America and the Neutralization of the Sea

By Normal Angell

[The North American Review, May 1915]

This is written by a man of English descent whose youth and early manhood were passed in America,, who there acquired a deep sympathy and admiration for most that America represents, who believes, further, that America might, if she seized her opportunities, play a leading rôle in giving a new development to organized society by becoming the pivot of its worldwide organization on more civilized lines, and who sees all this placed in jeopardy by possibility of a very serious cleavage of policy as between herself and England. This cleavage is the more serious because in England its existence even is hardly realized and its real cause in no way discussed. Attempts at bridging it are, in consequence, the more liable to grave misunderstandings.

Let me outline the difference very briefly. A bitter feeling has grown up in England, owing to the impression that in the interest of a trade in copper or cotton, America, oblivious to all other considerations, is, or was, prepared to enforce her point of view even to the extent of ranging herself on the side of England's enemies. This monstrous assumption is for the moment put into the background by a half-hope that Germany's submarine blockade may now cause America to come over on the side of the Allies. Such, broadly, indicates English feeling and discussion. The Spectator—most pro-American of English journals—has been drawing disturbing parallels with the Trent affair, promising that in the forthcoming discussions "we shall think nothing of the risks we run" and that there shall be no Abraham Lincoln or Queen Victoria to act as restraining influences. And the public attitude of the Spectator is but a mild reflection of private opinion in many circles.

Here, of course, we have misunderstanding number one. There has never been any danger that America would, because of such a dispute, range herself on the side of Germany. The thing is preposterous. Very nearly as unlikely is the contingency of her joining the Allies because of Germany's "blockade." Americans have recognized that on the whole Britain's action is in accordance with sea law as it stands and as America has accepted it, and if Germany's action now makes the position of neutrals impossible, the remedy for America will be not an alliance with the Allies to restore the law as Britain has been enforcing it, but at the conclusion of the war to see that it is changed altogether.

And that contingency—the point at which the whole dispute will inevitably crystallize—English, opinion has absolutely failed to envisage. There is in England not the faintest realization—I have not seen a line of discussion concerning it in the press—that the inevitable outcome of the present contraband and blockade difficulties will be an irresistible movement in America for the neutralization of the high seas, or, failing that, their domination by the American navy.

Yet that movement, backed as it will be by a most formidable combination of patriotic sentiment and commercial and industrial interest, will raise the fundamental problem of English national policy; and England will be confronted by the demand for the limitation of a power round the preservation of which has centered her deepest national pride and upon which she has learned to believe her security as a nation and empire depends.

And this profound conflict of policy is not even being discussed in England: for most Englishmen the Anglo-American differences are concerned with quite other things. The English public are likely in consequence one day to be presented with demands which, because there has been no adequate discussion of the causes which underlie them, will seem unwarrantable and preposterous, and on no account to be granted. And yet America will not withdraw them. Such a situation is always dangerous.

Let us get the elements of the thing clear. As this war has developed, Americans have more and more awakened to the realization, which has never been vivid to them before, that maritime law, as it stands and as it is enforced, reduces to a fiction in war-time their freedom of movement throughout the world, the sovereignty of their flag over American ships, and their free intercourse with nations with which they and the rest of the world are at peace.

Those things, always regarded with pride by Americans, have assumed during the last generation, owing to the increase of their foreign trade and their relations with the outside world, a very much greater material importance than they have had in past wars; their whole financial and industrial system has been disorganized by a war in which they are not combatants. In vast and growing interests they find themselves the helpless victims of forces quite outside their own control. But apart from the material aspect, the restraint upon the freedom, of their ships means the destruction of cherished delusions around which have gathered a mass of patriotic sentiment and pride so great that the awakening is bound to affect their whole outlook in the matter of their relations with the rest of the world.

It is only natural that Englishmen should fail to understand how this realization must affect the ordinary American, especially of the Middle West or the West. This ordinary American has had no knowledge of the details of sea law, of conditional and absolute contraband, and so forth, but has lived in the absolute conviction that the United States, by her past wars, by the respect which she is able to impose for her flag, by the power of her navy and army, had acquired the right to go about her lawful business on the high seas without let or hindrance from any earthly power; that an American ship, flying the American flag, carrying goods to a country with which America and all the rest of the world was at peace, could go secure and unmolested; that an American merchant had at least won the right, backed by the power of his country, to trade with the four corners of the world. And now he learns—to put it briefly and without legal refinements—that it is all a fiction. And that realization is bound to give impetus to a demand not for small concessions of detail in the administration of contraband law, but for fundamental and radical changes in the matter of the complete control of the sea as a whole.

It is probable that very many Americans themselves do not realize clearly how this dispute is developing and how the United States will be pushed to take a stand for a profound alteration of the entire maritime situation.

I have in another connection imagined the present situation being explained to the astonished American in about the terms of the following passage:

The American merchant cannot sell a sack of wheat or a ton of iron to any country, although that country may be at peace with him and with the rest of the world, save by the permission of a foreign naval bureaucrat; the American merchant carries on his trade not by virtue of any right that his Government has managed to enforce, but simply to the extent to which a foreign official will permit him. A Chicago or New York magnate, for instance, may enter into vast commercial arrangements with some foreign magnate of Amsterdam or Rome or Buenos Ayres, and the Governments of the United States and of Holland and Italy and Argentina may be agreed as to the legitimacy of the transaction—but it will not be completed unless British officials, making themselves judges of all its details, decide that it is to the interest and convenience of his British Majesty. The American merchant may make oath, which may be supported by the foreign merchant, that the cargo is of such and such a nature, destined for such and such a purpose; all that will go for nothing if in the decision of a court in which neither the American nor the Dutchman nor the Argentine is represented the circumstances are not what the parties profess them to be. An American ship can be searched, its cargo can be turned upside down, can be held up indefinitely by a British lieutenant, and the fiat of a British court will decide the fate of the American merchant's enterprise.

Now whether that is an over-statement of the situation can be judged from the admission of a famous English writer on sea law whose efforts were in large part responsible for the defeat of the ratification of the Declaration of London. Although he takes the ground that Britain's authority at sea is already too curtailed, he admits that the present law leaves the Prize Courts the right to administer not the law of England, but the law of nations, and to decide every material question affecting the rights of neutrals:

Was this an effectual blockade? The Prize Court alone could decide. Was there an actual or attempted breach of blockade? The Court decided. Were these enemy goods? The Court alone debided. Was this a duly commissioned public vessel of war? The Court pronounced. Was that act a breach of neutrality? The Court declared. Was this enemy merchant ship duly transferred by a valid assignment to a neutral? Was this or that thing contraband of war? Again it was for the Court. [Gibson Bowles, Sea Law and Sea Power, pp. 18-19.]

Has even the American realized what the effect of the public discussion of this situation in the heated atmosphere of wartime is likely to be? And of course the American will discuss it more and more during the next few months, and that discussion will bring out with growing clearness the fact that he has not the slightest right of protest, since all this takes place as part of a condition of things to which he has agreed! He will realize increasingly that in the present condition of international law it is an inevitable concomitant of sea power; that as the sea, unlike the land, is "one," supremacy cannot be divided; that the dominant navy of the world dominates not merely the territory of the nation to which it belongs, but the approaches to and the highways between all territories and all nations; that it controls and dominates the traffic of mankind; that the executive power in the administration of this law which stretches over the whole planet and affects the commerce of every country in it is simply and purely a matter of might. For if we could imagine the German navy destroying the British, it is Germany that would exercise this power over the world's movements at sea; in other circumstances it might be Japan or Russia. The American—-always sentimental in the mass—may find also that such things as contraband, absolute and conditional, can be interpreted by the nation which thus happens to be momentarily triumphant at sea in so wide a fashion as to touch the deeper human intentions of all international conventions and the attempt to humanize the waging of war. After all, blockade means treating a country like a beleaguered fortress. You might conceivably get a condition in which a whole nation was reduced to absolute starvation, including the women and children, by the direct action of some foreign Government preventing the despatch of American food thereto. Thus America, having subscribed to the general rule that war shall not be carried on by means of pressure on the non-combatant population, might find the law to which she had assented sanctioning that very thing.

And as the discussion of recent incidents proceeds it will be made plain that though to-day these great powers are exercised by a country to which America is bound by sympathy and by a Government which she keenly desires to see victorious, they may to-morrow be exercised by a Power with which she has very much less sympathy and which she might not desire to see victorious. A Japan at grips in some future Russo-Japanese war or Chino-Japanese war might, as part of the blockade of Russian or Chinese coasts, paralyze the whole of American trade in the Pacific and allege that the Philippines were being made the center for contraband smuggling, and demand the right of search, the indefinite holding up of cargoes, just as Great Britain is now doing. An American ship moving between two American ports might be searched, detained, and its cargo confiscated on the ground that its manifest was fraudulent. And such, judgment of a Japanese court could only be challenged by a defiance of international law!

Does any one who knows anything of the American temper suppose for a moment that, as the situation develops and as a few incidents of the present conflict bring home a more vivid realization of it, America will accept this as the last word concerning her place in the world and her relation to the rest of civilization? She will probably not raise this very profound question during the present war, but as soon as the Allies are definitely victorious and the whole problem of international relationship of the future is in the melting-pot—as to some extent at the new Congress of Vienna it is certain to be—America will have a good deal to say as to how this mysteriously pregnant force of sea power is to be exercised in the future. And to those who are fond of historical parallels it may be pointed out that the United States, with all her defects of diplomacy, has shown in her past history a quite remarkable capacity for biding her time, of not jeopardizing one interest by prosecuting it at a time when it was necessary to attend to another. Thus one historian tells us that the United States took no effective action, nor indeed made anything but a most perfunctory protest at the landing of French troops in Mexico, because just at that juncture "the United States had other matters to attend to." But as soon as those other matters were settled America raised very effectively the question of French intentions in Mexico. So with questions like the sailing of the Alabama. More than ten years elapsed between the first protest on that matter and the final settlement of American claims. All the motives that are strongest in the political thought and feeling of the average American are centered in the questions that arise out of this conflict of sea power. There are not many things in international politics concerning which one can be certain and dogmatic, but there is one: and that is that America's situation under the existing condition of sea law will not be left by the Americans where the present incidents leave it.

To put it briefly, America will not continue to accept the extraordinarily autocratic powers—the powers of controlling the highways of the world—contained in sea supremacy unless she herself is in the last resort its holder, or unless it is subject to an international control which will assure the terms of its exercise to western Powers as a whole, among whom she will bulk largely.

The alternatives I have indicated are clear. Great Britain at the close of the war must be prepared either to accept a more thorough and systematic internationalization of sea law both in its making and its administration and its amendment in the interest of neutrals, or must be prepared to find America instead of Germany her competitor for sea supremacy. The exercise of such of its powers as gravely affect the interests of neutrals must be contingent on international consent, and the courts which render decisions so profoundly affecting neutral interests must probably also be international in their composition.

Indeed, one may say that America has already taken the first step to raise the fundamental question of sea power. The demand for an enormously increased American fleet, a fleet which will be larger than the British, has already influential backing, and if the German fleet at the end of this war is reduced or destroyed and definitely put out of reckoning, Britain's real naval competitor will then become the United States. The situation thus created was in large part forecast by no less a person than Admiral Mahan some twenty years ago. Asked on one occasion by the editor of THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW to express his opinion upon Anglo-American reunion, which had just then been suggested should have its beginning in a naval union or alliance, he wrote a long article* [*The North American Review, November, 1894]. which, while paying every tribute to the moral unity of Anglo-Saxondom and hands-across-the-sea sentiment, yet "turned down the proposition." He gives more than a hint that America, dominating a whole continent, standing in a maritime sense between the two great halves of the Old World—Europe and Asia—is destined to control very largely in the days to come the communications between them. "Whate'er betide," he writes of those times, "sea power will play in those days the leading part which it has in all history."

He goes on:

The United States by her geographical position must be one frontier from which as from a base of operations the sea power of the civilized world will energize.... Control of the sea by maritime commerce and naval supremacy means predominant influence in the world.... It is improbable that that control ever again will be exercised as once it was by a single nation. Like the pettier interests of the land it must be competed for, perhaps fought for. The greatest of the prizes for which nations contend, it too will serve like other conflicting interests to keep alive that temper of stern purpose and strenuous emulation which is the salt of the society of civilized states.... It is because Great Britain's sea power, though still superior, has declined relatively to that of other states and is no longer supreme, that she has been induced to concede to neutrals that the flag covers the goods. It is a concession wrung from relative weakness—or possibly from a mistaken humanitarianism; but to whatever due, it is all to the profit of the neutral and to the loss of the stronger belligerent.... I have on another occasion said that the principle that the flag covers the goods was for ever secured, meaning thereby that so far as present conditions go, no one power would be strong enough at sea to maintain the contrary by arms.

Admiral Mahan in this passage reveals clearly enough the alternatives with which England will be faced at the close of the war. She will be compelled either to internationalize her sea power so as to secure the interests of neutrals by their formal representation, or she will find herself confronted by a greater Power, like that of America, who may act either for herself, as Mahan would seem to wish, or qn behalf of neutrals as well. Now it is very much in the interest of civilization that the real nature of the conflict should be made plain by Americans to the British public as soon as possible. It is important to disabuse the English mind of the belief that the discussion is about small points of contraband or the purchase of ships. It will help to a better understanding of some of the issues which must be settled at the peace—and to know what it is fighting for is one of Europe's great needs just now—if America makes it plain that she must in the end stand for the neutralization of the sea and the more thorough internationalization of sea law; that that is one of the stones which she is to contribute to the foundations of a real society of nations. That will mean for England in some measure the recasting of her whole national policy, a relaying in some measure of the foundations of her national security. This only makes it the more important that she should not come to the task unprepared by any real understanding of America's position. America should make it very plain that in this effort she wants England's co-operation; that if such co-operation is freely and cordially given England may still perhaps be able to hold her sea power as a great international trust.

If this is not done, if America's position is not made clear, we may toward the end of the war be confronted by a conflict which certainly no one who wishes well to the two countries—and to post-bellum civilization generally—would care to contemplate.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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