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August 4, The Day Edward Grey Changed the World

Portrait of Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon
Above: Edward Grey (Viscount Grey of Fallodon)

The title of this essay today (August 4, 2020) will probably not draw a great deal of attention and may well seem so obscure as to throw away. I cannot blame anyone since neither the day nor the name has thus far captured much American attention (I really mean “any.”)

But they should!

A Day In a Life

Americans would undoubtedly define a historic “day,” typically and understandably, as to how it affected their own history. For “non-historians”: July 4, 1776, (Declaration of Independence), April 9, 1865 (Confederacy surrenders), November 11, 1918 (Armistice Day), December 7, 1941 (Pearl Harbor).

There may well be others since the choice is quite subjective. In case one has not noticed, my own selections revolve around wars in history, as I consider warfare as not only the most tragic (and probably stupidest) human activity but equally the most significant and enduring. In my view, everything (repeat “everything”) is the result of war, both in the short and long runs of historic momentum. For example, who is the most significant figure in the “women’s movement,” Betty Friedan (author of The Feminine Mystique) or Rosie the Riveter, mythical heroine of women factory workers in World War II? Without hesitation: before Rosie “there was nothing” (I did write “subjective”).

Pearl Harbor may have been the last “great” day, by this definition, in U.S. history. But I would be remiss by my own career not to mention December 26, 1991, the day the Soviet Union collapsed and global Communism lost its historic mission (I was a “Cold Warrior”).

“Historic days” are neither frivolous nor arbitrary; they mean a great deal to societies. Nearly two-and-one-half centuries later, July 4th remains the quintessential American “birthday.” Few Americans can forget FDR’s definition of Pearl Harbor as “a date that will live in infamy.”

Nor is the point lost on our current “cultures” (used advisedly). The New York Times, arguably our most influential media machine, wants July 4 changed to August 20, 1619 (when the first slave ship landed) and claims that over 4,500 U.S. school districts have agreed to change their curricula accordingly. Judging from the current social/political climate, it would not be surprising that May 25, 2020 (when George Floyd expired) be promoted as “most important date” (but we should wait, maybe another two hundred years, before pronouncing on this).  But it is symbolic of the times that last week all (repeat “all”) top-ten non-fiction books were on the subject “racism.”


But what is the significance of August 4, 1914, and who (in hell) is Edward Grey? In my long teaching career (1966), I always highlighted World War I as the most important event in history and June 28, 1914 (when the Austrian Archduke was assassinated) as the most important single day. I still believe in the war as “most” important (a general consensus anyway) but have moved the day up to August 4, primarily to accommodate the United States.

Who and why?

Edward Grey (Viscount Grey of Fallodon) was the British Foreign Secretary in 1914 and a prominent member of the Foreign Service and of the Liberal Party. He still holds the British career record of the longest service as Foreign Secretary (1905-1916) and was appointed Ambassador to the U.S., 1919-1920. Ironically, he also holds the record for the shortest term as American Ambassador (five months). He never even met President Woodrow Wilson and left due to eyesight issues which resulted in near-total blindness in the years prior to his death, 1933.  Grey was a writer and sportsman as well. His Fly Fishing (1899) is still considered definitive, while his The Charm of Birds (1927) was a best-seller on the “music” of birds, containing chapters entitled Early Song, Return of the Warblers, and Nests and Eggs.

One might not consider someone who wrote on “return of the warblers” to have helped start the greatest war in history (to 1914), but Grey qualifies. A noted “Germanic-phobe” Grey conspired with the young First Sealord, Winston S. Churchill, to steer British foreign policy decidedly against Germany and on behalf of France in the years before 1914 and was instrumental in solidifying the Triple Entente that formed the Western coalition throughout the long and brutal contest.

While both the House of Commons and the Cabinet were either undecided or outright opposed to depart from long-standing British “isolation,” Grey (and Churchill) were able to draft the war message and convince the House that British intervention was needed to save Europe (France) from Germanic domination.

Recall that in 1870 a similar situation arose: Prussia defeated France in a few months, Germany was created as a nation, and Britain did nothing, while Europe, Britain, America, and the world adjusted over time to the event.

But in 1914, Britain, thanks to Grey as Foreign Secretary, declared war on Germany, theoretically because the Kaiser had violated an 1839 treaty to secure Belgian neutrality. The German Army was given twelve hours to leave Belgium by midnight. Grey didn’t even wait and issued the Declaration of War an hour earlier, at 11.

What were the consequences?

The greatest consequence was that it became a “world” war. Grey’s decision also committed the full Commonwealth: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, much of Black Africa and the Islamic world, India, Pakistan, Burma, Malaya. On August 23, Japan (which had a 1902 security treaty with Britain) also declared war on Germany and quickly occupied German Far Eastern islands (that U.S. Marines had to invade later) and took over most of mainland China (laying the background for Pearl Harbor).

Thus, what started as a small quarrel in the Balkans overnight became the first global war in history, involving the entire British Commonwealth and the USA, a former colony.

All done by a birdwatcher.

There were other considerations:

First, the 1839 treaty did not require war.

Second, nor did the 1904 Entente Cordial with France.

Third, America declared Neutrality on the same day (August 4).

Fourth, the “neutrality” of the U.S. was one of the greatest myths (“lies” in today’s language) in world history, as American banks, financiers, factories, and sympathies completely dropped Germany from support and developed total submission to the British war effort and refused even to approach continental waters against the British blockade. By 1916, aid/trade to Germany was near zero; to Britain, in the billions.

Fifth, Woodrow Wilson’s Cabinet (nine members) was 100% pro-Britain, several having been born there. The entire American culture was carefully developed against the “Hun,” creating the favorable climate for Wilson’s eventual war declaration, April 6, 1917.

Last Question

Ask yourself one, last question. What would have happened had Britain, as in 1870, remained neutral in the war? And stayed neutral to the end? Who would the Americans support to the point of war? France? Belgium? Russia?

Ask a second question: how would that have affected world history (especially German)?

After drafting his war message, Grey looked down on the street below and saw one of London’s “lamplighters” igniting the kerosene bulbs. Turning to his staff, he uttered the most prophetic sentence in world history: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Little did he know that he was the main reason for the enveloping darkness.

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