Before being elected the Governor of New Jersey and President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson came from academia where he wrote a book on Congressional government and the need for reform. After he was elected president on a reform platform, he remarked to someone, “It would the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs,” (1) Although, rumors of war were rampant in Europe, closer to home the civil war in Mexico brought the United States government into conflict with the Huerta administration, whom Wilson decided not to recognize. As a result, Wilson came in conflict with the British government in 1913, when they decided to recognize the Huerta regime to protect their oil interests. (2) American interference in the dispute south of the border led, later, to the Germans trying to foment a war between the United States and Mexico. Wilson ‘s policy toward Mexico was what the Germans needed to woo the Mexicans to become involved in the war that was spreading from Europe to other parts of the world. An alliance with Mexico, who had a long common border with the United States,would play to the advantage of the European nation, especially if the former became involved in the war on the Central Powers’ side.
In late 1913 and early 1914 rumors were swirling around Washington and the southwestern United States about German soldiers being in Mexico. In April 1914, American naval forces landed in Vera Cruz ahead of a German steamer and met with armed Mexican opposition. The Mexicans suffered over three hundred casualties and the Americans almost 100. A few weeks later the Mexican civil war leaked over the United States border, when General Francisco (Pancho) Villa led a raid into Columbus, New Mexico, destroying property and killing nineteen people. President Wilson sent a “Punitive Expedition” into Mexico under the command of General John J. Pershing to capture Villa. (3) Pershing failed in his quest to capture the Mexican warlord, because as Robert B. Asprey contends, the president and his advisors, “Lacking accurate information and not understanding the dynamic forces at work in the impoverished country, the Wilson administration greatly embarrassed itself and extricated its military forces only with difficulty.” (4)
In the run up to the presidential election in 1916 Wilson pushed his idea for mediation to end the war. He sent his closest advisor, Col. House, to negotiate with both sides to no avail. This time, unlike the election of 1912, the Republicans had united behind one candidate, Charles Evans Hughes. The President’s party used the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” meaning both the European war and conflict with Mexico. Both the popular vote and electoral college votes were close, with Wilson winning both.
With the election over, President Wilson could concentrate on preparedness and trying to keeping German agents from preventing aid to the Allies from crossing the Atlantic. The Black Tom explosion in July was one example of this, although it took over twenty years before the American government could pin responsibility for it on the Germans. Some members of the Imperial German Government’s diplomatic corps were sent home with help from British code breakers in Room 40, who were reading German codes, since the latter government couldn’t believe that anyone could read their messages and didn’t change their codes throughout the war. (5)
In January 1917, before the Imperial Government announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann sent a telegram, in code, to the German Ambassador in Mexico, instructing him to suggest to the Mexican government if they joined forces with the Germans against the United States they could reclaim land they lost to the latter country in the 1840s. The Germans were also interested in controlling the Mexican oil industry which supplied the Royal Navy with fuel for their ships.
Room 40 intercepted and decoded Zimmerman’s cable, but “Blinker” Hall, who commanded Room 40, decided, at first, to put it in his desk drawer rather than pass it on to the Americans, for fear members of Wilson’s administration would realize the Royal Navy was also reading their coded messages too. Eventually, the British government forwarded a copy of Zimmerman’s cable to the United States government. Wilson and his advisors were not terribly surprised by the German actions toward Mexico because the Germans were suspected of being behind other actions during that country’s civil war.
It was not the cable that upset Wilson the most, even the Germans suggesting the Mexicans attack the United States in order to reclaim lost territory, but rather it was the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. He did, however, break off diplomatic relations with the Germans on February 3, 1917, which sent their diplomatic staff home. But even then, Wilson would not immediately threaten Germany with the United States entering the war on the side of the Allies. Wilson stated in his note, ” We do not desire any hostile conflict with the Imperial German Government,..” His next step was to appear before a joint session of Congress to explain his actions. (6)
On April 2, the President returned to face a joint session of Congress to ask them to declare war on the Imperial Government Germany and its allies. (7) In contrast of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s appearance before Congress on December 8, 1941, Wilson’s speech was much longer as he outlined a litany of Germany’s actions that required going to war with the Imperial Government, not the German people. Four days later, April 6, 1917, Congress did what the President requested, the United States was at war.
By the way, the other week, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius noted that President Trump’s ordered rocket attack on a Syrian air base April 6, 2013, took place 100 years to the day the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I. (8)
(1) Quoted in Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917, p. 81.
(2) Link, p. 117.
(4)Asprey, War in the Shadows: the Guerrilla in History, Volume 1: 229.
(5) In World War II, the Japanese Navy also couldn’t believe anyone was reading their codes. As a result, the United States Navy set up an ambush at Midway and later was able to shoot down General Yamamoto’s plane, killing him.
(6) Link, p. 268; Tuchman, p. 151.
(7) Link, pp. 281-282.
(8) David Ignatius, “Trump enforces the ‘red line’ on chemical weapons“, Washington Post website, 4/6/17.
For further reading:
Christopher Andrew Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Robert B. Asprey. War in the Shadows: the Guerrilla in History.
Arthur S. Link. Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era: 1910-1917
Barbara Tuchman. The Zimmerman Telegram.