The Midnight RIde of Paul Revere and the Zimmermann Telegram

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In our press lately, we’re being treated to a furor over Sarah Palin’s gaffe about Paul Revere–did he or didn’t he alert the British that the Americans were coming? Or was it more as you and I learned in school, that with the help of lanterns in the Old North Church, one if by land and two if by sea, he rode to rouse all “Middlesex village and farm/ For the country folk to be up and to arm” that”The British are coming, the British are coming.”

I’m quoting from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s classic poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” which has all the history mostly correct, except that Revere was indeed, as Sarah Palin commented, taken by the British and so in part, he alerted them that, in Longfellow’s words,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

But the United States, especially its leaders, have not always been keen to hear a story contrary to the one they are wedded to. Item: Barbara Tuchman’s astonishingly revealing history of what finally brought President Woodrow Wilson into World War I to aid the British, French Allies against Germany. This was effected by a telegram sent by the German Foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann to German U.S. ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff in January of 1917. World War I had been raging for three years. Britian’s financial resources were virtually depleted. The trench warfare in Flanders daily sent thousands of men into battle over yards of soil, and inevitable stalemate.

To break this stalemate and assure its victory, the German high command decided to institute submarine (U-boat) warfare against British shipping. The Zimmermann telegram announced this to the U.S. ambassador in Washington, along with a proposed German alliance with Mexico and Japan. For supporting Germany, Mexico (and its oil) would recover the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona from the United States.

The secret telegram written in cypher and code was intercepted by British intelligence concentrated in “Room 40” and eventually decoded. Once appraised of its content, President Wilson roiled around in his personal moral morass of resistance to war, desire to broker a “peace without victory” among the combatants, and insistence on US neutrality. By 1917, the U.S. was already aware of small alliances between Mexico and Japan and Japan and Germany. Japan was particularly antagonistic to the United States because of its local and federal resistance to Japanese immigration and settlement. In Mexico Wilson had interfered with various changes of leadership. In fact Wilson sent General Pershing into Mexico with an aggressive force, only to pull him out shortly after receiving word of the Zimmermann telegram.

For a portrait of a U.S. leader deeply conflicted between the reality of global politics, U.S. actions and their consequences, and his own highly rigid and moral set of beliefs, Tuchmann could not have chosen a more telling subject than Wilson. He was no dummy: a reknown political scientist and former president of Princeton University. Yet as a political leader, Wilson in relation to World War I left much to be desired. He believed that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans protected the US from attack; he believed that US interests would not be directly affected by this war in Europe. Not until the telegram laid bare the potential invasion of Japan from the west and Mexico from the South, with Japan and Mexico potentially taking over Canada from the vanquished British, leaving the US encircled by enemies, did Wilson step down from his moral high ground and face political realities. He asked Congress on April 2, 1917 to declare war against Germany and the other Central Powers.

I see a great deal of rigid ideology at work in our state and national politics this season. Facing the threat of a government shut-down, Minnesota’s Republican-controlled legislature dukes it out with Democratic governor Mark Dayton. On paper their proposals seem fairly close: the Republicans want a budget of 36 billion; Dayton 38. But Dayton wants to raise taxes on the top-earning families, to regain revenues lost years ago when the tax code was tailored to benefit the wealthy.

Most of us on the outside see the need to bring spending into line with income and combat an enormous state deficit. Many of us also see no reason families with yearly income over $200,000 can’t afford a 2% increase in their yearly state taxes. Yet the inability of our officials to reach agreement on a budget and avoid the looming threat of a state shut-down, with legally required payments to laid-off workers, with a cessation of vital services we count on, and still with no budget–all strikes a toll of ideological intransigence, a “Wilson moment.”

Currently I’m begging some goddess of compromise to send a Zimmermann telegram into the laps of both arms of government. According to the polls, most Minnesota residents want compromise. They want to avoid a state government shut-down. Would that our elected officials would listen.

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