Waging Neutrality

Ideologically, the period of U.S. neutrality in World War I was not an easy one for Ambassador Walter Hines Page. An ardent Anglophile, Page viewed German militarism as the main cause of war. In a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson in October 1914, Page described the war as “a world-clash of systems of government, a struggling to the extermination of English civilization or of Prussian military autocracy.”1 Although he maintained official neutrality, Page wrote Wilson, Colonel Edward M. House, as well as family and friends, endless letters extolling the virtues of the British and the failings of the Germans. He considered himself to be “waging neutrality,” outwardly presenting a neutral face and at the same time putting pressure on his contacts in Washington behind the scenes to shift them toward more unambiguous support of the Allied cause.

The administration of maritime commerce during wartime was one of the main sources of conflict between Page and the Department of State. The Declaration of London concerning the Laws of Naval War, first proposed in 1909, attempted to establish uniform practices regarding blockades, contraband, and maritime commerce more generally during a time of war. Although ten countries signed the declaration (including Germany, Britain, and the United States) none of the signatories officially ratified the treaty. During the war’s early years, Washington insisted that the belligerent powers, especially Great Britain, abide by the Declaration of London. The British government objected, arguing that a blockade of Germany was necessary. Wilson urged the Department of State to continue its efforts to enforce the Declaration of London throughout 1915, pushing for a harder line than Page thought necessary or advantageous. This became one of the first conflicts between Page and Wilson over how to engage with the Allies during wartime.

  1. Burton Jesse Hendrick, The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, vol. 1 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1923), 371.