Skip to main content

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to President Woodrow Wilson


Dear Mr. President:                Washington. March 9, 1917.

     Admiral Benson went over to New York last night to confer with Admiral Usher, Mr. Franklin and others looking to carrying out the policy desired.1 The important question now seems to be which is the best policy to be adopted to carry into effect the arming of ships. There were three different methods outlined in the memorandum submitted to you yesterday. Briefly summarized, they are:


     Replies to the German threat to sink neutral vessels in designated zones of the high seas by assuming all German submarines on the high seas are attacking United States vessels and that merchant vessels of the United States consequently may fire upon German submarines wherever they are met on the high seas.


     Replies to the German threat to sink neutral vessels in designated zones of the high seas by assuming that all German submarines within those zones are attacking U. S. vessels and that consequently merchant vessels of the United States may fire upon German submarines wherever they are met within those zones, but that merchant vessels must grant to German submarines the right of visit and search in all other areas of the high seas.


     Replies to the German threat to sink neutral vessels in designated zones of the high seas by continuing to recognize the rights of German submarines to visit and search American merchant vessels, but authorizes those vessels to resist by force certain named unlawful acts of submarines.

     I am enclosing redrafted copies of the memorandum submitted to you yesterday giving in detail the three separate policies suggested. Policy No. one denies the right of German submarines to search and seizure, and if ships carrying contraband are to have guns and naval crews on board will it not be necessary to deny search and seizure? Otherwise, practically no goods could be transported and the orders from abroad could not be filled. Would not this practically tie up American ships from going through the barred zone? To be sure this would deny the belligerent right of Germany to visit and search anywhere on the high seas. This would, of course, be a departure from international law and usage. Germany and the world might say that, demanding observance of international law, we had ourselves failed to observe it. Of course, our answer would be that Germany’s note that it would sink without warning justified our action. This would be sufficient answer, undoubtedly, if in your message to Congress you had not expressed the doubt that Germany would be guilty of that unprecedented act. I am calling your attention to what is involved in Policy No. I before you determine upon which course should be pursued.2

     Admiral Benson is strongly of the opinion that the first thing to be done would be to notify Germany that, in view of the declaration that she intends to sink our ships without warning in a certain zone, it is our purpose to arm our ships for protection.3 He believes if this information is imparted it is barely possible that Germany might not carry out her threat. If we deny the right of visit, Germany would declare that to be a warlike act, and that we were responsible for bringing on war. It is entirely probable that the next step would be war. If we must enter it to protect our rights and the lives of our people, I have felt we ought to do nothing to put the responsibility for this step upon our Government.

     Last night I conferred with Admiral Palmer about the crews to man the guns. He has taken action, and sends this note which I thought you would like to read. It is as follows:

Confidential.                           March 9, 1917.

From: Bureau of Navigation.

To: Operations.

     Subject: Arming merchant vessels with Naval gun crews and a Naval officer.

     Before any action is taken the Secretary should know that the presence of U. S. sailors (and an officer) on merchant ships will probably be considered an act of war from the German viewpoint.4

     That it is most probable that a German submarine, knowing an American merchant vessel is armed, and has armed forces of the U. S. on board, for the definite and sole purpose of resisting attack of submarines, will attack without warning.

     That the master of the merchant vessel and the Naval Officer will believe the German submarine will attack without warning, and therefore, for the safety of the vessel, passengers, U. S. sailors and crew, they will fire at the submarine on sight.

The Secretary should be fully informed on this subject before final steps are taken to place 50 U. S. sailors and officers on armed merchant vessels.

(Signed)       Leigh C. Palmer.

     Admiral Benson is to telephone me how soon ships could leave and whether action can be taken without publicity.5 My own opinion is that it would be impossible to take the action without our own people knowing it for these reasons:

I. Passengers would not go on these ships unless they knew they were armed and had competent gun crews. Their families and friends would know they were going and publicity would be certain.

2. Shippers and all their employees would be busy loading the cargo, and this could not be kept secret.

3. The sending of the gun crew--40 or 50 on the larger ships--would be known on the ships or stations from which they are taken, and experience has shown how impossible such movements are to be confined to service channels.

     The question arises, too, whether it would not be wisest to state that you had reached the conclusion that you had a right to arm the ships and would do so, making no statement as to the time or the method. I cannot resist the feeling that this would be the best course and meet public approval. If Germany wants war, she will try to sink in any event. If she wishes to avert war with us, there would be time to modify her orders to Naval commanders so they would not commit the overt act.

     Admiral Benson will return this afternoon and I will send you tonight or tomorrow morning a statement from him after his talk with Mr. Franklin.6 It will take five days, after notice that ships are to be armed, for one to sail, and until I hear from you I will give no orders to arm them, but will have guns and crews ready for immediate action.7

     I suggest whether, when we undertake to arm the ships, it will not be necessary to secure some co-operation with the English or French to whose shores the ships are destined. The information comes to us that when a ship leaves New York, its route and time of arrival are cabled to the Admiralty and it is met and convoyed into port by destroyers or other craft through a lane traversed all the time by Naval craft. Suppose we send out an armed merchant ship, ought we not to secure some such convoy or protection when she nears port in the barred zone? This is a big question but is one that we probably must face. The English also on this side know when a ship is coming into an American port and keep ships over here to afford protection. Certain French and English Naval officers here have suggested to officers in our service that some character of co-operation would be necessary. Naturally they would expect us to patrol and convoy their ships coming into our ports if they protect and convoy our ships going into their ports. Such co-operation would be easy if we were at war with Germany, but as we are not at war, would not such co-operation make us regarded as an ally of the entente powers? The protection of our ships and their reaching ports in safety raises so many difficult questions, and the consequences are so grave, that I am trying to present them to you before the final order to arm is given, though, of course, they have been present in your mind during the whole controversy.8

Sincerely yours,    Josephus Daniels

Source Note: Wilson Papers, 41: 369-72.

Footnote 1: Adm. William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations; RAdm. Nathaniel R. Usher, Commandant of the New York Navy Yard; Philip A.S. Franklin, President, International Mercantile Marine Co., a leading American shipping firm.

Footnote 2: When the regulations concerning the Armed Guard program were issued, Secretary of State Robert Lansing suggested no policy statement be attached because “it is not necessary in such a paper to state the policy of the Government, since the instructions embody that policy.” Wilson to Daniels, 12 March 1917, Daniels Papers, DLC; Diary of Josephus Daniels, 12 March 1917, Wilson Papers, 41: 395. See, also: Regulations Concerning Armed Guards, 13 March 1917. The policy laid out in those regulations closely mirrored number two.

Footnote 3: Such an announcement was issued by the United States Government on 12 March. The announcement is printed in Wilson Papers, 41: 372; and bears the heading “ENCLOSURE II.”

Footnote 4: In his War Message to Congress on 2 April, Wilson wrote:

The German Government denies the right of neutrals to use arms at all within the areas of the sea which it has proscribed . . . . The intimation is conveyed that the armed guards which we have placed on our merchant ships will be treated as beyond the pale of law and subject to be dealt with as pirates would be. Armed neutrality is ineffectual enough at best; in such circumstances and in the fact of such pretensions it is worse than ineffectual: it is likely only to produce what it was meant to prevent; it is practically certain to draw us into the war. Wilson Papers, 41: 521.

Footnote 5: According to Josephus Daniels in his Our Navy at War, two days after the regulations were released guns were installed on the steamships Mongolia, St. Louis and Aztec and four days later two other ships. Daniels, Our Navy at War, 26. Manchuria received an Armed Guard detachment on 17 March 1917, and sailed on 18 March 1917.

Footnote 6: This “statement” has not been found.

Footnote 7: Despite what Daniels argued here, Wilson directed that the instructions should not be “given out & he would wish any officer court-martialed who gave out any hint of instructions.” Daniels Diary, entry of 12 March 1917, DLC, Josephus Daniels Papers, Diary, Roll 1.

Footnote 8: In a diary entry of 9 March, Daniels noted that Adm. Henry T. Mayo, commander of the American North Atlantic fleet, was to ask Robert Lansing to approach the British Ambassador to the United States concerning British protection for American ships “near Great Britain.” Josephus Daniels Papers, Diary, DLC. After the announcement of the Armed Guard/armed neutrality program, the U.S. Navy and the British Navy initiated a series of unofficial conversations concerning cooperation between the two services. See, Anglo-American Naval Relations: 14-19.

Related Content