Updated: Feb 27, 2020
A German threat against Texas (via Mexico) helped entangle the United States in one of the most needless wars in our history, World War I.
In early 1917, Germany had decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare against ships traveling to Britain, France, and Italy. (A German submarine had already sunk the British passenger line (carrying war munitions), the Lusitania, earlier in the war in 1915, killing 128 Americans, but had backed off after that incident.
The Germans knew that this resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare could bring the U.S. into the war against them, so they started preparations for harassing the U.S. via Mexico. On January 19, 1917, a top-level member of the Foreign Office of the German Empire, Arthur Zimmermann, transmitted an encoded message to the German ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt.
In what was to become known as the Zimmermann telegram, it said:
"We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this 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 President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America 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 ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace."
The Mexican government, embroiled in its own internal struggles, knew that Mexico had no realistic hope of conquering Texas or other parts of the Southwest, and indeed did not accept the German offer.
But British intelligence had decrypted the message and transmitted its contents via diplomatic channels to the U.S. on February 24. By February 28, Woodrow Wilson, by this time eager to engage in his progressive crusade pushing the U.S. into the war, released the message to the public.
Americans were healthily skeptical of the news, wondering whether it was manipulation of public opinion. But then, in a jaw-dropping move, Zimmerman admitted that it was true.
In March, Germany sunk six U.S. merchant vessels on the way to Britain. On April 2, Wilson spoke to a joint session of Congress, asking them to declare war on Germany. On April 6, 1917, they obliged (82 – 6 in the Senate and 373 – 50 in the House).
Wilson assumed dictatorial powers during the war, nationalizing industry, suppressing free speech and jailing thousands of anti-war activists and journalists.
James Madison warned about the dangers of war to liberty. He said:
“Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies, from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.”
Over 53,000 U.S. soldiers died in combat during the war, with almost 117,000 dying from all causes. Around 675,000 Americans died of the Spanish flu which started in the European battlefields in 1918. One wonders how much the war exacerbated American deaths. And, of course, the aftermath of World War I set up the conditions which created World War II. One wonders what would have happened had the U.S. not entered World War I.