1915 Seventy-five Years Ago

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After celebrating the building of his one-millionth automobile earlier in the year, Henry Ford sailed for Norway on December 4 aboard his “peace ship,” the Oscar II . His mission, said Ford, was “to get the boys out of the trenches by Christmas.” Ford’s proposal for a general strike Christmas Day by the armies dug in along the Western Front could “best be described as piffle,” wrote The New York Times that week, but Ford would not be swayed. “I have faith in the people,” he declared.

In a Presbyterian ceremony performed by her minister in Mrs. Gait’s Washington home, President Woodrow Wilson and Mrs. Edith Boiling Gait married on December 18. The President and Mrs. Gait had met in March. She had worried during their encounter over her muddy shoes, but Wilson, whose wife had died less than a year before, was not put off. A few months later, he wrote a friend about the widowed Mrs. Gait: “You would think that it was only love that was speaking if I were to tell you what she is like, how endowed and made distinguished in her loveliness. …” Wilson never discovered the movement among his advisers to postpone his remarriage until after the 1916 election. The idea died when Josephus Daniels, his Secretary of the Navy, wisely turned down the job of proposing it to the President.

On December 8 the The New York Times and World carried the story that the State Department had declared the operators of a German spy ring personae non gratae . The master plot was first uncovered by the Secret Service in July, when one of the Germans left his briefcase behind on a New York City subway car. The agent following Heinrich Albert claimed the abandoned case, and its contents revealed a network of spies and saboteurs.

The star of the German agents, Franz von Rintelen, had spent twelve million dollars stirring up revolution in Mexico, hoping the United States would be drawn in and its export of munitions to Europe slowed down. A most effective and clever agent, von Rintelen gave himself away by falling in love. While vacationing in Kennebunkport, Maine, he met and unburdened himself to a young woman named Anne Seward, even telling her of all his plans for sabotage. Anne Seward wrote to Secretary of State Robert Lansing, who quickly sent his assistant to Maine to see her. This, together with the earlier evidence in Albert’s briefcase, eventually gave the government what it needed to act against the German ring.