Study Guide

Woodrow Wilson in Zimmermann Telegram

By Arthur Zimmermann

Woodrow Wilson

Nope, Not Gonna Do It

Sometimes presidents do things they said they would never do.

Okay, yeah, sometimes we all do things that we said we would never do. But when you say that you're absolutely not going to ever eat at that fast food place ever again because the food is greasy and gross and all those people got sick, and then you do eat there again because actually it's delicious and convenient and they're bound to pass a health inspection one of these days, the consequences are pretty much all on you.

When presidents do things that they said they would never do, the consequences tend to be…a bigger deal.

For everyone.

President Wilson did not want the U.S. to go to war. He said so a bunch of times. In fact, when he ran for reelection in 1916, he made it the basis for his campaign. If people had worn t-shirts back then, his would have said "I don't want the U.S. to go to war" and he would have worn it everyday, even in the shower, just in case there was any doubt about his position on the issue of War + U.S.A.

Got it? He Was Against The War.

And it wasn't just a hypothetical imaginary war; Wilson didn't want the U.S. to get involved in the war that had started in Europe during his first term as president. His campaign slogan literally was "He kept us out of war." The longer, rejected version was: "He's kept us out of the war for a little over two years, so what the heck, let's see if he can make it another four."

The good people of America looked over at Europe with its piles of dead soldiers rotting in trenches, and then turned to their nerdy, college professor president and they said, "Yes, please. More of him and less of whatever is over there."

Okay, Maybe Just This Once

Wilson was reelected, and one month after he was sworn in, the United States was at war.

At this point it should be noted that Wilson never actually promised not to go to war. It was certainly implied with every breath he took, but he never said the words, "I promise never to take the county to war." Why not? Because he was a politician, and they're slippery like that.

The thing that made Wilson do the thing he really didn't want to do and was kinda smugly proud that he hadn't done yet was unrestricted submarine warfare. See, Germany and Britain were locked in a naval battle that can be best summed up with the following scene.

Germany to Britain: "We're blockading you!"

Britain to Germany: "No, we're blockading you!"

Germany to Britain: "No you're not. We're blockading you times infinity!"

End scene.

Germany was so obsessed with dominating the seas and showing up the Brits that they made it their policy (like actually written and announced) that they would be sinking all non-German ships on their way to and from Europe, including American ones.

So Wilson had that to deal with them.

It's difficult not go to war with a country that's sinking your ships and isn't even trying to hide it. It's almost pathetic to let that happen. But then there was the Zimmermann Telegram, which declared to the whole world that Germany was trying to encourage Mexico to invade the Southern United States. And that was the final straw that made Wilson do the thing he so obviously didn't want to ever have to do: ask Congress to declare war on Germany and friends, and then send soldiers across an ocean to fight and die.

Wilson's Shiny New Legacy

In retrospect, it worked out well for him. Wilson is remembered as the president who won World War I, made the U.S. a major power in world politics, and had an idea that would eventually become the United Nations. If he hadn't had the chance to do all that, he would probably be remembered for being a staunch segregationist who wasn't completely sold on women voting, and who only became president because Teddy Roosevelt was a bitter curmudgeon who didn't play well with others.

Lucky W.

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