28 JULY, 1916: Special Relationship?

For months now, the First World War has been locked into a second full year of wholesale military carnage on the main European land fronts.  Major offensives have erupted at Verdun and the Somme in the west, in the Trentino Valley and on the Isonzo River in the south, across Galicia and Poland in the east – but none has yet brought decisive results or opened up any clear path to victory.

The same could be said of the various secondary fronts dotted around the planet.  Although some offered avenues for the post-War ambitions of the empires concerned, the strictly colonial struggle for East Africa, the regional dispute between the Russian and the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus, the multi-pronged British invasion of Middle East and the crazy chaos around Salonika were all marginal to the search for overall victory by the Allies or the Central Powers. In short the military struggle on land was, as the heritage industry loves to point out, locked in stalemate.

The heritage boys and girls are also quite happy to remind us that the First World War was a ‘total war’, by which they mean whole societies and their economies were committed to (and crucial to) its prosecution… but they generally avoid following that argument to a logical conclusion that messes with their simplistic, confectionary narrative.

With whole societies involved – and in technological conditions that made decisive military victory at best unlikely – it stood to reason that the richest, most developed, organised and cohesive societies would eventually exhaust the socioeconomic resources of their enemies and claim victory. In other words, the fact of total war made military stalemate and unbreakable trench lines less fundamentally important (and less open to ridicule) than heritage history wants us to believe, because there was another way to win the War.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that contemporary generals, politicians and propagandists were well aware of economic warfare’s importance as an alternate, apparently certain route to glory, and used it frame the miserable excuse for a strategy that was attrition (14 July, 1916: Virtual Realities).  Last week, I pointed up the long-term economic perspective taken by all the major belligerents. Today marks the centenary of a formal protest by the United States against the British Empire’s macro-economic policies, a low point in Anglo-American relations that brings together the two biggest questions surrounding economic warfare in 1916.

The first question, a live issue since 1914 and still being asked two years on, concerned the Allied blockade of sea trade to the Central Powers, led by the enormous Royal Navy.  Would blockade bring total victory, as promised by British strategists and contemporary economists, and if so when?  Or could German submarine warfare against Allied trade be expanded and refined to even up an economic balance of power that had, from the moment a quick military victory failed to materialise in 1914, been heavily weighted against the Central Powers?

The second question cut across the first and had the potential to render it all but irrelevant to the War’s final outcome.  Would the United States, by far the world’s biggest and most important neutral economy, enter the War to slew the economic balance irrevocably in the Allies’ favour, and if so when?

Economists have been analysing the impact of the First World War on their particular field of interest ever since it ended, and the best they’ve managed so far is the unsurprising conclusion that US entry on the Allied side condemned the Central Powers – which were anyway fighting at a massive economic disadvantage in terms of available human and material resources – to certain defeat.  This would hardly have shocked informed observers in 1916, but the modern tendency to assume that US alliance with Britain and France was inevitable, simply a matter of time, would have raised a few eyebrows.

There was no real danger of the USA joining the Central Powers. Germany’s motives for and conduct of the War were generally deplored in the US, a mood defined by the German Army’s deliberate terror tactics against civilians in Belgium, and lately reinforced by the Ottoman Empire’s treatment of Armenians (many of whom fled to the US and spread tales of genocidal atrocity).  But that didn’t mean the United States wanted to side with Britain.

The great republic’s sympathies tended to lie with countries directly under the hammer of war – Belgium, Italy and France, for instance. Britain was seen in Washington (as it was in Berlin) as the main protagonist on the Allied side, and as an arrogant, greedy bully, fighting to squash any challenge to its long-term dominance of the global economy.  The War as a whole was perceived by many in the US as a battle for supremacy between Europe’s two greatest economies, with the rest of the continent suffering in support roles, and nothing reinforced that view more powerfully than the ongoing Anglo-German struggle for control of the sea lanes.

Hatred of German submarine warfare and British blockade tactics informed the whole US political spectrum, from traditional isolationists who loathed and disdained European imperialism, to business interests determined to create their own sea-trading economic empire.  And while the threat to life and property posed by U-boats was always likely to overtrump the Royal Navy’s aggressive but relatively civilised policing when it came to popular outrage, political and business interests were if anything more appalled by the systemic denial of their long-term economic destiny built into Britain’s blockade strategy.  Viewed with anything like historical dispassion, this was a reasonable point of view.

Not that the British saw it that way.  Seen from London, blockade was doing a good job of grinding down the enemy war effort, but doing it too slowly to guarantee the long-term prosperity of a British Empire haemorrhaging men, materials and money.  Constant efforts were being made to tighten the blockade for greater efficiency, usually by assuming ever-greater powers to stop, search and seize neutral vessels suspected of trading with the enemy.  The fact that neutral powers were legally entitled to trade with anyone they liked was seen as irrelevant during a fight that claimed to be between good and evil.

The British press in 1916 had no doubt that trading with the enemy was a heinous crime against civilisation, and its shrill outrage helped elevate the practice into something seen by many in Britain as a major obstruction to victory through blockade.  It wasn’t, but every Brexit victim knows how attractive an easy fix for complex problems can be in times of crisis, so few British voices were raised in doubt when, on July 18 1916, the government issued a ‘Black List’ of 87 US-based companies accused or suspected of trading with the enemy, making it a criminal offence for any British company to trade or even correspond with them.

To the surprise of British interests without American experience (and nobody else), the list triggered a furious reaction in the US, bringing scathing rebukes from editors coast to coast, and helping cement continued pacifism (exactly the thing Britain didn’t want from the US) as the dominant theme of that year’s presidential election campaign.  It also provoked the formal note of protest from Wilson’s government, delivered by the US Ambassador to London, Walter Hines Page, on 28 July.

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You rule the waves, you make enemies…

The note marked a major crisis in Anglo-American relations.  Though aware that it had made a mistake and anxious to defuse the situation, an increasingly shaky Asquith government didn’t dare climb down in the face of a British press and parliament roaring their outraged indignation at American reactions, and didn’t want to encourage similar protests from other neutral governments. Foreign minister Edward Grey therefore issued a statement refusing to retract the list, and although repeated negotiations over the following months produced a series of quiet reductions in the list’s scope, along with reversal of an initial threat to expand it, the British would not renounce their claim to impose trade restrictions on neutral states as a matter of right.

This was inevitable, given Britain’s need to maintain control over other neutral traders, but it went to the crux of US emotional and economic antipathy towards the old colonial foe, so by late 1916 the Black List controversy had contrived to make Britain even more unpopular than Germany with many Americans, and in particular with Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson had reacted to initial publication of the Black List with undisguised anger.  He admitted to aides that he was ‘about at the end of my patience with Britain and the Allies’, and told his closest advisor, Colonel House, that he planned to consider restrictions on loans and exports to the Allies.  As the row rumbled on through the autumn, and once he had been returned to office for a second term, Wilson made good his threat, putting federal pressure on US bank JP Morgan – which functioned as the British government’s wartime financial agent in the US – to limit the loans promised to Britain at the end of 1916, a move that threatened major disruption to Allied plans for offensives in 1917.

The British had painted themselves into a bad corner, and if Germany hadn’t managed to repair relations between London and Washington by taking submarine warfare beyond the point of US tolerance, the Black List might now be remembered as one of the War’s most calamitous diplomatic screw-ups.   As it is, the controversy seems worth commemorating as a reminder that US friendship with Britain was a fragile and, in many eyes, unlikely state of affairs in 1916, and as proof that, although imperial Germany has quite rightly become a by-word for diplomatic incompetence (see for instance 3 December, 1915: Friendly Fires?), the insular, often unconscious arrogance of wartime British diplomacy could run it a good second.

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