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January 26: The Mail Must Go Through

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Europe was at war in 1916. In North Dakota, Germans from Russia agonized over the foreign events. Their ancestors were from Germany, and they or their parents were born in Russia. And even though they now lived in America, their loyalty was widely questioned.

The one hope for the Germans from Russia was that the United States was determined to stay out of the war. This was more difficult than it seemed. The war had a way of intruding upon the country. American ships, suspected of carrying supplies to Britain, became targets of German submarines. Americans were warned about the dangers of traveling to Europe, especially on British ships. In 1915, a torpedo from a German submarine sank the British passenger ship Lusitania. One hundred twenty-eight Americans were killed, but the United States steadfastly maintained neutrality.

One of the ways the war interfered with life in the United States was the disruption of mail, especially from Germany, making it hard for the Germans from Russia to maintain contact with family in Europe. The United States protested the British policy of detaining mail to and from Germany, which was routed through Sweden. On this date in 1916, the British foreign office replied to the American protest, asserting that the actions were justified. They continued seizing neutral vessels on the high seas and taking them into port to search the mail for German communications.

Over the following months, the United States continued to pressure Great Britain, to no avail. A message from the Secretary of State protested the seizure and detention of mail bound to and from the United States. Britain largely ignored the objections. In 1917, President Wilson proposed a new code to protect people living in neutral countries. The code included banning attacks on neutral shipping and the detention of mail. The code went by the wayside when the United States entered the war later that year.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


  • Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. “British Reply to Uncle Sam.” Fargo ND. 1/26/1916. Page 1.
  • Bismarck Daily Tribune. “Asks Germany Not to Fire on Armed Craft.” Bismarck ND. 2/18/1916. Page 1.
  • Bismarck Daily Tribune. “Renew Protests to Great Britain.” Bismarck ND. 5/25/1916. Page 1.
  • Grand Forks Herald. “Relations Between England and Sweden Once at Breaking Point.” Grand Forks ND. 6/28/1916. Page 8.
  • The Pioneer Express. “New International Code Is to Protect Neutrals.” Pembina ND. 1/12/1917. Page 6.
  • Scientific American. “Before America Joined the War.” Accessed 12/9/2023.
  • Defense Logistics Agency. “Logistics and American Entry into the Great War.” Accessed 12/9/2023.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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