The World-Wide Blockade of Germany

How Our War Trade Board Is Fighting The Commercial Phase
Of The Campaign Against The Kaiser

By William Atherton Du Puy

[Munsey's Magazine, March 1918]

The trade resources of the United States are mustered for the winning of the fight for democracy and humanity. Commerce is in the trenches wherever the flag of the Allies is unfurled, battling with intelligence, resourcefulness, effectiveness, to overcome the enemy of civilization. The result is like the tightening of a great rope about the throat of the Kaiser—a rope the ends of which are in powerful hands that pull strongly, remorselessly. The process may be slow, but it is ceaseless, and the pressure is undoubtedly becoming more and more effective.

The instrument with which trade fights is the blockade. That word brings before the lay mind the picture of a cordon of ships thrown around the blockaded harbors, like policemen of the seas who allow only those with the necessary countersign to pass. Stories are recalled of blockade-runners, those swift ships which of old dashed for port despite the patrol. There is a vision of grappling-irons, of boarding-parties wielding cutlases, of fights to the death.

But here again the romance has gone from war. The blockade of to-day is mostly a paper affair. Its enforcement is chiefly by trade regulations promulgated through the velvet-smooth channels of diplomacy. Pressure is applied here and there, more or less apologetically. Cargoes are coaxed into other channels before leaving home ports. Conditions that are entirely friendly, but behind which is the force of half the world arrayed in a common cause, influence casual shipments from out-of-the-way ports, are parts of the modern blockade.


Before we entered the war, the Allies, with Great Britain as the most active factor, had maintained a blockade of the Central Powers since the beginning of the struggle. There were practically insuperable difficulties in making that blockade effective. Germany must be deprived of the necessities of war, yet the neutrals must not be antagonized. The United States, in particular, must be kept friendly.

One remembers the cries of anguish that went up from American members of Congress when Britain first considered making cotton contraband. The Allies knew that great quantities of cotton were going into Germany and being converted into smokeless powder; yet they must treat the United States with consideration, and the United States insisted upon its undoubted right to trade with other neutrals. As a result, it is probable that smokeless powder made of American cotton is to-day throwing shells into trenches occupied by American soldiers.

Then the United States came into the war, and at once assumed a leading part in the blockade. The problems that formerly embarrassed the cause of democracy, have to a great extent disappeared. All sorts of leaks have been stopped, and the blockade is now virtually water-tight.

If one wishes to see the American blockade in action, he need not cruise the high seas. Its headquarters are in Washington, just two blocks to the north-northeast of the White House, where the War Trade Board occupies a short block of brownstone buildings.

These, a generation ago, were residences of the social elite, the "cliff-dwellers" of the nation's capital. They have been thrown together, and communicating doors have been cut from one house to the next. Thus was created a strange hodgepodge of office-buildings, the floors of each on a different level from the one adjoining. The Department of Justice used to live here before it got a building of its own.

Congress last session provided the nation with a piece of legislation known as the Espionage Act, its declared purpose being "to punish acts of interference with the foreign relations, the neutrality, and the foreign commerce of the United States, to punish espionage, and better to enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and for other purposes." The War Trade Board, which is in reality the American blockade, is the agency which enforces this act.


The board consists of seven members, each of whom represents a governmental agency particularly interested in this particular branch of the work of winning the war. The State Department is represented by Vance C. McCormick, who is chairman of the board. The Treasury Department is represented by Albert Strauss, the Department of Agriculture by Alonzo E. Taylor, the Department of Commerce by Thomas D. Jones and Clarence M. Woolley, the Food Administration by J. Beaver White, and the Shipping Board by Frank C. Munson. All these men are leaders in their special fields. The policies they lay down are administered through nine bureaus, likewise presided over by men large in the nation's affairs.

The first act of the War Trade Board was to issue a proclamation which called for an export license before cargoes containing certain commodities could be cleared from our ports. For instance, if the Dutch wanted to carry wheat out from New York to Rotterdam, they must apply to the bureau of exports of the War Trade Board for a license. That license would not be issued until this government was assured that none of the grain would get into Germany; that it would not release other supplies that would get into Germany; and that Holland needed the grain worse than did our Allies. This meant that grain might not be shipped, even though it had been bought and paid for and was aboard the vessel. At least forty Dutch ships so loaded lay idle in New York harbor for months last autumn and winter, waiting for a license that never came.

The War Trade Board has a bureau of research, which investigates the conditions of supplies in nations which ask for materials from the United States, and determines what demands should have precedence. Food is denied Holland or Scandinavia, for instance, if France or Italy is in greater need. So is the trade of this nation with neutrals adjacent to Germany carefully limited, and so is the blockade greatly strengthened.

At this point another agency of the War Trade Board enters and clamps down an additional screw. The bureau of transportation is saddled with the responsibility of seeing to it that American coal and oil are not used by neutral ships in such a way as to help our enemies. American coal, for instance, must not be burned under the boilers of Swedish vessels that are carrying supplies that may reach Germany. The coal is the property of this nation, and must not be used to its detriment. When a neutral vessel puts in a demand for coal, it is asked:

"Just what is the cargo that this coal is to help overseas, and what is the ultimate destination of the goods?"

Until a satisfactory answer is given, no coal is forthcoming. The War Trade Board must be shown. Then it issues a license which entitles the neutral vessel to fuel.

Great Britain was restricting coal in this way before the United States came in, but neutrals could get it over here. Now the United States and Great Britain are working together. They control the bunker-coal on both sides of the Atlantic, and it is impossible for any ship to continue in the ocean trade without getting fuel from them. They are therefore able to dictate what freight shall cross the Atlantic.

The Allies leave no stone unturned that they may direct the world's trade into channels that will help win the great fight, but they act completely within the letter and spirit of international law. Neutral ships are not driven off the seas. On the contrary, they have abundant opportunities of reaping unprecedented profits if they will conform to our suggestions. It is a matter of bargaining. If they carry Allied freight, they are well paid, and every possible concession is granted. Practically all of them are now working for the Allies.


There are two sides, of course, in these international agreements and some of them are the result of pretty sharp bargaining. This has been instanced in certain negotiations between Spain and England. In view of the necessity for economy, and the shortage of shipping, England decided that citrus-fruits were a luxury that might be denied her people; so they were banned.

England's oranges come from Spain, and that country found itself with no sale for its crop. England also gets its pyrite from Spain, and this is a necessity in the manufacture of sulfuric acid for munitions. England must have pyrite—a fact which gave Spain the whip-hand. She told London that unless customary purchases of citrus-fruits were made, pyrite would not be forthcoming. England was forced, therefore, to open her ports to Spanish oranges. There was a similar skirmish between Sweden and Great Britain. Swedish iron and steel products played a not unimportant part in the munitions industry of England. Sweden likewise had much fish for sale, but the British were well supplied and refused to buy. So the Swedes announced that their ships did not ride smoothly when laden with steel products alone. Half the cargo must be fish, or they could not make the trip to England. As a result, their fish was purchased.

Even among the Allies there has been bargaining under a certain amount of pressure. For instance, the United States and Japan, partners on the Pacific and loyal to their alliance, have had a little sparring to do.

Japan has needed steel plates above all else. She is building many ships, and the work cannot go forward without plates, which America alone can furnish. But the United States sets forth that her whole effort must be devoted to winning the war. All her materials are to be dedicated to that cause. She cannot release steel to Japan, unless that country will put certain ships in the trade that carries supplies to Europe.

It is a great sacrifice to Japan, for the trade of all the Pacific is calling her; but Japan is also vitally interested in winning the war, and she needs the steel. The two needs are worth the sacrifice. She sends ships to Europe, and American steel plates cross the Pacific.


Finally the United States, through its War Trade Board, proclaimed a license on imports. Before certain specified products could be brought into this country, a license must be obtained. This regulation makes it possible to conserve the wealth of the nation by denying it luxuries. Its primary purpose, however, is to put into the hands of the government a bargaining power which will make it possible to get from other countries certain materials that are vital to winning the war.

Let us use a hypothetical case. There might be an island in the Pacific Ocean producing nickel, which is vital in the war. That island might also produce mangoes, and the United States might be the consumer of its crop. The War Trade Board might say that mangoes could not be imported except under license; and it might refuse to issue licenses unless the cargoes of mangoes were accompanied by shipments of nickel. The lessons learned from Spain and Sweden are thus applied wholesale to all the world.

The War Trade Board has also taken measures to strike directly at the material interests and at the morale of the Germans. It realized that commercial Germany has undoubtedly felt great depression because of her lost trade. All her commercial machinery in France and England, for instance, was long ago scrapped; but the United States remained, and so did Latin America. Commercial Germany wanted to avoid war with the United States, but the militarists would not listen. Now the War Trade Board is harassing commercial Germany and feels reasonably certain that the goading is being passed on to the truculent war lords of Berlin.

It is enforcing the Trading with the Enemy Act, which provides primarily that no citizen of an enemy country and no company owned in an enemy country can do business in the United States. It provides against nominal change of ownership or other camouflage. It wipes out that shell of an organization which it was hoped in Germany might be revitalized when the war was over. The shell has proved to be like Humpty Dumpty, and there is despondency in Hamburg and Bremen.


But the long arm of the War Trade Board reaches even farther. It has extended the black list to German-owned firms all over the world. Americans, supplementing the stand of our Allies, might not trade with these firms. Since there is little business aside from that of the Allies these days, cobwebs began to collect about the doors of the Teutonic traders.

At first there were neutrals who might deal with them, but when these neutrals applied for bunker-coal the United States or Great Britain asked embarrassing questions, and they soon found it advisable to leave the blacklisted concerns alone. So many complications arose because of the presence of German firms in the Latin-American republics that those nations, already sympathetic to the cause of democracy, found that trade convenience gave them many additional inducements toward throwing in their lot with the Allies. The force of this argument will increase as time passes.

A new code of regulations, announced as going into operation on February 1, gives the War Trade Board a still greater measure of control over neutral trade and shipping. For instance, as it has been found that men on neutral vessels have carried information to Germany, hereafter no ship will be provided with stores and fuel unless the personnel of its crew is approved by the board, which may demand the dismissal of any suspected officer or sailor. To prevent the sending of wireless messages to the enemy, it is required that the apparatus on board neutral ships shall be so sealed that it cannot be used without the knowledge of the captain, who shall be personally responsible for every communication sent out; and that no message shall be sent, except in case of distress, within two hundred miles of the coast of Great Britain, France, Portugal, or Italy. There are other strict provisions in the code, and the violation of any of them may lead to a refusal of supplies to all vessels under the same ownership.

In short, the entry of the United States into the war has made the blockade of Germany something entirely different from what it was before, and vastly more effective. The Allies are now able to marshal the world and its resources against her. Her world-wide commercial machine is in a fair way to be completely scrapped. She may win victories—always against her weaker antagonists—but they bring no relief. Even with a decisive military triumph, which is impossible, financial ruin looms darkly ahead of her.

The war has brought grievous losses and difficulties to all the belligerents, but if ever we should feel discouraged, let us ask ourselves this question—should we be willing to exchange places with the Germans? The War Trade Board is helping to furnish an answer to this query, if any answer be needed.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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