March 20, 1917: Lansing Memorandum

 

On March 17, 1917, President Wilson met with his Cabinet to consider the question of whether the US should enter the Great War.  Fortunately for historians of this period, Secretary of State Robert Lansing drafted a detailed memorandum of the meeting:

 

 

The Cabinet Meeting of today I consider the most momentous and therefore, the most historic of any of those which have been held since I became Secretary of State, since it involved, unless a miracle occurs the question of war with Germany and the abandonment of the policy of neutrality which has been pursued for two years and a half….

The corridors of the State Department and Executive Office swarmed with press correspondents seeking to get some inkling of what would be done from passing officials. It was through these eager crowds of news-gatherers that I forced my way at half-past two Tuesday afternoon under a bombardment of questions, to which I made no reply, and entered the Cabinet room where all the other members had arrived.

Three minutes later the President came in and passed to his place at the head of the table shaking hands with each member and smiling as genially and composedly as if nothing of importance was to be considered. Composure is a marked characteristic of the President. Nothing ruffles the calmness of his manner or address. It has a sobering effect on all who sit with him in council. Excitement would seem very much out of place at the Cabinet table with Woodrow Wilson presiding. (more…)

Published in: on March 20, 2017 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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March 12, 1917: Sinking of the Algonquin

 

The first American vessel sunk after the German government announced a return to unrestricted submarine warfare, the Algonquin, an unarmed merchant vessel, was sunk by the U-62 off the Scilly Islands on March 12, 1917.   The U-62 surfaced and fired four shots at the Algonquin, none of which hit.  The Captain of the Algonquin ordered his crew to take to lifeboats.  The U-62 skipper, U-boat Ace Kapitanleutnant Ernst Hashagen, sent a boarding crew to set bombs  on the Algonquin and sank her in that manner.  The crew of the Algonquin were unharmed, and after twenty-seven hours of arduous rowing reached Penzance in Cornwall.  On the same date, President Wilson ordered the arming of American merchant ships.

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March 5, 1917: Second Inaugural Address of Woodrow Wilson

 

A brief second inaugural address by President Wilson a hundred years ago during an odd time.  Everyone knew that war would soon exist between the United States and Imperial Germany but war had not yet been declared and the country was collectively holding its breath.  Wilson’s speech was all about the coming war in general terms and a defense of his policy of attempting to stay out of the Great War.  Here is the text of the speech: (more…)

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March 3, 1917: Zimmerman Telegram Confirmed

 

In the wake of the revelation of the Zimmerman telegram, President Wilson had a problem.  Large segments of the American population, most notably Irish-Americans and German-Americans, had doubts about the validity of the telegram.  The Hearst newspapers claimed it was a fake cooked up by British intelligence.  Incredibly in light of this, the German Foreign Secretary confirmed the validity of the telegram in an interview on March 3, 1917 when asked about it by an American journalist.  Overnight, American public opinion became almost unanimous that war against German was inevitable.  On March 29, 1917 Foreign Secretary Zimmerman in a speech to the Reichstag attempted to justify the telegram which only further enraged American public opinion, and solidified the status of the Zimmerman telegram as one of the greatest diplomatic blunders of all time:

 

 

I wrote no letter to General Carranza.  I was not so naive.  I merely addressed, by a route that appeared to me to be a safe one, instructions to our representative in Mexico.

It is being investigated how these instructions fell into the hands of the American authorities.  I instructed the Minister to Mexico, in the event of war with the United States, to propose a German alliance to Mexico, and simultaneously to suggest that Japan join the alliance.

I declared expressly that, despite the submarine war, we hoped that America would maintain neutrality.

My instructions were to be carried out only after the United States declared war and a state of war supervened.  I believe the instructions were absolutely loyal as regards the United States.

General Carranza would have heard nothing of it up to the present if the United States had not published the instructions which came into its hands in a way which was not unobjectionable.  Our behaviour contrasts considerably with the behaviour of the Washington Government.

President Wilson after our note of January 31, 1917, which avoided all aggressiveness in tone, deemed it proper immediately to break off relations with extraordinary roughness.  Our Ambassador no longer had the opportunity to explain or elucidate our attitude orally.

The United States Government thus declined to negotiate with us.  On the other hand, it addressed itself immediately to all the neutral powers to induce them to join the United States and break with us.

Every unprejudiced person must see in this the hostile attitude of the American Government, which seemed to consider it right, before being at war with us, to set the entire world against us.  It cannot deny us the right to seek allies when it has itself practically declared war on us.

Herr Haase [note: a German socialist] says that it caused great indignation in America.  Of course, in the first instance, the affair was employed as an incitement against us.  But the storm abated slowly and the calm and sensible politicians, and also the great mass of the American people, saw that there was nothing to object to in these instructions in themselves.  I refer especially to the statements of Senator Underwood.  Even at times newspapers felt obliged to admit regretfully that not so very much had been made out of this affair.

The Government was reproached for thinking just of Mexico and Japan.  First of all, Mexico was a neighbouring State to America.  If we wanted allies against America, Mexico would be the first to come into consideration.  The relations between Mexico and ourselves since the time of Porfirio Diaz have been extremely friendly and trustful.  The Mexicans, moreover, are known as good and efficient soldiers.

It can hardly be said that the relations between the United States and Mexico had been friendly and trustful.

But the world knows that antagonism exists between America and Japan.  I maintain that these antagonisms are stronger than those which, despite the war, exist between Germany and Japan.

When I also wished to persuade Carranza that Japan should join the alliance there was nothing extraordinary in this.  The relations between Japan and Mexico are long existent.  The Mexicans and Japanese are of a like race and good relations exist between both countries.

When, further, the Entente press affirms that it is shameless to take away allies, such reproach must have a peculiar effect coming from powers who, like our enemies, made no scruple in taking away from us two powers and peoples with whom we were bound by treaties for more than thirty years.

The powers who desire to make pliant an old European country of culture like Greece by unparalleled and violent means cannot raise such a reproach against us.

When I thought of this alliance with Mexico and Japan I allowed myself to be guided by the consideration that our brave troops already have to fight against a superior force of enemies, and my duty is, as far as possible, to keep further enemies away from them.  That Mexico and Japan suited that purpose even Herr Haase will not deny.

Thus, I considered it a patriotic duty to release those instructions, and I hold to the standpoint that I acted rightly.

Published in: on March 3, 2017 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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March 1, 1917: The Zimmerman Telegram Story Breaks

On February 20, 1917 British intelligence revealed to the US ambassador to Great Britain the contents of the Zimmerman telegram, go here to read about the telegram.  The Brits disclosed to the Americans the code breaking that they engaged in to read the message.  When the telegram was disclosed to the public, in order to protect British code breaking, it was alleged that British agents had stolen a copy of the telegram in Mexico.  The contents of the message was so fantastic that many Americans thought it was likely a fake produced by the British, which was the line taken by the mighty Hearst empire.  President Wilson was  faced with a dilemma as to whether to disclose that the British had decoded the message, and risk the ability of the British to read German messages, or to let the erroneous charges that the telegram was a fake remain unanswered. His dilemma would be shortly resolved by an unlikely source.

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February 8, 1915: Birth of a Nation Debuts in Los Angeles

The film Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece, was  controversial at its release and remains so.  At three hours the film was a pioneering effort using then cutting age technology to produce a movie that stunned viewers by its cinematic quality.  Its viewers had seen nothing like it in film entertainment before.  At the same time the film, based on the pro-Ku Klux Klan novel the Clansman by Thomas Dixon, a friend of President Woodrow Wilson, drew outrage from Grand Army of the Republic Union Veterans and black groups with its depiction of the Klan as noble heroes attempting to fight against evil Unionists and its depiction of blacks as little better than beasts who walked erect.  Race riots broke out in cities where the film was shown.  President Wilson viewed the film in the White House and was reported to have said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true”.  The White House denied the remark, and in the wake of continuing protests, Wilson eventually condemned the “unfortunate production”.  The film used quotes from Wilson’s scholarly works to buttress its negative depiction of Reconstruction and its positive depiction of the Klan.  Considering the fact that Wilson imposed segregation on the Civil Service it is difficult to discern what he found to be “unfortunate” about the film.

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February 3, 1917: The US Breaks Diplomatic Relations With Germany

 

 

Germany’s resumption on January 31, 1917 of unrestricted submarine warfare made war with the US inevitable.  President Wilson recognized this fact on February 3, 1917 by advising a supportive Congress that the US had broken diplomatic relations with Germany: (more…)

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Theodore Roosevelt and The Curse of Meroz

 

 

Theodore Roosevelt had long been a harsh critic of the neutrality policy of the Wilson administration.  On January 29, 1917 he gave a memorable response to the January 22, 1917 speech to the Senate of President Wilson in which Wilson called for Peace Without Victory:

“President Wilson has announced himself in favor of peace without victory, and now he has declared himself against universal service-that is against all efficient preparedness by the United States.

Peace without victory is the natural ideal of the man too proud to fight.

When fear of the German submarine next moves President Wilson to declare for “peace without victory” between the tortured Belgians and their cruel oppressors and task masters;  when such fear next moves him to utter the shameful untruth that each side is fighting for the same things, and to declare for neutrality between wrong and right;  let him think of the prophetess Deborah who, when Sisera mightily oppressed the children of Israel with his chariots of iron, and when the people of Meroz stood neutral between the oppressed and their oppressors, sang of them:

 

 

“Curse ye Meroz, sang the angel of the  Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof, because they came not to the help of the Lord against the wrongdoings of the mighty.”” 

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January 22, 1917: Peace Without Victory

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The United States was two months from entering the Great War when President Wilson addressed the Senate a century ago, calling for Peace Without Victory and laying out the beginnings of what would eventually be his Fourteen Points as the basis of peace:

Gentlemen of the Senate:

On the 18th of December last, I addressed an identical note to the governments of the nations now at war requesting them to state, more definitely than they had yet been stated by either group of belligerents, the terms upon which they would deem it possible to make peace.  I spoke on behalf of humanity and of the rights of all neutral nations like our own, many of whose most vital interests the war puts in constant jeopardy.

The Central Powers united in a reply which state merely that they were ready to meet their antagonists in conference to discuss terms of peace.  The Entente powers have replied much more definitely and have stated, in general terms, indeed, but with sufficient definiteness to imply details, the arrangements, guarantees, and acts of reparation which they deem to be the indispensable conditions of a satisfactory settlement.  We are that much nearer a definite discussion of the peace which shall end the present war.  We are that much nearer the definite discussion of the international concert which must thereafter hold the world at peace.

In every discussion of peace that must end this war, it is taken for granted that the peace must be followed by some definite concert of power which will make it virtually impossible that any such catastrophe should ever overwhelm us again.  Every love of mankind, every sane and thoughtful man must take that for granted.

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December 5, 1916: Wilson State of the Union Address

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It is instructive to read the state of the union message of President Wilson to Congress a hundred years ago.  The main thing that most people remember about the second term of the Wilson administration  is US entry into World War I.  Yet there is nothing about the War in the state of the union address, no mention of the need for military preparedness, no hint that anything other than profound peace existed in the globe.  Of course Wilson had been re-elected on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.”  Mentioning the War now would fly in the face of what had been shouted up and down the country by Democrat speakers just a month ago.  Of course this also illustrates just how different History is when being lived through, rather than when being studied generations later.  Most Americans, like Wilson, hoped that the US could avoid becoming involved in the Great War.  The last thing they wished was to hear gloom about their prospects of staying out long term.  Thus a hundred years ago the nation concentrated on domestic matters and forgot about the War for a very little while.

 

GENTLEMEN OF THE CONGRESS:
In fulfilling at this time the duty laid upon me by the Constitution of communicating to you from time to time information of the state of the Union and recommending to your consideration such legislative measures as may be judged necessary and expedient, I shall continue the practice, which I hope has been acceptable to you, of leaving to the reports of the several heads of the executive departments the elaboration of the detailed needs of the public service and confine myself to those matters of more general public policy with which it seems necessary and feasible to deal at the present session of the Congress.

 
I realize the limitations of time under which you will necessarily act at this session and shall make my suggestions as few as possible; but there were some things left undone at the last session which there will now be time to complete and which it seems necessary in the interest of the public to do at once.

 
In the first place, it seems to me imperatively necessary that the earliest possible consideration and action should be accorded the remaining measures of the program of settlement and regulation which I had occasion to recommend to you at the close of your last session in view of the public dangers disclosed by the unaccommodated difficulties which then existed, and which still unhappily continue to exist, between the railroads of the country and their locomotive engineers, conductors and trainmen. (more…)

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