Thursday, February 23, 2017

100 Years Ago: How the Zimmermann Telegram was Interpreted in Hampton Roads

By Julius Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

With other more secure modes of communication denied them by the British after war was declared in 1914, German diplomatic communiques to the Western Hemisphere were sent in encrypted form via commercial carriers. There too, British codebreakers denied the Germans a means to securely communicate with foreign governments. State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Arthur Zimmermann, of course, did not know this when he sent this message to his representative in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, in January 1917. The incendiary contents of the missive, however, outweighed the risks on the part of the British of letting the Americans know what it contained on February 24, 1917.  (Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State, 1756 - 1979 National Archives and Records Administration)
On January 19, 1917, State Secretary of the German Imperial Foreign Office Arthur Zimmermann sent the German Ambassador to Mexico a coded telegram which included a very interesting arrangement. It informed the Mexican government that Germany would shortly resume unrestricted submarine warfare and that this would soon bring England to its knees. Germany also urged Mexico to join the war effort on the side of the Germany and her Allies Austria-Hungry and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers), and keep the United States engaged so it could not join the war on the side of Great Britain, France and the Russian Empire (the Triple Entente). In return, Germany promised financial and military aid and the opportunity to reclaim their lost territory in the Southwestern United States. This telegram, now known as the “Zimmermann Telegram” or the “Zimmermann Note” is, in itself, a well-known piece in the buildup to the US entering the First World War.
On March 1, 1917, readers of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot opened their papers that Thursday morning to read the contents of the Zimmermann Telegram.  Norfolk's afternoon paper, the Ledger-Dispatch (below), boldly stated its implications. (Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library)    

In Norfolk, the German overtures to Mexico were of secondary importance to the former point, that Germany had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare on the first of February. Since war in Europe began in 1914, Norfolk had become a boomtown. Her wharves and storehouses brimmed with coal, lumber, fertilizer, and foodstuffs ready to be loaded onto Entente and neutral ships bound for Europe. According to Old Dominion University professors Maura Hametz and Joyce Hoffman, “132,000 horses [were] shipped [from Norfolk] to the battlefields of France.” Ships leaving Hampton Roads were routinely stopped, inspected, and seized by British warships operating off the coast in order to slow the flow of supplies from the United States to Europe. With unrestricted warfare resuming, these same ships now became targets for German U-boats.

(Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library)    
One day after the news of the Zimmermann Telegram appeared, the Norfolk Real Estate and Stock Exchange predicted a land boom due to the influx of people that would come to Norfolk due to the rapid expansion of Norfolk Naval Shipyard and local privately-run shipyards, as well the thousands of men needed to support the loading of ships needed to support the war effort. “Buy a Home!” was the slogan used by members of the exchange during an advertising blitz that encouraged people of all walks of life to invest in home ownership. As a newspaper story in the Virginian-Pilot explained, “One object of the advertising campaign is to explain to them how it is possible for a man of small or moderate means to become a property owner.” This type of campaign was one that had proven very successful in other southern cities, such as Birmingham, Alabama, which saw 3,000 of its 5,500 available properties sold in one week.
(Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
This wartime boom, though it would change the cityscape of Norfolk forever, was not without issues. Norfolk was ill-prepared to deal with the massive influx of people and supplies making their way into the city. Most roads were still dirt or packed shell. Then, as now, heavy rain combined with severe drainage problems swamped roads and made them impassable. The other modes of transport in the city, as well as the public works infrastructure, were also severely lacking. The land boom that helped turn Norfolk from a small port city before the war, towards the city we know today, led to an acute housing shortage that no “Buy a Home Week” could counter. This same issue with housing would also creep up during the Second World War as well. In response, the federal government, through the United States Housing Corporation, stepped in to develop communities to house the inflow of war workers that came to the city. In Portsmouth, engineers, architects, social scientists, and others developed planned communities in the Cradock and Truxtun neighborhoods based on ideas of social engineering, decentralization, “[the] promotion of regionalism, [the] infusion of nature into everyday life, and [the] enriching of culture though the improvement of habitat conditions of the working class.” Truxton also has the distinction of being the first planned community exclusively for African-Americans.

(National Park Service)
While the Zimmermann Telegram helped push the United States towards war in Europe, for Norfolk, the effect was one of growth, not destruction. While the Hampton Roads of today little resembles the way the region looked in 1917, two neighborhoods, Cradock and Truxtun, give a glimpse into a bygone era. Because of their historical significance, there areas were added to the National Historic Registry in 1974 and 1982, respectively.

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