United States Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned from his post on June 9, 1915. Bryan opposed President Woodrow Wilson's actions in the wake of the sinking of the Lusitania before American entry into World War I.

A lifelong Democrat, Bryan had run for president three times: in 1896, in 1900 and again in 1908. In his first and second elections, he lost to Republican William McKinley, and he lost his third presidential bid to William Howard Taft, President Theodore Roosevelt's hand-picked Republican successor.

In 1912, the Democratic Party selected a relative newcomer to politics, Woodrow Wilson, as its candidate. Despite the fact that Wilson was more than three years older than Bryan, the younger man was considered the old man of the Democratic Party, and Wilson needed his support for the Democratic nomination. In exchange for his backing, Wilson named Bryan his secretary of state upon assuming his duties as president in 1913.

Bryan had not been Wilson's first choice, and the new president proved inclined to craft his own foreign policy and turned to his friend and amateur diplomat Col. Edward M. House for foreign policy advice. Bryan detested the thought of war, and Wilson allowed him to pursue a policy of setting up bilateral treaties with foreign nations in the hopes of maintaining peace.

The beginning of World War I saw the United States pass neutrality laws designed to keep America out of the war in Europe. These laws stated that American banks could not make loans to the belligerents, and that though any belligerent could buy American war material, American ships could not carry it to Europe — the belligerent nation must transport it.

On the surface, these laws appeared to indeed buttress American neutrality. The reality was that they generally favored the British and French, who had larger merchant navies than Germany, which had much larger Atlantic coastlines. Britain could also rely upon one of its dominions, Canada, to purchase and transport goods fairly easily.

In his book “The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I,” historian Thomas Fleming wrote: “As the war continued, Wilson edged Bryan to the diplomatic sidelines. He sent his confidential adviser, Col. House, to London, Paris and Berlin to explore the possibilities of a mediated peace. House was ... pro-British ... but concealed it out of his desire to blend with Wilson's seemingly neutral stance. In the State Department, (Under-Secretary of State Robert) Lansing gradually acquired more influence than Bryan.”

Though Wilson had initially disliked Lansing, Lansing came up with a scheme for American banks to continue making loans to Britain by simply re-christening them “credits.” When the United States eventually declared war on Germany in 1917, J.P. Morgan's bank alone had “credited” Britain and France roughly $2.1 billion (nearly $30 billion in 2002 dollars). In the 1930s, banker J.P. Morgan testified before a Senate committee that there really had been no difference between loans and “credits.” Such actions upset Bryan, who feared that such favoritism toward Britain and France would eventually draw America into the war.

In order to deprive Britain of food and war materials, Germany embarked upon a U-boat campaign. Realizing that if its submarines notified cargo and passenger ships of their intention to sink them, the targeted ships would radio for help, the Germans decided upon a bold strategy. Germany declared the seas around Great Britain to be an unrestricted U-boat zone and any ship that ventured into it would be fair game for German torpedoes. To that end, Germany took out newspaper notices in neutral countries like the United States, warning them not to enter the zone.

Early 1915 saw a number of small American ships attacked, including the wheat transport William P. Frye and the tanker the Gulflight. The steamship Cushing was also attacked by a German aircraft. While Wilson wished to take a hard line against the Germans for these violations of American neutrality, Bryan noted that American ships were aware of the risks and felt that Americans must take responsibility for entering into a war zone.

Like Wilson, Bryan believed that Americans did indeed have the right to go anywhere on the high seas, but he also believed that there existed “a moral duty which they owe to their government to keep out of danger ... and thereby relieve their government from responsibility for their safety.”

The issue came to a head with the sinking of the British passenger ship RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915. Nearly 1,200 died in the sinking, among them 128 American citizens. A number of voices rose up in the wake of the event, calling for America to enter the war, including Senate Republican leader Henry Cabot Lodge and Roosevelt.

Among those who did not get caught up in the war hysteria was Bryan, the convinced pacifist. Americans had known about the U-boat zone, he argued in a meeting of Wilson's cabinet, and must take responsibility for their decision to risk it. Only a week earlier, the German government had taken out an ad in 50 newspapers around the country next to the British ship schedules, reminding them of the zone.

In his book “Wilson,” biographer A. Scott Berg wrote: “When Bryan heard the news (of the Lusitania's sinking), he immediately wondered if the ship carried 'munitions of war.' If she did, he said, 'it puts a different phase on the whole matter!' … Bryan said the 4,200 cases of rifle cartridges and 1,250 cases of shrapnel, along with cases of fuses, shell casting, and high explosives meant that the United States should rebuke not only Germany for destroying the Lusitania but also England for interference in international shipping, particularly for 'using our citizens to protect her ammunition.' ”

Wilson, at the time distracted with courting his future second wife, gave a speech a few days later in which he mentioned that America was “too proud to fight” and would remain neutral. Bryan supported Wilson's decision to remain neutral, though Wilson himself wavered and considered the possibility of going to war. Wilson wrote a strong letter to the German government in which he called upon the Germans to make reparations and to respect the rights of Americans on the high seas.

He sent the note to Bryan for his signature as Secretary of State, though Bryan disapproved of the letter without a similar rebuke being sent to the British. If America took such a position, how could it hope to be regarded as an honest broker who may be able to one day mediate a fair peace with all belligerents? “With a heavy heart,” Bryan sent the note to the Germans.

A May 11 cabinet meeting saw Wilson reading a dispatch from House, who was in Europe. House began to suggest that involvement in the war may be in America's interest. Bryan further felt he was being pushed off to the sidelines by figures who were intent on war.

Scott wrote: “(Bryan) became visibly perturbed as the meeting progressed, until he heatedly accused some members of the Cabinet of no longer being neutral. With that, the president turned his steely gaze on the secretary of state and fixed his jaw. 'Mr. Bryan,' he said, 'you are not warranted in making such an assertion. We all doubtless have our opinions in this matter, but there are none of us who can justly be accused of being unfair.' Bryan apologized.”

View Comments

A few days later, Bryan wrote a letter to Wilson, noting that he could not support the president in his position if the administration's policies increasingly moved the nation toward belligerence. Wilson believed that he would eventually have to part ways with Bryan, and he looked to Lansing as his replacement. Wilson soon prepared another letter for the Germans, one which demanded an end to unrestricted U-boat warfare. Belligerent in tone, the note did not repeat the American offer to mediate an end to the war, nor was it accompanied by another note rebuking Britain. Bryan refused to sign the letter, and his resignation soon followed.

Meeting with Wilson in early June, Bryan said to the president, “Colonel House has been Secretary of State, not I, and I have never had your full confidence.” The next day, June 9, Wilson formally accepted Bryan's resignation. Scott noted that “William Jennings Bryan had been, in fact, an earnest and principled public servant, making the most of a position in which he was never fully empowered.”

As a private citizen, Bryan supported Wilson in his 1916 re-election bid, which he won. Germany ended the practice of unrestricted U-boat warfare in the wake of the Lusitania sinking, not wishing to provoke America into joining the Allies. With the war dragging on and the Germans growing more desperate, in early 1917 the practice was reinstated. America declared war on Germany in April 1917. In addition to U-boat warfare, several factors led to America entering the war, including American business interests, such as J.P. Morgan's loans. Bryan's fears that such favoritism would lead to war proved correct.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.