Diplomacy

WWI Centennial: U.S. Breaks Off Relations With Germany

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 265th installment in the series.

February 3, 1917: U.S. Breaks Off Relations With Germany

Germany’s fateful decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, 1917, allowing U-boat commanders to sink unarmed neutral vessels without warning, sent shockwaves around the world after it was publicly announced on the last day of January. Coming close on the heels of President Wilson’s offer to host peace talks, the new U-boat campaign was a slap in the face to the United States, which had twice threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Germany over this precise issue; there was now no way to avoid an open breach, setting the stage for America’s entry into the war.

This wasn’t for lack of effort by Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to America, who frantically tried to persuade Berlin to delay the U-boat campaign, dispatching a flurry of secret telegrams up to the very last moment. On January 26, 1917 he sent a message marked “Most urgent,” asking to be allowed time to consider Wilson’s proposals, or at least give the appearance of doing so:

After having had very important conference request most urgently postponement till my next two messages received… To begin U-boat war without previous negotiations regarding above proposals would among other things put us seriously in the wrong, and owing to Wilson’s personal sensitiveness, would make prevention of rupture quite impossible.

The following day, January 27, Bernstorff again warned Berlin:

If the U-boat campaign is opened now with any further ado, the President will regard this as a smack in the face, and war with the United States will be inevitable. The war party here will gain the upper hand, and the end of the war will be quite out of sight, as, whatever people may say to the contrary, the resources of the United States are enormous… At present, therefore, it is only a matter of postponing the declaration for a little while so that we may improve our diplomatic position.

On January 29, however, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg brushed off Bernstorff’s warnings with the breezy assertion that Wilson’s proposal for peace negotiations came too late:

If his offer had only reached us a few days earlier, we should have been able to postpone opening of the new U-boat war. Now, however, in spite of the best will in the world, it is, owing to technical reasons, unfortunately too late, as far-reaching military preparations have already been made which cannot be undone, and U-boats have…