Missed Signals

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons (1, 2, 3), Austro-Hungarian-Army.co.uk

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 130th installment in the series.

July 16-18, 1914: Missed Signals

By July 14, 1914, Austria-Hungary had decided to attack Serbia and enlisted the support of her ally Germany, all under a cloak of secrecy meant to keep Europe’s other Great Powers unaware, unprepared, and ultimately uninvolved. But the news leaked thanks to the German ambassador at Rome, Baron Flotow, who hinted what was going on to Italian Foreign Minister San Giuliano on July 11. San Giuliano telegraphed the news to Italy’s ambassadors across Europe, and the message was apparently intercepted by Russian spies, who soon spread the word. In short, the secret plan was no longer secret, at least in elite diplomatic circles, meaning there was still a good chance to avert disaster—but tragically, during this crucial period European diplomats on all sides missed important signals. The cost of their mistakes would be tallied in millions of lives.

Brushing Off the Russians

On July 16, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, Nikolai Shebeko, reported:

Information reaches me that the Austro-Hungarian Government… intends to make certain demands on Belgrade, claiming that there is a connection between the question of the Sarajevo outrage and the Pan-Serb agitation within the confines of the Monarchy. In so doing it reckons on the non-intervention of Russia… It would seem to me desirable that… the Vienna cabinet should be informed how Russia would react…

Sazonov didn’t see Shebeko’s telegram until July 18, when he returned from a brief vacation at his country estate, but he then summoned Austria-Hungary’s ambassador to St. Petersburg, Count Frigyes Szapáry, to warn him Russia could “in no circumstances agree to any blow to Serbia's independence.” However, Austria-Hungary continued to ignore the Russian warnings, instead heeding the advice of Germany, where the German undersecretary for foreign affairs, Arthur Zimmerman (above, left), expressed confidence Russia was bluffing and would ultimately be restrained by France and Britain.

British Omissions

For this to work, however, France and Britain would first have to know what was happening between Austria-Hungary and Russia. This was another area where key signals were missed—especially by the British government, still distracted by the Irish crisis.

On July 16, the British ambassador to Austria-Hungary, Sir Maurice de Bunsen, reported:

I gather that … a kind of indictment is being prepared against the Serbian government for alleged complicity in the conspiracy … and that Austro-Hungarian Government are in no mood to parley with Serbia, but will insist on immediate unconditional compliance, failing which force will be used. Germany is said to be in complete agreement with this procedure.

Two days later, the British ambassador to Russia, Sir George Buchanan, reported that Sazonov warned him, “Anything in the shape of an Austrian ultimatum at Belgrade could not leave Russia indifferent and she might be forced to take some precautionary military measures.”

These reports from British ambassadors clearly showed that Austria-Hungary and Russia were on a collision course. But Prime Minister Asquith and Foreign Secretary Grey (above, second from left) were reluctant as ever to get embroiled in continental affairs, especially when their attention was focused on the Irish issue. In fact Grey didn’t even meet with the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to London, Count Mensdorff, until July 23—when it was already too late.

Meanwhile, from July 15 to 20, French President Raymond Poincaré and Premier René Viviani were at sea aboard the battleship France, headed for a long-planned conference with Tsar Nicholas II and his ministers in St. Petersburg. Although the French leaders weren’t totally incommunicado, long-distance ship-to-shore radio communications were still patchy (even with the benefit of the powerful Eiffel Tower transmitter), so their ability to get news during this period was limited.

Determined Germans

The British weren’t the only ones ignoring their own ambassadors. The German government had a habit of simply not listening to bad news from foreign countries, especially if the country in question happened to be Britain. Even worse, Berlin often withheld information from its ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky (above, second from right), who was viewed as an unreliable “Anglophile.” Nonetheless, on July 18 German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow sent a long message to Lichnowsky secretly explaining that

Austria… intends now to come to a settlement with Serbia and has conveyed this intention to us… We must see to localizing the conflict between Austria and Serbia. Whether this is possible will depend in the first place on Russia and in the second place on the moderating influence of the other members of the Entente…  at bottom Russia is not now ready to strike. France and England will not want war now.

But Lichnowsky replied that Berlin was too optimistic about localizing the conflict: “Hence the chief thing seems to me that the Austrian demands should be worded in such a manner that with some pressure on Belgrade … they will be acceptable, not in such a manner that they will necessarily lead to war…” His forecast was correct, but the suggestion to soften the ultimatum showed he was still in the dark about the true nature of the plan: Vienna wanted Belgrade to reject the ultimatum, because Vienna wanted war.

Ostrich Austrians

Last but not least, the Austrians themselves were displaying some ostrich-like behavior by sticking their heads in the sand about Italy. Berlin was urging Vienna to cede Austria’s ethnic Italian territories of Trentino and Trieste to get Rome to join them, or at least remain neutral, and cautioned that Italy might join their enemies if they didn’t. But Emperor Franz Josef wasn’t inclined to start dismembering his empire—that was kind of the whole point—and Vienna breezily dismissed a series of Italian warnings conveyed by German diplomats.

On July 16, the German ambassador to Rome, Flotow, reported to Foreign Secretary Jagow in Berlin: “I regard it as hopeless if Austria, in view of the danger, does not pull herself together and realize that if she means to take any territory [from Serbia] she must give Italy compensation. Otherwise Italy will attack her in the rear.” Increasingly alarmed, on July 18 Jagow instructed the German ambassador to Vienna, Tschirschky, to advise the Austrians (again) “that an Austrian attack on Serbia would not only meet with a most unfavorable reception in Italy but would probably encounter direct opposition.”

However, Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Berchtold insisted—probably disingenuously—that Austria-Hungary had no territorial ambitions in Serbia, and therefore owed Italy nothing in the way of compensation. He was also receiving more positive reports from the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Rome, Kajetan von Mérey (who had suffered a nervous breakdown after the assassination of the Archduke, and was only now pulling himself together—above, right). Mérey was sanguine in his message of July 18, admitting Italy would be angry but predicting it wouldn’t come to a fight: thus, “I do not in any sense plead for previous consultations and negotiations with the Italian cabinet.”

In truth, Italian Foreign Minister San Giuliano was also partly to blame. An elder statesman, he treated foreign policy as his personal bailiwick and often made decisions without consulting other members of the Italian government. After learning the basic outlines of the Austrian plan on July 11, he decided to use the mounting crisis to extract territorial concessions from Austria-Hungary, rather than coming right out and telling Vienna to back off, as he had a year before. Even worse, he never informed Prime Minister Salandra (a foreign policy novice) about the July 1913 precedent, so Salandra didn’t realize Italy had the option of telling Austria-Hungary not to go it alone.

Disturbed Serbs

If there was one country that heard the message loud and clear, it was Serbia herself. As early as July 15, the Serbian ambassador to Vienna, Jovan Jovanović, warned Belgrade that Austria-Hungary was preparing something big, and on July 18, Prime Minister Pašić (currently a political “lame duck,” but still technically in charge) ordered Serbia’s army to begin calling up reservists. The same day Slavko Gruić, secretary general of the Serbian foreign ministry, assured the unforgettably named British charge d’affaires in Belgrade, Dayrell Crackanthorpe, that “Serbia would not stand alone. Russia would not remain quiet if Serbia were wantonly attacked… Under present conditions a war between a Great Power and a Balkan state must inevitably … lead to a European conflagration.”

Ordinary Folks Smell Smoke

While diplomats on all sides did their best to project calm, by mid-July even some “ordinary” (albeit particularly perceptive) people were noticing something was afoot. On July 14, the French newspaper Le Figaro noted that newspapers in Austria-Hungary were whipping up public opinion against Serbia, and two days later Mildred Aldrich, an American journalist and author who’d just moved to a small village east of Paris, wrote in a letter to a friend: “Alas! I find that I cannot break myself of reading the newspapers, and reading them eagerly.  It is all the fault of that nasty affair in Servia…  It is a nasty outlook.  We are simply holding our breaths here.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

7 Weird Super Bowl Halftime Acts

Al Bello, Getty Images
Al Bello, Getty Images

Shakira and Jennifer Lopez seem like natural choices to perform the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl, but the event didn’t always feature musical acts from major pop stars. Michael Jackson kicked off the trend at Super Bowl XXVII in 1993, but prior to that, halftime shows weren’t a platform for the hottest celebrities of the time. They centered around themes instead, and may have featured appearances from Peanuts characters, Jazzercisers, or a magician dressed like Elvis. In honor of Super Bowl LIV on February 2, we’ve rounded up some of the weirdest acts in halftime show history.

1. Return of the Mickey Mouse Club

The era of Super Bowl halftimes before wardrobe malfunctions, illuminati conspiracy theories, and Left Shark was a more innocent time. For 1977’s event, the Walt Disney Company produced a show that doubled as a squeaky-clean promotion of its brand. Themed “Peace, Joy, and Love,” the Super Bowl XI halftime show opened with a 250-piece band rendition of “It’s a Small World (After All).” Disney also used the platform to showcase its recently revamped Mickey Mouse Club.

2. 88 Grand Pianos and 300 Jazzercisers

The theme of the halftime show at Super Bowl XXII in 1988 was “Something Grand.” Naturally, it featured 88 tuxedoed pianists playing 88 grand pianos. Rounding out the program were 400 swing band performers, 300 Jazzercisers, 44 Rockettes, two marching bands, and Chubby Checker telling everyone to “Twist Again."

3. Elvis Impersonator Performs the World’s Largest Card Trick

Many of the music industry's most successful pop stars—like Prince, Madonna, and, uh, Milli Vanilli—were at the height of their fame in 1989, but none of them appeared at Super Bowl XXIII. Instead, the NFL hired an Elvis Presley-impersonating magician to perform. The show, titled “BeBop Bamboozled,” was a tribute to the 1950s, and it featured Elvis Presto performing “the world’s largest card trick.” It also may have included the world's largest eye exam: The show boasted 3D effects, and viewers were urged to pick up special glasses before the game. If the visuals didn't pop like they were supposed to, people were told to see an eye doctor.

4. The Peanuts Salute New Orleans

Super Bowl XXIV featured one of the last halftime acts that was completely devoid of any musical megastars. The biggest celebrity at the 1990 halftime show was Snoopy. Part of the show’s theme was the “40th Anniversary of 'Peanuts,'” and to celebrate the milestone, performers dressed as Peanuts characters and danced on stage. The other half of the theme was “Salute to New Orleans”—not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the comic strip.

5. A Tribute to the Winter Olympics

Super Bowl XXVI preceded the 1992 Winter Olympics—a fact that was made very clear by the event’s halftime. The show was titled “Winter Magic” and it paid tribute to the winter games with ice skaters, snowmobiles, and a cameo from the 1980 U.S. hockey team. Other acts, like a group of parachute-pants-wearing children performing the “Frosty the Snowman Rap,” were more generally winter-themed than specific to the Olympics. About 22 million viewers changed the channel during halftime to watch In Living Color’s Super Bowl special, which may have convinced the NFL to hire Michael Jackson the following year.

6. Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye

“Peace, Joy, and Love” wasn’t the only Disney-helmed Super Bowl halftime. In 1995, Disney produced a halftime show called “Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye” to tease the new Disneyland ride of the same name. It centered around a skit in which actors playing Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood stole the Vince Lombardi Trophy from an exotic temple, and it included choreographed stunts, fiery special effects, and a snake. Patti LaBelle and Tony Bennett were also there.

7. The Blues Brothers, Minus John Belushi

The 1990s marked an odd period for halftime shows as they moved from schlocky themed variety shows to major music events. Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 perfectly encapsulates this transition period. James Brown and ZZ Top performed, but the headliners were the Blues Brothers. John Belushi had been dead for more than a decade by that point, so Jim Belushi took his place beside Dan Aykroyd. John Goodman was also there to promote the upcoming movie Blues Brother 2000. The flashy advertisement didn’t have the impact they had hoped for and the film was a massive flop when it premiered.

15 Fun Facts About Betty White

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

Happy birthday, Betty White! In honor of the ever-sassy star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls's 98th birthday, let's celebrate with a collection of fun facts about her life and legacy. 

1. Her name is Betty, not Elizabeth.

On January 17th, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, the future television icon was born Betty Marion White, the only child of homemaker Christine Tess (née Cachikis) and lighting company executive Horace Logan White. In her autobiography If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), White explained her parents named her "Betty" specifically because they didn't like many of the nicknames derived from "Elizabeth." Forget your Beths, your Lizas, your Ellies. She's Betty.

2. She's a Guinness World Record holder.

In the 2014 edition of the record-keeping tome, White was awarded the title of Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female) for her more than 70 years (and counting) in show business. The year before, Guinness gave out Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Male) to long-time British TV host Bruce Forsyth. As both began their careers in 1939, they'd be neck-and-neck for the title, were they not separated by gender.

3. Her first television appearance is lost to history.

A photo of Betty White
Getty Images

Even White can't remember the name of the show she made her screen debut on in 1939. But in an interview with Guinness Book of World Records, she recounted the life-changing event, saying, "I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the west coast, in downtown Los Angeles. I wore my high school graduation dress and our Beverly Hills High student body president, Harry Bennett, and I danced the 'Merry Widow Waltz.'" 

4. White's initial rise to stardom was derailed by World War II.

Before she took off on television, White was working in theater, on radio, and as a model. But with WWII, she shelved her ambitions and joined the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her days were devoted to delivering supplies via PX truck throughout the Hollywood Hills, but her nights were spent at rousing dances thrown to give grand send-offs to soldiers set to ship out. Of that era, she told Cleveland Magazine, "It was a strange time and out of balance with everything." 

5. Her first sitcom hit was in the early 1950s.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

Co-hosting the Al Jarvis show Hollywood on Television led to White producing her own vehicle, Life With Elizabeth. As a rare female producer, she developed the show alongside emerging writer-producer George Tibbles, who'd go on to work on such beloved shows as Dennis The Menace, Leave It To Beaver, and The Munsters. Though the show is not remembered much today, in 1951 it did earn White her first Emmy nomination of 21 (so far). Of these, she has won five times.

6. White loves a parade.

From 1962 to 1971, White hosted NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside Bonanza's Lorne Greene. But that's not all. For 20 years (1956-1976), she was also a color commentator for NBC’s annual Tournament of Roses Parade. However, as her fame grew on CBS's The Mary Tyler Moore Show, NBC decided they should pull White (and all the rival promotion that came with her) from their parade. It was a decision that was heartbreaking for White, who told People, "On New Year's Day I just sat home feeling wretched, watching someone else do my parade."

7. She has been married three times.


Getty Images

White and her first husband, Dick Barker, were married and divorced in the same year, 1945. After four months on Barker's rural Ohio chicken farm, White fled back to Los Angeles and her career as an entertainer. Soon after, she met agent Lane Allen, who became her husband in 1947, and her ex-husband in 1949 after he pushed her to quit show biz. She wouldn’t marry again until 1963, after she fell for widower/father of three/game show host Allen Ludden.

8. Her meet-cute with husband number three happened on Password.

Bubbly Betty was a regular on the game show circuit, but she met her match in 1961 when she was a celebrity guest on Password, hosted by Allen Ludden. Though White initially rebuffed Ludden's engagement ring (he wore it around his neck until she changed her mind), the pair stayed together until his death in 1981. Today, their stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame sit side-by-side.

9. White originally auditioned for the role of Blanche on The Golden Girls.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

Producers of the series thought of White for the role of the ensemble's promiscuous party girl because she'd long played the lusty Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Meanwhile, they eyed Rue McClanahan for the part of naive country bumpkin Rose Nylund because of her work as the sweet but dopey Vivian Harmon on Maude. Director Jay Sandrich was worried about typecasting, so he asked the two to switch roles in the audition. And just like that, The Golden Girls history was made.

10. If she hadn't been an actor, she'd have been a zookeeper.

"Hands down," she confessed in a 2014 interview. This should come as little surprise to those aware of White's reputation as an avid animal lover and activist. Not only does she try to visit the local zoo of wherever she may travel, but also she's a supporter of the Farm Animal Reform Movement and Friends of Animals group, as well as a Los Angeles Zoo board member, who has donated "tens of thousands of dollars" over the past 40 years. In 2010, White founded a T-shirt line whose profits go to the Morris Animal Foundation.

11. She passed on a role in As Good as It Gets because of an animal cruelty scene.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

White was offered the part of Beverly Connelly, onscreen mother to Helen Hunt, in the Oscar-winning movie As Good as It Gets. But the devoted animal lover was horrified by the scene where Jack Nicholson's curmudgeonly anti-hero pitches a small dog down the trash chute of his apartment building. On The Joy Behar Show White explained, "All I could think of was all the people out there watching that movie … and if there's a dog in the building that's barking or they don't like—boom! They do it." She complained to director James L. Brooks in hopes of having the scene cut. Instead, he kept it and cast Shirley Knight in the role.

12. A Facebook campaign made White the oldest person to ever host Saturday Night Live.

In 2010, a Facebook group called Betty White To Host SNL … Please? gathered so many fans (nearly a million) and so much media attention that SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels was happy to make it happen. At 88 years old, White set a new record. Her episode, for which many of the show's female alums returned, also won rave reviews, and gave the show's highest ratings in 18 months. White won her fifth Emmy for this performance.

13. She is the oldest person to earn an Emmy nomination.


Getty Images

In 2014, White earned an Emmy nod for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program for the senior citizen-centric prank show Betty White's Off Their Rockers. She was 92. She also holds the record for the longest span between Emmy nominations, between her first (1951) and last (so far).  

14. She loves junk food.

The key to aging gracefully has nothing to do with health food as far as White is concerned. In 2011, her Hot in Cleveland co-star Jane Leeves dished on White's snacking habits, "She eats Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries, and Diet Coke. If that's key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives." Fellow co-star Wendie Malick concurred, "She eats red licorice, like, ridiculously a lot. She seems to exist on hot dogs and French fries." 

15. She wants Robert Redford.

A photo of actor Robert Redford
Getty Images

White once gave this cheeky confession: “My answer to anything under the sun, like ‘What have you not done in the business that you’ve always wanted to do?’ is ‘Robert Redford.'” Though she has more than 110 film and television credits on her filmography, White has never worked with the Out of Africa star, who is 14 years her junior.

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