It’s March 1917, the last month of neutrality for the United States and the last month of his reign for the Tsar of All the Russias.  In the United States, publication of the Zimmermann Telegram triggers a political firestorm.  Pacifists and isolationists at first denounce it as a forgery perpetrated by Great Britain, but Zimmermann himself acknowledges authorship and American public opinion begins to swing in favor of war.  The House of Representatives passes the Armed Ships Bill, and seventy-five senators sign a manifesto in support, but a filibuster prevents it from coming to a vote.  President Wilson denounces the filibusterers as “a little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own,” and orders that merchant ships be armed anyway.  The Senate adopts its first rule limiting debate.  Three American merchant ships are sunk by German submarines; twelve Americans die.  The Federal Reserve Board revises its advice to member banks: loans to the Allies are now encouraged.  The Cabinet unanimously recommends declaring war on Germany, and President Wilson calls Congress into special session.  In Russia, Army mutinies and demonstrations in the streets of Petrograd force Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate; he is taken into custody and replaced by a Provisional Government.  Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky set out for Russia, Lenin from Switzerland and Trotsky from New York.  In Mesopotamia, the British Army occupies Baghdad.  Alexandre Ribot succeeds Aristide Briand as Prime Minister of France.  The inventor of the Zeppelin dies.

New York Times, March 1

The publication of the Zimmermann Telegram in the March 1 editions of American newspapers caused a sensation. Before the day was out Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman William F. Stone (Dem., Mo.), reflecting the skepticism of a number of isolationist senators, asked whether the British government was the source of the telegram, and the Senate adopted a resolution asking the President to provide any further information in its possession “if not incompatible with the public interest.”  Later that day, President Wilson replied by forwarding, with his approval, a statement from Secretary of State Lansing.  The statement advised the Senate “that the Government is is possession of evidence which establishes the fact that the note referred to is authentic, and that it is in the possession of the Government of the United States, and that the evidence was procured by the Government during the present week, but that it is, in my opinion, incompatible with the public interest to send to the Senate at the present time any further information in possession of the Government of the United States relative to the note mentioned in the resolution of the Senate.”


The Zimmermann Telegram: Its Intent . . .

. . . and Effect

The statement that the President and Secretary of State were confident of the telegram’s authenticity but were unable to say why only fueled public skepticism.  Another day of rumors and speculative theories swirled through Washington and around the country until the morning of March 3 (afternoon in Berlin) when Foreign Minister Zimmermann, in response to a question by a reporter from the German Overseas News Agency, explained that while “Germany expected and wished to remain on terms of friendship with the United States, … we had prepared measures of defense in case the United States declared war against Germany.”  He said “I fail to see how such a ‘plot’ is inspired by unfriendliness on our part.  It would mean nothing but that we would use means universally admitted in war, in case the United States declared war.”

Zimmermann’s admission that the telegram was genuine has embarrassed American isolationists and accelerated the move toward an American declaration of war.  Ironically, its effect has been most pronounced in those parts of the country where until now isolationist sentiment has been strongest, the southwest and west, areas now directly threatened by Germany’s overtures to Mexico and Japan.

Senator LaFollette

On the day the Zimmermann Telegram appeared in the newspapers, the House of Representatives passed the Armed Ships Bill by a vote of 403-13.  A proposed amendment to prohibit armed ships from carrying munitions or citizens of belligerent nations was defeated by the much closer but still decisive vote of 293-125.  In the Senate, with no rules limiting debate, it was a different story.  Senator Robert LaFollette objected to immediate consideration of the bill and led a filibuster that continued until the Sixty-fourth Congress expired at noon on March 4.  During the debate, seventy-five senators (forty-five Democrats and thirty Republicans) signed a manifesto supporting the bill, but the bill was never brought to a vote.  On the morning of the fourth, Democrats achieved a measure of revenge by holding the floor with Vice-president Marshall’s assistance until the Congress expired, thereby preventing LaFollette from having the last word.

Until the Sixty-fourth Congress and President Wilson’s first term expired, the President remained in the President’s Room at the Capitol ready to sign last-minute legislation.  At noon, he rose from his desk and took the oath of office administered by Chief Justice White. Then he returned to the White House and issued a statement denouncing the senators who had prevented a vote on the Armed Ships Bill “in a situation unparalleled in the history of the country.”  He said that in “a crisis fraught with more subtle and far-reaching possibilities of national danger than any other the Government has known within the whole history of its international relations, the Congress has been unable to act either to safeguard the country or to vindicate the elementary rights of its citizens.”  The Senate is “the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when its majority is ready for action.  A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great Government of the United States helpless and contemptible.”

The President’s statement concluded with the assertion that “the only remedy is that the rules of the Senate be so altered that it can act.”  On March 8, the Senate followed the President’s advice.  In a specially called session of the new Congress, it ended its long tradition of unlimited debate.  By a vote of 76-3 it adopted a new rule allowing a petition by sixteen senators to force a cloture vote.  A two-thirds vote of the Senate can then bring debate to an end, each senator being allowed to speak for one additional hour.  To prevent endless roll calls, no amendments may be proposed without unanimous consent.

The March 5 Inauguration Ceremony

Because March 4 fell on a Sunday, the inauguration ceremony was held the next day. With war on the horizon, the ceremony was a sober, low-key affair compared to previous inaugurations, and was followed by a parade that was only about half the length of the one four years ago.  Policemen, soldiers, and Secret Service agents were everywhere in evidence to an extent not seen since President Lincoln’s inaugurations, which took place in similar circumstances.  The President said “we stand firm in armed neutrality” although “we may be drawn on, by circumstances, not by our own purpose or desire, to a more active assertion of our rights as we see them and a more immediate association with the great struggle itself.”  Although “the tragical events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world, . . . we are not the less Americans on that account.  We shall be the more American if we but remain true to the principles in which we have been bred . . . the principles of a liberated mankind.”  Those principles are: that “all nations are equally interested in the peace of the world and in the political stability of free peoples”; that “the essential principle of peace is the actual equality of nations in all matters of right or privilege”; that “peace cannot securely or justly rest upon an armed balance of power”; that “governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed”; that “the seas should be equally free and safe for the use of all peoples”; that “national armaments should be limited to the necessities of national order and domestic safety”; and that each nation must ensure “that all influences proceeding from its own citizens meant to encourage or assist revolution in other states should be sternly and effectively suppressed and prevented.”

It was a cold, windy day, and it is doubtful that anyone, even those closest to the speaker’s stand, could hear the president’s words as he spoke.  This has been true to some extent of almost all inaugurations, with a recent exception in 1909 when a blizzard forced President Taft’s ceremony indoors, but it was made worse this year by the persistent wind which carried the president’s words away.

Attorney General Gregory

Throughout the armed ships debate, Secretary of State Lansing urged President Wilson to order the arming of American merchant ships without waiting for Congressional action, but the President hesitated to do so because of a statute enacted in 1819 to deal with defense against pirates, which prohibits American ships from engaging in hostile action against ships of nations with which the United States is not at war.  On March 9, having been advised by Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory that the 1819 statute did not apply, President Wilson ordered the Secretary of the Navy to furnish arms to American merchant ships at once for defense against submarine attacks, and advised foreign governments accordingly.

President Wilson and His Cabinet

On the day he ordered the arming of merchant ships, the President issued a call for Congress to convene in a special session on April 16.  Joseph P. Tumulty, the President’s secretary, stated that the special session was deemed necessary to deal with matters that, due to the filibuster at the end of the last Congress, remain unaddressed.  In addition, the President wanted Congress to be available to provide support in any international crises that might arise as a result of the measures being taken in defense of merchant shipping.

These plans have since been overtaken by events.  Over the weekend of March 17-18, three American merchant ships were sunk by German submarines.  Fifteen seamen died, including six Americans.  At a two-hour meeting on Tuesday, March 20, the Cabinet unanimously recommended a declaration of war against Germany.  The next morning President Wilson called Congress, already summoned to a special session on April 16, to convene two weeks earlier on April 2 “to receive a communication concerning grave matters of national policy which should be taken immediately under consideration.”  The President held additional Cabinet meetings on Friday, March 23, and Tuesday, March 27.  Although he has not made any further public statement on the subject, it is widely expected that when he addresses Congress on April 2 he will ask for a declaration of war.

The Federal Reserve Board

Last November the Federal Reserve Board issued advice to member banks cautioning them against extending further unsecured loans to the Allies.  On March 8, influenced no doubt by the drastic deterioration in relations between the United States and Germany since then, the Board issued a statement to “correct a misapprehension” about its earlier advice.  It now states that it regards loans to the Allies as “a very important, natural and proper means of settling the balances created in our favor by our large export trade.”  Observing that “there are times when such loans should be encouraged as an essential means of maintaining and protecting our foreign trade,” the Board “deems it desirable and in the public interest to remove any misconception that may be left in the minds of those who read the [November statement].” The Board states that “Since [November] the country’s gold reserve has been further materially strengthened, and provides a broad basis for additional credit.”  The Board therefore considers that “banks may perform a useful service in facilitating the distribution of investments and in carrying out this process they may, with advantage, invest a reasonable amount of their resources in foreign securities.”

Former President Roosevelt

Former President Roosevelt hopes that in the event of war he will be called upon to lead American troops into battle.  Not wanting to jeopardize his chances, he did not make any immediate public statement in response to the news of the Zimmermann Telegram.  He had another opportunity to air his views, however, when he responded on March 4 to an invitation from the Congress of Forums, a pacifist group, to debate former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan on the issue of preparedness.  Roosevelt declined, saying he “regards it as a waste of time to debate nondebatable subjects.”  Debating such a subject would, he continued, “be precisely on a par with debating the undesirability of monogamous marriage or the morality of abolishing patriotism or the advantage of the reintroduction of slavery or the right of judges to accept bribes from suitors or the duty of submission to the divine right of kings, or the propriety of action such as that of Benedict Arnold.”

On Monday March 19  the former president fired another salvo after the weekend sinking of three American steamships.  In a statement issued from his home in Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt called on Americans to “wage war on Germany with all our energy and courage, and regain the right to look the whole world in the eye without flinching.”  He said that news of the sinkings “makes it imperative that every self-respecting American should speak out and demand that we hit hard and effectively, in return.  Words are wasted upon Germany.  What we need is effective and thorough-going action.”  Breaking diplomatic relations was “eminently proper,” he said, but doing so was “an empty gesture, unless it was followed by vigorous and efficient action.”  Instead, for seven weeks “we have done nothing.  We have not even prepared.”

Mikhail Rodzianko

Revolution in Russia has brought an end to the 300 year-old Romanov Dynasty.  As demonstrations in Petrograd on March 8 (February 23 by the Russian calendar) grew into major food riots, Tsar Nicholas II was at Army headquarters (Stavka) in Mogilev, hundreds of miles away.  By March 10 most of Petrograd was on strike, and the Council of Ministers sent a cable to the Tsar informing him of the unrest and asking him to return to the Capital.  All but one of the ministers (Alexander Protopopov, who as Minister of the Interior was responsible for domestic order) offered their resignations.  Nicholas’s response was to cable the Military Governor of Petrograd to “make these disorders stop immediately.”  On March 11 matters escalated: two hundred people were shot dead on the streets of Petrograd, and soldiers began to refuse to fire on civilians.  Mikhail Rodzianko, the President of the Duma, sent a cable to Nicholas telling him that the troops were joining the revolution and imploring him to appoint someone trusted by the people to run the government.  Nicholas responded by suspending the Duma.

Prince Georgy Lvov

The next day the Petrograd garrisons mutinied and joined the revolution, some soldiers shooting their own officers, and the Council of Ministers adjourned and submitted to the authority of the Duma.  The Duma, ignoring the Tsar’s suspension order, announced it would form a government to include a separate “Soviet” representing soldiers and workers.  Because Rodzianko was unacceptable to the Soviet, Prince Georgy Lvov was named Prime Minister.  Pavel Miliukov, the leader of the Cadet Party, was named Foreign Minister and Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Soviet, was named Minister of Justice.  That night in Mogilev, Nicholas decided to return to Tsarskoe Selo, his residence outside Petrograd.

Nicholas at Tsarskoe Selo After His Abdication

It was too late.  En route to Tsarskoe Selo, the Tsar’s train was halted by revolutionary soldiers and diverted to Pskov, where he was informed that revolutionary forces were in command of the entire garrison of Petrograd and Tsarskoe Selo.  General Mikhail Alexeyev, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Imperial Army, canvassed the opinion of other generals including Generals Brusilov, Sakharov, and the Tsar’s uncle Grand Duke Nicholas, and advised the Tsar that it was their unanimous opinion that he must abdicate.  He did so on March 15 (March 2 by the Russian calendar).  After bidding goodbye to his army at Mogilev, he returned to Tsarskoe Selo where he was placed under arrest.

Grand Duke Mikhail

Tsar Nicholas first abdicated in favor of his son Alexis, the next in line to the throne.  Then, deciding that he was unwilling to leave his young son behind as he sought asylum in another country, he abdicated on his son’s behalf in favor of his brother Grand Duke Mikhail, the second in line.  Mikhail, however, aware of the Duma’s fragile grip on power and fearing that the Petrograd streets would not accept him as Tsar, announced that he would refuse the throne and accept it later only if invited to do so by a constituent assembly.  Supreme power in Russia thus passed to the Provisional Government, which has announced its intention to continue the war.  Foreign Minister Miliukov has asked British Ambassador Buchanan whether Great Britain would be willing to grant asylum to the former Tsar.

Lenin in Switzerland Last Year

Vladimir Lenin, a Russian revolutionary and leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democrats, has been in self-imposed exile since 1907.  When war broke out in 1914, Lenin moved to Switzerland.  After this month’s abdication of the Tsar and the announcement by the Provisional Government that it would continue to prosecute the war, Lenin persuaded the German government to allow him, his wife, and a number of his followers to travel by train across Germany to the Baltic coast on the first leg of a journey back to Russia.

Another Russian Socialist, Leon Trotsky, was in New York when he learned of the Tsar’s abdication.  He is also trying to get back to Russia, but he has farther to go, and his journey is complicated by the fact that, unlike Lenin’s journey by rail across Germany which is being facilitated by the German government, he has to cross the British-controlled North Atlantic.  Trotsky departed New York aboard a Norwegian steamer on March 27, but his ship was intercepted by the British and detained in Halifax, where he remains at months’ end.

British Troops Entering Baghdad

The British march toward Baghdad last year ended in humiliation when 12,000 British and Indian troops surrendered to the Turks at Kut al Amara (see the April 1916 installment of this blog).  Last month British troops finally succeeded in driving the Turkish Army from Kut al Amara, and on March 11 they occupied Baghdad after the Turks withdrew.

Alexandre Ribot

French Prime Minister Aristide Briand and his cabinet resigned on March 17, following their inability to find a candidate to replace the Minister of War, General Hubert Lyautey, who was forced to resign.  The new Prime Minister is Alexandre Ribot, the Minister of Finance and a former Prime Minister.  M. Ribot resolved to “wage with the utmost vigor and to a victorious end the terrible war into which we were drawn by inexcusable aggression.”  By month’s end, the War Ministry was filled by Paul Painleve. This is the fourth French government since the war began.

Count Zeppelin In One of His Airships

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin died of pneumonia in Charlottenburg on March 8.  He became interested in the development of an airship as an officer in the Wurttemberg Army.  After his retirement from military service in 1891, he devoted all of his energies and his considerable fortune to developing the airship that bears his name.  After a successful flight in 1908, Kaiser Wilhelm hailed him as “the conqueror of the air.”  In 1914 the Kaiser proclaimed him “the greatest German of the twentieth century,” and conferred on him the Order of the Black Eagle, the highest honor at his command.  Since the outbreak of war in 1914, Zeppelins have engaged in naval patrols and conducted numerous raids on military and civilian targets in France and Great Britain.

March 1917 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:

American Review of Reviews, April and May 1917
New York Times, 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
Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra
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:

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.