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.

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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