The Counselor for the Department of State (Lansing) to President Wilson

Dear Mr. President: I thought you might like to read the enclosed personal letter which I have received from Judge Dickinson, formerly Secretary of War, which it seemed to me contained much worthy of consideration.

Kindly return the letter to me after reading as I have not replied to it.32

Very sincerely yours,

Robert Lansing
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Judge J. M. Dickinson to the Counselor for the Department of State (Lansing)

My Dear Mr. Lansing: Recent international developments are giving very great concern to all thoughtful and patriotic people. It seems to me that it will be a prudent and safe course to make a clear, firm and timely declaration in case the newspaper reports as to the attitude of Germany in respect to neutral ships shall be confirmed.

A reproduction in the Chicago Tribune today of editorials from German papers shows clearly that their understanding is that Germany will proceed to enforce what it calls a blockade by destruction of ships by means of submarines. This, in the nature of things, means that there can be no reasonable steps taken in advance to ascertain the nationality of the ships attacked. The reason for this course seems to be founded upon the alleged statement that the British Government has secretly authorized its ships to use the flags of neutral nations. The paper this morning indicates that our State Department will inquire into this. It seems to me that this fact, however it may be, can have no bearing on the question. The British Government by such a course cannot take away our right to hold the German Government responsible if it attacks and destroys the property and lives of Americans under our flag. We probably would have ground to protest against such action of the British Government, but such action could not warrant the German Government in such destruction. It is at most a paper blockade, and is to be carried out not by stopping and examining ships, and determining their nationality, or by taking them into a Prize Court where all questions can be adjudicated, but by destroying them without the possibility of ascertaining the true nationality.

If any Government should do this under such circumstances, it would be a wanton and unjustifiable attack, and would call for immediate action on our part.

My reading and my own observation of personal affairs have led me to the conclusion that a clear and firm declaration in advance generally tends to obviate such extreme action as will force a collision, while on the other hand a failure so to do often brings about the very thing that we most desire to avoid. In this nations and individuals are the same, and a timely and explicit warning is wholesome with both. I have seen many personal difficulties avoided by taking a clear, firm and just stand in the beginning, and have seen them brought about because aggressions have advanced slowly, step by step, and to a point which they would not have reached if the consequences had been clearly understood.

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Therefore it seems to me that if it shall become clear that Germany may in the course of events, in pursuance of this policy, destroy American ships while legitimately under the protection of the American flag, we should now make a clear and firm declaration as to what our attitude will be. In my judgment it should be that we will protect our flag at all hazards.

Now you know I am a Peace man. I say this in the interest of Peace and as a Peace measure, for I have often seen for the want of such timely action affairs drift gradually into a condition where drastic action becomes unavoidable.

We are in a most delicate situation, and it requires not only justice but firmness to keep us out of complications. We cannot expect, however just we may be, to escape severe criticism, and that from people and newspapers of all the belligerents.

The papers report much severe criticism of Secretary Bryan in Germany and some in England. This cannot be avoided. It is about the best evidence that the recent position taken by him in his letter was correct.33 I think it was eminently correct. If it had pleased one side it would not have stood the test. The fact that there are those in both England and Germany who severely criticized it, is no evidence of it being unsound, but is evidence of the highly excited condition in which those people are. Any neutral that pursues a just course is bound to excite more or less the antagonism of both contending parties. You will recall how this was in respect of the attitude of England during the Civil War. Both the North and South criticized it. I do not refer to her example then as a proper one to follow, but merely to illustrate how hard it is for a neutral country to avoid the hostility of contending parties. Many of them think that those who are not actively for them are against them. This is the human nature of the thing, and it often manifests itself in governmental action. While there is some disposition to make party capital out of the action of our Government, I believe that the overwhelming judgment in this country is that the Administration has acted in the main wisely in our foreign relations, including those with Mexico. Even those who at one time advocated a more strenuous attitude toward Mexico now realize that it is fortunate for our country that in the midst of this great international turmoil we have not a Mexican war on our hands.

While such a war in and of itself would not be serious, there is no telling in these complicated conditions what reflex action it might have and what it might lead to. Therefore we breathe easier because we have no such war.

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I did not intend to inflict so long a letter upon you but I, in common with many with whom I talk, am deeply disturbed over the situation, and am most anxious that we shall not become involved in any way in this European trouble. I know that the Department of State has information that the people at large have not, and for this reason accept and support whatever course it may take as the wise one, for I am convinced that the Secretary of State is filled with the utmost desire to maintain our neutrality in all honorable ways.

With cordial remembrances to Mrs. Lansing and General and Mrs. Foster, I am [etc.]

J. M. Dickinson
  1. On February 11 the President replied: “It is a pleasure to read letters like the enclosed. They are so exactly in line with the facts and the right way of dealing with them. Thank you for letting me see it.” (File No. 763.72111/1690½.)
  2. Letter of Jan. 20, 1915, to Senator Stone, Foreign Relations, 1914, supp. p. VII.