In February 1918 the Bolsheviks, now in control in Russia, decide to pull out of the war at any cost rather than risk losing their revolution.  Germany exploits Russian weakness by increasing its demands and sending its armies forward until Russia capitulates.  In the United States, the President replies to statements made by leaders of the Central Powers in response to his “Fourteen Points,” and adds four more.  The British Parliament debates and defeats a pacifist’s proposed response to the speech from the throne.  President Wilson, facing a domestic challenge, opposes a Senate proposal to create a War Cabinet to direct the war effort, but supports his own proposal to give himself more power to do so.  The workless Monday rule is suspended after less than a month.  SS Tuscania, a British troop ship carrying American soldiers to Europe, is attacked by a U-boat and sunk off the coast of Ireland.

Nikolai Bukharin

The negotiations in Brest-Litovsk reached a critical stage this month.  In January the Central Powers presented a series of non-negotiable demands, which included German occupation of vast swaths of territory formerly part of the Russian Empire.  Having prolonged the negotiations as long as he could and faced with a hopeless military situation, Trotsky recessed the talks and returned to Petrograd to confer with Lenin.  They were joined by Nikolai Bukharin, the editor of Pravda, the party’s official newspaper, and a powerful member of the Bolshevik Central Committee.  Trotsky advocated a policy of “no war, no peace,” by which Russia would simply cease fighting and break off negotiations, refusing to sign any treaty or other agreement, and hope that political pressure in Germany would prevent a resumption of hostilities.  Bukharin wanted to go on the offensive in support of a revolution of the proletariat, still hoping to inspire the working classes of Germany and Austria-Hungary to overthrow their governments.  Lenin opposed both, arguing that in the absence of a widespread proletarian revolution offensive military operations were impossible, and that either Bukharin’s offensive or Trotsky’s “no war, no peace” strategy would result in a military defeat that would endanger the revolution, which he regarded as far more important than any other consideration.  At a meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee Lenin agreed to adopt Trotsky’s strategy with the understanding that if it failed Trotsky would not oppose Lenin’s position in favor of an immediate peace rather than a revolutionary war.

The Central Powers and Ukraine Sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

Also in the conference at Brest-Litovsk was a delegation from the Rada, a parliamentary government that was set up in the Ukraine after the overthrow of the Tsar.  After the Bolsheviks seized power and entered into negotiations with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk, Germany invited the Rada to send delegates to represent the Ukraine.  A separate peace would result in Austria-Hungary and Germany having access to the abundant grain resources of the Ukraine, relieving the impending famine in those countries.  The Bolshevik delegation, of course, does not recognize the Rada and denies its authority to speak for the Ukraine.  The Bolsheviks’ insistence that the Ukraine is part of Russia and subject to the authority of the Petrograd Soviet is supported by the fact that Bolshevik troops have moved into the Ukraine and now effectively control that territory.  The strong hand at Brest-Litovsk, however, is held by the Germans, who are more than willing to enter into a separate agreement with the Rada, and against whom the Bolsheviks, whether in the Ukraine or elsewhere on the Eastern Front, are virtually powerless.  On February 9 the Central Powers’ delegations at Brest-Litovsk formally recognized the Rada delegation as the representative of Ukraine and signed a separate peace that gave Germany and Austria-Hungary the right to buy Ukraine’s entire grain surplus.

On February 10, at his residence at Bad Homburg, Kaiser Wilhelm replied to the Burgomeister of Homburg’s announcement of the peace agreement with the Ukraine.  He acknowledged that the German people “have gone through hard times” and that “the world . . . has not been on the right path.”  He said that “Germans, who still have ideals, should work to bring about better times,” and that Germany will “seek in every way” to “bring peace to the world.”  He said peace has now been achieved “in a friendly manner with an enemy which, beaten by our armies, perceives no reason for fighting longer, extends a hand to us, and receives our hand.”  He warned, however, that “he who will not accept peace . . . must be forced to have peace.  We desire to live in friendship with neighboring peoples, but the victory of German arms must first be recognized.”

German Troops Advancing Into the Ukraine

As the Kaiser was speaking, Trotsky was in Brest-Litovsk informing the Central Powers of Russia’s new policy of “no war, no peace.”  General Hoffmann reacted with disbelief, sputtering that such a thing was “unheard of … unheard of!”, and left for Bad Homburg to confer with the Kaiser.  The meeting took place on February 13 and included, in addition to General Hoffmann and the Kaiser, Chancellor von Hertling, Foreign Minister von Kuhlmann, and General Ludendorff.  Hertling and Kuhlmann argued against resuming hostilities, preferring to concentrate Germany’s military effort on the Western Front, but the generals argued strongly for an immediate offensive, and the Kaiser agreed.  On February 18 fifty-three divisions advanced against essentially undefended Russian positions from Pskov and Petrograd in the north to the Ukraine in the south.  For the Russians the only choice now was between Bukharin’s revolutionary war and Lenin’s insistence on saving the revolution by capitulation.  At a meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee in Petrograd, Trotsky honored his promise not to oppose Lenin if his “no war, no peace” policy failed, and a  narrow majority voted with Lenin to accept Germany’s terms.  Lenin sent a telegram that night informing Berlin of the Committee’s decision.  Five days passed before an answer was received, and when it came it presented a list of additional demands, including the withdrawal of Russian troops from all of the Ukraine, Finland, Courland, Estonia and Latvia, and recognition of the Rada as the legitimate government of Ukraine.  At Lenin’s insistence, the Central Committee voted to accept the additional conditions without further negotiation.  On February 26, when the Germans received word of the Russian acquiescence, they halted their advance on Petrograd.

The events of February have answered, or at least clarified, many of the questions that were raised by last year’s revolutions in Russia and were still unanswered when the month began.  First, it is now clear that Russia’s allies Great Britain, France and Italy will have nothing to do with the Brest-Litovsk negotiations.  Second, the parties to those negotiations must now recognize that the Christmas Day declaration of “self-determination, no annexations, and no indemnities” was a false hope from the beginning.  Third, the Bolsheviks’ hope for a revolution of the proletariat in Germany and Austria-Hungary has been abandoned, at least within any time frame that would affect the negotiations.  Fourth, Russia has now shown that it will do whatever it must to get out of the war, and Germany has demonstrated a determination to take full advantage of Russia’s weakness by forcing the issue militarily.  Finally, Austria-Hungary, eager as it is to find a way out of the war, has decided not to pursue a separate peace and will adhere for the time being to its alliance with Germany.

Lord Reading

In the United States, President Wilson has again traveled to Capitol Hill on short notice to address a joint session of Congress.  After notifying Vice President Marshall and Speaker Clark the morning of February 11, he appeared in the House chamber at noon that day.  Those present included French Ambassador Jules Jusserand and the new British Ambassador, Rufus Isaacs, Viscount Reading, Lord Chief Justice of England.  Lord Reading arrived in Washington on February 10 to assume his new duties as Ambassador and High Commissioner, an assignment that includes powers greater than those of his predecessor Sir Cecil Spring Rice.  He continues for the time being to hold the post of Lord Chief Justice.

The occasion for the President’s visit to Congress was not Russia’s “no war, no peace” policy, which was announced only that day in Brest-Litovsk, but the January 24 statements made by German Chancellor von Hertling and Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Czernin in response to the President’s “fourteen points” address of January 8.  The President complimented Czernin, noting that his statement, which he said was “uttered in a very friendly tone,” finds in the fourteen points “a sufficiently encouraging approach to the views of his own government to justify him in believing that it furnishes a basis for a more detailed discussion of purposes by the two governments.”  Von Hertling’s statement, in contrast, is “very vague and very confusing” and “leads it is not clear where.”  The President accused Hertling of ignoring his own Reichstag, which passed resolutions on July 19 that “spoke of the conditions of a general peace, not of national aggrandizement or of arrangements between state and state.”  Mr. Wilson went on to articulate four principles that he said should be applied in any attempt to arrive at a general peace:

“First — That each part of the final settlement must be based upon the essential justice of that particular case and upon such adjustments as are most likely to bring a peace that will be permanent,
“Second — That people and grievances are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were mere chattels and pawns in a game, even the great game, now forever discredited, of the balance of power; but that,
“Third — Every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned, and not as a part of any mere adjustment or compromise of claims among rival states; and
“Fourth — That all well-defined national aspirations shall be accorded the utmost satisfaction that can be accorded them without introducing new or perpetuating old elements of discord and antagonism that would be likely in time to break the peace of Europe, and consequently of the world.”

Having stated these principles, the President placed the responsibility for continuing the war squarely on the German military.  He said that until “a general peace erected upon such foundations . . . can be secured we have no choice but to go on.  So far as we can judge, these principles that we regard as fundamental are already everywhere accepted as imperative except among the spokesmen of the military and annexationist party in Germany. . . . [T]his one party in Germany is apparently willing and able to send millions of men to their death to prevent what all the world now sees to be just.”  The President concluded his address with the assurance that “no word of what I have said is intended as a threat. . . . The power of the United States is a menace to no nation or people.  It will never be used in aggression or for the aggrandizement of any selfish interest of our own.  It springs out of freedom and is for the service of freedom.”

In a speech in the Reichstag on February 25, Chancellor von Hertling replied.   He said he “can fundamentally agree” with Wilson’s four principles, with a single reservation: “These principles must not only be proposed by the President of the United States, but must also be recognized by all states and peoples.”  “Unfortunately,” he said, “there is no trace of similar statements on the part of the leading powers of the Entente.  England’s war aims are still thoroughly imperialistic and she wants to impose on the world a peace according to England’s good pleasure.  When England talks about the people’s right of self-determination, she does not think of applying the principle to Ireland, Egypt, and India.”  Back at the White House on February 28, President Wilson met with Secretary of State Lansing and Colonel House over a long lunch to discuss the Chancellor’s speech and the German advance into Russia.

Sir Cecil Spring-Rice

Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, the British Ambassador to the United States who was recalled last month, was on his way back to Great Britain when he died in Ottawa on February 14.  He was a long-time friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and officiated as best man at Roosevelt’s wedding in 1886.

Foreign Secretary Balfour

The British Parliament on February 13 debated and defeated a motion to amend the response to the speech from the throne.  The amendment was proposed by Richard Holt, a radical member of Parliament, who moved to insert language expressing regret that “prosecution of the military effort is to be the only immediate task of the Government.”  Speaking in support of his amendment, Holt asked whether President Wilson’s four points set forth in his February 11 address to Congress represented the policy of the British Government and its European allies.  If so, he said, the government should reassemble the War Council at Versailles or elsewhere and make an announcement to that effect.  Foreign Secretary Balfour, speaking in opposition to the amendment, said that the conclusion already reached by the War Council was correct, and that nothing in the recent statements by Chancellor Hertling and Foreign Minister Czernin gave any indication of satisfying Allied war aims.  Although President Wilson had detected a difference in tone between the two statements, “when you leave the tone and come to formulated definite propositions you will not find them in Count Czernin’s speech, and, so far as I am aware, President Wilson did not profess to find them.”  Two weeks later, in a reply to von Hertling, Balfour restated his position, telling Parliament “I should be doing an injury to the cause of peace if I encouraged the idea that there is any use in beginning these verbal negotiations until something like a general agreement is apparent in the distance and until the statesmen of all the countries see their way to that broad settlement which, it is my hope, will bring peace to this sorely troubled world.”

Senator Chamberlain

In Washington, Congress and President Wilson are dealing with competing proposals to assign and allocate power and responsibility for the conduct of the war.  Last month Senator George Chamberlain (Dem., Ore.), the Chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, introduced bills that would create a War Cabinet to direct the prosecution of the war and create a new post of Director of Munitions.  Chamberlain argued in a speech to the National Security League that hearings before his Committee indicated that “the military establishment of America has broken down” because of “inefficiency in every department of the United States Government.”  On the day the bills were introduced, the President issued a statement attacking Chamberlain and minimizing the committee hearings as insignificant.  Although Senator Chamberlain has been one of his staunchest supporters, the President pulled no punches.  He said that Chamberlain’s claim “was an astonishing and absolutely unjustifiable distortion of the truth,” and that he was “bound to infer that that statement sprang out of opposition to the Administration’s whole policy rather than out of any serious intention to reform its practices.”  The President gave a strong endorsement to Secretary Baker, who defended the War Department’s record in testimony before Senator Chamberlain’s committee.  In his testimony, Secretary Baker denied the charge that the Department had no war plan, saying the plan was to assist the Allies in every way by responding to their needs as they defined them.  Some Congressmen and military experts have found this unsatisfactory, arguing that a war plan should include provisions for calling up a specific number of troops and supplying them with arms, ammunition, clothing, shelter, and transportation to Europe.

On February 1 eleven Democratic senators were invited to the White House.  President Wilson told the senators that he was absolutely opposed to the Chamberlain bills and would accept no compromise.  He told them he was entirely satisfied with the present organization of the War Department and urged the senators to do what they could to put an end to the discussion, which he said would suggest the country was divided and create a bad impression on America’s allies.

Senator Overman

Debate on the Chamberlain bills began on February 4.  On February 6, Senator Lee Overman (Dem., N.C.), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation to give the President sweeping powers to “coordinate and consolidate” government agencies.  The Overman Bill, which was drafted in the White House and has the President’s full support, goes far beyond the Chamberlain bills in its proposed delegation of authority, but unlike Senator Chamberlain’s proposal its principal thrust is to delegate legislative power to the President rather than assign executive power to a War Cabinet.  The Overman Bill as introduced would give the President power to “make any such re-distribution of functions among executive agencies as he may deem necessary, including any functions, duties and powers hitherto conferred upon any executive department, commission, bureau, agency, office, or officer,” to “co-ordinate and consolidate” functions, and to “employ by executive order any additional agency or agencies and to vest therein the performance of such functions as he may deem appropriate.”

The Overman Bill was greeted with astonishment on Capitol Hill, several senators saying “we might as well abdicate.”  By the end of the month, however, it appeared that a modified version might be acceptable as a substitute for Senator Chamberlain’s proposal, which because of the President’s opposition is unlikely to become law.  Among other things, the Overman Bill would expand the authority of the War Industries Board to include some of the powers the Chamberlain bills would assign to the War Cabinet and the Director of Munitions. 

Other issues raised by Senator Chamberlain are addressed in separate legislation.  The pending War Department Bill, for example, authorizes the appointment of two new assistant secretaries.  One of the new positions, to be charged with overseeing all industrial work and purchasing for the Army, is expected to be filled by Edward R. Stettinius, a partner at J.P. Morgan & Co. 

Director-General McAdoo

Last month Fuel Administrator Garfield issued an order requiring industries east of the Mississippi to suspend operations on Mondays to conserve fuel.  Mr. Garfield rescinded the order on February 13, citing a “vast improvement” in conditions, an improvement he attributed to the imposition of priorities for coal deliveries imposed by Treasury Secretary McAdoo in his capacity as Director-General of Railroads.  Also rescinded was the order requiring theaters, cabarets and other places of amusement to close on Tuesdays.  McAdoo issued a statement the same day supporting the suspension, but emphasizing the continuing need to reduce coal consumption, especially in the New England states which are still experiencing shortages due to railroad congestion.

SS Tuscania

SS Tuscania, a Cunard luxury liner, was converted to a troop transport when the war broke out.  On February 6 it was under way from Hoboken to Liverpool carrying 2,179 American troops, mostly National Guardsmen from Michigan and Wisconsin, when it was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine off the north coast of Ireland.  Most of those on board were rescued and put ashore at Buncranna, about ten miles north of Londonderry, and Larne, about fifteen miles north of Belfast, but 210 passengers and crew were lost. 

February 1918 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, March and April 1918
New York Times, February and March 1918

Books and Articles:
Scott Berg, Wilson
Britain at War Magazine, The Fourth Year of the Great War: 1917
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson’s War
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume IV: The Stricken World 1916-1922
Ann Hagedorn, Savage Peace, Hope and Fear in America, 1919
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
John Keegan, The First World War
David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Bruce Lincoln, Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians In War and Revolution 1914-1918
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
G.J. Meyer, The World Remade: America in World War I
Michael S. Neiberg, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America
Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
David Stevenson, Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy
Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I

This article is reprinted from the Centennial Countdown to the Great War blog published by Dennis Cross. Read the original post and access an archive of previous posts at:

Dennis Cross is a retired lawyer and amateur historian of World War I. He is a U.S. Navy veteran and a 1962 graduate of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. He graduated from New York University Law School in 1969 and served as Assistant General Counsel of the Federal Trade Commission from 1977 to 1982. Since his retirement from the practice of law in 2007, he has been a volunteer at the National World War One Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, MO. Beginning in September 2011, he has written a monthly blog about the events of the month one hundred years ago.