With the onset of war in Europe, hostilities began in the North Atlantic which eventually provided the context — or rather, pretext — for America’s participation. Immediately, questions of the rights of neutrals and belligerents leapt to the fore.
In 1909, an international conference had produced the Declaration of London, a statement of international law as it applied to war at sea. Since it was not ratified by all the signatories, the declaration never came into effect. However, once war started the United States inquired whether the belligerents were willing to abide by its stipulations. The Central Powers agreed, providing the entente did the same. The British agreed, with certain modifications, which effectively negated the declaration. British “modifications” included adding a large number of previously “free” items to the “conditional” contraband list and changing the status of key raw materials — most important of all, food — to “absolute” contraband, allegedly because they could be used by the German army.
The traditional understanding of international law on this point was expounded a decade and a half earlier by the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury:
Foodstuffs, with a hostile destination, can be considered contraband of war only if they are supplies for the enemy’s forces. It is not sufficient that they are capable of being so used; it must be shown that this was in fact their destination at the time of the seizure.
Great Wars and Great L…
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That had also been the historical position of the US government. But in 1914 the British claimed the right to…