Telegram Pushed War-Weary America into World War I

A British recruiting poster issued in the wake of the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915 was offered in a December 2016 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

World War I officially began in Europe on July 28, 1914, but the strong isolationist sentiment in the United States prevented our involvement for nearly three years. The U.S. economy was booming and the tragic events in Europe were broadly viewed as a “foreign affair,” 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean and something to be avoided. Further, it had only been 51 years since our Civil War had ended, with General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. The United States had not fully recovered from a military readiness standpoint and another war would be hard to sustain. The rebuilding of the South simply added to the problem.

Then there were the American bankers, who would make massive loans to Great Britain and France that would produce a nice, steady stream of profits. They were more than content to stay on the sidelines as long as their capital seemed secure. Show me a war and I will bet there are always groups profiting from making the bullets and bombs that create jobs. Other industries like steel or food production generally end up on the positive side of the export equation. Twenty-five years later, gearing up for World War II would help the country break the grip of the Great Depression. (Our military budget is currently over $700 billion … and growing.)

Another important factor were the immigrants in the United States, whose support was dependent on their country of origin. Most had left behind family and friends who would end up in harm’s way if America escalated the war. Naturally, there were also the permanent peaceniks like the Quakers and other religious groups who were simply pacifists by virtue of their beliefs. Two million socialists could be lumped into this group, as well as numerous women’s organizations.

The 8 million German-Americans had little loyalty to Germany, and were surprisingly neutral in addition to being strongly against any war, especially if it involved Germany. Their primary concern if the United States entered the war revolved around the reprisals against them as questions about their allegiance to America were already at a simmering level. This apprehension had been growing since the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania and German U-boats sank six American merchant ships, including the Housatonic – all without any warning.

On Nov. 7, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected on an anti-war platform and a campaign slogan of “He kept us out of war” (note the past tense). He had defeated Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes Sr. by dominating the Southern vote and in the run-up to the election knew it would be a competitive battle. With a war raging in Europe, Wilson was concerned that if he lost, he would be a lame-duck president for four long months. He devised a clever plan that involved making Hughes the Secretary of State and then he and Vice President Thomas R. Marshall would immediately resign and Hughes would become president, as the rules of succession applied at that time.

Wilson was the first sitting Democratic president to win re-election since Andrew Jackson in 1832. Six months later, we would be in World War I due to a quirk of fate or a German blunder: the Zimmermann Telegram.

In January 1917, a coded message was sent from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to Germany’s Ambassador to Mexico that was to be relayed to Mexican President Venustiano Carranza. “We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor to keep the United States neutral … If not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal on the following basis; make war together, make peace together, generous financial support … Mexico is to re-conquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The settlement detail is left to you.”

On Feb. 1, 1917, Germany began unrestricted U-boat warfare in the Atlantic. U.S. ships came under attack and the USA broke off diplomatic relations with Germany.

March 1, President Wilson authorized the State Department publication of the Zimmermann Telegram in the press and, as intended, it inflamed American public opinion against Germany.

April 2: Wilson addressed a special session of Congress to declare war.

April 4: Senate approved 82-6 (the House concurred 373-50).

April 6: Wilson signed a formal declaration of war on Germany.

And so war came again to America despite the reluctance of many people.

BTW: On April 14, after the formal declaration of war, President Carranza formally declined the German proposal. It is interesting to speculate on the outcome if the decision had been in the affirmative. I suspect we might have ended up with a few more stars on the flag.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

If President Jackson had Followed Through with a Threat…

This U.S. Colt Model 1877 Bulldog Gatling Gun, with five 18-inch barrels secured in brass casement, realized $395,000 at a December 2014 Heritage auction.

“An army travels on its stomach.”

By Jim O’Neal

Both Frederick the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte are credited with aphorisms similar to this theme intended to emphasize the concept that a well-provisioned military is critical to its performance. In 1775, France offered 10,000 francs to anyone who could improve this persistent problem. In 1809, a confectioner named Nicolas Appert claimed the prize by inventing a heating, boiling and sealing system that preserved food similar to modern technology.

During the Revolutionary War, General Washington had to contend with this issue, as well as uniforms and ordnance (e.g. arms, powder and shot), which were essential to killing and capturing the British enemies. Responsibilities were far too dispersed and decision-making overly reliant on untrained personnel.

By the dawn of the War of 1812, the War Department convinced Congress that all these activities should be consolidated under experienced military personnel. On May 14, 1812, the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps was established. Over the past 200-plus years, 41 different men (mostly generals) have held the title of Army Chief of Ordnance. The system has evolved slowly and is regarded as a highly effective organization at the center of military actions in many parts of the world.

However, when the Civil War started in 1861, the man in charge was General James Wolfe Ripley (1794-1870), a hardheaded, overworked old veteran that Andrew Jackson had once threatened to hang for disobedience during the war with the Creek Indians. Ripley believed that the North would make this a short war and all they needed was an ample supply of orthodox weapons. He flatly refused to authorize the purchase of additional rifle-muskets for the infantry; primarily because of a large inventory of smooth bore muskets in various U.S. ordnance centers. Furthermore, he adamantly refused to allow the introduction of the more modern breech-loading repeating rifles due to a bizarre belief that ammunition would be wasted.

After two years of defiantly resisting the acquisition of new, modern weaponry, he was forced to retire. He was derided by the press as an old foggy, while some military historians claim he was personally responsible for extending the war by two years – a staggering indictment of enormous significance if in fact true!

One prominent example occurred in early June 1861 when President Lincoln met the first-known salesman of machine guns: J.D. Mills of New York, who performed a demonstration in the loft of a carriage shop near the Willard Hotel. Lincoln was so impressed that a second demonstration was held for the president, five generals and three Cabinet members. The generals were equally impressed and ready to place an order on the spot. But, Ripley stubbornly managed to delay any action.

Lincoln was also stubborn and personally ordered 10 guns from Mills for $1,300 each without consulting anyone. It was the first machine gun order in history.

Then, on Dec. 18, 1861, General George McClellan bought 50 of the guns on a cost-plus basis for $750 each. Two weeks later, a pair of these guns debuted in the field under Colonel John Geary, a veteran of the Mexican War, the first mayor of San Francisco and, later, governor of both Kansas and Pennsylvania. Surprisingly, he wrote a letter saying they were “inefficient and unsafe to the operators.” But the colorful explorer General John C. Fremont, who commanded in West Virginia, sent an urgent dispatch to Ripley demanding 16 of the new machine guns.

Ripley characteristically replied:

“Have no Union Repeating Guns on hand and am not aware that any have been ordered.”

After several other tests produced mixed results, Scientific American wrote a requiem for the weapon, saying, “They had proved to be of no practical value to the Army of the Potomac and are now laid up in a storehouse in Washington.”

Then, belatedly, came a gifted inventor, Richard J. Gatling, who patented a six-barrel machine gun on Nov. 4, 1862. Gatling tried to interest Lincoln, who had now turned to other new weapons. However, some managed to get into service and three were used to help guard The New York Times building in the draft riots of July 1863. The guns eventually made Gatling rich and famous, but it was more than a year after the end of the war – Aug. 14, 1866 – when the U.S. Army became the first to adopt a machine gun … Gatlings!

It is always fun to consider counterfactuals (i.e. expressing what might have happened under different circumstances). In this case, if Andrew Jackson had hanged Ripley, then the North would have had vastly superior weaponry – especially the machine gun – and the war would have ended two years earlier. Many battles would have been avoided … Gettysburg … Sherman’s March to the Sea. Lincoln would have made a quick peace, thereby avoiding the assassination on April 14, 1865.

If … if … if …

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

America Will Never Forget Sacrifices of Heroic Men and Women

The flag that led the first American troops onto Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, sold for $514,000 at a June 2016 Heritage auction.

“When it mattered most, an entire generation of Americans showed the finest qualities of our nation and of humanity. On this day, in their honor, we will raise the American flag over a monument that will stand as long as America itself.” – George W. Bush, May 29, 2004

By Jim O’Neal

Sixteen million Americans served during World War II. Twelve years ago, the National World War II Memorial, honoring their commitment and sacrifices, was dedicated in the nation’s capital. The event featured a four-day celebration with special museum exhibits and services in the National Cathedral.

Almost every feature and detail of the seven-acre memorial in the National Mall are symbolic. A ceremonial entrance is flanked by 24 bronze bas-relief sculpture that provide glimpses into the American experience and on the battlefield. Inside, the memorial is anchored by two pavilions – one proclaiming victory in the Atlantic Theatre, the other success in the Pacific. Fifty-six granite pillars represent the states, federal territories and District of Columbia.

The columns are linked with bronze ropes to reflect the nation’s unity during the war and adorned with two bronze wreaths, one of wheat, representing the United States’ agricultural strength, and one in oak, signifying the might of a nation.

The site also features the Freedom Wall, decorated with 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans who lost their lives during the war or who remain missing in action. Carved at the bottom are the words “Here we mark the price of freedom.”

Visitors can find hidden treasures in the site, including the famous “Kilroy was here” graffiti familiar to every WW2 veteran. Also carved into the memorial are these words from President Harry S. Truman: “Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices.”

Amen.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].