Bryan Resigns Amid Neutrality Controversy

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 186th installment in the series.

June 9, 1915: Bryan Resigns Amid Neutrality Controversy

As the first year of the war drew to a close, political casualties were starting to accumulate in all the Allied capitals. In London criticism over Gallipoli and the “shell scandal” forced Prime Minister Asquith to dissolve his Liberal government and form a new coalition government with leaders of the opposition. The new cabinet, announced on May 25, 1915, included the Welsh Radical David Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions, while Winston Churchill—the public face of the disastrous Dardanelles mission— gave up his position as First Lord of the Admiralty, to be replaced by Arthur Balfour. 

In Petrograd War Minister Sukhomlinov would be forced out by the end of June 1915 over Russia’s own shell shortage and accusations of pro-German sympathies. In France, on May 29 and 31, 1915 the irascible opposition leader Georges Clemenceau lashed out at the government and chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre over what he called criminal mismanagement of the war effort, foreshadowing more political upheaval in Paris. 

Given the scale of the conflict, it’s no surprise its impact extended beyond the belligerent nations, spreading political upheaval to neutral countries around the world—including the U.S., where on June 9, 1915 Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned in protest over President Woodrow Wilson’s response to German submarine warfare (top, Wilson on the left, Bryan to his right).

Cartridges, Credit, Cotton, and Contraband 

After war broke out in August 1914 the United States, safe at peace behind 3000 miles of ocean, proclaimed its neutrality but nonetheless became embroiled in diplomatic controversies with both sides over trade and finance. In 1914 the State Department condemned the British naval blockade of Germany, which disrupted American trade, and also protested the Admiralty’s order that British ships should fly neutral flags in the war zone to deceive German submarines. Then in the first months of 1915 the U.S., along with other maritime neutrals, strongly objected to Germany’s countermove of unrestricted U-boat warfare including the sinking of neutral ships. 

Like other Progressives, Wilson was pacifist by inclination and prepared to go to considerable lengths to keep the United States out of the war, and most Americans supported this stance. It also accorded with the views of Secretary of State Bryan, an agrarian populist and committed pacifist who condemned war for religious as well as ideological reasons, arguing it merely served to line the pockets of plutocrats while ordinary people suffered. Beyond this, however, the Secretary of State’s position was also rooted in economic and regional factors.

Bryan’s political base consisted of farmers in the rural Midwest and South, including Southern cotton growers whose prewar livelihood depended on selling cotton to Germany as well as France and Britain. With German buyers cut off by the blockade, and Britain and France not consuming any more cotton than before (if anything probably less), the price per bale tumbled from 13.2¢ in May 1914 to 6.6¢ in November 1914. By May 1915 it had crept back up to 8.8¢, still well below previous years’ prices. 

At the same time Northeastern industrial and financial concerns enjoyed a growing business with Britain and France, which were asking for loans and placing huge orders for munitions—all over the objections of Secretary of State Bryan, who argued that trading with the one side but not the other jeopardized U.S. neutrality (in 1914-1915 the Germans tried, with some success, to covertly sway broader public opinion to the same view through secret payments to editors, journalists, academics, and pundits, among others). 

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In short, while northeastern industrialists were enjoying boom times thanks to Allied war orders, Southern cotton growers were suffering because of the British blockade. Striving to preserve friendly relations with the United States, the British moved to placate the cotton growers by agreeing to buy all the cotton on the market in 1914, temporarily relieving tensions—but the cash-strapped Allies were unlikely to offer a similar deal in 1915. Thus Bryan’s cotton constituency still bitterly opposed the British naval blockade, demanding at the very least that cotton be removed from the list of war contraband so their trade with Germany could resume. 

After the Lusitania 

But following the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, in which 128 Americans lost their lives, Wilson came under enormous pressure from powerful interests calling for an aggressive response to what they viewed as a hostile act by Germany—even if this meant going to war, should Germany refuse to back down. Led by former President Teddy Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Republicans accused the Democratic administration of failing to protect American interests and the rights of U.S. citizens, now threatened by a military autocracy waging war beyond the bounds of traditional morality. Northeastern industrial and financial concerns also clamored for a robust response to secure their growing business with Britain and France. 

Thus, as Wilson tried to steer the U.S. through deepening international turmoil he was also engaged in a tricky balancing act at home. On one hand the majority of Americans wanted to stay out of the war, even after the Lusitania, a fact which Wilson acknowledged with his statement on May 10, 1915, that “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight.” On the other hand, Wilson simply couldn’t ignore the affront to American sovereignty, or the likelihood that Germany would escalate the U-boat campaign in the absence of strong American protests—thereby actually increasing the chances the U.S. would get dragged into war in the long run. 

In short Wilson had little choice but to quietly, firmly demand that Berlin abandon unrestricted submarine warfare, backed if need by by a concrete threat of U.S. countermeasures, while treading carefully around domestic public opinion. This brought him into direct conflict with Bryan, who continued to argue that both sides should abandon their current policies, allowing Americans and American goods to travel by sea to any part of Europe unimpeded, and still rejected any strategy involving threats of force as likely to make the situation even worse. 

To carry out his carefully calibrated plan Wilson was working more and more closely with State Department counselor Robert Lansing, an advisor on international law whose views aligned with Wilson’s, and his personal friend and emissary Colonel House, while the intransigent Secretary of State found himself sidelined. 

In the immediate aftermath of the Lusitania sinking, on May 15 Wilson sent a diplomatic note to Berlin demanding Germany offer reparations for the dead U.S. citizens (in the form of monetary payments) and desist from any actions that would endanger Americans at sea. Bryan reluctantly agreed to sign the note, complaining that Wilson should send a similar note to Britain demanding the blockade be loosened, foreshadowing a wider breach as the diplomatic exchange with Germany escalated. 

On May 28, 1915 German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow sent a politely evasive reply noting that the Lusitania had been carrying munitions bound for Britain and was therefore a legitimate target, while again blaming the “misuse of flags by the British Government” for neutral sinkings (the Lusitania, a British liner, was flying a U.S. flag in the war zone per Admiralty instructions). Jagow added:

The German Government believes that it acts in just self-defence when it seeks to protect the lives of its soldiers by destroying ammunition destined for the enemy with the means of war at its command.  The English steamship company must have been aware of the dangers to which passengers on board the Lusitania were exposed under the circumstances. 

On June 8, 1915 Wilson and Lansing drew up a second note to Germany, much more strongly worded, which stated flatly that the sinking of the Lusitania had been illegal under international maritime law and demanded Germany abandon unrestricted U-boat warfare against unarmed merchant ships. While questioning whether the Lusitania was actually carrying munitions (in fact it was) the note asserted that whatever the case was, “in the view of this Government these contentions are irrelevant to the question of the legality of the methods used by the German naval authorities in sinking the vessel,” and continued:

Whatever be the other facts regarding the Lusitania, the principal fact is that a great steamer, primarily and chiefly a conveyance for passengers, and carrying more than a thousand souls who had no part or lot in the conduct of the war, was torpedoed and sunk without so much as a challenge or a warning, and that men, women, and children were sent to their death in circumstances unparalleled in modern warfare… The Government of the United States is contending for something much greater than mere rights of property or privileges of commerce.  It is contending for nothing less high and sacred than the rights of humanity, which every Government honours itself in respecting and which no Government is justified in resigning on behalf of those under its care and authority. 

Although Wilson still refrained from threatening war in this second note, the wording and tone left little doubt that Germany and the U.S. were on a collision course over the submarine campaign. At the same time Wilson once again refused Bryan’s request to send a note to Britain demanding the end of the naval blockade. Seeing himself repeatedly ignored by Wilson and increasingly eclipsed by Lansing and House, on June 9, 1915 Bryan submitted his resignation. 

Bryan was succeeded as Secretary of State by Lansing, who maintained the neutrality line in public, but privately believed that the U.S. would not be able to stand aside from the spreading conflagration forever.

See the previous installment or all entries. 

Orson Welles's Former Hollywood Hills Estate Is Taking Vacation Reservations

Fred Mott, Getty Images
Fred Mott, Getty Images

Orson Welles's former Hollywood Hills estate is a perfect place to get away from society, grow a bushy beard, and brood over a bottle of whiskey.

Interested? The late Hollywood icon's 3000-square-foot home is available to rent for about $755 a night through HomeAway. The house, which sits on its own private 15,000-square-foot knoll, was home to Welles at the very beginning of his career and is where he wrote the screenplay for 1941's Citizen Kane. Bring along your typewriter and try to channel some of his greatness.

Quite a few other celebrities have inhabited the house as well, including Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and David Bowie. Features of the grand four-bedroom mansion—built in 1928—include a lagoon pool, Jacuzzi, deck, and both canyon and city views.

There's never been a better time to rent Welles's abode: his final film, The Other Side of the Wind, is set to premiere at this month's Venice Film Festival before arriving on Netflix. The unfinished flick, which was shot intermittently between 1970 and 1976, has been completed and restored for its much-anticipated release. (Of course the mansion has plenty of TVs for your viewing pleasure.)

The property has a three- to five-night stay minimum, depending on the season. For more pictures, see below or head to HomeAway. And since you're already in vacation-planning mode, another creative celebrity abode to consider is F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's Montgomery, Alabama home, which is available to rent via Airbnb.

Orson Welles' house
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles mansion
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

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