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U.S. Breaks Off Relations With Germany

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). 

The New York Times 

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.  

See the previous installment or all entries.

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10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars
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Winning an Oscar is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you’re Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you’d think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are, Colin Firth.

1. ANGELINA JOLIE

After Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world wrinkle their noses, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage with the rest of Marcheline’s belongings when she died in 2007, but it hasn’t yet surfaced. “I didn’t actually lose it,” Jolie said, “but nobody knows where it is at the moment.”

2. WHOOPI GOLDBERG

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. “Oscar will never leave my house again,” Goldberg said.

3. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

When Olympia Dukakis’s Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. “For $78,” they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. MARLON BRANDO

“I don’t know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront,” Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. “Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared.” He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. “The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don’t know where it is now.”

5. JEFF BRIDGES

Jeff Bridges had just won his Oscar in 2010 for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the next year’s ceremony, where he was up for another one. He lost to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. “It’s been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now,” the actor admitted. “I’m hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven’t won a spare! But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better.” Which brings us to ...

6. COLIN FIRTH

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed the British actor as he said those words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. MATT DAMON

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn’t sure where his award went. “I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it,” Damon said in 2007.

8. MARGARET O'BRIEN

In 1945, seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O’Briens' maid took the award home to polish, as she had done before, but never came back to work. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O’Brien’s mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O’Brien. “I’ll never give it to anyone to polish again,” she said.

9. BING CROSBY

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school’s library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a three-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. “I wanted to make people laugh,” the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. HATTIE MCDANIEL

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

An earlier version of this post ran in 2013.

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Pop Culture
"Weird Al" Yankovic Is Getting the Funko Treatment
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Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images

Though the New York Toy Fair—the largest trade show for playthings in the western hemisphere—won't officially kick off until Saturday, February 17, kids and kids-at-heart are already finding much to get excited about as the world's biggest toy companies ready to unleash their newest wares on the world. One item that has gotten us—and fans of fine parody songs everywhere—excited is "Weird Al" Yankovic's induction into the Funko Pop! family. The accordion-loving songwriter behind hits like "Eat It," "White & Nerdy," "Amish Paradise," and "Smells Like Nirvana" shared the news via Twitter, and included what we can only hope is a final rendering of his miniaturized, blockheaded vinyl likeness:

In late December, Funko announced that a Weird Al toy would be coming in 2018 as part of the beloved brand's Pop Rocks series. Though we know he'll be joined by Alice Cooper, Kurt Cobain, Elton John, and the members of Mötley Crüe, there's no word yet on exactly when you’ll be able to get your hands on Pop! Al. But knowing that he's coming is enough … for now.

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