America Outraged by Zimmermann Telegram

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. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

12 Things We Know About The Crown Season 3

Sophie Mutevelian, Netflix
Sophie Mutevelian, Netflix

Between the birth of Prince Louis, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's announcement that they're expecting their first child in the spring, 2018 was a busy year for England's royal family. But the next big royal event we're most looking forward to is season three of The Crown.

Since making its premiere on November 4, 2016, the Netflix series—which won the 2017 Golden Globe for Best Drama—has become an indisputable hit. The streaming series, created by two-time Oscar nominee Peter Morgan, follows the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and the ups and downs of the royal family.

Now that you’ve surely binge-watched both of the first two seasons, we’re looking ahead to season three. Here’s everything we know about The Crown’s third season so far.

1. Olivia Colman will play the Queen.

Olivia Colman in 'The Crown'
Netflix

From the very beginning, creator Peter Morgan made it clear that each season of The Crown would cover roughly a decade of history, and that the cast would change for season three and again in season five (to more accurately represent the characters 20 and 40 years later). In October 2017, it was announced that Olivia Colmanwho just won a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy for The Favourite—would take over the role of Queen Elizabeth II.

When discussing her replacement with Jimmy Fallon, Claire Foy praised her successor, joking that "You'll forget all about me and the rest of the cast. You'll be like, ‘Who are they?' We're the warm-up act."

Though she might be best known to American audiences for her roles in Broadchurch and The Night Manager (the latter of which earned her a Golden Globe in 2017), Colman is no stranger to playing a member of the royal family. In addition to her award-winning role as Queen Anne in The Favourite, she played Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon—wife of King George VI and the mother of Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret—in Hyde Park on Hudson (2012).

2. We may not seen a third season until later in the year.

While no official release date for season three has been given, the BBC reported that we wouldn't see Colman as Queen Elizabeth II until this year. But we could have some more waiting to do. The good news, however, is that Morgan confirmed they're shooting seasons three and four "back-to-back. I’m writing them all at the moment," he said in February. Meaning we may not have to wait as long for season four to arrive.

3. Tobias Menzies is taking over as Prince Philip.

Tobias Menzies in 'The Crown'
Sophie Mutevelian, Netflix

Between Outlander and The Terror, Tobias Menzies is keeping pretty busy these days. In late March 2017 it was announced that he’d be taking over Matt Smith’s role as Prince Philip for the next two seasons of The Crown—and Smith couldn't be happier.

Shortly after the announcement was made, Smith described his replacement as "the perfect casting," telling the Observer: "He’s a wonderful actor. I worked with him on The History Boys, and he’s a totally fantastic actor. I’m very excited to see what he does with Prince Philip." Of course, passing an iconic role on to another actor is something that former Doctor Who star Smith has some experience with. "It was hard to give up the Doctor—you want to play it for ever. But with this, you know you can’t," Smith told The Times.

For his part, Menzies said that, "I'm thrilled to be joining the new cast of The Crown and to be working with Olivia Colman again. I look forward to becoming her 'liege man of life and limb.'"

4. Paul Bettany came very close to having Menzies's role.

If you remember hearing rumblings that Paul Bettany would be playing the Duke of Edinburgh, no, you're not imagining things. For a while it seemed like the London-born actor was a shoo-in for the part, but it turned out that scheduling was not in Bettany's favor. When asked about the rumors that he was close to signing a deal to play Philip, Bettany said that, "We discussed it. We just couldn’t come to terms on dates really. [That] is all that happened."

5. Helena Bonham Carter will play Princess Margaret.

Honoured @thecrownnetflix

A post shared by Vanessa Kirby (@vanessa__kirby) on

After months of speculation—and one big hint via Instagram (see above)—in May 2018, Netflix finally confirmed the previously "all but confirmed" rumor that Helena Bonham Carter would play Princess Margaret in The Crown's next season. "I’m not sure which I’m more terrified about—doing justice to the real Princess Margaret or following in the shoes of Vanessa Kirby’s Princess Margaret,” Bonham Carter said of the role. “The only thing I can guarantee is that I’ll be shorter [than Vanessa]."

Like Colman, Bonham Carter also has some experience playing a royal: She played Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, a.k.a. the Queen Mother, in the Oscar-winning The King's Speech.

6. Princess Diana will notappear in season 3.

As The Crown moves forward, time will, too. Though fans worried that, based on the current time jumps between seasons, it would take another few years to see Princess Diana be introduced, Morgan told People Magazine that Princess Diana would make her first appearance toward the end of season three and that she will be heavily featured in the two seasons that follow. However, casting director Nina Gold later dispelled that notion.

"Diana’s not in this season," Gold told Vanity Fair. "When we do get to her, that is going to be pretty interesting." Charles and Diana did not meet until 1977, when the Prince began dating Diana's older sister, Sarah. According to Variety, season three will only cover the years 1964 to 1976.

7. Camilla Parker Bowles will be featured.

Lady Diana Spencer and Camilla Parker-Bowles at Ludlow Races where Prince Charles is competing, 1980
Express Newspapers/Archive Photos/Getty Images

As it’s difficult to fully cover the relationship between Prince Charles and Princess Diana without including Camilla Parker Bowles as part of the story, the current Duchess of Cornwall will make her first appearance in season three.

“Peter [Morgan]’s already talking about the most wonderful things,” The Crown producer Suzanne Mackie revealed during the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival in April 2017. “You start meeting Camilla Parker Bowles in season three,” she said, noting that they were then in the process of mapping out seasons three and four.

8. Buckingham Palace will be getting an upgrade.

Though it's hard to imagine a more lavish set design, Left Bank—the series's production company—requested more studio space for its sets at Elstree Studios in late 2017, and received approval to do just that in April. According to Variety, Left Bank specifically "sought planning permission for a new Buckingham Palace main gates and exterior, including the iconic balcony on which the royals stand at key moments. The Downing Street plans show a new Number 10 and the road leading up to the building itself. The sketches for the new work, seen by Variety, show an aerial view of Downing Street with a Rolls Royce pulling up outside Number 10."

9. Princess Margaret's marriage to Lord Snowdon will be a part of the story.

Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret in 'The Crown'
Alex Bailey/Netflix

Princess Margaret’s roller-coaster relationship with Antony Armstrong-Jones played a major part of The Crown’s second season, and the dissolution of their marriage will play out in season three.

“We’re now writing season three," Robert Lacey, the series’s history consultant and the author of The Crown: The Official Companion, Volume 1, told Town & Country in December. “And in season three, without giving anything away—it’s on the record, it’s history—we’ll see the breakup of this extraordinary marriage between Margaret and Snowdon. This season, you see how it starts, and what a strange character, a brilliant character Snowdon was.”

10. Vanessa Kirby would like to see Princess Margaret get a spinoff.

While Kirby, who played Princess Margaret in the first two seasons, knows that the cast will undergo a shakeup, she’s not afraid to admit that she’s jealous of all the juicy drama Bonham Carter will get to experience as the character.

“I was so desperate to do further on,” Kirby told Vanity Fair, “because it’s going to be so fun [to enact] when their marriage starts to break down. You see the beginnings of that in episode 10. I kept saying to [Peter Morgan], ‘Can’t you put in an episode where Margaret and Tony have a big row, and she throws a plate at his head?’ I’m so envious of the actress who gets to do it.”

Kirby even went so far as to suggest that Margaret’s life could be turned into its own series, telling Morgan, “‘We need to do a spinoff.’ You actually could do 10 hours on Margaret because she’s so fascinating. There’s so much to her, and she’s such an interesting character. I know that parts like this hardly ever come along."

11. Jason Watkins will play prime minister Harold Wilson.

At the same time Netflix confirmed Bonham Carter's casting, the network announced that BAFTA-winning actor Jason Watkins had been cast as Harold Wilson, who was prime minister between 1964 and 1970 and again between 1974 and 1976. "I am delighted to become part of this exceptional show,” Watkins said. “And so thrilled to be working once again with Peter Morgan. Harold Wilson is a significant and fascinating character in our history. So looking forward to bringing him to life, through a decade that transformed us culturally and politically."

12. Gillian Anderson will play Margaret Thatcher.

Gillian Anderson speaks onstage at The X-Files panel during 2017 New York Comic Con -Day 4 on October 8, 2017 in New York City
Dia Dipasupil, Getty Images

Ok, so this might be a fourth season tidbit—but it's still very worth talking about. In January 2019 it was announced that The Crown had cast its Iron Lady: former The X-Files star Gillian Anderson will play former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Crown's fourth season.

One Key Stranger Things Death Was Originally Much Darker

Netflix
Netflix

While many Stranger Things fans rallied for #JusticeForBarb after Nancy Wheeler’s best friend was abducted to the Upside Down in the first season, season two packed even more of an emotional punch with the death of Bob Newby. The character, played by Sean Astin, was Joyce Byers’s quirky and sweet new boyfriend, who ultimately died a hero when saving the gang from a terrifying group of Demodogs.

As upsetting as the scene was, it turns out it could have been a lot worse. Producers Dan Cohen and Shawn Levy previously revealed the original, much darker plan they had for the beloved character.

“We had talked about the death of some major characters, that may or may not happen in the future near or far. But that was never part of the discussion for Season 2,” Levy said. “The death of Bob was initially much earlier. In fact, in an early outline, Evil Will kill[ed] him in like Episode 3.”

The pair went on explain that Bob’s death was supposed to take place during the scene where in which he and Will are in the car, and Bob is attempting to give Will advice.

“Will just straight-up murders Bob in that car,” Levy said. The scene in question turned out to be pretty sweet, as Bob tells Will what he was afraid of growing up, even making him laugh. Thankfully, they decided to change the original plan.

Stranger Things will return to Netflix on July 4, 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER