On Sext and Empires

By Jay Holmes

Okay, folks. Fess up. Did you “sext” anyone last week for Valentine’s Day?

For those of you who are older than Congressman Anthony Wiener and don’t read scandal sheets, let me explain “sexting.” It’s basically a text with a sexually explicit message or picture. It has superseded the old-fashioned, tried-and-true misguided email as the current best way to get yourself fired, divorced, or found by the US Marshall’s office. No more waiting for someone to check their email. Now, you can enjoy the instant calamity of text trouble.

So fess up. Did you “sext” last week?

Anthony Weiner with his flag up. image by Thomas Good, wikimedia

Anthony Weiner with his flag up.
image by Thomas Good, wikimedia

For those of you not familiar with Congressman Weiner—his parents gave him that name, not me—let me explain the short version of his sexting scandal. He was a congressman. Weiner liked texting. He also liked Facebook. Weiner got stupid, or perhaps just let his stupidity rise to the surface, and he sent a mild sext message to a 21-year-old college student. Somewhere in his sexting adventures, he sent a link to a picture of himself in boxer shorts while he was . . . saluting. If you want clarification, you’ll have to google that image for yourself. I’m not about to look.

The press found out and made it a huge story. To hell with minor insignificant details like billions of dollars and thousands of lives being spent on wars, mortgage corporations and banks destroying the economy, trillions of bogus taxpayer financed bailouts, or skyrocketing unemployment. But an excited congressman in boxers? That’s the important news, right? Weiner resigned. I don’t know what his wife said or did to him but I’m mot going to ask him. As long as he doesn’t send me any pictures of himself naked, I’m perfectly content to leave him alone.

So many of you will remember Weiner and his . . . well, you know. But I’d like to take a moment to remember another indiscrete message that did more than tumble a young congressman from power. One bad little message that got shared with an entire country and helped bring down an empire.

So what sort of wild, kinky message could bring down an empire? If you would like to read the actual message you will find it in US State Department file number 302022, group number 59. You’ll discover that it’s not all that “kinky,” but it is pretty wild.

In the winter of 1917, World War One raged in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Millions of Africans, Austrians, Belgians, Croatians, English, French, Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Luxembourgers, Portuguese, Russians, Serbians, and Turks were already killed or mutilated, and the war had settled into a bloody and expensive stalemate. The US had thus far maintained its anti-war neutral stance. Woodrow Wilson had, in fact, won re-election in 1916 on a simple “He Kept us Out of the War” campaign.

In desperation to counter the Royal Navy’s effective blockade of Germany and Austria, Germany repudiated the restrictions on submarine warfare that it had agreed to. This meant that neutral ships, including US ships, were now at risk.

Many of us were taught in grammar school that the German submarine attack on and sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania was a major factor in the US joining the war on the allied side. It wasn’t. The Lusitania was sunk in 1915. In the winter of 1917, the US still had not joined the war.

In January of 1917, the German government realized that lifting restrictions on U-Boat targets might possibly incite the US to join the war. They were worried that an influx of more American material and military strength would tip the balance against the Axis Powers (Austria-Hungary and Germany). At this time, the Germans were already supporting communist revolutionaries in Russia to collapse the Russian Army on the Eastern Front. They eventually succeeded. In late 1916, the Germans devised a slick plan to prevent the US from sending troops to aid the allies on the Western Front.

On January 16, 1917, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann made the biggest mistake of his life. Trusting in the strength of the German diplomatic cypher system, he sent a coded Western Union Telegram to Germany’s Ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Ekardt. It instructed Ekardt to negotiate a war alliance with Mexico against the US. Once the US declared war on Germany, Mexico would invade the US with Germany’s help. Mexico would in turn receive back Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. It was a nice little plan that relied on precise timing and the enthusiasm of Mexico. Mexico was not enthused.

Zimmermann Telegram, 1917National Archives and Records Administration

Zimmermann Telegram, 1917
National Archives and Records Administration

As expected, Great Britain intercepted the message. As was not expected, the British deciphered it. In January, when Germany announced a return to unrestricted submarine warfare, the US broke diplomatic ties with that country.

On February 24, 1917, Great Britain presented copies of the original and the deciphered messages to the US.

On March 1 of that year, US newspapers ran the story. With many Americans already angry at Germany’s renewed policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, the message threw gasoline on the flames of American opinion.

On April 6, the US declared war on Germany. The anticipated help from the US was slow to arrive, but eventually, my grandfather and several of his Marine pals, along with some American soldiers and pilots, showed up to the Western Front in time to help tip the balance against the exhausted Germans.

Clearly, Zimmermann would have been better off sending a sext message to some young Mexican Señorita. His wife might have found out and done a “Brunhilda Gotterdammerung” special on him, but Germany might have been able to sign a more favorable peace with the allies, and could have possibly avoided Hitler’s rise to power on the backs of starving, embittered German veterans, widows, and orphans.

So, whatever your worst ever text, email, or phone message indiscretion was this Valentine’s Day, you can share it with us. You could not possibly have done anything worse than Zimmermann did so go ahead and fess up. Though we can’t speak for your significant other or your employer, we’ll still love you.