The United States sought, at the outbreak of war in August 1914, to have the warring nations accept the Declaration of London as the guide in their treatment of neutrals. Germany was willing, but England was not. As the preponderant navy belligerent, England was not willing to surrender the advantage to be derived from the lack of legal restrictions.
The plight of the neutrals, particularly the United States—the one most heavily involved in the carrying trade—was cruel indeed. As in the titanic struggle between France and England from 1793 to 1815, the only rule followed by the belligerents was expediency. No holds were barred, no measure was neglected that might contribute to the defeat of the enemy. Each contestant used to the utmost the weapon it knew best. German submarines stalked the seas, but mainly the waters surrounding the British Isles, sinking every vessel it could catch—enemy or neutral— carrying supplies to Britain. The British surface navy roamed the oceans enforcing measures designed to halt all traffic to Germany. Those measures were numerous and comprehensive, and reflected the cumulative experience of a nation for which the sea had been a lifeline for three centuries. The contraband list was extended to include the widest variety of articles and the distinction between absolute and conditional categories, which Britain had adopted at the same time as the United States, was gradually blurred until it disappeared altogether.
The blockade of Germany was not effective, in that ships were not stationed at German ports to prevent entry and exit but were, rather, placed in the North Sea and The Downs, a roadstead in the English Channel, from which the traffic to the Continent was more easily controlled. It must be pointed out that the two belligerents were under no legal obligation to treat American commerce according to American wishes. There was no body of international maritime law binding the warring countries (the Declaration of London not being in force and not having been signed by the United States), nor were they bound by any bilateral treaties with the United States concerning the treatment of neutrals. Visit and search were not conducted at the point of interception on the high seas; neutral vessels were taken into British or other Allied ports for a detailed and careful examination of cargo and papers. Neutral mails were opened and inspected for contraband and for clues as to destination of cargo. The principle of "free ships make free goods" gave way to the practice of detaining all goods on neutral vessels of enemy origin or ownership. Neutral firms that dealt with the enemy were put on a blacklist and forbidden to trade with the Allies, while neutral vessels that did not conform to certain conditions laid down by the British were subjected to "bunker control" and denied coal, oil, and other refueling supplies. Finally, the doctrine of continuous voyage, hitherto applied to absolute contraband only, and where the second leg of the broken voyage was by sea, was applied to conditional contraband, and where the second leg was over a contiguous land frontier.
The United States, caught between the two belligerents, protested both the violations of its neutral rights and the destruction of the doctrine of the freedom of the seas. The protests to Germany were sharper, more insistent, and more demanding than those to England, although the policies of both were equally oppressive and damaging. The reason for such discrimination was stated by President Woodrow Wilson when he compared the British to thieves and the Germans to murderers. The former, he said, seized property, a matter that could be adjudicated at the end of the war, while the latter took lives, which were lost forever. There was, of course, another cause for the partiality to the British: Americans were entangled, emotionally and economically, with the British, which made a rupture of relations with them unthinkable. The United States finally went to war against Germany in 1917 to uphold its rights as a neutral and to defend the principle of the freedom of the seas, not only for itself but for other nations as well (the "challenge is to all mankind," said the president). The move might be viewed as the fulfillment of the task set out by Secretary of State Robert Lansing in a note sent to the British government in October 1915 that described the nation as "championing the integrity of neutrals … [which] the United States unhesitatingly assumes."
The deep concern the United States exhibited for its neutral rights, as well as for the rights of others, between 1914 and 1917 vanished the moment the country joined the Allied cause. Indeed, as a belligerent the United States outdid its allies in trampling upon neutral rights. The justification of a harsh policy toward neutrals lay in the necessity for winning the war and defeating the enemy of mankind's freedom—on the seas as elsewhere. The neutrals were not impressed by America's beneficence; they were shocked. As one Danish newspaper noted, "It was as a spokesman of the freedom of the seas and the rights of neutral countries that America came into conflict with Germany, and finally went to war. It would be a strange debut for her to start by committing exactly the same kind of outrage which Mr. Wilson pretended to fight against in the interest of the neutrals." As a matter of fact, the belligerent policy of the United States need not have been so unexpected. It was heralded in a remark made by Secretary Lansing in 1915. He noted: "It was of the highest importance that we should not become a belligerent with our hands tied too tightly by what we had written. We would presumably wish to adopt some of the policies and practices which the British had adopted, though certainly not all of them, for our object would be the same as theirs … to break the power of Germany."
Almost every practice against which the United States protested as a neutral it pursued as a belligerent—the blacklist, bunker control, sweeping contraband list, postal censorship, and broadest interpretation of the doctrine of continuous voyage—rather as it had done during the Civil War. In fairness, it must be noted, however, that certain British practices were not adopted by belligerent America. The United States did not join Britain in the blockade or in the routing of neutral vessels into ports to facilitate searching them.
As World War I came to an end, the American view of the freedom of the seas underwent a considerable change. It came about as a consequence of Woodrow Wilson's dream of a new postwar international order. In that order the concept of freedom of the seas would not be used solely to describe the problem of the rights of neutrals to trade in wartime; it would have a much broader meaning. As stated by the president in a message to the Senate on 22 January 1917, it would mean the right of every nation to have free access to "the open paths of the world's commerce." And, he went on to say, "The paths of the sea must alike in law and in fact be free. The freedom of the seas is the sine qua non of peace, equality, and co-operation." One year later, on 8 January 1918, Wilson further elaborated his concept of freedom of the seas in his Fourteen Points. The second of them called for "absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants." It should be noted that by the last qualifying phrase, Wilson indicated that restrictions on freedom of the seas could be effected only by the League of Nations, the new international organization for maintaining the peace, when acting to chastise a peace-breaking nation.
Unfortunately, certain nations were not prepared to accept so broad and bold a definition of freedom of the seas. Britain, particularly, balked at its being incorporated into the peace treaty. The British could not afford to leave so vital an element of their national security in any hands other than their own. "This point we cannot accept under any conditions," said Prime Minister David Lloyd George. "It means that the power of blockade goes; Germany has been broken almost as much by the blockade as by military methods; if this power is to be handed over to the League of Nations and Great Britain were fighting for her life, no League of Nations could prevent her from defending herself." France and Italy took much the same view. Said the French premier Georges Clemenceau, "War would not be war if there was freedom of the seas."
For his part, Wilson would not "consent to take part in the negotiation of a peace which did not include freedom of the seas [and] … unless Lloyd George would make some reasonable concessions on his attitude upon the freedom of the seas, all hope of Anglo-Saxon unity would be at an end." To avoid such a breakdown among the Allies, which would give Germany so great an advantage, the British finally accepted the point as a basis for discussion at the conference, but on the understanding that they "reserve to themselves complete freedom on this subject when they enter the Peace Conference." The point was never seriously discussed at the conference, and the treaty ending the war made no mention of it. Thus, Wilson's effort to redefine the principle came to naught.
Between the two world wars the freedom of the seas did not figure prominently in international affairs. After the breakdown of the Geneva Naval Conference in 1927, Senator William E. Borah of Idaho called for a conference of the great powers to codify the rights of neutrals and belligerents on the high seas in wartime, but nothing came of it. It was clear that the United States and Britain would not agree—the former supporting the liberal view of neutral rights and the latter championing a broad interpretation of the rights of belligerents. In 1929 Senator Arthur Capper of Kansas introduced a resolution in the Senate that would have revived in some measure the Wilsonian dream of the United States joining other nations in denying the freedom of the seas to an aggressor. Appreciating the fact that America could not participate in the League of Nations' enforcement machinery by virtue of nonmembership, he proposed that should the League of Nations declare a nation to be a violator of the peace, the United States would withhold from that country "arms, munitions, implements of war, or other articles for use in war." Thus, there would be no danger of the United States clashing with League of Nations states in the protection of its neutral rights. Sentiment in America, however, was not ready for a policy of taking sides in an international struggle. A similar effort in 1933 by the U.S. representative at the Geneva Disarmament Conference failed for the same reason.