Skip to main content

Commander Frank H. Schofield to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels





March 9, 1917.

M E M O R A N D U M.

From:     Commander Frank H. Schofield, U.S.N.,

To:-      The Secretary of the Navy.

SUBJECT:-Arming Merchant Vessels.

     1.   The following facts bear upon the determination of a policy regarding the arming of American merchant vessels:

     The announcement of Germany that she will sink neutral vessels without warning that are encountered in certain zones of the high seas is an announcement of a warlike intention.1

     The sinking of an American merchant vessel anywhere on the high seas, without warning, by a vessel of war is an act of war, although it may not be so-called.

     There is no difference so far as international law and custom is concerned between sinking a vessel within or without the zone proscribed by Germany.

     The only armed neutrality with which I am familiar is that of the Leagues of 1780 and 1800,2 the principles of which were communicated formally to the powers at war together with the information that those principles would be upheld by force when necessary. The force in readiness in these cases was vessels of war cruising in appropriate areas.

     Arming merchant vessels for defense has usually been a private act, entirely distinct from armed neutrality. During the war with France3 armed merchant vessels carried presidential authority “to seize, take, and bring into port any armed vessel of the Republic of France.” This was war without a declaration.

     The arming of merchant vessels and the placing of naval guns crews on board is not an act of war, but the firing of any gun at a vessel of war of another power is an act of war, although it may not be so called.

     The belligerent right of visit and search has been recognized by all great powers. Naval gun crews on board armed merchant vessels by a vessel of war do [constitute] an act of war.

     When a merchant vessel permits visit and search, it is too late for her battery to offer any effective resistance to unlawful acts.

     It is obvious, therefore, that merchant vessels should not arm unless they are to resist visit and search under some circumstances.

     2.   Now, as to determining whether merchant vessels should be armed or not:-

     The question hinges on the mission to be accomplished by arming. There are two possible missions:

     (1) To give added safety to the ship on the high seas.

Comment. No American merchant vessel has yet been sunk on the high seas without warning. There seem to be indications that American ships are not in great danger at present. The arming of ships will undoubtedly remove any restriction against sinking them that may exist now. My judgment is that American ships are safer without guns now than they will be after they are armed.

(2) To assert by a display of force our national intention to resist the policy of Germany as announced in her note of January 31, 1917.

Comment. The accomplishment of this mission leads us unavoidably to depart from neutrality in the present war. Armed vessels will carry contraband to the enemies of Germany. The United States by guarding those vessels does an act of war. Resistance to the armed vessels of Germany is war.

     We have therefore to choose between not arming vessels and making war.

     3.   When it is decided to arm merchant vessels choice must be made between two policies:-

     First. Of firing without warning on German submarines within the zones proscribed by Germany and treating them as other belligerent vessels of war are treated elsewhere.


     This would be a direct reply to the announcement of Germany. It would parallel exactly that announcement so long as the armed merchant vessels did no unneutral act at any time and so long as they refrained from carrying contraband. The carrying of contraband or the performance of any unneutral act by a merchant vessel would make the Government of the United States a party to the act and thereby would extend the armed reply of the United States beyond the zone proscribed by Germany. Culpability for contraband and for unneutral service cannot be limited to zones.

     If this policy is adopted, the Government of the United States will thereby recognize a new kind of sea area which may establish a dangerous precedent. The tendency of precedents should be towards favoring neutrals.

     Second. Of firing on German submarines wherever they are encountered on the high seas.


     This policy places the United States at once at war with Germany without however declaring war. It is a Frank announcement that the United States recognizes no proscribed zones and that acts committed within those zones are committed on the high seas in violation of the rights of nations to which the United States can make no less reply than a war limited for the present to a war on German submarines that approach or lie near the commercial route of American merchant vessels.

     4.   In view of the foregoing I recommend:-

(a) That no American merchant vessel be armed until the Government of the United States has decided to accept war with Germany in preference to acquiescence in her present practices.

(b) That when merchant vessels are armed they shall be authorized to fire on any German submarine that approaches them or lies within 4,000 yards of their course on their commercial route.

Frank H. Schofield

Source Note: TLS, DLC-MSS, Josephus Daniels Papers, Roll 24. On “NAVY DEPARTMENT/OFFICE OF NAVAL OPERATIONS/WASHINGTON.” stationary.

Footnote 1: This announcement was made on 31 January 1917. The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare began on the following day, 1 February. In response to this action, President Woodrow Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Germany on 3 February; R.H. Gibson and Maurice Prendergast, The German Submarine War 1914-1918 (London: Periscope Publishing, Ltd., 2002), 252.

Footnote 2: Schofield is referring to the First (1780-1783) and Second (1800-1801) Leagues of Armed Neutrality. The First League was an agreement between Denmark, Russia, and Sweden to prevent British interference in their commerce with the United States during the American Revolution. The second added Prussia, and was intended to counteract the British blockade of France, while punishing England by barring it from trade in the Baltic Sea. Cathal J. Nolan, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of International Relations: F-L, Vol. 2 (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002), 939.

Footnote 3: That is, the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).