Memorandum by the Ambassador in Great Britain (Page)40

Notes Toward an Explanation of the British Feeling Toward the United States

Of recent years and particularly during the first year of the present Administration, the British feeling toward the United States was most cordial. At the time of the repeal of the tolls clause of the Panama Act the admiration and friendliness of the whole British public, governmental and private, reached the highest point in our history. In considering the change that has since taken place, it is well to bear this cordiality in mind as a starting point.

When the war began this attitude at first remained unchanged. The hope of many persons that our Government would protest against the German invasion of Belgium caused some feeling of disappointment at our inaction; but thinking men did not generally share it, and this criticism would have been forgotten if it had stood alone. Many persons have continued to share and to express disappointment on this score who really had some other criticism to make of us. It has been a convenient vent for feeling aroused by other incidents.

The unusually high regard in which the President and hence our Government were held at the beginning of the war was, to a degree, new. The British had of course for many years held our people in high esteem, but they had not as a rule so favorably regarded the Government at Washington—especially its conduct of foreign relations. They had looked upon the Government, certainly during most recent administrations, as ignorant of European affairs, indifferent to conventional methods and usages, and somewhat “touchy”. When I first got to London, I found evidence of this feeling even in the very friendly atmosphere of that time. But, when the Panama tolls incident was closed, our Government as well as our people came into the highest measure of British esteem.

The war began. Our neutral attitude was of course expected and was approved. To this day no considerable body of British opinion has expected us to come into the war. But we at once interfered, as they regarded it,—or tried to interfere—by insisting on the Declaration of London,40a which no Great Power but the United States (I think) had ratified and which the British House of Lords had rejected. That Declaration they think would have given the victory to Germany. Our repeated and vigorous insistence on its adoption aroused distrust of our good judgment and even of our friendly [Page 709] attitude. Thus we started out somewhat unfortunately so far as British feeling towards us was concerned. Their Government foresaw danger of difficulties with us and signed Mr. Bryan’s Peace Treaty—to refer disputes to a Commission. They had no particular respect for the philosophy of this Treaty, but they were eager to take every precaution against trouble.

When they developed their naval policy, we entered protests against

Such actions as we regarded as contrary to the best precedents, i. e. to international law. We thus asserted neutral rights and made our position clear.
Injuries done to our trade and interests. We thus laid the foundation for claims.

So much for our legal and doctrinal position. With these protests the British made no quarrel. They replied to them in their own way and they are quite willing to leave doctrines and damages to competent tribunals which will be set up after the war—without any disturbance of good relations. These protests produced no real ill will.

Then we began a long series of specific requests and complaints, in which, (I observe, after the manner of most governments) we give few facts but repeat the substance of Protests already made. The effect of many of these was to nag them—as if we wished to pick a quarrel. They came to look upon the Department of State as a sort of Bureau of Complaints. Some of our informal requests they have granted and many they have declined. They have granted and declined them according to their notion of the degree of harm they would do to their military cause. Lord Grey and the whole civil part of the Government have always shown great courtesy and a willingness, often a great eagerness to meet our wishes.

Our trade advisers bureau hears ex parte commercial complaints day in and day out, month in and month out, as its business is to do; and this bureau does not verify statements made to it. I dare say it cannot verify them with its present force of men. Commercial men themselves come, their lawyers come, Senators and Representatives come. Some complaints are, of course, of real injuries for which we must hold the British Government responsible. But many others are based on “rights” that do not exist and on statements that are not true. These create an atmosphere of suspicion, and this Bureau has drawn conclusions about the British Government’s methods and purposes that are unwarranted. It writes instructions to me that have confirmed the British impression that our State Department lends itself, with too little discrimination, to complaint-bearers. A constant flow of such complaints and protests changes international trust and respect and forbearance into an evergrowing distrust and misunderstanding. Thus both we and the English are more or less forced [Page 710] to lose the proper perspective of our history and the proper perspective of this present upheaval of the world; and we lose the great vision of the ultimate triumph of international good will and of democracy.

I venture to suggest such a change in this Bureau as will enable it independently to verify the facts presented it, and as will require it to embody verified facts in its instructions. With facts, I could accomplish very much more, for the mere repetition of former Protests does not compel attention.

We, very properly, act most carefully to gain and to keep the good will of South America. But our routine trade controversies with Great Britain are—in many cases—so conducted as to cause an increasing irritation of the best friend and best customer we have in the world.

Since the safety and order of the world depend on the sympathetic understanding of the English-speaking nations (and on nothing else); since we are the larger of those nations, having nearly three out of every five English-speaking white men in the world, and are potentially the richer and the stronger and are the more free; and since the British will come out of this war so chastened and for the first time willing to accept our leadership if they feel that they can depend on our leadership and larger vision; and since England and her Allies will have overcome the strongest and most arrogant military absolutism that ever existed and will have prepared the way for such a spread of democracy and of free institutions as has not taken place since our Republic was founded; and since we have for the first time a chance to make a sort of moral conquest of the British by a just sympathy and forbearance,—it is a pity to lose the great vision of the world’s advancement under our leadership and to imperil the natural development of the human race by a series of trivial trade disputes, which become important only because our handling of them shows a lack of moral sympathy. The strongest force in the world— or that has ever been in the world—would be the underlying sympathy and unity of aim of the English-speaking nations. This is now put in grave jeopardy by a trade-bureau and by the system whereby it is permitted to work.

So much for continuous irritating complaints—“causes” that go no further to establish any principle than we had gone before.

The German activity in the United States caused British wonder, then surprise and finally a doubt whether we are any longer a nation and not a mere aggregation of different races and groups of people. They fear that we have lost our national consciousness and unity and, therefore, our national character. They do not publicly discuss our retention of the German Ambassador since this is none of their business. [Page 711] But they say that no other diplomatic officer in civilized history has been so tolerated under less provocation. They ask themselves, “Suppose a British Ambassador at Washington had been the centre of such activity, would he have been retained?” They do not believe that our Government is pro German in deliberate intention, but they do believe that it has become the victim of German bluff and bluster—of the bluff, for instance, that if we should dismiss the German Ambassador we should provoke war, and they fear that we provoke future wars by our patience in dealing with him.

The impression has become general both in private and official circles that the President expects to be consulted when arrangements for peace are undertaken and perhaps that he will offer mediation on his own initiative. The British read the President’s acts and utterances by the light of this impression and misconstrue them to fit their idea of his intentions. This notion was unintentionally deepened and spread by House’s visits especially his last visit—of course without House’s knowledge. He was spoken of almost every day in the newspapers as the President’s Special Envoy. They expected him to have some special word or proposal; and when he had none, they proceeded to settle by gossip just why he had come; and they concluded that he had come to elicit an invitation to mediate. This is the impression which, I think, almost every member of the Government, except Lord Grey, has, and which the public surely have. They take all sorts of occasions, as Kitchener and Grey and Bryce took in conversations that have been reported to the President, to point out that there is no precedent for belligerents to call in a neutral when they discuss peace. There is some sensitiveness, too, about a Special Envoy conferring with the German Government and then coming to confer with the Governments of the Allies. They wonder what he said to the Germans. These results, I am sure House does not know. Any Special Envoy would have had the same effect,—to cause a peace-suspicion of our Government, and a suspicion of meddling.

The British have concluded that our Government does not understand the moral meaning of their struggle against a destructive military autocracy. Few of them want (or expect) our military help, but they all want some token of our understanding. They doubt our appreciation of the necessity of English-speaking sympathy, or [our] national unity, our national aims, our national virility. They doubt whether we keep our old vision of the necessary supremacy of democracy as the only safeguard against predatory absolutism. They have not expected us to abandon neutrality. But, since they are fighting for the preservation of free government, they are disappointed that our Government seems to them to make no moral distinction [Page 712] between them and the enemies of free government. They feel that the moral judgment of practically the whole civilized world is on their side except only the Government of the United States. They wonder whether our Government will show in the future a trustworthy character in world affairs. The British, therefore, though they are sincerely desirous of keeping our good will, show an increasing indifference to our actions and opinions. Witness the blacklist.

Thus we are fast drifting into an estrangement really against the deep-lying wishes of the people of both countries; and, if the war lasts long enough, there will be danger of the coming of definite ill will between the Governments of the two most friendly peoples on earth.

Yet we have never had an Administration more willing to keep on the friendliest terms, nor has there ever been a British Government more eager for our sympathy. A part of this friendly wish is an enlightened selfishness—they will need our help in the future as they have not needed it in the past; but most of it is unselfish— is the result of kinship in blood, in aims, and in ideals. If we shape our actions with a view to the long future, we can now do what we will in conjunction with the British Empire. We can become the leader of the English-speaking world in preventing wars of aggression. But they will grant leadership only if it be founded on sympathy.

As the Germans have to be driven into understanding, the British have to be led. The keynote of successful diplomacy with them is an intelligent and courteous sympathy. You cannot move them merely by protests and notes. And in many ways, they are very slow—the result, I imagine of their carrying a heavy burden of mediaeval baggage, in thought and ways. But in dealing with them their slowness must not be mistaken for malice. And they are more appreciative of friendliness and courtesy and forbearance and sympathy, I verily believe, than any other people that ever lived. For this reason they are hurt and irritated by the accusation, worked up in a part of the American press, that the British Government uses the information that its censors acquire for the personal profit of British traders and manufacturers and that it is preparing a commercial war against the United States. I have seen no facts to support such an accusation.

I venture to suggest that in all future Protests and complaints we ascertain the facts by independent inquiry, and put all the facts on the table. No world is so full of suspicion or so careless in handling evidence as the commercial world.
I venture to suggest that we go over the whole list of differences and disputes to see if there be not some items on which we can [Page 713] yield, without in the least yielding any principle, and other items about which we can ask a similar yielding by the British Government. If I had authority to undertake such a negotiation, under the President’s direction and guidance, I believe a great change could be wrought in the present dangerous tension.

I believe, too, that these recommendations, if they were undertaken by us, would produce reciprocal action by the British Government. The gravest danger in our relations comes not from large differences on important principles but from mistakes in the method and in misunderstandings that grow out of ignorance of facts and out of suspicions of purposes.

  1. This paper bears the notation: “Rec’d. from Ambassador W. H. Page Sept. 25/16 RL.”
  2. Foreign Relations, 1909, p. 318.