Sussex pledge

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The Sussex Pledge was a promise made by Germany to the United States in 1916, during World War I before the latter entered the war. Early in 1915, Germany had instituted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare,[1] allowing armed merchant ships, but not passenger ships, to be torpedoed without warning. Despite this avowed restriction, a French cross-channel passenger ferry, the Sussex, was torpedoed without warning on March 24, 1916; the ship was severely damaged and about 50 people died.[2] Although no US citizens were killed in this attack, it prompted President Woodrow Wilson to declare that if Germany were to continue this practice, the United States would break diplomatic relations with Germany. Fearing the entry of the United States into the war, Germany tried to appease the United States by issuing, on May 4, 1916, the Sussex pledge, which promised a change in Germany's naval warfare policy. These were the primary elements of the pledge:

  • Passenger ships would not be targeted
  • Merchant ships would not be sunk until the presence of weapons had been established, if necessary by a search of the ship
  • Merchant ships would not be sunk without provision for the safety of passengers and crew

In 1917, Germany became convinced that it could defeat the Allied Forces by instituting unrestricted submarine warfare before the United States could enter the war. The Sussex pledge was therefore rescinded in January 1917; this started the decisive stage of the so-called First Battle of the Atlantic. The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmermann Telegram caused the United States to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Even after the Sussex pledge was declared by President Woodrow Wilson, the Germans still sunk U.S. boats.


  • The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, by Burton J. Hendrick
  • on the Sussex
  • American History: A Survey Eleventh Edition by Alan Brinkley, © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies
  • Tony Bridgeland. Outrage at Sea: Naval Atrocities in the First World War. Pen and Sword Books, 2002. ISBN 0-85052-877-1
  • Conway's All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906–1921 (Conway Maritime Press, 1985) ISBN 0-85177-245-5


  1. ^ Conways p. 137.
  2. ^ Bridgeland p. 86.