The Sussex Pledge
When agreeing to the Sussex Pledge, Germany agreed to stop sinking unresisting liners and
merchantmen without warning and with "proper humanitarian precautions," but assumed that
Washington would then insist that other belligerents enforce the "laws of humanity" and respect "the
rules of international law" (a reference to the British starvation blockade). Should the relaxation of
the blockade not occur, Germany stated it "would then be facing and new situation in which it must
reserve to itself complete liberty of decision." But there was not much hope there. While Wilson
accepted the Sussex Pledge, he soundly rejected the last condition.
By January 1917, the situation had changed in Germany. Their people were actually starving because
of the hunger embargo. They not only felt that the USA had jeopardized its neutrality by giving in to
and even abetting to the insidious Allied blockade of Germany ( which ensured that American trade
was almost exclusively with the Allies ), but that the USA could no longer be considered a neutral
party since at that point they were blatantly supplying both munitions and money to the Allies.
The Germans felt betrayed. They also wrongly figured that a resumption of unrestricted submarine
warfare could help defeat Great Britain within a few months. The German Government decided to
resume unrestricted submarine attacks on all Allied and neutral shipping within prescribed war zones,
and accordingly, on January 31, 1917, the German Ambassador to the United States, Count Johann
von Bernstorff, presented U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing with a note declaring Germany’s
intention to restart unrestricted submarine warfare the following day.
Wilson went before Congress on February 3rd and broke diplomatic relations with Germany, but did
not ask for a declaration of war because he doubted that the American public would support him
unless there was ample proof that Germany intended to attack U.S. ships with no warning. Later that
day, Ambassador von Bernstorff was kicked out with guaranteed safe passage out of the country,
and in the wake of Wilson’s speech, all German cruisers docked in the United States were seized. On
the same day, a German U-boat sunk the American cargo ship Housatonic off the Scilly Islands, just
southwest of Britain ( it was a former German ship named the Geogia which had been seized in 1914
and renamed ). A British ship rescued the ship’s crew, but its entire cargo of grain was lost.
On February 26, Wilson asked Congress for authority to arm American merchant ships with U.S.
naval personnel and equipment. Several anti-war Senators led a successful filibuster that ate up the
remainder of the Congressional session. These men were labelled as "obstructionists". Newspapers
such as the Chicago Herald saw them ''damned to everlasting fame." One of the Senators was
hanged in effigy, another received as a gift thirty pieces of silver and another was sent an iron cross
weighing forty pounds made by a blacksmith and bearing the inscription, '' lest the Kaiser forget."
State legislatures passed resolutions of condemnation which denounced the filibusterers as ''disloyal,
traitorous, and cowardly''. At a patriotic mass-meeting of the "American Rights League" held in New
York, speakers called them treasonous and some in the audience shouted, ''Traitors! Hang them!''  
*In March of 1917, the S.S. Algonquin, an unarmed American merchantman carrying a ship full of
food for Britain was sunk without warning but the crew escaped unharmed. Also in March, the
American ships City of Memphis (the crew was let safely off), the Illinois (carrying a million dollars
worth of oil for Britain) and the Vigilancia (with a loss of 15 men) were sunk. A Standard Oil
Company steamer Healdton was sunk in a supposed "safety zone" off the Dutch coast ( the
Steamship Healdton, was described as torpedoed by a German submarine March 21, 1917, but
current thought is that it probably struck a newly-laid mine in a minefield of 1000 mines laid by the
Royal Navy on March 19, 1917 25 miles north of Terschelling, Holland ). On Feb.12, 1917, the
American schooner Lyman M. Law was captured in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Sardinia
by Austrians who released the crew of eight Americans and two British sailors before sinking the
ship. The crew was uninjured. The ship Aztec, armed with two 3-inch 50-caliber guns, was either
torpedoed or mined on April 1st. killing 28. The American steamship Missourian was sunk in the
Mediterranean on April 4th, 1917 by an unmarked submarine
Disregarding the Senate, Wilson decided to arm American merchant ships by executive order, even
though international law stipulated that the placing of U.S. naval personnel on civilian ships to protect
them from German submarines would constitute an act of war against Germany. Wilson claimed that
an archaic anti-piracy law gave him the authority to do so.
Ten U.S. ships losses between February 1, 1917 and April 4, 1917 served as the official “overt acts”
or casus belli for U.S. declaration of war against Germany:  Housatonic, Lyman M. Law,  
Algonquin,  Vigilancia,  Healdton,   City of Memphis,  Illinois,  Aztec and Marguerite*
In February of 1917, the British ship Laconia was sunk by a German submarine killing two American
passengers. Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, Britain had turned the Laconia into an armed
merchant cruiser and she was based in the South Atlantic. After being used as headquarters for the
British operations to capture Tanga and the colony of German East Africa, she returned to the
patrolling of the South Atlantic. She was then given back to Cunard and on September 9, 1916 and
resumed service carrying passengers! On February 25, 1917, she was torpedoed and sunk by the
Germans while returning from the United States to England with 75 passengers. Twelve people were
killed, including two American citizens. A flamboyant reporter from the Chicago Tribune named
Floyd Gibbons was aboard the Laconia when it was torpedoed and gained fame from his dramatic
dispatches about the attack.
From the last paragraph of "And They Thought We Wouldn't Fight" by Floyd Gibbons, 1918:
As I stepped ashore, a Britisher, a fellow-passenger aboard the Laconia, who knew me as an
American, stepped up to me. During the voyage, we had had many conversations concerning the
possibility of America entering the war. Now he slapped me on the back with this question,

"Well, old
Casus Belli," he said, "is this your blooming overt act?"

I did not answer him, but thirty minutes afterward, I was rounding out on a typewriter the
introduction to a four thousand-word newspaper article, which I cabled that night and which put the
question up to the American public for an answer. Five weeks later the United States entered the war.
Gibbons was greatly influenced by anti-German sentiments. His musings were later published by an
anti-German propaganda disseminator, George H. Doran Company of New York. Gibbons was a
war correspondent later embedded with the US Marines and it appears that he totally made up the
"fact" that the term Devil Dog or 'Teufelshunde' was used by the Germans to describe the Marines.
He wrote several books about World War I, including what purports to be a biography of Baron von
Richthofen, the "Red Baron", which was more akin to an inaccurate work of fiction and created to
turn Richthofen into a fiendish, blood-thirsty hun.