In response to the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson issued proclamations of neutrality. American citizens sailing the high seas were at risk after Germany announced that the waters around the British isles constituted a war zone, and warned neutral ships to stay out of those waters. On May 1, 1915, the American tanker, Gulflight, was torpedoed, with the loss of two lives. A few days later, another German torpedo sank the British steamer Lusitania. Of the 1,198 passengers who died in that attack, 124 were American. The Lusitania carried war materiel, including rifle cartridges, shrapnel and shell castings.
In response, Wilson prepared the nation for war. In a message to Congress on December 7, 1915, he recommended an increase in the size of the army, acceleration of shipbuilding, and strengthening of the merchant marine. Despite these recommendations, his reelection campaign of 1916 relied heavily on a promise to keep America out of war. On the eve of his election to a second term, Wilson declared, “I am not expecting this country to get into war.”
On January 31, 1917, the German government announced that on and after February 1, it would use submarines against all ships in designated areas on the high seas. On February 3, Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress. He did not expect the German threat to be executed, but if it should be, he would come before Congress again “to ask that authority be given to me to use any means that may be necessary for the protection of our seamen and our people in the prosecution of their peaceful and legitimate errands on the high seas.” On February 28, Wilson returned to Congress. Two American vessels had been sunk. Since Congress was about to adjourn, he asked for authority to practice “armed neutrality.” Wilson declared: “No doubt I already possess that authority without special warrant of law, by the plain implication of my constitutional duties and power, but I prefer in the present circumstances, not to act upon general implication. I wish to feel that the authority and the power of the Congress are behind me in whatever it may be necessary for me to do.”
The House passed the bill on March 1 by a vote of 403 to 13, but a filibuster in the Senate prevented a vote on the measure and Congress dissolved on March 4. On March 12, President Wilson announced that he would put armed guards on merchant ships without congressional authority. When he summoned Congress for a special session on April 2, Wilson confessed that his plan had been futile and asked for a declaration of war, saying, “Armed neutrality . . . is practically certain to draw us into the war without either the rights or the effectiveness of belligerents.” The recent loss of American merchant ships to German submarines, coupled with the disclosure of the “Zimmerman Note,” in which the German Foreign Affairs Minister proposed a German-Mexican alliance, with Mexico getting New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, fueled the rising war fever. Upon Wilson’s request that Congress declare “the recent course of the German government to be, in fact, nothing less than war,” it declared war. Thus, Wilson resisted the temptation to assert unilateral executive power to commit the United States to war.
The arming of merchant vessels without incorporating them into the naval force was of dubious legality at international law. Moreover, an act of Congress of 1819 authorized any merchant vessel of American registry to defend itself against aggression or search by another merchant ship but not against a public armed vessel of a nation in amity with the United States. Further, no act of Congress authorized the President to assign gun crews to private vessels. It seems clear that Wilson’s action was illegal. Yet, to his credit, he never asserted on behalf of the Commander in Chief Clause an executive power to initiate military hostilities or to wage war without congressional authorization.