Wednesday, 22 March 2017

USA's entry into WW1 2: The Zimmermann telegram

The Zimmermann Telegram. This amazing
coded proposal was for the final straw for the USA
One of the first British acts of aggression in WW1 took place in the English Channel in the early hours of 5th August 1914. Historians differ as to whether it was the cable ship (CS) Telcona or the CS Alert that did the deed, but they found and cut the German transatlantic telegraph cables. This badly hampered German messaging through the war, cutting them off from cable communication outside of Europe. They tried to retaliate against British Empire cables at various times, but were less effective. With respect to the USA and the rest of the Americas, Germany could only communicate with their embassies by two methods: by radio from Berlin to Long Island; or by a complex radio route passing via Stockholm and Buenos Aires, known as the Swedish Roundabout. Both of these routes were vulnerable to interception by the intelligence department housed within the British Admiralty – Room 40, led by Admiral Hall. We have already encountered Sir Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall’s set up (see post Jutland 2: the build up 24/4/16) as the prototype for Bletchley Park in WW2.

Ambassador JH von
Bernstorff. Stuck between
a rock and a hard place.
The previous post (see 16/2/2017) described how the decision to commence unrestricted U-boat warfare (UUW) was reached in early January 1917, but not announced until 31st, when neutral shipping was given seven days grace to find safety in port. Wilson, unaware of the fait accomplit, continued to lead intense diplomatic activity. He went so far as to permit the German Ambassador, Bernstorff, to communicate with Berlin via the US State Department cable to the American Embassy, on condition the facility was used for peaceful purposes. On 19th January Bernstorff was let in to the secret of the UUW decision, but sworn to silence until 31st . The poor Ambassador now found himself out of step with his superiors, just as his counterpart in London (Prince Lichnowsky) had done in July 1914. He cabled to Berlin to plead for an extension, otherwise war was inevitable. The curt response from the Kaiser was “I do not care”. On 27th January Bernstorff tried to reason one last time, via his new boss Zimmerman. His message reached the Reichs Chancellor, but Bethmann - now without influence - was simply told that the U-boats were at sea and nothing could be changed.
At 4pm on 31st January Bernstorff had the painful duty to inform Lansing, the USA Secretary of State, of the impending declaration. Wilson was shocked when the news reached him. He agonised for 48hrs before ordering that Bernstorff should be given his passports and expelled. Diplomatic relations duly broken off, Wilson stopped short of a declaration of war. He could not quite believe that Germany would go so far as to deliberately sink USA ships. He authorised the arming of merchantmen, and waited. Weeks of tension followed and thousands of ships languished in port. It was now that the actions of Zimmermann gave the fragile status quo its critical push.
Arthur Zimmermann
Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann was unlike his shrewd and pacific predecessor Jagow. Behind bluster and bonhomie to the Americans, he was concocting an unpleasant (and astonishing) plot to support the effectiveness of UUW. Aware of the USA-Mexico tensions, he proposed an alliance with Mexico, that would trigger a Mexican invasion from the south. ‘When’ Germany was victorious, she would support Mexico in reclaiming the lost territories of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Not only would such an action deflect American resources from Europe, but it might also persuade Japan to change sides and take up old grievances against the USA. Crazy stuff, but method in the madness. On 16th January Zimmermann sent his coded telegram to Bernstorff, abusing Wilson’s State Department cable facility with a bellicose message that the hapless Bernstorff was ordered to forward to the German Ambassador to Mexico, Eckhart. On the same day as Eckhart received it, Room 40 in London intercepted and decoded it. It is reproduced here (from Robert Massie’s brilliant book Castles of Steel).

We intend to begin unrestricted submarine warfare on the first of February. We shall endeavour in spite of this to keep the United States neutral. In the event of not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: Make war together, make peace together, generous financial support, and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you.
You will inform the (Mexican) President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves.
Please call the President’s attention to the fact that the unrestricted employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England to make peace within a few months. Zimmermann.

Hall - apart from informing Lord Balfour, the Foreign Secretary - did nothing immediately with the dynamite now in his possession. Acting precipitately on intercepted information risked revealing 
to the Germans that code and cypher systems were compromised (Bletchley Park faced the same challenge with Enigma in WW2). As the tensions rose through February, Balfour bided his time 
until the 23rd, when he judged the moment was right to deliver it to the US Ambassador in London. Another bad shock for President Wilson, who recognised this as the final straw.

By 1st March, the New York Times had the telegram contents. There was a public outcry. On 3rd 
March Zimmermann admitted the truth. Wilson havered still, before finally on 2nd April he took a 
war declaration motion to a seething Congress. By 6th April, both the Senate and the House of Representatives had voted overwhelmingly for war. The USA was in.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

USA's entry to WW1 1: USA 1914-16

A large chunk of the USA (in green) did
not become so until after the war with
Mexico 1846-48 
At the outbreak of WW1 in 1914, the USA was a long way from being the military superpower we know today. The army and navy were small and unprepared, and had not developed much in the fifty years since the Civil War. Still a young country, the US had only acquired its large southern states after a bitter war with Mexico from 1846-48. The war was triggered when the US annexed the independent state of Texas, and ended two years later with the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo. In this, the victorious USA not only confirmed the annexation of Texas, but also the territory that would become New Mexico, Arizona and a large chunk of southern California, removing more than half of Mexico’s land mass – albeit largely desert(ed). Border disputes with Mexico are clearly not a new issue. Future USA President Ulysses Grant fought as a young officer, and viewed it as a “cruel and unjust” war, and one that would contribute to the USA’s own civil war.

In the early 20th century, the USA’s foreign policy was dominated by the Monroe Doctrine, first enunciated by President Monroe in the 1830s. It sought to keep the old and new worlds apart, and viewed as an act of war any interference by European empires in the affairs of new and emerging republics anywhere in the Americas. By this, it also sought to preserve the USA’s powerful influence over such smaller nation states. Small wonder there was no appetite for involvement in a continental war brought about by the power politics of European nations.

The Monroe Doctrine
"east is east, and west is west"
Throughout WW1 the most important and influential US individual was its 28th President, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was born and raised in the south, but became Governor of New Jersey en route to the top job. When he won the 1912 Presidential election, he became the first Democrat President since the Civil War – and a southerner to boot.
On assuming office in 1913, Wilson’s biggest foreign policy issue was continuing tension with Mexico, by now torn apart by revolution*see footnote Revolutionary events, and the residual ill feeling between the two countries heightened this tension. In 1914, only three months before the European conflagration, Wilson sent brigades of marines to occupy the Mexican port of Veracruz in a show of force following some violence against USA sailors.
Thus, at the start of WW12, Wilson was balancing diplomatic and military tension on his southern border with a determination to keep the USA neutral, and out of the showdown between European great powers. He succeeded until 1917. By threat and persuasion, the Mexico situation was handled. A new Mexican President, Carranza, initially worked constructively with Wilson. Then, in early 1916, the President’s military chief Pancho Villa led a raid into New Mexico, killing some American citizens. Wilson authorised a punitive invasion to capture Villa.
Pancho Villa, legendary
Mexican Revolutionary 
This was led by General John Pershing (later to become the USA’s C-in-C in Europe). After another 2-3 months threatening all out war, Carranza capitulated and a joint high commission brought the issues back to the negotiating table. Wilson’s re-election campaign for a second term in November 1916 stood on the pillars of maintaining the peace with Mexico, and keeping the USA neutral in world war.
Nevertheless, his re-election was a narrow victory. Although initially the great majority of the population was strongly against war, and for neutrality, there had been a steady shift towards accepting the likelihood of war. Significant events such as the reported German atrocities in Belgium in 1914; the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, and the of the SS Sussex in 1916 inflamed neutrals sentiments towards Germany. The many European immigrant communities – across the USA but mainly in the big cities – supported their mother countries and raised the temperature of the discourse. All the belligerents put great efforts into overt and diplomatic  - but more often covert and clandestine – attempts to win favour from the USA. Perhaps most tellingly, many of the USA’s politicians and industrial leaders viewed war as inevitable and acted accordingly. Republicans, led by former President Theodore Roosevelt and Senators Cabot Lodge, Stimson and Root led a self-styled ‘Preparedness’ movement and campaign. They pointed to the weak, outdated army and navy facing inevitable war. They portrayed pacifism and idealism as mere weakness. Their opponents were  led by peace campaigners and isolationists. They argued that militarism of this sort was un-American and driven by business and financiers – not unreasonably, since it was clear that by this stage (even though still officially neutral) the USA had made fortunes by exporting loans and arms to the Allies.
Wilson’s peace note of late 1916 (see Post 19/12/16) ) was testament to his determination to avoid war, but its rejection by both parties indicated that events were culminating. The tensions concerning unrestricted U boat warfare were out in the open, and in early February Wilson ordered Pershing to evacuate any remaining troops from Mexico to stabilise that border. He was unaware at the time of how Mexico would play (unwittingly) its role in finally pushing America into the War.
* All this plays into the eventual entry of USA into WW1. In 1910, the longstanding regime of Porfirio Diaz (somewhat in the pocket of the USA) was challenged by Francesco Madero. The results of an election were rigged in favour of Diaz, and in the storm that followed a new election saw Madero elected. Within 18 months he and his deputy were assassinated. A full scale revolutionary war ensued between the forces of reaction, led by Huerta, and the forces of revolution, led by Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata)