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 Festive Facts About A Christmas Story

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Which Oscar-winning star wanted to play Ralphie Parker's dad? Which actor went on to have a seedy career in the adult film industry? Can you really get your tongue stuck to a metal pole? On the 35th anniversary of A Christmas Story's debut, here are a few tidbits about the holiday classic to tide you over until TNT's 24-hour Christmas marathon.

1. JACK NICHOLSON WAS INTERESTED IN PLAYING RALPHIE'S DAD.

Though Jack Nicholson was reportedly offered the role of The Old Man Parker, and interested, casting—and paying—him would have meant doubling the budget. But director Bob Clark, who didn't know Nicholson was interested, said Darren McGavin was the perfect choice for the role.

2. IT OWES A DEBT TO PORKY'S.

What does Porky's—a raunchy 1980s teen sex comedy—have to do with a wholesome film like A Christmas Story? Bob Clark directed both: Porky's in 1982 and A Christmas Story in 1983. If Porky's hadn't given him the professional and financial success he needed, he wouldn't have been able to bring A Christmas Story to the big screen.

3. RALPHIE SAYS HE WANTS A RED RYDER BB GUN A LOT.

For anyone keeping count, Ralphie says he wants the Red Ryder BB Gun 28 times throughout the course of the movie. That's approximately once every three minutes and 20 seconds.

4. THESE DAYS, PETER BILLINGSLEY SPENDS HIS TIME BEHIND THE CAMERA.

Peter Billingsley, a.k.a. Ralphie, has been good friends with Vince Vaughn since they both appeared in a CBS Schoolbreak Special together in the early 1990s. He doesn't do much acting these days, though he has popped up in cameos (including one in Elf, another holiday classic). Instead, Billingsley prefers to spend his time behind the camera as a director and producer. He has done a lot of work with Vaughn and Jon Favreau, including serving as an executive producer on Iron Man (in which he also made a cameo).

5. YES, YOU CAN GET YOUR TONGUE STUCK ON A PIECE OF COLD METAL.

Mythbusters tested whether it was possible to get your tongue truly stuck on a piece of cold metal. Guess what? It is. So don't triple dog dare your best friend to try it.

6. ONE OF THE YOUNG ACTORS MOVED ON TO A CAREER IN ADULT FILMS.

Scott Schwartz, who played Flick (the kid who stuck his tongue to the frozen flagpole), spent several years working in the adult film industry. In 2000, he turned his attention back to mainstream films. His most recent role was as "Disco City Hot Dog Vendor" in the 2017 TV movie Vape Warz.

7. RALPHIE'S HOUSE IS NOW A MUSEUM.

Next time you're in Cleveland, you can visit the original house from the movie. It was sold on eBay in 2004 for $150,000. Collector Brian Jones bought the house and restored it to its movie glory and stocked it up with some of the original props from the film, including Randy's snowsuit.

8. THE IDEA FOR THE FILM CAME TO BOB CLARK WHILE HE WAS DRIVING TO PICK UP A DATE.

Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, and Ian Petrella in A Christmas Story (1983)
Warner Home Video

Director Bob Clark got the idea for the movie when he was driving to pick up a date. He heard Jean Shepherd on the radio doing a reading of his short story collection, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, which included some bits that eventually ended up in A Christmas Story. Clark said he drove around the block for an hour until the program ended (which his date was not too happy about).

9. IT PARTLY INSPIRED THE WONDER YEARS.

The Wonder Years was inspired in part by A Christmas Story. In fact, toward the very end of the series, Peter Billingsley even played one of Kevin Arnold's roommates.

10. YOU CAN STILL BUY A RED RYDER BB GUN.

The real Red Ryder BB Gun was first made in 1938 and was named after a comic strip cowboy. You can still buy it today for the low, low price of $39.99. But the original wasn't quite the same as the one in the movie; it lacked the compass and sundial that both the Jean Shepherd story and the movie call for. Special versions had to be made just for A Christmas Story.

11. THE LEG LAMP CAN ALSO BE YOURS.

Peter Billingsley and Melinda Dillon in A Christmas Story (1983)
Warner Home Video

While we're talking shopping: you know you want the leg lamp. Put it in your window! Be the envy of your neighbors! It's a Major Award! You can buy it on Amazon (there's a 40-inch version, as well as a 20-inch replica). If you're not feeling quite so flamboyant, they also make a nightlight version.

12. IT SPAWNED A TRIO OF SEQUELS.

A Christmas Story led to two little-talked-about sequels. The first one was a 1988 made-for-TV movie, Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss. Jerry O'Connell played 14-year-old Ralphie, who is excited about his first job—as a furniture mover. Of course, it ends up being awful, and it might make him miss the annual family vacation at Mr. Hopnoodle's lakeside cabins.

My Summer Story, a.k.a. It Runs in the Family, debuted on the big screen in 1994. Kieran Culkin plays Ralphie, Mary Steenburgen is his mom, and Charles Grodin is his dad.

And in 2012, the direct-to-video sequel A Christmas Story 2 picked up five years after the original movie left off, with Ralphie attempting to get his parents to buy him a car.

An earlier version of this story appeared in 2008.

10 Timeless Facts About The Land Before Time

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Five years before Jurassic Park roared into theaters, a gentler, more meditative dinosaur film endeared itself to audiences of all ages. Initially met with mixed reviews, The Land Before Time is now regarded as an animated classic. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the Steven Spielberg-produced film, which arrived in theaters 30 years ago.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A DIALOGUE-FREE MOVIE.

Gabriel Damon and Candace Hutson in The Land Before Time (1988)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In the mid-1980s, executive producer Steven Spielberg began toying with the idea of a Bambi-esque dinosaur film. “Basically,” he later said, “I wanted to do a soft picture … about five little dinosaurs and how they grow up and work together as a group.” Inspiration came from the “Rite of Spring” sequence from Disney’s Fantasia (1940)—a scene in which prehistoric beasts wordlessly go about their business. At first, Spielberg wanted his own dinosaur characters to follow suit and remain mum. Ultimately, however, it was feared that a non-verbal approach might bore or confuse the film’s intended audience. As such, the animals were given lines.

2. DIRECTOR DON BLUTH WAS AN EX-DISNEY EMPLOYEE.

Don Bluth grew up idolizing Disney’s work, and began working for the studio in 1955. Over the next two decades, he did various odd jobs until he was brought on as a full-time animator in 1971. Once on the inside, Bluth got to peek behind the magician’s curtain—and disliked what he found there. “I think [Walt Disney] would’ve seen that the pictures were losing their luster,” Bluth said. Frustrated by the studio’s cost-cutting measures, he resigned in 1979. Joining him were fellow animators Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy. Together the trio launched their own company, Sullivan Bluth Studios, and began working on The Land Before Time in 1986.

3. OVER 600 BACKGROUND PAINTINGS WERE MADE FOR THE FILM.

Most of these depicted beautiful but barren wastelands, which presented a real challenge for the creative team. As one studio press release put it, “The artists had to create a believable environment in which there was almost no foliage.” Whenever possible, Bluth’s illustrators emphasized vibrant colors. This kept their backdrops from looking too drab or monotonous—despite the desolate setting.

4. LITTLEFOOT’S ORIGINAL NAME WAS “THUNDERFOOT.”

This was changed when the filmmakers learned that there was a triceratops in a popular children’s book called Thunderfoot. Speaking of three-horned dinosaurs: Cera evolved from a pugnacious male character called Bambo.

5. THE FILMMAKERS HAD TO CUT ABOUT 10 MINUTES OF FOOTAGE.

“We compromised a lot with The Land Before Time,” Goldman admitted. Nowhere was this fact more apparent than on the cutting room floor. Spielberg and his fellow executive producer George Lucas deemed 19 individual scenes “too scary.” “We’ll have kids crying in the lobby, and angry parents,” Spielberg warned. “You don’t want that.”

6. “ROOTER” WAS INTRODUCED AT THE URGING OF CHILD PSYCHOLOGISTS.

In Bambi, the title character’s mom dies off-screen. The same cannot be said for Littlefoot’s mother, whose slow demise goes on for several agonizing minutes. Naturally, there was some concern about how children would react to this. “A lot of research went into the mother dying sequence,” Pomeroy said. “Psychologists were approached and shown the film. They gave their professional opinions of how the sequence could be depicted.” Thus, Rooter was born.

One scene after Littlefoot’s mom passes, the wise reptile consoles him, saying “You’ll always miss her, but she’ll always be with you as long as you remember the things she taught you.” Sharp-eared fans might recognize Rooter’s voice as that of Pat Hingle, who also narrates the movie.

7. JAMES HORNER DID THE SOUNDTRACK.

The late, Oscar-winning composer behind Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009) put together a soaring score. Along with lyricist Will Jennings, he also penned the original song “If We Hold On Together,” which Diana Ross sings as the end credits roll.

8. THE ACTRESS BEHIND DUCKY PASSED AWAY BEFORE THE MOVIE’S RELEASE.

Judith Barsi’s career was off to a great start. By age 10, this daughter of Hungarian immigrants had already appeared in 70 commercials and voiced the leading lady in Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989). For The Land Before Time, Barsi voiced the ever-optimistic Ducky, which was reportedly her favorite role. Then tragedy struck: In July of 1988, Barsi’s father József murdered both her and her mother before taking his own life.

9. IT HAD A RECORD-SETTING OPENING WEEKEND.

From the get-go, The Land Before Time had some stiff competition. Universal released it on November 18, 1988—the same day that Disney’s Oliver & Company hit theaters. Yet, for a solid month, Bluth gave Oliver a box office beating. The Land Before Time enjoyed the highest-grossing opening weekend that any animated film had ever seen, pulling in $7.5 million to Oliver & Company’s $4 million. Since then, of course, The Land Before Time has long been dethroned; today, Incredibles 2 (2018) holds this coveted distinction with a $182.7 million first-weekend showing.

10. THERE ONCE WAS TALK OF A LAND BEFORE TIME STAGE MUSICAL.

“The time has come for dinosaurs on Broadway,” the late theatrical producer Irving Welzer told The New York Times in 1997. Emboldened by the recent cinematic success of Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1996), Welzer expressed an interest helping Littlefoot, Cera, Ducky, and the rest of the gang make their Big Apple debut. Soon, however, the idea faded.

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