Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 265th installment in the series.
February 3, 1917: U.S. Breaks Off Relations With Germany
Germany’s fateful decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, 1917, allowing U-boat commanders to sink unarmed neutral vessels without warning, sent shockwaves around the world after it was publicly announced on the last day of January. Coming close on the heels of President Wilson’s offer to host peace talks, the new U-boat campaign was a slap in the face to the United States, which had twice threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Germany over this precise issue; there was now no way to avoid an open breach, setting the stage for America’s entry into the war.
This wasn’t for lack of effort by Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to America, who frantically tried to persuade Berlin to delay the U-boat campaign, dispatching a flurry of secret telegrams up to the very last moment. On January 26, 1917 he sent a message marked “Most urgent,” asking to be allowed time to consider Wilson’s proposals, or at least give the appearance of doing so:
After having had very important conference request most urgently postponement till my next two messages received… To begin U-boat war without previous negotiations regarding above proposals would among other things put us seriously in the wrong, and owing to Wilson’s personal sensitiveness, would make prevention of rupture quite impossible.
The following day, January 27, Bernstorff again warned Berlin:
If the U-boat campaign is opened now with any further ado, the President will regard this as a smack in the face, and war with the United States will be inevitable. The war party here will gain the upper hand, and the end of the war will be quite out of sight, as, whatever people may say to the contrary, the resources of the United States are enormous… At present, therefore, it is only a matter of postponing the declaration for a little while so that we may improve our diplomatic position.
On January 29, however, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg brushed off Bernstorff’s warnings with the breezy assertion that Wilson’s proposal for peace negotiations came too late:
If his offer had only reached us a few days earlier, we should have been able to postpone opening of the new U-boat war. Now, however, in spite of the best will in the world, it is, owing to technical reasons, unfortunately too late, as far-reaching military preparations have already been made which cannot be undone, and U-boats have already sailed with new instructions… [I]n view of the life and death struggle which has once again been proclaimed against us, we cannot any longer delay the use of those means which appear to us best calculated to end the war quickly…
In short, the die was cast.
“Enemy Of Mankind”
The American reaction was exactly as Bernstorff predicted. Although Wilson and Secretary of State Robert Lansing had heard rumors that Germany was preparing to resume unrestricted U-boat warfare through diplomatic and intelligence channels, they may have been surprised by the lack of warning in the latest declaration, which opened the campaign immediately. In any event both men were outraged, and Lansing, who had long been sympathetic to the Allies, advocated an immediate declaration of war.
On February 2, Lansing sent Wilson a lengthy memorandum about “Germany’s broken promise and the crime of submarine warfare,” laying out several possible responses before making his own recommendation. First of all, he wrote, “I am firmly convinced that we must without taking any preliminary step break off diplomatic relations by sending Bernstorff and his suite home and by recalling [U.S. ambassador] Gerard and closing our Embassy at Berlin.
After this step, Lansing continued, the White House could attempt to minimize American casualties by advising U.S. citizens and merchant vessels to avoid traveling on the high seas – but he quickly pointed out that this would essentially mean the U.S. was submitting to Germany’s demands by severing its connections with Britain. In addition to undermining the Allied war effort and possibly handing Germany victory, tolerating the actions of an “outlaw” nation would be an obvious affront to American prestige (although Lansing didn’t feel the need to state this explicitly).
Thus Lansing recommended the second, more extreme course of action:
To follow up the severance of relations by announcing to Congress this action with a statement that Germany has forfeited every consideration by reason of her breach of faith, that the full criminality of her previous acts is revived and that no honorable course remains but for this country to employ every resource which it possesses to punish the guilty nation and to make it impotent to commit in the future crimes against humanity.
In other words, Lansing was pushing Wilson to declare war on Germany, and marshaled a number of arguments in favor of the second course of action, appealing to Wilson’s fervent belief in democracy (which Lansing shared): “It amounts to a frank declaration that an outlaw Government is an enemy of mankind, and will show that the present military oligarchy must be eliminated for the sake of civilization and the future peace of the world… It will give tremendous moral weight to the cause of human liberty and the suppression of Absolutism.”
On February 3, 1917 Wilson announced that the United States was breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany to a special session of Congress (top), by expelling the German ambassador and recalling the American ambassador to Berlin. For the time being diplomatic relations would continue with the other members of the Central Powers (in fact the U.S. didn’t declare war on Austria-Hungary until December 1917, long after it went to war with Germany, and never declared war on the Ottoman Empire).
Everyone understood that breaking off relations with Germany was the final step before a declaration of war, but Wilson remained understandably reluctant to embroil his country in the bloodiest conflict in human history; for one thing, in an age before opinion polls it was unclear where the American people stood, and he needed time to read the national mood. He may also have decided to wait for the first German U-boat attacks on American shipping in order to be able to present a firm case to Congress.
Unbeknownst to Wilson, British intelligence was about to make the task of convincing America to go to war much easier, with the disclosure of the Zimmermann Telegram.