test by actual experience the purpose of an armament on an enemy merchantvessel, and so determine by direct evidence the status of the vessel.”
The entire submarine controversy was brought to a head by the torpedoing by a German submarine, in the English Channel, March 24, 1916, of the French steamship Sussex, an unarmed vessel having on board more than three hundred passengers, about eighty of whom, including some citizens of the United States, were killed or injured. In the course of previous discussions offers of Germany to arbitrate various phases of the controversy had been declined. On a review of the case of the Sussex and other cases, the United States, on April 18th, instructed the American ambassador at Berlin to deliver to the German government a note, which was in the nature of an ultimatum. This note, after remarking that it had become “painfully evident” that the position originally taken by the United States was “inevitable," namely, that the use of submarines as commerce destroyers was incompatible with the "principles of humanity," the "rights of neutrals," and the "immunities of non-combatants," declared that, if it was "still the purpose" of the German government to prosecute “relentless and indiscriminate" submarine warfare against "vessels of commerce," the United States was at last forced to the conclusion that there was but one course to pursue; and that, unless that government should “immediately declare and effect an abandonment" of its "present methods” of submarine warfare against both “passenger" and "freight-carrying" vessels, the United States could “have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire altogether.” The German government, answering on May 4th,
stated that orders had been issued to its naval forces that, “in accordance with the general principles of visit and search and destruction of merchant-vessels recognized by international law, such vessels, both within and without the area declared as naval war zone, shall not be sunk without warning and without saving human lives, unless these ships attempt to escape or offer resistance." The note added, however, that neutrals could not expect Germany, forced to fight for her existence, to restrict, in their interest, the use of an effective weapon, if her enemy was "permitted to continue to apply at will methods of warfare violating the rules of international law"; that, the United States having repeatedly declared its determination to restore the principle of the freedom of the seas from whatever quarter it had been violated, the German government did not doubt that the United States would at once “demand and insist” that the British government “forthwith observe the rules of international law universally recognized before the war," as laid down in notes of the United States to that government of December 26, 1914, and November 5, 1915; and that, in case the steps taken by the United States to attain that object should not result in the observance of the ļaws of humanity by all belligerent nations, “the German government would then be facing a new situation, in which it must reserve itself complete liberty of decision." Responding, on May 8th, Mr. Lansing said that
the United States, in "accepting" the German government's "declaration of its abandonment" of the policy which had so seriously menaced the good relations between the two countries, would “rely upon a scrupulous execution henceforth of the now altered policy" of that government, and would take it for granted that the latter did "not intend to imply that the maintenance of its newly announced policy' was "in any way contingent upon the course or result of diplomatic negotiations" between the United States and any other belligerent government, although “certain passages” "might appear to be susceptible of that construction"; but that, in order to avoid any possible misunderstanding, the United States must notify the Imperial government that it could “not 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."
To this counter notification, or reservation, the German government did not reply.
As has been seen, the German note of May 4, 1916, specified certain notes which the United States addressed to Great Britain on December 26, 1914, and November 5, 1915. In the former, which related to the seizure and detention of vessels laden with American goods destined to neutral ports in Europe,