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Brits Fear Growing Dependence On U.S.

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 252nd installment in the series. 

October 4, 1916: Brits Fear Growing Dependence On U.S. 

The unprecedented material demands of modern warfare, exemplified by the huge number of shells expended in the Allied offensive on the Somme (with British artillery firing 1.7 million in the opening bombardment alone) required the financial and industrial resources of whole empires to sustain – and even these proved insufficient. By the fall of 1916 Britain, France, and Russia found themselves relying more and more on the world’s biggest neutral nation, the United States, for loans as well as supplies of munitions, food, fuel, and other necessities. 

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After initially steering clear of financial entanglements with the belligerents, starting in 1915 American banks – led by J.P. Morgan – opened lines of credit for the Allies, encouraged by a change of heart in the White House, as President Woodrow Wilson was angered by German intransigence over unrestricted submarine warfare. The Allies promptly turned around and spent the money on everything from explosives, oil and steel to wheat, beef and horses, fueling an economic boom across the U.S. 

This one-sided arrangement, with American goods increasingly paid for by American loans, was obviously bad news for both Britain’s balance sheet and its balance of trade, but there was no alternative as long as the war continued. More alarming was the possibility that Britain’s own wartime policies might alienate the U.S., jeopardizing London’s ability to raise loans and make vital purchases across the Atlantic Ocean. Of particular concern were the British blockade of the Central Powers, which hurt some U.S. business interests (even as others prospered selling goods to the Allies); British censorship of mail and telegrams; and finally a “blacklist” of firms still doing business with German counterparts via other neutral countries. 

Introduced in July 1916, the blacklist immediately became major point of contention with the U.S. business community, and therefore the U.S. government too. After diplomatic protests failed to obtain concessions from London, in early September the U.S. Congress passed a series of laws setting the stage for tit-for-tat measures including the bluntly named Retaliatory Revenue Act, threatening to ban British imports and detain British merchant ships in U.S. ports. 

While these threats proved to be mostly bluster, they set alarm bells ringing in the British government, in part because they might prompt demands from British business interests for further restrictions on American commerce (in other words, retaliation for the retaliation) when a trade war was the last thing the Allies needed. Faced with this awkward and complicated situation, on October 4, 1916 the British cabinet convened the first meeting of a new advisory group, the “Interdepartmental Committee on the Dependence of the British Empire on the United States,” to assess the likely impacts of any escalation in the diplomatic and commercial dispute between the countries. 

The committee’s conclusions, delivered on October 10, were painfully clear: further disturbance in the Anglo-American relationship could easily cause the British war effort to collapse, leaving the British virtually no leverage over their American cousin. As one member, Lord Eustace Percy, recorded in the minutes: 

… it developed at once… that there was really nothing to deliberate  dabout because our dependence was so vital and complete in every possible respect that it was folly even to consider reprisals. In munitions… all previous estimates of our being able to fill our own needs by a certain time have been entirely destroyed… In steel… we have been obliged to buy up the whole of the United States’ steel output; in foodstuffs and especially in wheat…, in all industrial raw materials and above all in cotton and lubricants American supplies are so necessary to us that reprisals, while they would produce tremendous distress in America, would also practically stop the war. 

This judgment was based, among other things, on a quick analysis of British and Allied finances by the economist and Treasury official John Maynard Keynes, who noted that Britain alone had spent $1 billion in America from May to September 1916, of which two-fifths had come from American loans. The terms were only going to get more lopsided, Keynes added, predicting that from October 1916 to March 1917 Britain would have to spend another $1.5 billion on American goods, with five-sixths of this financed by American loans. 

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In case anyone failed to understand the central role American production played in the British war effort, another response to the committee’s inquiry from the Board of Trade stated bluntly:

To sum up, it is quite evident that any failure to obtain imports from the United States would at once affect this country irremediably from the point of view of our food supplies, of military necessities, and of raw materials for industry. For numerous articles important from one or other of these points of view, America is an absolutely irreplaceable source of supply. 

Not only was there currently no possibility of retribution in case of a trade war; to keep the munitions flowing from U.S. factories to British guns, Keynes warned that the scope of British borrowing in America would have to expand even further with bond offerings to regular American citizens. He added that this would require a careful public relations strategy: 

Any feeling of irritation or lack of sympathy with this country or with its policy in the minds of the American public (and equally any lack of confidence in the military situation as interpreted by this public) would render it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to carry through financial operations on a scale adequate to our needs. The sums which this country will require to borrow in the U.S.A. in the next six or nine months are so enormous, amounting to several times the national debt of that country, that it will be necessary to appeal to every class and section of the investing public. 

The unpleasant but unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from all this was that the United States, having surpassed Britain as an industrial power in the late 19th century, would soon surpass it as the world’s dominant financial power too, if it hadn’t done so already. Of course, this would bring with it any number of uncomfortable changes, as America’s growing financial power translated into enhanced diplomatic influence and a bigger say in international relations – including, presumably, the eventual peace settlement and shape of postwar Europe. 

In that vein Reginald McKenna, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (comparable to a minister of finance) wrote in a memo to the cabinet on October 16: “If things go on as at present, I venture to say with certainty that by next June or earlier the President of the American Republic will be in a position, if he wishes, to dictate his own terms to us.” With a presidential election coming up in November 1916, and Democratic President Woodrow Wilson and his Republican opponent Charles Evan Hughes both emphasizing their commitment to American neutrality, there was plenty of reason for the British to be nervous about the outcome.

Indeed, not long after the election the British would get another scare: on November 26, 1916 the newly-formed Federal Reserve warned American bankers that loans to the Allies were increasingly risky in light of the continuing deadlock and the growing possibility of a Central Powers victory. 

Fortunately for the Allies, they had some help from an unexpected quarter – Germany itself. While the British fretted about maintaining access to American loans and goods, America’s supplying munitions to the Allies convinced hardliners in Berlin that the United States was for all intents and purposes already at war with Germany, even if it was too cowardly and venal to actually engage in hostilities. In their view U.S. complaints about German U-boats sinking ships with American citizens on board was hypocritical and unreasonable, as a message sent by the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, James Gerard, to Secretary of State Robert Lansing on September 14, 1916, clearly conveyed: 

In general conversation with [foreign minister] Von Jagow recently he said that the offensive in the Somme could not continue without the great supply of shells from America. He also said that recently a German submarine submerged in the Channel had to allow 41 ships to pass and that he was sure that each ship was full of ammunition and soldiers but probably had some American… also on board and therefore the submarine did not torpedo without warning. He seemed quite bitter. 

Convinced that the U.S. wouldn’t fight, or would declare war in name only, the militarist faction led by chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff were pushing Kaiser Wilhelm II and Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg to take the gloves off and resume unrestricted U-boat warfare for the third time. It would prove to be a disastrous miscalculation. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars
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Winning an Oscar is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you’re Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you’d think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are, Colin Firth.

1. ANGELINA JOLIE

After Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world wrinkle their noses, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage with the rest of Marcheline’s belongings when she died in 2007, but it hasn’t yet surfaced. “I didn’t actually lose it,” Jolie said, “but nobody knows where it is at the moment.”

2. WHOOPI GOLDBERG

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. “Oscar will never leave my house again,” Goldberg said.

3. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

When Olympia Dukakis’s Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. “For $78,” they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. MARLON BRANDO

“I don’t know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront,” Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. “Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared.” He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. “The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don’t know where it is now.”

5. JEFF BRIDGES

Jeff Bridges had just won his Oscar in 2010 for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the next year’s ceremony, where he was up for another one. He lost to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. “It’s been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now,” the actor admitted. “I’m hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven’t won a spare! But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better.” Which brings us to ...

6. COLIN FIRTH

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed the British actor as he said those words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. MATT DAMON

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn’t sure where his award went. “I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it,” Damon said in 2007.

8. MARGARET O'BRIEN

In 1945, seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O’Briens' maid took the award home to polish, as she had done before, but never came back to work. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O’Brien’s mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O’Brien. “I’ll never give it to anyone to polish again,” she said.

9. BING CROSBY

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school’s library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a three-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. “I wanted to make people laugh,” the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. HATTIE MCDANIEL

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

An earlier version of this post ran in 2013.

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Pop Culture
"Weird Al" Yankovic Is Getting the Funko Treatment
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Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images

Though the New York Toy Fair—the largest trade show for playthings in the western hemisphere—won't officially kick off until Saturday, February 17, kids and kids-at-heart are already finding much to get excited about as the world's biggest toy companies ready to unleash their newest wares on the world. One item that has gotten us—and fans of fine parody songs everywhere—excited is "Weird Al" Yankovic's induction into the Funko Pop! family. The accordion-loving songwriter behind hits like "Eat It," "White & Nerdy," "Amish Paradise," and "Smells Like Nirvana" shared the news via Twitter, and included what we can only hope is a final rendering of his miniaturized, blockheaded vinyl likeness:

In late December, Funko announced that a Weird Al toy would be coming in 2018 as part of the beloved brand's Pop Rocks series. Though we know he'll be joined by Alice Cooper, Kurt Cobain, Elton John, and the members of Mötley Crüe, there's no word yet on exactly when you’ll be able to get your hands on Pop! Al. But knowing that he's coming is enough … for now.

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