Two days ago Germany’s Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg announced to the Reichstag that Germany has commenced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. The U-boats are now free to attack Allied merchant ships without warning. Neutral ships suspected of carrying goods to the Allies are also liable to attack. Bethmann Hollweg had opposed this policy with all his vigour, fearing that it would bring the United States into the war, but the rest of the German leadership had been won over by the navy’s promise that the U-boats can starve Britain into submission in a matter of months.
The new U-boat policy does indeed cause grave disquiet in Washington. President Wilson successfully campaigned for re-election under the slogan “He kept us out of the war”, but his response to the Germans is swift. Today he addresses Congress, announcing that his government is severing diplomatic relations with Germany. Count Bernstorff, the German ambassador, is to be expelled with immediate effect, while James Gerard, the American ambassador to Germany is to be recalled. Wilson still hopes that there will not be war with Germany, but he warns that there will be dire consequences if the U-boats sink American ships without warning.
Germany has a U-boat fleet of some 152 vessels. Since the recent decision to send them directly through the Channel, they are able to spend much longer patrolling where they are likely to find enemy ships.
Today U-53 encounters the Housatonic, an American ship carrying wheat to Britain. Despite the new U-boat regime, the Germans do not sink the Housatonic without warning, instead boarding and searching her. The ship’s crew are ordered to abandon ship before it is scuttled by the Germans (who first seize some soap, in short supply in Germany).
The attack on the Housatonic is thus carried out according to some approximation of the traditional prize rules governing naval warfare. However in the atmosphere of heightened tension between the United States and Germany, the attack causes a sensation.
Woodrow Wilson (firstworldwar.com)