Woodrow Wilson Struggles in his Effort to Negotiate an Agreement during World War I

Both sides resisted his attempt to mediate an accord to allow relief to starving Poland.

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The outbreak of World War I in Europe in August 1914 staggered people’s sensibilities – the scale, the scope, the massive movements, the casualties appeared out of all recognition, and out of all human control. In the United States, people felt a sense of removal from the war and were glad to...

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Woodrow Wilson Struggles in his Effort to Negotiate an Agreement during World War I

Both sides resisted his attempt to mediate an accord to allow relief to starving Poland.

The outbreak of World War I in Europe in August 1914 staggered people’s sensibilities – the scale, the scope, the massive movements, the casualties appeared out of all recognition, and out of all human control. In the United States, people felt a sense of removal from the war and were glad to have the ocean between them and the conflict.  At the war’s outbreak, President Wilson admonished his countrymen to respond by remaining "neutral in fact as well as in name."

But very soon, word of the atrocities and devastation in Europe began to reach the American public and aroused great concern. The suffering in the two border regions between the major combatants – Belgium and Poland – was particularly great and brought almost immediate calls for relief. In Belgium, its neutrality was ignored by Germany, which invaded her territory to reach France and wrecked havoc. Poland, which had long ago lost its independence and was technically part of Russia, stood in the way of the combatants on the Eastern Front and became a battlefield.  Americans right up to the President wanted to help but found military obstacles from both sides in their way. The British had a blockade in place that prevented deliveries of cargoes to Germany or territories it held, which included both Belgium and Poland. The Germans had submarines on the loose in the Atlantic making it hazardous for the neutral U.S. to transport needed supplies.

The first significant American involvement in European relief occurred in October 1914 when the Rockefeller Foundation sent a team to Europe “with a view to advising the Foundation and to organize relief for the suffering non-combatants.” In January 1915, mission members toured occupied Poland and found the situation incomparably worse than in Belgium.  Though initial efforts to relieve Poland failed to secure the cooperation of the British and Germans, in the spring of 1915 an International Commission for Relief in Poland was established with Americans in the lead. The State Department agreed to provide “diplomatic guidance,” and President Wilson expressed his “sympathetic interest.” Unfortunately, this effort, too, was stillborn for the same reasons. During the summer of 1915, the situation in Poland deteriorated as a Central Powers offensive broke Russian lines. Soon all of Russian Poland was under German occupation. Far worse than the inevitable destruction caused by the tide of this titanic battle was the devastation visited on Poland by the “scorched earth” policy pursued by the retreating Russians, and the subsequent systematic requisitioning of food, materials and supplies by the occupying Germans. Repeated efforts by the U.S. State Department to convince the Allies of the need for starting relief proved unavailing against this backdrop. Even the efforts of relief expert Herbert Hoover were insufficient to change the situation.

In the United States, President Wilson was moved and concerned about the plight of the Poles. He proclaimed January 1, 1916, Polish Relief Day and spoke of the “men, women and children perishing by the thousands.” Drives on behalf of suffering Poland began to appear in cities across the country, and national charitable organizations started to include the country in their appeals. Press attention directed at Poland increased notably in early 1916. Soon a major new attempt to maneuver the combatants into permitting a serious relief effort was in swing, with the Germans seizing the propaganda edge by agreeing not to requisition food sent for Poland. The Allies publicly doubted German promises and neither the government nor people of Britain would consent to loosen the blockade; indeed most wanted to see it strengthened. Hoover wrote to Wilson that he would have to intervene personally to denounce the suffering induced by the blockade and warned that unless the British relented, “the attitude of the American government toward the Allied Governments could materially change.” The intervention of the president, Hoover noted, “is the only hope to preserve the lives of 3-5 million people.”

Rather than let the hope for Polish relief die, the American government began a more vigorous intervention. In May Wilson instructed the State Department to send representatives to inform the European governments of America’s continuing interest. Now the combatants were feeling the heat, and Britain felt it best to accept the U.S. proposal, though imposing conditions the Germans would find unacceptable. A few days later, the Germans were informed that Washington would regard the breakdown of the project as a “calamity, ” but the Germans refused to agree. Washington tried to keep the door open and attempted a compromise arrangement that Berlin in fact accepted, while simultaneously rejecting the British conditions. The State Department then instructed its representatives in London, Petrograd, Paris, and Vienna to cooperate in focusing attention on Poland. This attempt and the activity by the State Department made Washington, by the summer of 1916, the unofficial mediator in the international diplomacy of Polish relief.

After German rejection of their conditions, the British issued a new statement couched in belligerent terms that the French and Russian governments publicly endorsed. Internationally, relief negotiations descended into mutual recrimination. As Hoover had foretold, all hope now rested on some dramatic effort by Wilson. On July 7, Wilson acted – he sent a circular telegram to all of the belligerents requesting “mutual concessions” to allow Polish relief. Five days later, he met a Polish delegation that implored his assistance to save the starving in Poland. On July  20, after meeting the Poles, Wilson sent a personal appeal to the heads of the warring states offering active American participation in “furnishing food to the starving inhabitants of Poland.”

Unfortunately for the Poles, the summer of 1916 saw the rapid worsening of Anglo-American relations over a host of questions, particularly British disinterest in Wilson’s desire to act as mediator in the war. The Allies were more interested in a strict enforcement of the blockade than in Polish relief. King George V answered Wilson on August 12; the British position did not change. The next day, Paris endorsed the British position. A small show of interest by the Kaiser in his response probably reflected Berlin’s conviction that Wilson was considering an effort to end the war through mediation; in anticipation, the Germans wished to gain the best moral position. But essentially, he responded by blaming the Allies. By late August 1916, Wilson saw that his efforts at direct humanitarian diplomacy for Polish relief had reached an impass and he issued a press release saying so.

Typed Document Signed with holographic changes in his own hand, Washington, circa September 1, 1916. “I have now received replies from the King of England, the President of France, the Emperor of Russia, the Emperor of Germany and the Emperor of Austria, to my letter of July 20th in which I tendered the friendly offices of this Government in negotiations looking to a fresh consideration of the possibilities and method of relieving Poland. It appears, I greatly regret to say, that there are still important differences between the Allied and Central powers as to the terms under which relief supplies may be sent to Poland, and I am disappointed that I have not as yet been successful in inducing the powers to conclude a definite agreement.” In diplomatic language, although Wilson was leaving the door open for future progress and may have hoped his statement would generate pressure on the uncooperative belligerents, this was tantamount to admitting that his efforts had failed. The sympathetic attention gained for Poland would, however, provide a basis on which to build support for the cause of Polish independence after the war.

On December 18, 1916, Wilson sought to move his peace-making efforts to a larger arena; he invited both belligerent camps to state their “war aims” in an effort to mediate the entire war. Then in a speech on January 22, 1917, he advocated international conciliation and a “peace without victory.” The British expressed a readiness to accept his mediation, though not without qualifications. In the opposite camp, Germany had already written off his efforts and decided to declare unrestricted submarine warfare. Thus this mediation proposal, too, came to naught. By mid-January 1917, Wilson’s peace overtures had ended. With the failure within a five month period of his mediation attempts in both Polish relief and the war generally, Wilson lost faith in not merely becoming the instrument of peace, but in the willingness of the combatants to end the war short of a clear-cut military decision. Three months later, he took the United States into the war, a war that would be fought to a conclusion.   

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