Primary Documents - U.S. Protest Over the Sinking of the Lusitania, 13 May 1915
The German sinking of RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915, with its consequent loss of U.S. life provoked great public and diplomatic anger within the U.S. Already concerned at Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, many in the U.S. believed the sinking of the Lusitania to be a calculated provocation of the U.S. on Germany's part.
Bryan ultimately resigned from office in protest at Wilson's handling of the Lusitania crisis; he believed (wrongly) that Wilson was using the sinking of the Lusitania as a basis for preparing the U.S. for entry into the war.
Click here to read Germany's official response to America's first protest over the sinking. Click here to read the British law courts review. Click here to read President Wilson's second note to Germany; click here to read the third.
Text of the Protest
Please call on the minister of foreign affairs and, after reading to him this communication, leave him with a copy.
In view of recent acts of the German authorities in violation of American rights on the high seas which culminated in the torpedoing and sinking of the British steamship Lusitania on May 7, 1915, by which over 100 American citizens lost their lives, it is clearly wise and desirable that the government of the United States and the Imperial German government should come to a clear and full understanding as to the grave situation which has resulted.
The sinking of the British passenger steamer Falaba by a German submarine on March 28, through which Leon C. Thrasher, an American citizen, was drowned; the attack on April 28 on the American vessel Cushing by a German aeroplane; the torpedoing on May 1 of the American vessel Gulflight by a German submarine, as a result of which two or more American citizens met their death; and, finally, the torpedoing and sinking of the steamship Lusitania constitute a series of events which the government of the United States has observed with growing concern, distress, and amazement.
Recalling the humane and enlightened attitude hitherto assumed by the Imperial German government in matters of international right, and particularly with regard to the freedom of the seas; having learned to recognize the German views and the German influence in the field of international obligation as always engaged upon the side of justice and humanity; and having understood the instructions of the Imperial German government to its naval commanders to be upon the same plane of humane action prescribed by the naval codes of other nations, the government of the United States was loath to believe - it cannot now bring itself to believe - that these acts, so absolutely contrary to the rules, the practices, and the spirit of modern warfare, could have the countenance or sanction of that great government.
It feels it to be its duty, therefore, to address the Imperial German government concerning them with the utmost frankness and in the earnest hope that it is not mistaken in expecting action on the part of the Imperial German government which will correct the unfortunate impressions which have been created and vindicate once more the position of that government with regard to the sacred freedom of the seas.
The government of the United States has been apprised that the Imperial German government considered themselves to be obliged by the extraordinary circumstances of the present war and the measures adopted by their adversaries in seeking to cut Germany off from all commerce, to adopt methods of retaliation which go much beyond the ordinary methods of warfare at sea, in the proclamation of a war zone from which they have warned neutral ships to keep away.
This government has already taken occasion to inform the Imperial German government that it cannot admit the adoption of such measures or such a warning of danger to operate as in any degree an abbreviation of the rights of American shipmasters or of American citizens bound on lawful errands as passengers on merchant ships of belligerent nationality; and that it must hold the Imperial German government to a strict accountability for any infringement of those rights, intentional or incidental.
It does not understand the Imperial German government to question those rights. It assumes, on the contrary, that the Imperial government accept, as of course, the rule that the lives of non-combatants, whether they be of neutral citizenship or citizens of one of the nations at war, cannot lawfully or rightfully be put in jeopardy by the capture or destruction of an unarmed merchantman, and recognize also, as all other nations do, the obligation to take the usual precaution of visit and search to ascertain whether a suspected merchantman is in fact of belligerent nationality or is in fact carrying contraband of war under a neutral flag.
The government of the United States, therefore, desires to call the attention of the Imperial German government, with the utmost earnestness, to the fact that the objection to their present method of attack against the trade of their enemies lies in the practical impossibility of employing submarines in the destruction of commerce without disregarding those rules of fairness, reason, justice, and humanity which all modern opinion regards as imperative.
It is practically impossible for the officers of a submarine to visit a merchantman at sea and examine her papers and cargo. It is practically impossible for them to make a prize of her; and, if they cannot put a prize crew on board of her, they cannot sink her without leaving her crew and all on board of her to the mercy of the sea in her small boats.
These facts it is understood the Imperial German government frankly admit. We are informed that in the instances of which we have spoken time enough for even that poor measure of safety was not given, and, in at least two of the cases cited, not so much as a warning was received. Manifestly, submarines cannot be used against merchantmen, as the last few weeks have shown, without an inevitable violation of many sacred principles of justice and humanity.
American citizens act within their indisputable rights in taking their ships and in travelling wherever their legitimate business calls them upon the high seas, and exercise those rights in what should be the well-justified confidence that their lives will not be endangered by acts done in clear violation of universally acknowledged international obligations, and certainly in the confidence that their own government will sustain them in the exercise of their rights.
There was recently published in the newspapers of the United States, I regret to inform the Imperial German government, a formal warning, purporting to come from the Imperial German Embassy at Washington, addressed to the people of the United States, and stating, in effect, that any citizen of the United States who exercised his right of free travel upon the seas would do so at his peril if his journey should take him within the zone of waters within which the Imperial German Navy was using submarines against the commerce of Great Britain and France, notwithstanding the respectful but very earnest protests of his government, the government of the United States.
I do not refer to this for the purpose of calling the attention of the Imperial German government at this time to the surprising irregularity of a communication from the Imperial German Embassy at Washington addressed to the people of the United States through the newspapers, but only for the purpose of pointing out that no warning that an unlawful and inhumane act will be committed can possibly be accepted as an excuse or palliation for that act or as an abatement of the responsibility for its commission.
Long acquainted as this government has been with the character of the Imperial German government and with the high principles of equity by which they have in the past been actuated and guided, the government of the United States cannot believe that the commanders of the vessels which committed these acts of lawlessness did so except under a misapprehension of the orders issued by the Imperial German naval authorities.
It takes it for granted that, at least within the practical possibilities of every such case, the commanders even of submarines were expected to do nothing that would involve the lives of non-combatants or the safety of neutral ships, even at the cost of failing of their object of capture or destruction.
It confidently expects, therefore, that the Imperial German government will disavow the acts of which the government of the United States complains, that they will make reparation so far as reparation is possible for injuries which are without measure, and that they will take immediate steps to prevent the recurrence of anything so obviously subversive of the principles of warfare for which the Imperial German government have in the past so wisely and so firmly contended.
The government and the people of the United States look to the Imperial German government for just, prompt, and enlightened action in this vital matter with the greater confidence because the United States and Germany are bound together, not only by special ties of friendship but also by the explicit stipulations of the treaty of 1828 between the United States and the Kingdom of Prussia.
Expressions of regret and offers of reparation in the case of the destruction of neutral ships sunk by mistake, while they may satisfy international obligations, if no loss of life results, cannot justify or excuse a practice, the natural and necessary effect of which is to subject neutral nations and neutral persons to new and immeasurable risks.
The Imperial German government will not expect the government of the United States to omit any word or any act necessary to the performance of its sacred duty of maintaining the rights of the United States and its citizens and of safeguarding their free exercise and enjoyment.
A "Brass Hat" was a high ranking officer.
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