Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 268th installment in the series.
March 1, 1917: America Outraged by Zimmermann Telegram
Following President Woodrow Wilson’s announcement on February 3, 1917 that the United States was breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany over the resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare, the Allies were understandably elated. The expulsion of the German ambassador and his staff, and the recall of the American ambassador from Berlin, was the final step before a declaration of war; it was only a matter of time.
Or was it? As days passed, then weeks, it became apparent that Wilson had no intention of bringing the U.S. into the war right away. Even the sinking of a number of American steamers in February 1917, an “overt act” of German hostility, seemed unable to move him.
Wilson dragged his feet for a number of reasons. At a personal level, as Secretary of State Robert Lansing often complained in private, the cerebral, pacifically-inclined commander-in-chief was quite comfortable discussing sweeping principles and grand ideals, but found it much harder to take decisive action, especially when it involved putting Americans in harm’s way.
Perhaps more importantly, in an age before regular opinion polls Wilson needed time to gauge the public mood, for example gleaning clues from newspaper reporting and opinion pages, as well as conversations with businessmen and other public figures, members of Congress and his own cabinet.
While it remains difficult to fully grasp the breakdown of American public opinion at the time, it’s clear that a large number of Americans still opposed entry into the war – as reflected in the success of Wilson’s reelection slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War,” which helped win him a second term just a few months before.
But the balance was turning – albeit gradually and reluctantly – in favor of war, as every fresh submarine “outrage” on the high seas brought new American casualties, not least the young nation’s prickly sense of pride, especially sensitive where arrogant European powers were concerned. Meanwhile the country’s business elite couldn’t fail to be swayed by the fact that U.S. banks had loaned the Allies billions of dollars, funding huge purchases from American industries and delivering record profits, all of which would probably be wiped out by a German victory.
One Last Push
Still, given the slow pace of this evolution the British were understandably worried that the United States might drift on, rudderless, for several more months or even a year – a disastrous scenario, as the Allies were approaching financial collapse and needed major new loans, backed by the U.S. government, without delay. For this to happen, America had to officially declare war.
Fortunately for the Allies, British intelligence held a trump card in the form of the Zimmermann Telegram, containing Germany’s sensational proposal of an alliance with Mexico and Japan against the United States, which the Admiralty’s cryptography team in “Room 40” had intercepted and decoded earlier that month – including its brazen offer of the U.S. southwest to Mexico as spoils of war.
After carefully establishing a cover story to conceal how they had decoded the message from the Germans, on February 22, 1917, the head of Room 40, Admiral William Hall, presented the telegram to the American intelligence liaison, Edward Bell. Knowing the Allies were desperate to get the U.S. into the war, Bell was understandably skeptical at first, and inclined to dismiss the incredible text as a hoax, but was soon persuaded by additional evidence.
The American ambassador, Walter Hines Page, who had long supported U.S. intervention on the side of the Allies, recognized the importance of the Zimmermann Telegram at once. To help Page persuade Washington of its authenticity, Hall took the extraordinary step of offering to share Room 40’s own top-secret copy of the German code with the American Embassy, so they could decode the telegram and verify its contents themselves.
After Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour officially presented the text to Page on behalf of the British government on February 23, Bell decoded the telegram in the presence of Nigel de Grey, one of three Room 40 cryptographers who had first decoded it. With their own decoding and translation now in hand, Page immediately sent a telegram to Washington in the early morning of February 24, alerting the State Department to expect a very important message for the President in the near future.
Late in the evening of February 24 State Department officials went to the White House in person to present the telegram to Wilson. Furious, the president considered publicizing the telegram right away – but instead decided to keep the secret for several more days, before releasing it to the press as part of a political gambit.
Sinking of the Laconia
The day after he learned about the Zimmermann Telegram, Wilson proposed a new bill to Congress authorizing the arming of American merchant ships to defend themselves against German submarines – by far his boldest move yet, but far short of a declaration of war. However even this moderate measure met with opposition from a hard core of pacifist Republicans in the Senate, led by Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, who warned the arming merchant ships would throw American neutrality in doubt.
As the La Follette anti-war faction filibustered the Armed Ship Bill on February 26, word came over the wires that a German submarine had sunk the British ocean liner Laconia the day before, with the death of two Americans. Floyd Gibbons, an American newspaper correspondent who was a passenger on the Laconia when it was sunk, would later describe his experience of the event:
Responding to the list of the ship, the wardrobe door swung open and crashed against the wall. My typewriter slid off the dressing table and a shower of toilet articles pitched from their places on the washstand. I grabbed the ship’s life-preserver in my left hand and, with the flashlight in my right hand, started up the hatchway to the upper deck… Suddenly there was a roaring swish as a rocket soared upward from the Captain’s bridge, leaving a comet’s tail of fire. I watched it as it described a graceful arc and then with an audible pop it burst in a flare of brilliant colour. Its ascent had torn a lurid rent in the black sky and had cast a red glare over the roaring sea. Already boat No. 10 was loading up and men and boys were busy with the ropes… Other passengers and members of the crew and officers of the ship were rushing to and fro along the deck strapping their life-preservers to them as they rushed. There was some shouting of orders but little or no confusion. One woman, a blonde French actress, became hysterical on the deck, but two men lifter her bodily off her feet and placed her in the life-boat.
Along with other survivors in the crowded lifeboat, Gibbons witnessed the Laconia’s coup-de-grace:
It must have been twenty minutes after that first shot that we heard another dull thud, which was accompanied by a noticeable drop in the hulk. The German submarine had despatched a second torpedo through the engine room and the boat’s vitals from a distance of two hundred yards. We watched silently during the next minute as the tiers of lights dimmed slowly from white to yellow, then to red and then nothing was left but the murky mourning of the night which hung over all like a pall… The ship sank rapidly at the stern until at last its nose rose out of the water, and stood straight up in the air. Then it slid silently down and out of sight like a piece of scenery in a panorama spectacle.
Happily for Gibbons and his fellow passengers, the Laconia’s captain had broadcast a distress signal by wireless, British anti-submarine patrols were frequent, and civilian ships were on hand to rescue survivors; they were rescued after six hours in the open lifeboat on the rough sea.
Overshooting the Mark
Although the Laconia’s death toll of 12 was light compared to previous U-boat attacks, a testament to several years of training and passenger safety drills, the timing of the news – including American civilian casualties – sharpened the divisions in the Senate and intensified Wilson’s own commitment to arming merchant vessels, prompting him to make a fateful decision.
Vexed by La Follette’s successful filibuster of the Armed Ship Bill on February 26-27, and with his own anger over the Zimmermann Telegram growing, Wilson decided to bring public opinion to bear on the Senate pacifists by publicizing the Zimmermann Telegram. But he may not have anticipated the full impact that the Zimmermann Telegram would have on American public opinion. The wave of indignation unleashed by the publication of the Zimmermann Telegram on February 28 changed everything, as Wilson suddenly found himself under intense public pressure to take decisive action beyond merely arming merchant ships. The response of leading newspapers gives some idea of the level of fury across the country.
The Associated Press, which got the scoop, condemned the Zimmermann Telegram as part of “Germany’s worldwide plan for stirring strife on every continent where they might aid her in the struggle for world domination,” adding, “Such a proposal as Germany instructed her Minister to make to Mexico borders on an act of war if actually it is not one.” The next day the Chicago Tribune noted: “President Wilson’s accusation of Germany, given to the world through the medium of the Associated Press, fell like a thunderbolt upon official Washington,” adding: “Unless the Berlin government promptly establishes its innocence of the charge of plotting to incite Japan and Mexico to war upon the United States the American people may soon find themselves at war with Germany.”
In fact Germany did just the opposite. Indeed, the uproar only increased with German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann’s inexplicable admission, on March 4, that he was behind the telegram. This triggered a fresh round of outrage in American newspapers, with the Sacramento Bee memorably condemning Germany’s “treacherous enmity, underhanded, nasty intriguing.”
In a little over a month the U.S. would enter the bloodiest conflict in world history.