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VIII. The British Government's Reactions to President Wilson's ‘Peace’ Note of December 1916

  • Sterling Kernek (a1)


The best chances of a negotiated peace during the First World War lay with the President of the United States. Woodrow Wilson's efforts were abortive, but he made some very interesting moves. The most sensational was his note to the belligerents in December 1916, requesting them to state their peace terms—a move which seemed all the more provocative in Allied countries because it followed upon the heels of the German Chancellor's proposal to negotiate. The main purpose of this article is to examine the British Government's reactions to the President's note. A secondary purpose is to criticize some important points of interpretation made by Professors A. S. Link and Ernest May.



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1 Link, Arthur S., Wilson: Campaigns for Progressivism and Peace, 1916–1917 (Princeton 1965), Pp. 230–1. In a footnote to the ‘curt rebuff’, Link wrote the following: ‘The Allies, the French Foreign Ministry said, should tell Germany that they would negotiate with her one day only by imposing terms on her. The Allies would then have their enemies at their mercy and would “enforce the fulfillment of their pledge whether they wanted it or not”. P. de Margerie to P. Cambon, December 19, 1916.’ Link cited the following source: Hoelzle, E., ‘Das Experiment des Friedens im Ersten Weltkrieg, 1914–1917’, Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht, 13th year (08 1962), p. 476.

2 Published in David Lloyd George, War Memoirs…, rev. ed. 1 (London, 1938), 545–55.

3 The Times, 29 September 1916.

4 Published in David Lloyd George, op. cit. pp. 514–20. Or see CAB 37/159/32. All references beginning with the letters CAB or F.O. can be found in the Public Record Office. Extracts from Crown-copyright records in the Public Record Office appear by permission of the Controller of H.M. Stationery Office.

5 CAB 37/159/33

6 CAB 37/160/20.

7 Guinn, Paul, British Strategy and Politics 1914 to 1918 (Oxford, 1965), pp. 176–7.

8 CAB 37/160/21.

9 Paul Guinn, op. cit. p. 177.

10 A. S. Link, op. cit. p. vii.

11 CAB 23/1/4/1.

12 F.O. 371/2805/252387/252512. In these footnotes the Foreign Office file number precedes the number of the paper.

13 In case Hardinge was the source of the early British suggestions to the French, and in view of Hardinge's frequent attendance at War Cabinet meetings, it might be worthwhile to elaborate his attitude. Hardinge was gloomy about the finance and submarine problems, and he thought that any German proposals should be ‘very carefully considered before being rejected, unless our Government choose to accept a most serious responsibility’. Hardinge to Lord Bertie (Paris), 12 December 1916; Hardinge to Sir R. Rodd (Rome), 14 December 1916, Hardinge Papers 28 (Cambridge University Library). It is highly possible that Hardinge, like Grey, had moments of foreboding when he was worried that a genuine opportunity to end the war would be missed which would avert a possible catastrophe in the future. But his foreboding did not reach the point where he was ready to advocate an end to the war on the best terms available at the time. Such advice would have been disregarded in any case. In effect, his dismal comments merely signified that he feared what the future might bring and that he wanted to fight on with a clear conscience. In a F.O. minute dated 15 December, Hardinge recorded a conversation with the French Ambassador about answering the German note. ‘My only suggestion’, Hardinge wrote, ‘was that it would be desirable to state that the Allies are equally desirous of peace on such terms as would make impossible the provocation of war by Germany in the future.’ F.O. 371/2805/252387/254508.

14 Hardinge to Sir George Buchanan, about 16 or 17 December 1916, Hardinge Papers 28.

15 CAB 23/1/10/appendix iv.

16 CAB 23/1/9/2. Suspicion about German intentions was, of course, rampant in the Allied countries and warnings came from many sources. One of the more interesting came from Mr Frederick Dixon, a British subject, who was also editor of the prestigious Christum Science Monitor in Boston. Dixon had access to the British Foreign Office through the British Consul in Boston. Many of his reports were sent in cypher and received close attention, even rivalling in influence the opinions of Spring-Rice. The following message, which was received on 15 December, was sent to the cabinet: ‘I know unquestionably from those engaged in peace suggestions that the object is to involve the Allies in negotiations in the belief that once begun they never can be stopped, and must therefore operate to save Germany. The intrigue is deepseated here. It includes not only pro-Germans, Zionists, Jews and Bryanites, but members of the Government.’ Telegram from Mr Leay (Boston), received 9.40 p.m. 15 December 1916, Cecil Papers, B.M. Add. MSS 51092. Also Lloyd George Papers, F/60/2/2. The author is grateful to Beaverbrook Newspapers for permission to quote the Lloyd George Papers and to the Beaverbrook Library for access.

17 CAB 37/160/28; CAB 37/161/3; CAB 37/161/4.

18 A. S. Link, op. cit. p. 203.

19 F.O. 371/2800/216137/240887, 242887, 252954.

20 On 3 December, a telegram from Sir C. Spring-Rice briefly transmitted confidential information from the Governor of the Federal Reserve Board, who had intimated that the ‘highest authority’ had intervened in the preparation of the statement and advised a careful watch on ‘the foreign policy of the President in relation to H.M. Government’. Spring-Rice also stated that he had similar warnings from another quarter. ‘ Object is of course to force us to accept the President's mediation by cutting off supplies.’ Telegram from Sir C. Spring-Rice, 3 December 1916. Balfour Papers, B.M. Add. MSS 49740. The full account of the information supplied by the Governor at the Federal Reserve Board was received by post on the 18th. F.O. 371/2800/216137/255636. Also, Lord Robert Cecil's minute to this paper suggests that he ‘understood’ that the British Naval Attache in Washington was ‘certain’ of the President's intervention in the matter.

21 See A. S. Link, op. cit. pp. 201–3.

22 In a telegram received on the 15th Spring-Rice had written: ‘A journalist who saw President yesterday conveyed an intimation to me that President was considering what measures should be taken (cutting off supplies, refusing clearances to armed merchant vessels, etc.) in case Great Britain returned categorical refusal to treat.’ F.O. 371/2805/252387/254012.

23 F.O. 371/2805/252387/254952.

24 CAB 23/1/10/appendix 11. The respective dates when the telegrams were received together with their Foreign Office references are as follows: 371/2805/252387/253643 (15 December), 254012 (15 December), 254641 (16 December).

25 CAB 23/1/10/2.

26 CAB 23/1/10/3.

27 CAB 23/1/10/4. The statement in the House of Lords was made by Lord Curzon. See Hansard, Parliamentary Debates (House of Lords), 5th Series, xxm (19 December 1916).

28 CAB 23/1/10/1. Page was acting on instructions which had been given to all American envoys who were to present the German note. It is interesting that Cecil did not report that Page had also indicated that the U.S. Government did not want their impending representations to be construed as an attempt at mediation. In a letter to Spring-Rice about the meeting with Page, Cecil also did not mention it. CAB 37/161/35. Page had declined to give Cecil a copy of the telegram of instructions which contained these intimations; he had merely read it out. Perhaps Cecil missed the line disclaiming an attempt to mediate. On the other hand, perhaps Cecil thought it unnecessary to mention it. The assumption that Wilson wanted to stop the war could not be shaken by a mere denial. Moreover, a verbal disclaimer of this sort could mean quite the opposite of what Wilson intended.

On 26 December a copy of the telegram was acquired from Belgium. F.O. 371/2806/252387/ 262922. By that time Wilson had repeated the denial in his note.

29 A. S Link, op. cit. pp. 214–15.

30 Lloyd George Papers, F/3/2/2, F/3/2/1.

31 A. S. Link, op. cit. p. 217.

32 F.O. 371/2805/252387/256076.

33 The Foreign Office had received on the 18th a telegram from Spring-Rice stating: ‘French Ambassador has received from an American friend and is telegraphing to his Government following suggestion for an answer of Allies to German proposals. “R. Germany was party to Treaty of 1839 guaranteeing neutrality of Belgium and declaration of January 17th 1871 as to modification of treaties only by mutual consent. Before answering German proposals Allies ask what guarantees Germany has to offer that any new pledges shall be kept.”‘ F.O. 371/2805/252387/256067.

34 Hansard, Parliamentary Debates (House of Commons), 5th Series, LXXXVHI (19 December 1916), cols. 1333–8.

35 Sir Eric Drummond, private secretary to the foreign secretary, suggested forcing Germany to state her terms precisely for this reason. See his memorandum entitled ‘German Peace proposals,’ dated 14 December 1916, F.O. 800/197 or Lloyd George Papers, F/231. For various other papers relating to Lloyd George's speech, see the latter reference.

36 Department of State, U.S.A., Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States. 1916 Supplement: The World War (Washington, 1929), pp. 97–9.The key official statements of this period are conveniently collected in James Brown Scott, Official Statements of War Aims and Peace Proposals, December 1916 to November 1918 (Washington, 1921).

37 A. S. Link, op. cit. p. 222.

38 Ibid. p. 221.

39 Ibid. p. 223.

40 Ibid. pp. 223–4.

41 Ibid. pp. 224–5.

42 Ibid. p. 225.

43 Lansing, Robert, War Memoirs (London, 1935), p. 188.

44 A. S. Link, op. cit. p. 232.

45 Ibid. p. 239. An odd aspect of this passage is that it conflicts with Link's earlier comments about the British Government's main anxieties. It seems very unlikely that men who were profoundly worried about the submarine danger—as Link suggests Lloyd George was—would seek to promote it as a way of obtaining American belligerency. The British knew that America was very unprepared for war and they were far from certain that she would enter the war even if Germany resorted to unrestricted submarine attacks.

46 This implication comes out quite clearly in a broadcast which Professor Link did for the B.B.C. He stated: ‘The British and French leaders were stunned and outraged [by Wilson's note], but they well understood their helplessness and were in great disarray. Then Lansing intervened.'see Link, A.S., ‘Woodrow Wilson and Peace Moves’, The Listener, LXXV (16 06 1966), 870.

47 “ Erwin Hoelzle, op. cit. pp. 477–8.

48 Actually, there is no record in the F.O. files on the German and American notes that Spring-Rice had a conference with Lansing on 22 December, the date given by Link; however, there are reports about a meeting with Lansing on the 21st, and I strongly suspect this is the one to which Link refers. F.O. 371/3075/2/583. On that day Spring-Rice sent a telegram to the F.O. in which he wrote: ‘A high official speaking most confidentially and in his own person thought statement should be made to the effect that only adequate security for permanent peace would be a popular and responsible Government in Germany.’ F.O. 371/2805/252387/ 259910. Perhaps the high official was Lansing, though one can only conjecture.

49 For example, Spring-Rice also reported the opinion of a ‘friend of the President’, who suggested that ‘Mr Asquith's phrase as to reparation and security was considered a satisfactory statement’. F.O. 371/2805/252387/259910.

50 In a telegram received on 29 December, Spring-Rice sent the following evaluation: ‘ General feeling is that Allies’ answer should be short and clear. Main points which interest people here are France and Belgium and necessity of guarantee for permanent peace and difficulty of obtaining one from German Government. Public opinion is extremely hostile to Turkey. President and many others are [interested in Polish autonomy and there is great interest in Palestine and Syria. I cannot avoid conclusion the President's real intentions are not unfriendly and it would be dangerous to take any other line although of course it would be almost equally dangerous to assume any partiality in favour of Allies.] ‘F.O. 371/2806/252387/ 263824. This copy did not contain the lines in brackets. The complete version is in the Embassy files. F.O. 115/2O91/Mediation/109.

51 Spring-Rice wrote:’ Mr Lansing is treated as a clerk… His communications to the press have been several times contradicted from the White House. [See note below.] He practically never expresses an opinion to a foreign representative. He never discusses any serious step in consideration by his government…Mr Lansing…is most sympathetic and agreeable. But the real business of foreign politics is transacted by the President alone.’ This letter has been published in Stephen Gwynn, The Letters and Friendships of Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, II (London, 1929), 366.

It should be noted that in writing this, Spring-Rice evidently did not mean to imply that Lansing's ‘verge of war’ statement to the press was made on his own initiative, to be subsequently contradicted on orders from the White House. Spring-Rice also wrote on the 22nd that both statements were made at the President's direction. F.O. 371/3075/2/584.

52 F.O. 371/2806/252387/260933.

53 A. S. Link, Wilson: Campaigns for Progressivism and Peace, p. 237.

54 CAB 28/2/13 (a).

55 F.O. 800/197/Drummond. Memorandum dated December 1916.

56 Lloyd George Papers, F/45/2/2.

57 Lloyd George Papers, F/41/7/2.

58 F.O. 371/2806/252387/263332.

59 F.O. 371/3075/2/8779. Frederick Dixon, an important Foreign Office informant (see footnote 16), also emphatically supported the view that Wilson was pursuing peace as a way around the impending submarine crises. See the telegrams from Mr Leay, received 26 and 28 December 1916. Cecil Papers, B.M. Add. MSS 51092.

60 F.O. 371/2806/252387/263818. Spring-Rice added: ‘He [Polk] said significantly that if some point could be conveniently yielded by Allies at present it would be useful.’

61 F.O. 371/2805/252387/259525.

62 F.O. 371/2805/252387/259890.

63 Ibid. It is possible that Spring-Rice had intended to attribute this comment to Counsellor Polk. He sent a despatch by bag which seems to suggest that Polk might have been his source. F.O. 371/3075/2/583. But it did not reach the Foreign Office until 1 January, and in any case Spring-Rice and the Foreign Office were convinced of the President's peacemaking intentions.

These messages were primarily reporting the efforts of the State Department to allay any impression that the President had cooperated with Germany, and it is convenient here to comment on the influence of the suspicions which greeted the President's note in Britain. There were several notions in the air suggesting various degrees of cooperation between the American and German Governments: (1) that the American note supported the German move, (2) that it had been made with some degree of collusion with the Germans, or (3) even that it had been somehow engineered by the German Embassy in Washington. The more fanciful of these ideas were probably eventually discarded. Balfour, for instance, wrote in some F.O. minutes on 29 December: ‘I doubt the American note being a “German move”.’ F.O. 371/ 2806/252387/264041. Even Spring-Rice, who was prone to see plots wherever there were Germans, Irishmen, Jews, Catholics or pacifists, explicitly discounted the idea of collusion between the State Department and the German Embassy. F.O. 371/2806/252387/263818. To be sure, some plausible grounds for suspecting some measure of collusion remained, but these suspicions had little or no impact upon the British Government's response. Even if a German and American conspiracy were an accepted fact, it would not have altered the basic fact that Wilson wanted an end to the war and that he had the means of putting enormous pressure on Britain. Spring-Rice was clear on these points at the height of his suspicions, and he accordingly urged his government to avoid offending the President. The notion that the President was merely aiding the German peace move was sufficient to cause deep resentment, but the irritation on this score was nevertheless insufficient to provoke the British Government to risk an imprudent reply, as will be shown presently. Moreover, this impression may have been qualified by the fact that the President had been embarrassed by the German move (which, incidentally, also implied that there was no intimate collusion). It also became increasingly clear, as we shall see, that the President's note did not actually suit Berlin very well. The Germans had no wish to announce peace terms.

64 See footnote 52 above.

65 F.O. 371/2806/252387/262609.

67 May, Ernest, The World War and American Isolation (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), pp. 360–1. (My italics.)

68 Seymour, Charles, The Intimate Papers of Colonel House, II (London, 1926), 396.

69 The British also felt that this would happen. On 25 December 1916 they sent cables to their representatives in neutral countries, authorizing them, if they thought it desirable, to give a friendly warning to the governments to which they were accredited that’ they would expose themselves to a severe rebuff if they allowed themselves to come forward in support of President Wilson's note regarding peace’. F.O. 371/28,06/252387/261605. When some of the neutrals did support the President's move, there was considerable anger in the F.O. In a letter to his cousin in Spain, Hardinge referred to ‘these rotten Scandinavian Powers who want to play a big role’. Hardinge to Sir Arthur Hardinge (Madrid), 2 January 1917, Hardinge Papers 29.

70 This was an understanding drafted in the form of a memorandum by House and Grey in February 1916. According to this agreement, on a cue from Britain and France, Wilson would propose a peace conference. If Germany refused, the U.S. would probably enter the war against Germany. If the Germans consented to a peace conference, but proved unreasonable about peace terms, the U.S. would leave the conference as a belligerent on the Allied side. The U.S. were decidedly favourable to the restoration of Belgium, transfer of Alsace and Lorraine to France, an outlet to the sea for Russia, and compensation for Germany's loss of territory by concessions outside Europe.

The President, after inserting the word ‘probably’ in the line about leaving the peace conference, approved the agreement in March. He was undoubtedly serious about this agreement and persistently urged Grey during the spring and summer of 1916 to use the plan. He deeply resented the British refusal.

It is worth noting that the question of reconsidering the House-Grey memorandum was raised again at the time of Wilson's note. When Grey left the Foreign Office he gave Cecil a copy of the House—Grey understanding together with a covering memorandum which suggested that mediation should be seriously considered if the major Allies should become unable to continue the war. See Viscount Grey of Fallodon Twenty-Five Years, 1892–1916 (London, 1925), 11, 126–8. In a memorandum dated 13 December, just after the German peace move, Sir Eric Drummond urged that the British Government should consider mediation by the President in case any of the Allies should make a separate peace. Cecil disagreed, stating that Britain would have warning of a separate peace by her allies and could wait to consider the President's mediation if the situation arose. Nevertheless, Cecil sent the prime minister the memoranda which Grey had given him and suggested that he ought to decide whether they should go to the cabinet, in view of the German peace manoeuvre. Apparently Lloyd George thought this unnecessary. However, the arrival of Wilson's note made the documents more relevant. Drummond advised Cecil that the War Cabinet should have the House-Grey memorandum before them when they considered the American note. He also suggested that a telegram should be sent to House inquiring whether the President still agreed to it. See the covering note to the prime minister from Robert Cecil, dated December 1916, and memoranda by Drummond dated 13 and 21 December 1916, F.O. 800/197. Cecil promptly circulated the House-Grey memorandum to the cabinet, mentioning that’ if thought desirable’, the Foreign Office could inquire of House whether the understanding still held good. Lloyd George Papers, F/160/1/4. There is no record that this inquiry was made, nor is there any evidence that the War Cabinet discussed the memorandum. The British Government definitely did not want peace negotiations at that stage of the war.

71 Link, A.S., Wilson: Campaigns for Progressivism and Peace, p. 189. Link cited the House Diary, 15 11 1916.

72 Robert Lansing, op. cit. pp. 179–80.

73 Ernest May, op. cit. p. 361.

74 In another context May himself noted that Wilson was probably aware of the applicability of his glittering general principles to Allied desires. See ibid. pp. 358–9.

75 Ibid. p. 367.

76 F.O. 371/2805/252387/258250. Wilson's reputation for vindictiveness had no doubt added to Spring-Rice's fear of offending him. F.O. 371/2806/252387/260988. For a brief survey of the reactions of the British press see Rappaport, Armin, The British Press and Wilsonian Neutrality (London, 1951), pp. 119–23.

77 “ See Hardinge's minute, F.O. 371/2805/252387/258250.

78 Hardinge, himself, was furious. In a letter to Spring-Rice, dated 21 December 1916, he freely expressed his exasperation. He wrote that the American peace note was ‘a “slimy” mass of murkiness “ ‘ and quite impracticable, that it appeared as if the note's intention was to create disunion amongst the Allies, and that it was not a ‘friendly proceeding on the part of the President’, who apparently wanted ‘to prejudice the reply of the Allies to the German Note by some sort of concession to meet his own views’. Hardinge wondered if the President realized that the action which he desired to take in promoting peace at that time was ‘nothing more than the support of Militarism in opposition to Right’. The President should realize that if he obtained peace within the next month, militarism would ‘still be rampant and that the right of the smaller Powers to an independent existence would have been lost, or at least jeopardized’. Hardinge asked: ‘Would he [the President] care to have his name associated with a peace which only means giving a breathing space for the repetition of a war in a few years time which would even be more deadly and ghastly than the present one ?’ Hardinge Papers 28.

Hardinge did not participate in the drafting of the Allies’ reply to the President. He left on the 22nd for ten days of overdue leave. But his general irritation with the American note was not unique. In a conversation with Ambassador Page on 26 December, Lord Robert Cecil pointed out the unfortunate impression produced by two passages in particular: the one in which the President appeared to put Britain's aims on the same level with Germany's and the other in which he used language which almost amounted to a covert threat. (The President had suggested that if the war were not soon ended, the situation of neutrals might become altogether intolerable.) Cecil, according to his own record of the interview, went on, ‘ speaking very frankly, and merely as a private individual’ to tell Page that ‘if any threat was intended it would be disregarded’ as the British were determined to fight on to a victorious conclusion so long as they were able. In order to deny any impression that this was a bellicose attitude, he also declared himself to be a ‘very confirmed lover of peace, and in that respect shared to the utmost President Wilson's view that some effort should be made at the end of the war to erect a barrier against future wars’. F.O. 371/2806/252387/263429.

For a report of Lloyd George's initial, incensed reaction to Wilson's note, see James Bone, London editor of the Manchester Guardian, to Scott, C.P., 21 December 1916. Published in Wilson, Trevor, ed., The Political Diaries of C. P. Scott, 1911–1928 (New York, 1970), p. 253.

79 CAB 23/1/16/appendix 1. Dated 22 December 1916.

80 CAB 23/1/13/1. It is possible that at this meeting on 21 December, when the anger with Wilson was at its height, the War Cabinet were inclined to send a negative reply to the President. James Bone reported to C. P. Scott on the 21st that Lloyd George said Britain would not declare terms. See Trevor Wilson, ed., op. cit. p. 253. The argument which Bone attributed to the prime minister was very strange, namely that it was the best possible time for Germany to state her terms and the worst for Britain to do so. Britain's position would improve daily and Germany's would worsen. ‘Germany was selling at the top of her market.’ Bone remarked justifiably that Lloyd George was not very convincing. It is quite true that when Governments have a relatively strong military position they are in a good position to negotiate, but it is not a good position for declaring terms. A strong position tends to foster terms which appear imperialistic and warlike. Lloyd George was furious about Wilson's note when he spoke to Bone and he had not had much time to reflect on its implications, so the evidence is of doubtful significance. The prime minister evidently went along with the War Cabinet's decisions, and the War Cabinet was clearly not inclined to proceed without careful consideration of the whole situation.

81 In a context suggesting that the British leaders were relaxed after hearing about Lansing's reassuring statements, Link stated that the British inquiry was ‘apparently cancelled’. A. S. Link, Wilson: Campaigns for Progressivism and Peace, pp. 232–3. In fact, the ominous answers were produced very promptly. On the other hand, Hankey complained to his diary that in a subsequent War Cabinet discussion the inquiry was apparently ‘forgotten’. See Roskill, StephenHankey: Man of Secrets (London, 1970), p, 347. But the fact that the memoranda were apparently neglected later was probably not related to Lansing's comments. First, the War Cabinet's business methods were not very systematic. Secondly, the War Cabinet did not need to refer specifically to the memoranda when discussing the reply to the President. The memoranda did not alter the basic, long-established facts of Britain's heavy dependence upon American supplies, and reference to the details of the situation was not necessary.

82 The respective references are as follows: CAB 1/21/11; CAB 1/21/8; CAB 1/21/6;

83 CAB 1/21/8. The fact that Hankey delegated this task to an assistant does not necessarily imply that it was considered unimportant. Hankey was, to use his own phrase, ‘desperately overworked’ at this stage. Hankey, Lord, The Supreme Command 1914–1918 (London, 1961), II, 600. See also Stephen Roskill, op. cit. p. 347.

84 CAB 28/2/13 (a).

85 CAB 1/24/13(b); CAB 23/40/7/9.

86 F.O. 371/2806/252387/260988; F.O. 371/2796/63430/262218.

87 F.O. 371/2806/252387/262193.

88 See the minute initialled by Rowland Sperling, chief clerk of the American Department of the Foreign Office, in F.O. 371/2796/63430/262218. Another consideration behind Britain's firm reply is worth noting. In an interesting twist to the whole of Britain's dependence upon America, he warned that any appearance of weakening or anxiety for peace would damage Britain's credit. In other words, by compromising her demand for victory in order to maintain her supplies, Britain might incur the damage she sought to avoid. F.O. 371/2805/252387/ 259910. F.O. 371/2806/252387/262940.

89 CAB 24/3/102.

90 F.O. 371/2805/252387/258250.

91 Balfour's memorandum has been published in David Lloyd George, op. cit. pp. 523–9.

92 CAB 23/1/16/2. (My italics.)

93 CAB 23/1/10/5.

94 In this particular context Balfour referred to freeing ‘Christian communities from Turkish tyranny’, but he was careful not to mention the Ottoman Empire's Arab provinces.

95 The British had no intention of referring to the German colonies in any reply to the President's peace note. On one hand, any suggestion that they should be retained would only make them vulnerable to the accusation that Britain was prolonging the war for imperialistic gains. Sir Louis Mallet (chairman of an interdepartmental committee on territorial changes) wrote to Drummond that’ it would be very awkward to tell dear Mr Wilson of our intentions. I fear he would never understand our reasons.’ Mallet to Drummond, 20 December 1916, Balfour Papers, B.M. Add. MSS 49748. On the other hand, any evasive reference to the German colonies would inevitably provoke powerful objections in Britain and a storm in the Dominions. Moreover, the territorial changes committee had not completed its study of the question and there was not sufficient time to consult the Dominions (not to mention Japan) on so controversial an issue. There was also a feeling that Britain should not commit herself on the question. It was thought that the colonies might have to be used as bargaining counters in eventual negotiations. Several months later Lloyd George himself championed this view in the Imperial War Cabinet. CAB 23/43/First Meeting; CAB 23/40/13/5. As it turned out, even the lack of reference to the German colonies in the Allies’ reply caused some alarm in the southern Dominions. See Louis, William Roger, Great Britain and Germany's Lost Colonies, 1914–1919 (Oxford, 1967), p. 78. But as far as America was concerned the omission proved to be wise. Several months after the U.S. entered the war, Spring-Rice recalled:’ The absence of any mention of British claims in the Allied statement of last year created a good impression.’ F.O. 371/3121/157711/158304.

96 CAB 37/162/31.

97 F.O. 371/2806/252387/263429. These comments were made in the same conversation as referred to in footnote 78. The narrative is based on Cecil's record of the interview.

98 CAB 23/1/17/2.

99 F.O. 371/2806/252387/262697. This set of minutes provides an interesting footnote to the whole episode of Wilson's peace note. Cecil's comment was elicited by a long minute, dated 26 December, by Sir Eyre Crowe, then an assistant under-secretary of state. Crowe was concerned that the Allies might be manoeuvred into a position where the President would become a party in the negotiation of peace terms. While some demands could gain American support, others such as restoration of Russian Poland, cession of Constantinople to Russia and loss of the German colonies would receive a very lukewarm reception. Moreover, Wilson would support some unacceptable German demands, namely, (1) independence of Ireland, (2) ‘freedom of the seas’, which was the ‘German and American equivalent of abolition of British seapower’, and (3) disarmament and general arbitration, which was a German ruse. Because Britain could not consider these demands, she would find herself blamed for continuing the war. Crowe thought Britain must aim at peace negotiations only with the enemy. It was desirable to say that no mediation or intervention was acceptable until the enemy was mastered. ‘Our best line of argument with President Wilson’, he wrote, ‘would consist in placing ourselves firmly in the position of Abraham Lincoln and Seward in 1864, quoting them freely and at length.’ The Allies could then say: if the avowed aims of both parties were the same, take the Allies’ terms—evacuation, reparation, freedom of nationalities, security for the future, and so on; if those were Germany's aims, which was hard to believe, how would she implement them? After her acts of invasion, occupation, destruction and oppression, it was for her to say. The Allies, Crowe thought, could use this line in reply to both Germany and America. Cecil replied: ‘Like all decisions it has to be made between opposite evils.’ He thought Crowe's line would help German militarists, disgruntle pacifists and semi-pacifists in the Allies’ own countries, and offend Wilson as well as much neutral opinion. Cecil acknowledged that his own line might perhaps promote the idea of eventual mediation by America but he was ‘ not much afraid of that resulting in the three things Sir E. Crowe believes the Americans would support’.

100 James Brown Scott, op. cit. pp. 26–8.

101 CAB 38/2/13(a).

102 Ibid. Several months earlier, in a letter responding to Grey's criticism of his ‘knock-out blow’ interview, Lloyd George wrote:’ You will find that it will work out all right. I know the American politician. He has no international conscience. He thinks of nothing but the ticket, and he has not given the least thought to the effect of his action upon European affairs.’ Lloyd George Papers, E/2/13/6. This was a common British image of Wilson during the U.S. election of 1916, and it may have carried over into the deliberations about the President's note.

103 CAB 28/2/13(b).

104 CAB 28/2/13(c).

105 F.O. 371/2806/252387/262556.

106 CAB 23/1/21/3.

107 CAB 28/2/13(d. The committee as constituted also included Lord Robert Cecil and M. Thomas, French minister of munitions.

108 F.O. 371/3075/2/1186.

109 F.O. 371/3075/2/1187.

110 This was a very dubious point because Wilson clearly requested more precise terms than those demanded in the Allied reply to Germany. The Allies were evidently trying to suggest that they had heeded the President's desires in answering the German proposal.

111 The Russian foreign minister expressed apprehension about invoking the principle of nationality lest Germany apply it to Lithuania and the Baltic provinces, but his suggestion that the principle not be mentioned was rejected. F.O. 371/3075/2/4588.

112 The line read:’ The intentions of His Majesty the Emperor of Russia regarding Poland have been clearly indicated in the proclamation which he has just addressed to his armies.’ This is sometimes incorrectly thought to refer to the promise of full autonomy under the tsars, which was made by the Grand Duke Nicholas very early in the war. But it was intended to refer to the tsar's Order to the Russian armies which was dated 25 December 1916 and which appeared in the British morning press on 28 December. The tsar stated that one of Russia's tasks was ‘ the creation of a fee Poland from all three of her now incomplete tribal districts’. The Russian foreign minister later wanted to modify the Allies’ note so that it would explicitly refer to the tsar's intention to add German and Austrian Poland to Russian Poland, but would omit the reference to a ‘ free Poland’ contained in the tsar's Order to his army. The British Foreign Office, which was particularly concerned about the impact of this passage in America, feared that their enemies would exploit the omission. F.O. 371/3075/2/4588.

113 F.O. 371/3075/2/4588.

114 Italy's claims in the Adriatic were not mentioned, though they were presumably referred to by the word ‘security’. Alsace and Lorraine were also not mentioned by name, but were cleverly referred to by a demand which in later versions read as follows: ‘ the restitution of provinces or territories wrested in the past from the Allies by force or against the will of their populations…’. This demand had the advantage for the French not only of potentially referring to the lost provinces but other lands on the Rhine as well.

115 See telegram from Mr Grahame (Rome), no. 5, F.O. 371/3075/2/1186.

116 See telegram to Mr Grahame (Rome), no. 15, F.O. 371/3075/2/1186.

117 F.O. 371/3075/2/4588.

118 Conveniently published in James Brown Scott, op. cit. pp. 45–9. Also in Department of State, op. cit. pp. 17–21.

119 CAB 23/1/25/8.

120 When the reply to the German note was given to the American Ambassador, he requested in the President's name that the Allied reply to the American note should not be published until the President had had time to study it. The Allies allowed him 48 hours. With considerable justification a Foreign Office official commented: ‘The Americans expect to receive treatment far different from that which they accord to others.’ F.O. 371/3075/2/00006.

121 F.O. 800/199.

122 Telegram from Sir C. Spring-Rice, no. 97, F.O. 371/3075/2/11002.

123 Telegram to Sir C. Spring-Rice, no. 136, F.O. 371/3075/2/11002.

124 F.O. 371/3075/2/11946.

125 Telegram from Mr Montgomery dated 19 January 1917, F.O. H5/z263/mediation/56.

126 The British were pleased with the reception in America of the Allies’ reply to the President and Balfour's commentary on it. See F.O. 371/3080/8770/17118; F.O. 371/3076/2/ 11062, 17114, 23669, 23675; F.O. 371/3075/2/14763, 13532. After the United States had entered the war, the War Cabinet even believed that the Allies’ reply had inclined the President ‘to make common cause with the Allies’. On the other hand they felt that the effect ‘in other neutral countries had not been favourable. Moreover, in enemy countries its effect had been to enable the government to stimulate their peoples to still greater efforts by the implication that unless they continued the war to a successful conclusion they would suffer irretrievable loss.’ It was also pointed out in the War Cabinet that ‘the reply of the Allies to President Wilson had been used as anti-war propaganda in this [Britain] and other countries to prove that our war aims were imperialistic and grasping’. See CAB 23/3/220/1. See also Hardinge to Sir Esmé Howard, 28 April 1917, Hardinge Papers 31.

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The Historical Journal
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  • EISSN: 1469-5103
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