As a new year of war opened, German leaders decided that they had lost so many men at Verdun and on the Somme that they would have to assume the defensive on the Western Front; their only hope of quick victory lay with the submarines, of which they now had close to 200. By operating an unrestricted campaign against all shipping, whatever the nationality, in waters off the British Isles and France, the Germans believed they could defeat the Allies within six months. While they recognized the strong risk of bringing the United States into the war by this tactic, they believed they could starve the Allies into submission before the Americans could raise, train, and deploy an Army. They were nearly right.
The German ambassador in Washington continued to encourage Wilson to pursue his campaign for peace even as the Germans made their U-boats ready. On January 31, 1917, Germany informed the U.S. government and other neutrals that beginning the next day U-boats would sink all vessels, neutral and allied alike, without warning.
While the world waited for the American reaction, President Wil- son searched for some alternative to war. Three days later, still groping desperately for a path to peace, he went before the Congress not to ask a declaration of war but to announce a break in diplomatic relations. This step, Wilson hoped, would be enough to turn the Germans from their new course.
Wilson could not know it at the time, but an intelligence intercept already had placed in British hands a German telegram that when released would remove any doubt as to German intentions toward the United States. This message was sent in January from the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German ambassador to Mexico, proposing that in the event of war with the United States, Germany and Mexico would conclude an alliance with the adherence of Japan. In exchange for Mexico’s taking up arms against the United States, Germany would provide generous financial assistance. Victory achieved, Mexico was to regain her lost territories of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Cognizant of the impact the message was bound to have on the United States, the British were nevertheless slow to release it; they had to devise a method to assure the Americans of its authenticity while concealing from the Germans that they had broken the German diplomatic code. On February 23, just over a month after intercepting the telegram, the British turned over a copy to the American ambassador in London.
When President Wilson received the news, he was angered but still unprepared to accept it as cause for war. In releasing the message to the press, he had in mind not inciting the nation to war but instead moving.
In exchange for Mexico’s tak- ing up arms against the United States, Germany would provide generous financial assistance. Victory achieved, Mexico was to regain her lost territories of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Congress to pass a bill authorizing the arming of American merchant ships, most of which were standing idle in American ports because of the submarine menace. As with the break in diplomatic relations, this, the President hoped, would so impress the Germans that they would abandon their unrestricted submarine campaign.
Congress and most of the nation were shocked by revelation of the Zimmermann message; but with their hopes for neutrality shattered, pacifists and pro-Germans countered with a roar of disbelief that the message was authentic. Zimmermann himself silenced them when in Berlin he admitted to having sent the telegram.
In the next few weeks four more American ships fell victim to German U-boats. Fifteen Americans died. At last convinced that the step was inevitable, the President went before Congress late on April 2 to ask for a declaration of war. Four days later, on April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany: a war for which the U.S. Army was far from being prepared.
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