President Wilson addressing Congress 1917If on 4 March 1917, President Woodrow Wilson believed his own rhetoric when he proclaimed that America stood ‘firm in armed neutrality’ why was it necessary some twenty-nine days later, to advise a joint Session of Congress that they would have to go to war to defend and protect democracy? On April 6, 1917, America duly declared that war [1] after the Senate approved the action by 82-6 and the House of Representatives by 373-50.

In the Senate, a few voices were raised hopelessly against what they deemed ‘a great blunder’. Opposition inside the House of Representatives pointed out that no invasion was threatened, no territory at risk, no sovereignty questioned, no national policy contested nor honour sacrificed. [2] Be assured of one important fact. There was no outcry for war amongst ordinary American citizens. No excited crowds took to the streets. At Wellington House in London, the nerve-centre of British propaganda, the manipulators of truth were concerned that the American Press carried ‘no indications of enthusiasm except in a few Eastern papers’. [3] In the United States, citizens were genuinely unsure why the nation was at war, but loyalty to the flag has always carried great weight. Enlistment statistics threw an interesting light on American society. Before 1917, the Eastern seaboard editors, lawyers, bankers and financiers, teachers and preachers, leaders of ‘society’ in New York and Washington alike, had berated the Western states for their alleged unpatriotic attitude towards war. In the event, recruiting figures showed that the response from the western states was greater than their compatriots along the eastern seaboard. [4] How often do the movers and shakers turn into moaners and shirkers and fail to step up to the mark?

American Recruitment Poster 1917

There was no instant Kitchener-effect in America. British propagandists watched this lack of enthusiasm with real concern. Woodrow Wilson set up the Committee on Public Information on 14 April to rouse the public to ‘righteous wrath’. [5] Two and a half year’s worth of Wellington House propaganda was at hand for regurgitation and dissemination. Even so, from 1 April until 16 May, total enlistment was a mere 73,000 men. [6] By June 117,974 men had joined the regular army, but the rate was falling. In July only 34,962 joined the ranks; in August it was 28,155; in September, 10,557. [7] This simply could not continue. A conscript army was required.

On 18 May, 1917, the sixty-fifth Congress passed a Military Act to enable the President to temporarily increase the strength of the army, and the ‘draft’ became law. [8] For all his talk of brokering peace between the warring factions in Europe, and many reported attempts at reconciliation, President Wilson led his country into war, provided the manpower to be sacrificed and stirred the hatred and propaganda necessary to popularise the slaughter on the western front. Why? Why within months of his re-election on the proud boast that he had kept America out of the war, was everything reversed; every assumed position revoked; every implied promise, broken? Some historians insist that Germany forced President Wilson into a declaration of war through two acts of blundering stupidity. Emphasis on such a focus has successfully deflected attention away from much more powerful interests which Wilson could not ignore.

On 17 January 1917, British code-breakers partially deciphered an astonishing message from the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann to his Ambassador in Washington. Though the analysts in Room 40 at the admiralty in London could decipher some of the essential message, the new code which had been delivered to the German Embassy in Washington by the cargo U-boat Deutschland in November 1916, had not been fully broken. Senior British cryptographs were trying to reconstruct this particular code but had made only sufficient progress to form an incomplete text. [9] From their initial reconstruction it appeared that Zimmermann had requested the German ambassador to the United States, Count Johann von Bernstorff, to contact President Carranza of Mexico through the German embassy in Mexico City and offer him a lucrative alliance. ‘Blinker’ Hall, Director of Naval Intelligence, took personal control. His grasp of effective propaganda was second to none. Hall knew that once the full text was available it had to be carefully handled both to protect the anonymity of Room 40 and convince the Americans of its authenticity.

Room 40 focused on the ambassadorial messages between Berlin and the American continent and on 19 February the full text of Zimmermann’s instructions to his Mexican ambassador was traced. It had been sent to Washington by a wireless channel which Wilson and House had previously allowed Germany to use for secret discussions on a possible peace initiative. This effrontery added insult to injury. Once Admiral ‘Blinker’ Hall held the decoded and translated text in his hands, he knew that he had unearthed a propaganda coup of enormous importance. Zimmermann’s telegram read as follows:

The coded and decoded Zimmermann message

‘Washington to Mexico 19 January 1917.

We intend to begin on 1 February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavour in spite of this to keep the USA neutral. In the event of this not succeeding we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following terms:-
Make war together
Make peace together
Generous financial support and an undertaking on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you.
You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the USA is certain, and add the suggestion that he should on his own initiative invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves.
Please call the President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace. (signed) Zimmermann.’ [10]

After ensuring that they could conceal how they had obtained the telegram, the British Foreign Office released it to Walter Paget, the American ambassador in London, who promptly sent it to the State Department in Washington. Woodrow Wilson received the transcript on 24 February 1917. He was stunned to discover that the Germans had abused the cable line which he had insisted they be allowed to access for peace negotiations. [11] It took President Wilson four days to release the telegram to the Associated Press and following expressions of disbelief, he authorised Senator Swann of Virginia to announce in the Senate on 1 March 1917, that the Zimmermann note to Mexico was textually correct. Robert Lansing made a similar pronouncement from the State Department. Clearly the American public was not easily convinced. Even in 1917, they were suspicious of government pronouncements.

If the reader scans the infamous Zimmermann line by line, it quickly becomes apparent that its ludicrous nature verges on lunacy. Alliances are not forged by telegram. Vague promises of generous financial support, of a detailed settlement being left in the hands of the Mexican government and the subsequent ‘reconquering’ of vast tracts of America, did not make sense. Though the Mexicans gave no immediate response, the Japanese Ambassador authoritatively dismissed the proposition. They had no intention of being suckered by a spurious telegram. And why did Zimmermann describe Germany’s submarine tactics as ‘ruthless’? The whole incident seemed contrived.

William Randolph Hearst, newspaper proprietor, was strongly anti-Allied in his policies

One major American newspaper-owner firmly rejected the Zimmermann story. William Randolph Hearst had kept his stable independent of the British censor. Just as he had refused to swallow wholesale war guilt, atrocity or war aims propaganda, Hearst cabled his editors that ‘in all probability’ the Zimmermann note was an ‘absolute fake and forgery.’ He believed that the object was to frighten Congress into giving the President the powers he demanded. Hearst’s anxiety was that ‘the whole people of this country, 90 percent of whom do not want war, may be projected into war because of these misrepresentations.’ [12] He also accused the president’s advisor, ‘Colonel’ House of being a corporation lobbyist. Hearst was at Palm Beach in the weeks before America entered the war and his private telegrams to his editors and those of other newspapers, were later made public in an attempt to discredit him. [13]

Though publication of the telegram aroused some anger in the West and mid-West states, American newspapers generally chose to omit any reference to the fact that the proposed alliance would only take place after America had declared war against Germany. [14] The original note had been passed to the American embassy in London in such secrecy that the State Department could not reveal its origins to enquiring journalists. [15] Indeed the propaganda value was diluted by a suspicion that it was a forgery, as Hearst and his newspapers insisted until, to the immense relief of British and American war-mongers, the naive Zimmermann acknowledged that he was the author. At a press conference on 2 March, Zimmermann was invited by the Hearst correspondent in Berlin, W.B. Hale, to deny the story.


He chose instead to confirm that it was true. [16] In modern parlance, it was a spectacular own goal. Some have said that the Zimmermann telegram incident was the “overt act” that brought the United States into the war. It was not. Woodrow Wilson did not ask Congress to declare war until 3 April 1917, fully six weeks after the British delivered the telegram to him.

So why did Woodrow Wilson take the irredeemable step to war? Sympathetic historians were very clear as to the cause. German militarism. The diplomatic record left no room for doubt. ‘It was the German submarine warfare and nothing else that forced him [Wilson] to lead America into war.’ [17] Newton D. Baker, Secretary of War came to the same conclusion, but wrapped it carefully inside a moment of caution. He wrote that ‘the occasion’ of America entering the war was the resumption of submarine warfare. [18] Don’t confuse the words ‘cause’ and ‘occasion’. Indeed, consider that sentence again, but replace ‘occasion’ with ‘excuse’.

The German government had announced an unrestricted submarine campaign on 31 January, 1917. From that date U-boat commanders were ordered to sink all ships, neutral and belligerent, passenger or merchant inside a delineated Atlantic and North Sea zone. Despite perfunctory American protests, the British blockade had begun to take its toll in Germany from late 1916. Hunger was to be a weapon of war which both sides could use to advantage. German strategists were aware that such a tactic was likely to bring America into the war, but had concluded that Britain could be starved out before America had time to raise an effective fighting force and bring it into the European theatre. As it stood, America could hardly offer the Allies much more assistance as a belligerent than it currently did as a neutral, [19] but one unforeseen consequence hit home quickly. American shipping was temporarily paralysed. [20] Great quantities of wheat and cotton began to pile up in warehouses. The American economy faced dangerous dislocation. American merchant shipping clung to the safety of their shoreline and trade stood still.

Look carefully at the twin ‘causes’ of America Declaration of War, the Zimmermann telegram and Germany’s unrestricted submarine campaign and you will find flaws. The first was not a ‘casus belli’. It was a propaganda coup to soften the American public’s attitude to war, to stir indignation into resentment and stir the fear factor. No matter how ridiculous the notion that Mexican troops could invade Texas, New Mexico or Arizona, the very suggestion of an alliance through which three huge American states might be ceded to Mexico, placed Germany in a particularly bad light. Zimmermann admitted he was the author, but the clandestine nature by which the British secret service ensured that the information was passed to Washington, and the extent to which the Americans covered all traces of British involvement, leaves questions hanging in the air. Did Zimmermann have a cerebral meltdown? Was he secretly trying to prepare for any eventuality? No matter, it was not the cause of war.

Greater weight may be placed on the general insistence that unrestricted submarine warfare brought about Wilson’s fateful decision. Historians have thrown a vast array of statistics into the equation to prove the importance of this single factor. In the first month of the unrestricted warfare at sea 781,500 tons of merchant shipping was lost. [21] While it is true that after Woodrow Wilson’s warning in February, ten American freighters, schooners or tankers were sunk, nine by submarines and one by a mine (laid originally by the Royal Navy), loss of American lives totalled 24 seamen. In total, 38,534 gross U.S. tonnage was sunk. [22] Was this sufficient to be a cause of war? The pro-war newspapers gave vent to their outrage when it was reported that three American ships, Vigilancia, City of Memphis and Illinois had been sunk on 18 March. The New York World screamed that ‘without a declaration of war, Germany is making war on America.’ The New York Tribune claimed that Germany was acting on the theory that already war existed; The Philadelphia Public Ledger demanded that Wilson’s administration take immediate action insisting was its duty to respond, while the St Louis Republic was confident that the President and his advisors would act with wisdom. [23]

What wisdom? Certainly a very small number of American lives had been lost at sea. Unarguably the Zimmermann telegram was a piece of effrontery … but was it sufficient reason to put the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Americans at risk? Or were there darker influences?

1. Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Presidential Proclamation 1364
2. H.C. Peterson, Propaganda for War, pp. 321-2.
3. American Press Resume (A.P.R.) issued by the War Office and Foreign Office. “For Use of the Cabinet”, 18 April, 1917.
4. A.P.R. 30 May, 1917.
5. Peterson, Propaganda for War, p. 325.
6. A.P.R. 6 June, 1917.
7. Peterson, Propaganda for War, p. 324. footnote.
8. 65th Congress, Session 1, CH. 15 1917. H.R. 3545.
9. Patrick Beesly, Room 40, pp. 207-8.
11. Rodney Carlisle, The Attacks on US Shipping that Precipitated American Entry into World War 1.
12. Telegram to SS Carvalho, 2 March 1917.
13. New York Times 11 December 1918.
14. Peterson, Propaganda, p. 314.
15. Bailey, A Diplomatic History, p. 643, note 28.
16. Beesly, Room 40, p. 223.
17. Charles Seymour, American Diplomacy During the World War, p. 210.
18. Paul Birdsall, Neutrality and Economic Pressures 1914-1917, Science and Society vol. 3, No. 2. (Spring 1939) p. 217.
19. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, p. 641.
20. Millis, Road to War, p. 400.
21. Peterson, Propaganda, p. 318.
22. Carlisle, Attacks on American Shipping that Precipitated the War, The Northern Mariner, XVII, no. 3, p. 61.
23. New York Times, 19 March 1917.