Secretly Temps Them To Join German Side.
Germany Sinks American Ship; U.S. Breaks Relations
Special to The Great War Project.
(6 February) A clandestine German plot is underway, designed to counter an eventual American decision to get into the war.
The plot is the handiwork of Dr. Arthur von Zimmermann, Germany’s newly appointed foreign minister.
Zimmermann and other German leaders are aware that the decision to expand submarine warfare can certainly provoke the Americans to enter the war. Unrestricted German submarine warfare, just begun on 3 February a century ago, is a dangerous move on the part of the Germans, and they are well aware of it.
There are bound to be American ships that are sunk and Americans that are killed.
Zimmermann “works out a scheme,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “whereby if unrestricted submarine warfare were to bring the United States into the war, Germany could win the support and active alliance of Mexico.”
In January, Zimmermann sends a secret telegram to the government of Mexico.
“With Germany’s generous financial support, he explained in a coded telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico City…Mexico would ‘reconquer’ the territories it had lost seventy years earlier: Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.”
“Germany and Mexico would make war together,” the telegram proposes, “and make peace together.”
At this point a hundred years ago, the Zimmermann telegram remains secret. But another covert German initiative is underway.
The German ambassador in Washington is still working to keep the United States out of the war. He is Count Bernsdorff, and he “asks Berlin,” according to historian Gilbert, “for $50,000 to influence individual members of Congress.”
The ambassador wants to bribe members of Congress – to buy their votes to keep America out of the war.
The ambassador’s effort collapses on the rocky shoals of submarine attacks. “As a result of skillful British cryptography,” writes Gilbert, on February 3rd a century ago, the British learn of the ambassador’s secret bribes.
The German ambassador’s telegram to Berlin is intercepted and deciphered in London, Gilbert reports, “two days before it was received in Berlin.
Then the U-boats attack.
On February 3rd a century ago, “less than two weeks after this attempt to buy American neutrality,” observes Gilbert, the German submarine, U-53 in one of the very first actions of unrestricted submarine warfare, sinks an American cargo ship, the Housatonic.
“Its cargo of grain was lost.”
The Germans are convinced this attack and others like it will not draw the U.S. into the war. “In Berlin,” reports Gilbert, the German foreign minister tells the American ambassador, “everything will be alright. America will do nothing, for President Wilson is for peace and nothing else.”
“Everything will go on as before.”
Zimmermann is wrong, reports Gilbert. “That day President Wilson announced to Congress that he was breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany. He had not declared war, but he had brought two-and-a-half years of wartime diplomacy to an end.”
“From a possibility,” observes historian Gary Mead, “war with Germany had now become a probability.”
News of the break does not reach the Germans until the next morning. At that moment, they have more than one hundred submarines ready for action.
Foreign Minister Zimmermann’s telegram to the Mexicans for the moment remains secret. The British learn of the German gambit toward Mexico, but according to historian Mead, they do not immediately inform the Americans of the scheme.
Wilson does not learn of it until late February.
As for the American public, they are still in the dark.