The failure of the bill conferring or rather confirming the authority of the United States to cause American merchant vessels to arm themselves before leaving our ports, is a national misfortune, because it reveals the inability of the Senate of the United States to control itself. Insofar as it was intended to prevent war by suggesting a milder form of resistance, it would have failed of its purpose had it become law. Congress, and apparently the President without the aid of Congress, may grant this privilege to vessels likely to be exposed to submarine attack; but it cannot guarantee them a peaceful passage.
If such a vessel comes in sight of a submarine and, as was suggested by a Senator in debate, "Shoots at sight," the Germans would have a right under international law to consider it a hostile act and the beginning of formal war on the part of the United States. The immunity from armed attack except on due notice, which the United States justly claims for our merchantmen, holds only if such vessels do not attack nor resist nor flee.
On the other hand suppose the submarine gets near enough to discharge a torpedo or a gun if the vessel is thereby sunk, that is the overt act for which the United States has been waiting. If there is any opportunity, our armed ship presumably will reply and war would begin then and there; but in this case demonstrably by the act of the Germans.
A third alternative is that the American vessel will speed up and run out of danger, in which case the question of arms or no arms will play no part.
The so-called armed neutrality is simply a method by which the United States may possibly induce the Germans to let armed vessels loaded with munitions escape, though under our previous practice unarmed vessels carrying contraband were liable to be sunk with notice. The sole alternative is for the Germans to fire upon a vessel prepared to fight and expected to reply with force. Therefore, apparently the only thing that can obviate war is for the Germans to forego their announced purpose of sinking every merchant ship that comes within the barred zone. Short of that, armed neutrality simply brings the whole controversy down to a point where one side or the other must fire and fire first.