This week in history: William Jennings Bryan resigns as Secretary of State

By Cody K. Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, June 11 2014 5:00 p.m. MDT

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.

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