In February 1917 the World War comes to the doorstep of the United States. Following Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, President Wilson severs diplomatic relations with Germany but stops short of declaring war. Announcing the diplomatic break to a joint session of Congress, he adheres to a policy of “armed neutrality” and declares that the United States will not go to war in the absence of an “overt act.” As the submarine threat causes American shipping to grind to a halt, President Wilson proposes legislation authorizing the arming of merchant ships. The month ends with another major step toward American belligerency as Great Britain, which has intercepted and decoded the Zimmermann Telegram, delivers it to the American Government and President Wilson releases it to the press. German submarines torpedo and sink two British ocean liners, taking the lives of two Americans. In Mesopotamia, the British Army drives the Turks out of Kut-Al-Amara. German forces in France begin a withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. Mata Hari is arrested in Paris.
Germany’s announcement on the last day of January that it was resuming unrestricted submarine warfare has dominated the American political scene this month. Only last month President Wilson in an address to the Senate advocated “peace without victory.” The German announcement less than two weeks later forced a reversal of American policy. On February 3, the President told a joint session of Congress that diplomatic relations with Germany had been severed. He reminded the Congress that after the attack on the British channel steamer Sussex last year the United States had threatened to break diplomatic relations unless Germany abandoned “its present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and freight carrying vessels,” and that Germany in response had pledged that “in accordance with the general principles of visit and search and destruction of merchant vessels recognized by international law, such vessels, both within and without the area declared a naval war zone, shall not be sunk without warning and without saving human lives, unless these ships attempt to escape or offer resistance.” Germany added that “neutrals cannot expect that Germany [will] restrict the use of an effective weapon if her enemy is permitted to continue to apply at will methods of warfare violating the rules of international law.” The United States in its reply welcomed the German pledge but said it assumed Germany did not intend to imply that its pledge was “in any way contingent upon the course or result of diplomatic negotiations between the United States and any other belligerent government,” and that the United States “cannot for a moment entertain, much less discuss,” such a suggestion. “Responsibility in such matters,” it said, “is single, not joint, absolute, not relative.” The German government made no further reply prior to its January 31 note withdrawing its pledge altogether.
President Wilson told Congress that the January 31 note, which “suddenly and without prior intimation of any kind deliberately withdraws the solemn assurance [of the Sussex pledge],” leaves “no alternative consistent with the dignity and honor of the United States” but for it to do what it said it would do last year if Germany failed to abandon “the methods of submarine warfare which it was then employing and to which it now purposes again to resort.” He said the Secretary of State had been instructed to withdraw the American Ambassador in Berlin and to hand the German ambassador his passports. The President added, however, that despite this “sudden and deplorable renunciation of its assurances, … I refuse to believe that it is the intention of the German Government to do in fact what they have warned us they will feel at liberty to do,” adding that “only actual overt acts on their part can make me believe it even now.” If that confidence proves unfounded, the President said he would “take the liberty of coming again before the Congress to ask that authority be given to me to use any means that may be necessary for the protection of our seamen and our people in the prosecution of their peaceful and legitimate errands on the high seas.”
In a remarkable example of poor timing, the new Ambassador sent by Austria-Hungary to replace the expelled Ambassador Konstantin Dumba arrived in the United States on February 1 and learned of the German note only when he arrived. The new Ambassador-designate, Count Tarnowsky von Tarnow, appeared at the State Department to present his ambassadorial credentials the day after President Wilson’s address to Congress, and was told that the Secretary was unable to receive him. Shortly thereafter a note from Austria-Hungary arrived at the State Department announcing that, as an ally of Germany, it would adhere to the new German submarine policy. At month’s end diplomatic relations between the United States and Austria-Hungary remain unbroken and Count Tarnow remains in the United States, but he has not been officially received as his country’s Ambassador. In Vienna, Joseph C. Grew continues in his post as American Ambassador to Austria-Hungary.
Unwilling to be on the receiving end of an “overt act,” American shipowners have cancelled all sailings, bringing American overseas commerce to a virtual halt. On February 7, Secretary of State Lansing advised shipowners that while the government “cannot give advice to private persons as to whether their merchant vessels should sail on a voyage to European ports by which they would be compelled to pass through the [war zone], [it] asserts that the rights of American vessels to traverse all parts of the high seas are the same now as they were prior to the issuance of the German declaration, and that a neutral merchant vessel may, if its owners believe that it is liable to be unlawfully attacked, take any measures to prevent or resist such attacks.” Permission for merchant ships to arm themselves, however, is small comfort. The Navy has declined to provide arms to civilian ships on the ground that to do so would be inconsistent with American neutrality, and Mr. Philip A. S. Franklin, president of the International Mercantile Marine Company, spoke for many shipowners when he said that he knows of no store in New York where 6-inch guns are on sale.
A few days after President Wilson’s address to Congress, a German submarine torpedoed and sank a British liner, SS Californian, in the Western Approaches en route to Glasgow. One American was on board, but was not among the forty-one passengers and crew who died. Another attack on a passenger liner took place on February 25 off the coast of Ireland when a German submarine attacked and sank the Cunard liner RMS Laconia. Most of the Laconia’s passengers were able to get into lifeboats, where they were picked up by a passing steamer and taken to Queenstown. Four Americans died, however, including Mrs. Mary Hoy and her daughter Elizabeth, friends of Mrs. Wilson. The next day the president was back in Congress asking for the passage of legislation authorizing the arming of American merchant and passenger ships. News of the Laconia’s sinking arrived in the House chamber just as the president arrived. He did not mention the Laconia in his address, but told Congress that no “overt act” of the kind he had referred to on February 3 had occurred.
Immediately after the president’s address, Chairman Henry D. Flood of the House Armed Services Committee introduced a bill in the House of Representatives granting the president the requested authority to arm civilian ships. Following a conference the next day between the President and Secretary Lansing, the White House let it be known that the president now regards the attack on the Laconia as a “clear-cut” case of violation of international law and an “overt act” of the kind he had warned against. Rather than go back to Congress immediately, however, he has decided to await Congress’s action on the Armed Ships Bill. There is no doubt of the bill’s passage in the House, but the Senate is another matter. The bill has broad bipartisan support, but the Sixty-fourth Congress will expire on March 4, and the Senate has no rules for limiting debate. It is possible and quite likely, therefore, that a few opponents of the bill will force the debate to continue until the Congress expires, requiring the president to call a special session of the new Congress to consider the bill.
Another startling development coincided with the debate on the Armed Ships Bill when the American government learned of the Zimmermann Telegram. German Foreign Minister Zimmermann had sent the telegram to the German Ambassador in Mexico City by way of Ambassador von Bernstorff in Washington, taking advantage of an agreement by the State Department to allow the German Embassy to transmit encoded messages, supposedly in the pursuit of a peaceful settlement. Far from pursuing peace, the Zimmermann Telegram proposed that, in the event of war between the United States and Germany, Mexico join an alliance with Germany in which Mexico would make war against the United States. Zimmermann offered generous financial assistance and an “understanding on [Germany’s] part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.” He also sought to take advantage of long-strained Japanese-American relations by suggesting that Mexico act as mediator to make peace between Germany and Japan and persuade Japan to join the war against the United States.
British Naval Intelligence had intercepted and decoded the Zimmermann Telegram and delivered it on February 23 to American Ambassador Walter Hines Page in London. Page forwarded it to the State Department, which in order to conceal the British Government’s role waited to disclose it until it obtained a copy of the encoded telegram from Western Union. On February 28 President Wilson, who was shocked by Zimmermann’s audacious proposal and personally offended by the German Embassy’s abuse of the privilege of transmitting encoded messages, released the telegram and its decoded content to the press.
As February draws to a close, Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare is disrupting international merchant and passenger traffic, the Armed Ships Bill is being debated in Congress, and both the Sixty-fourth Congress and President Wilson’s first term are about to expire. The sudden disclosure of the Zimmermann Telegram seems certain to take the escalating tension and turmoil in American politics to a new level.
Since at least as long ago as the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, former President Roosevelt has been heaping scorn on President Wilson for his failure to take sides in the World War. This month, to no one’s surprise, he enthusiastically endorsed President Wilson’s decision to break off diplomatic relations with Germany. The Colonel has long anticipated the day when America would enter the war, and he hopes to lead troops into combat as he did in the Spanish-American War. On the day President Wilson addressed Congress, Roosevelt issued a statement that he would “in every way support the president in all that he does to uphold the honor of the United States and to safeguard the lives of American citizens.” He added that he had written to the War Department “asking permission to raise a division if war is declared and there is a call for volunteers. In such an event I and my four sons will go.”
On the Western Front this month, the German Army began Operation Alberich, a withdrawal from much of the Somme battlefield that was the scene of bitter struggle for most of last year. The Germans will occupy positions along the newly constructed and strongly fortified “Hindenburg Line.” In addition to strengthening the German defenses, this will straighten the German front, shortening its length by several miles and enabling the German Army to release as many as thirteen divisions for redeployment. As they withdraw, the Germans are carrying out a “scorched earth” policy, razing villages, destroying railroads and bridges, poisoning wells, and planting mines and booby traps. They are removing over 100,000 French civilians from the area and transporting them to other areas of occupied France for forced labor. Elderly Frenchmen, women and children are being left behind with subsistence rations.
Kut Al Amara, situated on a bend of the Tigris River south of Baghdad, was the scene of a humiliating defeat for the British Army last year, as an Anglo-Indian force surrendered to the Turks after a siege of over four months and were force-marched to captivity in Anatolia. Thousands died along the way or in the prisons to which they were taken. On February 24 another Anglo-Indian force, this one commanded by General Frederick Stanley Maude, recaptured Kut. Over a thousand Turkish prisoners were taken but most of the Turkish garrison escaped and withdrew upriver.
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, a citizen of the neutral Netherlands, is a well-known exotic dancer and courtesan who goes by the name Mata Hari, a name she assumed while living in the Dutch East Indies. She was arrested in Paris on February 13, accused of spying for Germany.
February 1917 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
American Review of Reviews, March and April 1917
New York Times, February and March 1917
Books and Articles:
Scott Berg, Wilson
Britain at War Magazine, The Fourth Year of the Great War: 1917
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
Patrick Devlin, Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson’s Neutrality
John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson’s War
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume III: The Challenge of War, 1914-1916
Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
Paul Jankowski, Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War
Keith Jeffery, 1916: A Global History
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
John Keegan, The First World War
David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War
Arthur S. Link, Wilson: Confusions and Crises, 1915-1916
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
Michael S. Neiberg, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America
Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme
Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I
The following is reprinted from the Centennial Countdown to the Great War blog published by Dennis Cross. Read the original post and access an archive of previous posts at: centennialcountdown.blogspot.com