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.

Rewind Time With This Blockbuster-Themed Party Game

Amazon/Big Potato Games
Amazon/Big Potato Games

With only one Blockbuster location left in the world, the good old days of wandering video rental store aisles and getting chewed out for late fees are definitely a thing of the past—but like so many relics from the '90s, the pull of nostalgia has ensured that Blockbuster (or at least the brand) won't disappear for good. Now the video store is back in the form of a party game from Big Potato Games that is designed to test the movie knowledge of you and up to 11 friends.

Marketing itself as “a movie game for anyone who has ever seen a movie,” the Blockbuster party game consists of two parts. In part one, players from each team compete head-to-head to name as many movies as they can that fit under specific categories (e.g., movies with Tom Cruise, famous trilogies, movies with planes). In the second half, two teams face off against each other to test their skills at a game of movie-related charades. The catch? Players can only describe movies in one of three randomly chosen ways: acting out scenes, rattling off a famous quote, or describing the films with one word.

The real selling point of the whole package is that Big Potato fit all the game cards and buzzer into a box that is virtually identical to the old-school Blockbuster VHS rental cases, right down to its distinct color scheme and shape. All it's missing is the membership card. 

The Blockbuster board game costs $26 on Amazon and $20 at Target. That’s a fair price for getting the chance to rewind time.

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8 Festive Facts About Hallmark Channel Christmas Movies

The holiday season means gifts, lavish meals, stocking stuffers, and what appear to be literally hundreds of holiday-themed movies running in perpetuity on the Hallmark Channel, which has come to replace footage of a crackling fireplace as the background noise of choice for cozy evenings indoors. Last year, roughly 70 million people watched Hallmark's holiday scheduling block. If you’re curious how the network manages to assemble films like Check Inn to Christmas, Christmas at Graceland: Home for the Holidays, and Sense, Sensibility & Snowmen with such efficiency—a total of 40 new films will debut this season on the Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, and Hallmark Movies Now—keep reading.

1. The Hallmark Channel Christmas movie tradition started with ABC.

The idea of unspooling a continuous run of holiday films started in the 1990s, when ABC offshoot network ABC Family started a "25 Days of Christmas" programming promotion that would go on to feature the likes of Joey Lawrence and Mario Lopez. The Hallmark Channel, which launched in 2001, didn’t fully embrace the concept until 2011, when ABC Family moved away from the concept in an effort to appeal to teen viewers.

2. Most Hallmark Channel Christmas movies are shot in Canada.

To maximize their $2 million budget, most Hallmark Channel holiday features are shot in Canada, where tax breaks can stretch the dollar. Wintry Vancouver is a popular destination, though films have also been shot in Montreal and Toronto. One film, 2018's Christmas at the Palace, was shot in Romania to take advantage of the country's castles.

3. Each Hallmark Channel Christmas movie only takes a couple of weeks to film.

If you’re wondering why a holiday movie on basic cable can regularly attract—and keep—a list of talent ranging from Candace Cameron Bure to Lacey Chabert, the answer is partly scheduling. Most Hallmark holiday movies take just two to three weeks to shoot, meaning actors don’t have to commit months out of the year to a project. Actors like Rachael Leigh Cook, who stars in this year's A Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas, have also complimented the channel on giving them opportunities to be with their families while on location: Cook said that the production schedule allowed her time to FaceTime with family back home.

4. Hallmark Channel Christmas movies use a variety of tricks to create snow.

Even more pervasive than Dean Cain in the Hallmark Channel Christmas line-up is snow. Because some of the films shoot in the summer, it’s not always possible to achieve that powder naturally. Producers use a variety of tricks to simulate snowfall, including snow blankets that mimic the real thing when laid out; foam; commercial replica snow; crushed limestone; and ice shavings. Actors might also get covered with soapy bubbles for close-ups. The typical budget for snow per movie is around $50,000.

5. There’s a psychological reason why Hallmark Channel Christmas movies are so addictive.

Like a drug, Hallmark Channel Christmas movies provide a neurological reward. Speaking with CNBC in 2019, Pamela Rutledge, behavioral scientist, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, and a faculty member in the Media Psychology department at Fielding Graduate University, explained that the formulaic plots and predictability of the films is rewarding, especially when viewers are trying to unwind from the stress of the holiday season. “The lack of reality at all levels, from plot to production, signals that the movies are meant to be escapism entertainment,” Rutledge said. “The genre is well-defined, and our expectations follow. This enables us to suspend disbelief.”

6. Hallmark Channel Christmas movie fans now have their own convention.

Call it the Comic-Con of holiday cheer. This year, fans of Hallmark Channel’s Christmas programming got to attend ChristmasCon, a celebration of all things Hallmark in Edison, New Jersey. Throngs of people gathered to attend panels with movie actors and writers, scoop up merchandise, and vie for prizes during an ugly sweater competition. The first wave of $50 admission tickets sold out instantly. Hallmark Channel USA was the official sponsor.

7. Hallmark Channel Christmas movies are helping keep cable afloat.

Actors Brooke D'Orsay and Marc Blucas are pictured in a publicity still from the 2017 Hallmark Channel original movie 'Miss Christmas'
Brooke D'Orsay and Marc Blucas in Miss Christmas (2017).
Hallmark Channel

In an era of cord-cutting and streaming apps, more and more people are turning away from cable television, preferring to queue up programming when they want it. But viewers of Hallmark Channel’s holiday offerings often tune in as the movie is airing. In 2016, 4 million viewers watched the line-up “live.” One reason might be the communal nature of the films. People tend to watch holiday-oriented programming in groups, tuning in as they air. The result? For the fourth quarter of 2018, the Hallmark Channel was the most-watched cable network among women 18 to 49 and 25 to 54, even outpacing broadcast network programming on Saturday nights.

8. You can get paid to watch Hallmark Channel Christmas movies.

If you think you have the constitution to make it through 24 Hallmark Channel holiday films in 12 days, you might want to consider applying for the Hallmark Movie Dream Job contest, which is sponsored by Internet Service Partners and will pay $1000 to the winning entrant who seems most capable of binging the two dozen films and making wry comments about them on social media. You can enter though December 6 here.

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