The Zimmerman Telegram - Germany Begins Unrestricted Submarine Warfare
United States Adopts a Policy of "Armed Neutrality," Germans Sink 7,000 Vessels Germany, with feverish speed, had been multiplying her fleets of submarines, with the secret intention of destroying the ships of all nations that sailed the seas.
Especially the Huns hoped to isolate England from her sources of food supply and starve her into submission. On January 31, 1917, Count von Bernstorff, the German Ambassador to the United States, notified this Government that on the following day, February 1, 1917, Germany would inaugurate a new policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.
A zone had been drawn around the British Isles, also along the coast of France, and the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. One channel, leading through the Dardanelles to Constantinople, had been excepted. All enemy ships of any character that entered this zone, whether merchant marine, passenger, or battleships, and all neutral vessels suspected of carrying contraband goods, were to be sunk without warning.
There was to be no distinction made between the ships of enemy nations and those of neutrals. No assurance was given that innocent passengers and seamen on board these vessels would be rescued. Germany had reverted to the practice of black piracy, putting to the blush the classic operations of the Algerian and Spanish buccaneers.
United States Breaks with Germany
President Wilson, who had shown the Huns every consideration since the sinking of the Lusitania and the Sussex, at once took the suitable action which resulted in America's participation in the War. In a message to Congress, received on February 26, 1917, the President' proposed a policy of "armed neutrality," asking authority of Congress to arm American ships for defense, while expressing the hope that "it would not be necessary to put forces anywhere into action."
Twelve United States Senators, by their votes, prevented the passage of an act of authorization before Congress was prorogued on March 4, 1917. The President thereupon called a special session of Congress to meet on April 2, 1917. At this session of Congress it was agreed that all American merchant vessels should be armed under the authority of the general powers vested in the President. Before Congress met in April, Germany threw down the gauntlet to all mankind, and there was no further hesitancy in adopting a declaration of war on April 6, 1917. Great Britain, in the meantime, in order to cope with the new submarine peril, had laid new mine fields in the North Sea, and established a new zone of danger for vessels of all nations.
President Wilson Refuses to Interne Submarines
The Allied nations now appealed to all neutral nations, including the United States, to forbid belligerent submarine vessels, "whatever the purpose to which they are put," from making use of neutral ports, roadsteads and waters, and in the event of such belligerent vessels visiting neutral ports, to interne them.
President Wilson replied that the Allied Governments "had not set forth any circumstances, nor is the Government of the United States at present aware of any circumstances, concerning the use of war or merchant submarines which would render the existing rules of international law inapplicable to them," adding that "in so far as the treatment of either war or merchant submarines in American waters is concerned, the Government of the United States reserves its liberty of action in all respects and will treat such vessels as, in its opinion, becomes the action of a power which may be said to have taken the first steps toward establishing the principles of neutrality." Finally, the President held that it was the duty of belligerents to protect their own coasts from enemy submarines.
183 Vessels Sunk in a Month
In the first month of unrestricted submarine warfare, 183 ships were sunk; of these 110 were British, 51 were neutrals, 20 were Allied ships, and two were American. From February 25, 1917, to July 22, 1917, Great Britain lost 745 vessels, with a combined tonnage of 2,650,000. Between August 5, 1917, and January 27, 1918, Great Britain lost 480 vessels, representing 6,435,000 tons burden. The losses of neutrals were heavy.
First American Vessels Sunk
On January 1, 1917, the Cunard liner Ivernia was torpedoed in the Mediterranean Sea while conveying troops. Four officers and 146 men, as well as 33 members of the crew, were lost. The American steamer Housatonic was sunk on February 3, 1917, near the Scilly Islands, without loss of life. The White Star liner Afric was sunk by a submarine on February 13, 1917. The sailing schooner Lyman M. Law was torpedoed off the coast of Sardinia, in the Mediterranean, on February 12, 1917, without loss of life. The steamer Vigilancia went down with a loss of 15 men on March 6, 1917. The steamer City of Memphis was torpedoed on March 18, 1917. The steamer Illinois was sunk March 18, 1917.The steamer Healdton, bound from Philadelphia to Rotterdam, was sunk without warning on the North Sea, on March 21, 1917, with a loss of 21 members of her crew, seven of whom were Americans.
The American armed ship Aztec was sunk in the submarine zone on April 2, 1917, with 28 of her crew. The American steamer Missourian went down on April 4, 1917, in the Mediterranean. The Seward was sunk on April 7, 1917, in the Mediterranean. The schooner Percy Birdsall was torpedoed on April 24, 1917, the crew being saved. The schooner Woodward Abrahams was sent to the bottom on April 26, 1917. The oil tanker Vacuum was sunk off the north coast of Ireland on April 28, 1917, 17 of her crew dying of exposure in the lifeboats. On May 2, 1917, the steamer Rockingham was sunk, two of her crew being lost.
In May, six other American armed boats were sunk—the Hilonian, Harpagus, Dirigo Frances M, Barbara, and Margaret В Rouss. Between June 12, 1917 and July 16, 1917, these eight American vessels were sunk: The Hansau, Haverford, Bay State, Moreni, Petrolite, Massapequa, Orleans, and Grace. On September 7, 1917 the Atlantic transport liner Minnehaha was sunk off the Irish coast. On October 16, 1917, the American transport Antilles, westbound from France, was sunk by a submarine and 67 lives were lost. The patrol boat Alcede, formerly a steam yacht, was torpedoed and sunk on November 5, 1917. On November 19, 1917, the United States destroyer Chancey was sunk in a collision, 21 lives being lost. On December 6, 1917, the United States destroyer Jacob Jones was sunk by a U-boat and 60 lives were lost.
Between 1914 and the spring of 1917, the European nations engaged in a conflict that became known as World War I. While armies moved across the face of Europe, the United States remained neutral. In 1916 Woodrow Wilson was elected President for a second term, largely because of the slogan "He kept us out of war." Events in early 1917 would change that hope. In frustration over the effective British naval blockade, in February Germany broke its pledge to limit submarine warfare. In response to the breaking of the Sussex pledge, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Germany.
In January of 1917, British cryptographers deciphered a telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German Minister to Mexico, von Eckhardt, offering United States territory to Mexico in return for joining the German cause. This message helped draw the United States into the war and thus changed the course of history. The telegram had such an impact on American opinion that, according to David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers, "No other single cryptanalysis has had such enormous consequences." It is his opinion that "never before or since has so much turned upon the solution of a secret message." In an effort to protect their intelligence from detection and to capitalize on growing anti-German sentiment in the United States, the British waited until February 24 to present the telegram to Woodrow Wilson. The American press published news of the telegram on March 1. On April 6, 1917, the United States Congress formally declared war on Germany and its allies.
The story of British intelligence efforts to decipher the German code is fascinating and complicated. The Zimmermann Telegram by Barbara Tuchman recounts that story in all of its exciting detail. It is an excellent historical account for high school students.
The coded telegram is from Decimal File 862.20212/82A (1910-1929), and the decoded telegram below is from Decimal File 862.20212/69 (1910-1929), General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59.