The President appealed to the country, and the almost overwhelming response convinced him of the depth of the indignation that had been aroused by the action of the recalcitrant group of senators. On March 9, he issued a proclamation calling Congress to meet in special session on April 16. No purpose was specified, though it was intimated that the President wanted the support of Congress in any action he might find necessary to take for the public defense. At the same time a statement was issued from the White House that the President was convinced of his right to direct the arming of merchant ships by Presidential proclamation. This he did on March 12. On that date all members of the diplomatic corps in Washington were informed by Secretary Lansing that, in view of the course of the German Government in sinking ships without warning, the Government of the United States had determined to place upon all American merchant vessels, whose course lay through the barred zone, armed guards for the protection of vessels and lives. In the short space that intervened between the issuance of the proclamation and the actual declaration of war, the position of the United States was that of armed neutrality.
The indorsement of the President's action by the country at large was made the more emphatic because of a sensational episode growing out of the correspondence of the German Foreign Secretary with the German Minister to Mexico. A letter was published March 1 that was dated Jan. 19, 1917, and signed by Zimmermann, German Foreign Secretary. It told the German Minister, Von Eckhardt, that Germany intended on Feb. 1 to begin unrestricted submarine warfare, and that this might endanger relations with the United States. In that event, Von Eckhardt was directed to propose to Mexico that she and Germany make war and make peace together. Germany was to furnish financial support to Mexico, and the latter was to recover her “lost territory” in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. The “details” of this program were to be left to Von Eckhardt. As if this large order were not enough, he was also to suggest that the President of Mexico communicate this plan to Japan and seek to secure the latter's adherence.
While the ingenuousness of the plan was not without its elements of humor, the publication of the letter hardened the determination of the United States to pursue the course it was treading, even if it should lead to war. The revelation of diplomatic clumsiness was particularly disconcerting to Germany and the pro-German elements in this country. The letter was denounced in some quarters as a patent forgery, but on March 3, Zimmermann himself acknowledged that it was genuine and sought to defend it. Mexico made haste to deny any implication in the matter and Japan denounced it as a “monstrous plot” that, if proposed to the Japanese Government, would not be entertained for an instant. These disclaimers, which in the case of Japan at any rate was unnecessary, were accepted by our Government, and interest in the matter was soon lost in the greater events that followed.
For the American Government had at last decided on war as the only solution consistent with American dignity and honor. Its patience had been exhausted and its people goaded to the utmost. The sinkings grew in volume, and it was evident that Germany had thrown discretion to the winds and was daring the American people to meet the issue. On March 2, the American steamship, “Algonquin,” on its way from New York to London, was attacked by a submarine without warning and sunk, the crew being rescued later, after 27 hours in open boats. On March 18 three ships bearing the American flag were sunk off the English coast by submarines. These were the “City of Memphis,” the “Illinois” and the “Vigilancia.” Fifteen of the crew of the latter were lost.
On the day after this news was received many measures were taken by this Government that foreshadowed the coming conflict. Orders were given to speed up work on warships under construction; two classes of midshipmen were ordered to be graduated ahead of time; the eight-hour day for Government naval work was suspended, arrangements were made for the issue of bonds for naval purposes. A long Cabinet session was held, at which it was decided that Congress should be called in session at an earlier date than that previously announced. On March 21 the President issued a call for Congress to meet on April 2, “to receive a communication by the Executive on grave questions of national policy which should immediately be taken under consideration.” No one doubted that this sentence could be compressed into a single word—war.
The Sixty-fifth Congress convened in special session at noon on April 2. The President, escorted by a squadron of cavalry, reached the Capitol in the evening. At about 8.40, he began his address, after having been greeted with a tremendous ovation. He spoke for 36