In 1917, on this day Vice President William Jennings Bryan asked Thomas R Marshall ~ "Mr President, how many men were executed in Indiana during your term as Governor there?".
Chapter of Accidents; How Bryan Returned From The Dead"None, thank God". There was one man sentenced to hang, but he won his appeal so I never had to reprieve him".
"Would you say nobody ever deserves to be hanged?"
"No. I expect all too many do. But I don't think the State should be in the business of killing people".
"Exactly!" Bryan pressed home the point. "Yet at least the men who get hanged are usually murderers or something almost as bad. The boys you'd have to send to die in Europe mostly haven't committed any crime. Not yet anyway".
Part 2 of a new story by Mike Stone"And the people who have died on all those ships the Germans sank. American citizens about their lawful business. Women and children too. Do I not owe them anything?" "Of course, Sir. But you don't owe them mass murder. Aren't they a bit like those guys who insist on going over Niagara Falls in a barrel? They have a perfect legal right to do it, at least if they are over 21 and not certified insane" He smiled faintly "Not yet anyway. But have they the right to insist that another man endanger his own life to defend their right to go over the Falls in a barrel? I don't really see it".
"And American seamen? Aren't they entitled to get on with their jobs? If the Germans do what they say they are going to do, then our ships will be getting sunk too, not just Allied ones". Must I allow that?"
"You can prevent it. Just order the Port Authorities not to clear US-registered ships for destinations in the barred zone. If the Allies want to buy from us, let them send their own ships. Ours can find work in the Pacific or trading with South America. There's plenty of business on those routes, now that the British are bringing every spare ship to the North Atlantic". "But what about our maritime rights? The freedom of the seas? President Wilson said - -"
"Mr Wilson was a good man," said Bryan firmly "I admired him very much; but I sometimes feel he was just a shade too legalistic. After all, if there's a race riot on or something, any city Mayor can order citizens to stay in their homes. That's an interference with their freedom, but it's necessary in an emergency situation. That's what's going on in Europe just now - a riot; probably the biggest riot ever. And the freedom to land your country in a war by insisting on your right to wade into the thick of it is just pushing your rights a teeny little step too far1".
"Mr Secretary, this is a break of diplomatic relations we are considering. I have no intention of declaring war".
"It will come to that, Mr President. Breaking relations doesn't solve anything. The Germans have gone too far to back down now, so if we break relations and they carry on, what do we do next? You will have to take another step, and what will that have to be?" "Arm our merchantmen? - -" Marshall's voice quavered slightly, as if he himself saw the weakness of the idea.
"And then what? The u-boats will torpedo without warning, so our ships can't just fire in self-defense. They will have to attack a submarine on sight.
For all practical purposes, a war will have begun. How long before we have to make it official?
"There'll be an uproar. Roosevelt, Lodge, lots of them. They'll say I'm betraying the country. Selling out to Germany".
"Mr President, they aren't worth listening to". Bryan's voice turned suddenly harsh. "They think the Sacred Book lies. They think vengeance is the exclusive property of Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and Mr Henry Cabot Lodge. I suppose we must give Roosevelt his due. If he gets his war at least he'll fight in it. But you can bet your life Lodge won't. He'll sit snug at home while other Americans die for his policies. And that's the way most of them will behave. They crawl along the ground".
"Still, I'd go easy with that line about Niagara Falls. They'll say you're just jealous 'cause there aren't any waterfalls in Nebraska".
Bryan dutifully chuckled at the President's joke, but even to him the humour sounded a bit forced.
President Marshall sat silent in the deserted Oval office. In a way, he was relieved that Bryan had gone. A good man and a good Christian, there could be no doubt about that. But was he being a bit too narrow on this? Certainly, Lodge and Roosevelt were loudmouths, but even loudmouths can occasionally be right. He thought of his father, back in the 1860s, threatened with excommunication from their local Presbyterian Church for refusing to join the Republicans. What had he said? "I am willing to take my chances on Hell, but never on the Republican Party". Yet that hadn't stopped him being a firm Union man during the Civil War, even if it had meant supporting the policy of a Republican Administration. Some things were bigger than party. In the end, he must act for the nation as a whole, and Mr Bryan represented only part of it - maybe not even the largest part. He hoped it would never come to a split. Their common faith made Bryan a kindred spirit2. But his new responsibilities were wider than that, and if worst came to worst, at some point there might have to be a parting of the ways.
But must it be yet? To keep American ships out of the barred zone would indeed involve a swallwing of pride; but the Bible was pretty clear on what pride was. And it wasn't as though the Allies were all that saintly. Some of their blockade measures went far beyond traditional international law, and he suspected that these blacklists of theirs weren't as purely war related as they claimed. Were they indeed out to monopolise world markets after the war? No, America owed them nothing; this was purely a question of what it owed itself.
He flinched slightly at the sudden pain in his chest. These had been getting worse lately. Maybe Lois was right and he should see a doctor. But what could the doctor do?
Probably only tell him to rest, and that was impossible. He had just too much on his plate.
OK, he finally decided. He would give Mr Bryan's approach one more go. But there would have to be something more than words. And it would probably have to be the last time.
Ambassador Bernstorff was pensive as he left the State Department building.
It had been a huge relief as he listened to Secretary Bryan's words, and suddenly realised that, having come there resigned to the return of his passports, he was not to be going home after all - at least not yet. The other business - the seizure of German ships currently trapped in US ports - would have to be protested, of course, but could be lived with. Fortunately, he had already given orders for them to be rendered unfit for service, so they would be no immediate use to the Americans, whatever the future might hold. So far, so good.
But, he uneasily knew, it was only time he had gained. For all his efforts to educate them, his masters in Berlin just did not appreciate the peril. They were taking risks that made him shudder. That message to Mexico, for instance. God grant it never leaked out. The consequences hardly bore thinking about.
Mr Bryan was a strong voice for peace, but he was not in final charge.
President Marshall was, and that man was unpredictable - pulled every which way, and far out of his depth There could be no certainty as to which way he would ultimately jump.
Yes, Bernstorff thought sombrely, this was only a reprieve. And the future still looked dark.
From his office window, Bryan watched the German Ambassador depart. Yet his thoughts were less about Bernstorff than about Marshall.
He was deeply afraid for the President. While accustomed to the normal rough and tumble of politics, he had never before come under this much pressure. Bryan recalled the ferocious 1896 campaign , when he had so often been lambasted as an "incendiary", "enemy of civilisation" and worse. A terrible experience, but in a way it had been good for him. As a result, he was inoculated against such attacks in a way that Marshall was not. How much more could the President take?
As Colonel Roosevelt might have put it, the time was coming to stand at Armageddon and do battle for the Lord. And he suspected that this might be a battle for Tom Marshall's soul.
To be continued