It’s January 1917.  As a New Year dawns, a global war of unprecedented scope and destruction is at the top of the political agenda in every major country, belligerent or neutral. Great Britain, ruler of a world-wide empire, has a new Prime Minister.  Russia, a major Entente power, is in political turmoil following the murder of Grigori Rasputin, a confidant of the royal family, by monarchists who feared his influence.  Russia’s offensive against Austria-Hungary has ended in stalemate, as have the German siege of Verdun and the Anglo-French attack on the Somme.  Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, whose nephew’s murder two and a half years ago led to the outbreak of the war, has died; the new emperor is his grand-nephew Charles.  The United States, the largest and most important of the neutral nations, has just elected Woodrow Wilson to a second term under the slogan “He kept us out of war.”  One of his first acts after the election was to asked the warring powers to state their war aims, asserting that the two sides’ stated objectives “are virtually the same.”  Germany has proposed a peace conference to be held in a neutral country, but has declined to state its position in advance, leading the Entente nations to denounce its proposal as a “sham.”  German military leaders, increasingly in the ascendant, are pressing for a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare.

The first month of the New Year marks a decisive turning point in the war, as Germany makes the critical decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Recognizing that this might draw the United States into the war, German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann sends a secret telegram to Mexico proposing that it join the war on Germany’s side.  Unaware of either Germany’s decision or Zimmermann’s telegram, President Wilson makes a speech to the Senate advocating “peace without victory” and orders the withdrawal of American troops from Mexico.  When the new German policy is announced at the end of the month, the whole world, and America in particular, holds its breath.

Count Czernin

Last month Germany responded to President Wilson’s request for a statement of “terms on which the war might be concluded” by repeating its proposal for a peace conference without preconditions.  The Entente nations responded to the president’s request on January 10.  A joint note delivered to the American ambassador in Paris states that the Allies seek restoration of invaded territories with indemnities, restoration of territories taken by force in the past, liberation of ethnic groups in Austria-Hungary, expulsion of Turkey from Europe, and Polish independence.  The threat to the unity of Austria-Hungary, made explicit by the Allies’ response, has motivated that nation to explore the possibility of a compromise peace.  On January 12 Count Ottokar von Czernin, the new emperor’s foreign minister, urged the Council of Ministers to look for a way to bring an end to the war.

Admiral von Holtzendorff

As the Allies were responding to President Wilson’s request for a statement of war aims, Germany was reacting to their rejection last month of the German proposal for a peace conference without preconditions.  In a secret meeting with his military commanders on January 9 in the Duchy of Pless in Silesia, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, Chief of the Naval Staff, pressed his argument, made in a memorandum submitted to the Kaiser in December, that Germany could win the war in a matter of months if its Navy was allowed to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.  When Holtzendorff’s recommendation was supported by the other military leaders and Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg withdrew his prior opposition, the Kaiser approved the change of policy.  It was decided that the new policy, which revokes Germany’s earlier pledges that its submarines would observe “cruiser rules” when intercepting civilian ships at sea, would take effect February 1 and be kept secret until January 31.

Foreign Minister Zimmermann

A few days after the Pless conference, German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann sent a secret telegram to the German Embassy in Mexico City for delivery to the government of Venustiano Carranza.  The telegram proposes that, if Germany’s new submarine policy causes the United States to enter the war, Mexico join Germany in making war against the United States.  Germany promises to support Mexico’s war financially and at the end of the war to ensure that Mexico’s “lost territories” (Texas, New Mexico and Arizona) are returned to it.  The telegram also proposes that Mexico persuade Japan to switch sides and wage war against the United States.  Zimmermann is hopeful that his overture will be well received.  Relations between the United States and Mexico have been strained for years.  The two countries almost went to war last June when the American Army’s punitive expedition deep into Mexican territory in pursuit of Francisco (“Pancho”) Villa and his bandits led to armed conflict with Mexican Army troops.  (See the March, April, May and June 1916 installments of this blog).  U.S.-Japanese relations have also been difficult due to a number of factors including anti-Japanese legislation in California and American resistance to Japanese ambitions in China.

President Wilson

For the first time in history, an American president went to the Senate chamber this month to address the Senate.  Giving only an hour’s notice, President Wilson journeyed to the Capitol on January 22 where he delivered a major foreign policy speech arguing for “the adoption of the doctrine of President Monroe as the doctrine of the world,” in which all nations would participate in a “League for Peace” that would be “made secure by the organized major force of mankind.”  He argued that the future peace of the world is possible only if  “there is not only a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace.”  The way to achieve that goal, he said, is through a “peace without victory.”  “Victory,” he said, “would mean peace forced upon the loser, a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished.  It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and  would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory, upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand.  Only a peace between equals can last …”

As the President spoke, neither he nor anyone else other than a few high-ranking German officials had any knowledge of the decision the Kaiser had made a few days earlier to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.  The day after his speech, still with no knowledge either of the Kaiser’s decision or of Zimmermann’s telegram, President Wilson ordered American troops out of Mexico.

Ambassador Bernstorff

On the last day of the month, German Ambassador Johann von Bernstorff delivered a note to the American State Department announcing the new German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.  The new policy, which will become effective February 1, effectively revokes Germany’s previous pledges not to attack neutral merchant and passenger ships without warning.  The announcement comes as a surprise and has caused a sensation in Washington and throughout the country.  It is widely expected to lead, if not to war, at least to a rupture in diplomatic relations between the United States and Germany.

Former President Roosevelt has not been silent during the events of this month.  On January 3 he called on President Wilson to withdraw his note to the belligerent nations requesting a statement of war aims, saying that the note “takes positions so profoundly immoral and misleading that high-minded and right-thinking American citizens … are in honor bound to protest.”  He denounced the President’s assertion in the note that the two sides’ objectives in the war are “virtually the same,” saying that “this is palpably false [and] wickedly false. To say that the Germans, who have trampled Belgium under heel and are at this moment transporting 100,000 Belgians to serve as State slaves in Germany, are fighting for the same things as their hunted victims, the Belgians who have fought only for their country and their hearthstones, and their wives and their children, is not only a falsehood, but a callous and a most immoral falsehood, a thing shocking to every high-minded man who loves the peace of righteousness.”  Also this month, in an article in Metropolitan Magazine, Roosevelt attacked the League to Enforce Peace, in which former President Taft and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker are prominent members, and which had welcomed the President’s overture.  Roosevelt accused the League of taking the side of Germany, which he said wants to end the war only “so long as it can be ended to her advantage.”

President Wilson’s call for a “peace without victory” later in the month prompted another strong response from Roosevelt.  On January 28 at Sagamore Hill he told a press delegation that “peace without victory is the natural ideal of the man who is too proud to fight,” but that it is “spurned … by all men fit to call themselves fellow-citizens of Washington and Lincoln.”  He said “the Tories of 1776 demanded peace without victory.  The Copperheads of 1864 demanded peace without victory.  These men were Mr. Wilson’s spiritual forebears. … If a righteous war is concluded by a peace without victory, such a peace means the triumph of wrong over right.”  He concluded his statement by invoking the biblical prophetess Deborah who, “when Sisera mightily oppressed the children of Israel,” cursed the people of Meroz for standing “neutral between the oppressed and oppressor.”  He said “President Wilson has earned for this nation the curse of Meroz, for he has not dared to stand on the side of the Lord against the wrongdoings of the mighty.”

Admiral Dewey

“Buffalo Bill” Cody

Two famous Americans died this month.  Admiral of the Navy George Dewey died on January 16 at his home in Washington, D.C.  He is the only American naval officer to achieve that rank, which Congress created for him in 1903.  In 1898, as the admiral in command of the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Squadron, he was the victor of the battle of Manila Bay, which destroyed Spain’s Pacific Squadron in the first engagement of the Spanish-American War.  The nation also lost William F. (“Buffalo Bill”) Cody, the founder and proprietor of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, an immensely popular show that toured the United States and Europe in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century.  He died on January 10 in Denver, Colorado.

Billy Murray is one of America’s favorite entertainers, and Irving Berlin is one of its favorite composers.  Here Billy Murray sings one of 1916’s most popular songs, Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano” (click to play):

January 1917 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:

American Review of Reviews, February and March 1917
New York Times, January and February 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
Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme
Merlo J. Pusey, Charles Evans Hughes
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:

Dennis Cross is a retired lawyer and amateur historian of World War I. He is a U.S. Navy veteran and a 1962 graduate of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. He graduated from New York University Law School in 1969 and served as Assistant General Counsel of the Federal Trade Commission from 1977 to 1982. Since his retirement from the practice of law in 2007, he has been a volunteer at the National World War One Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, MO. Beginning in September 2011, he has written a monthly blog about the events of the month one hundred years ago.