Is there any evidence to support the claims made by Benjamin Freedman in his 1961 speech?
No. The United states entered the First World War in response to the exposure of the proposed military alliance between Germany and Mexico in the Zimmerman telegram, and Germany's stated intention to resume unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic.
Of course, in 1961, people had much less access to information than they do now.
In fact, the only truly shocking thing about these claims is that anyone still believes them in the 21st century, when we have such easy access to the information and resources needed to disprove his assertions!
Is there any evidence for the claim that the Balfour Declaration was
a kind of 'receipt' for services rendered?
No. In fact, the correspondence leading up to the issue of the Balfour declaration has been in the public domain since the 1930s. That correspondence shows that the question of the future of Palestine had absolutely not been settled when the United States entered the war on 6 April 1917.
Were the Germans really "shocked" by the Balfour declaration?
Let's deal with the subsidiary claim first. Were the Germans 'shocked' when they found out about Balfour Declaration at Versailles? Is it possible that the Germans really had "no knowledge until Versailles"?
If they really were shocked, it was presumably about how appallingly bad their intelligence gathering must have been.
The Balfour Declaration was issued in November 1917. It was addressed to to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.
The British were then so determined to keep the document secret that they published it in The Times newspaper on 9 November 1917:
Click to enlarge
EDIT 12 May 2019
A comment by @jamesqf below asks a very good question:
Why should the Germans have cared about the Balfour declaration?
The answer is simple.
In 1917 Palestine was still an active front in the war. The Battle of Jerusalem was also being fought in November 1917. German intelligence would have been very interested in any and all intelligence relating to Palestine at that time. At the most basic level, a division in Palestine was one that couldn't be on the Western Front. That sort of thing really matters in a war of attrition!
Germany was also just as aware as the British of the propaganda value of the declaration for Zionist groups around the world. Indeed, Chaim Weizmann's autobiography, Trial And Error, refers to negotiations between Zionist groups the German government in late 1916 (p185).
The idea that the Germans were shocked when they found out about the declaration at Versailles is simply not credible.
Background to the Balfour Declaration
The correspondence leading to the Balfour Declaration has been in the public domain for decades (UK National Archives reference CO 733/347/7). Not only that, but the correspondence relating to the proposed publication of that correspondence is also in the public domain (UK National Archives reference CO 733/248/19) (bureaucracy can sometimes be the best friend of historians).
In addition, some Foreign Office correspondence relating to Palestine in the period 1916-1918 is also available from the UK National Archives (reference FO 800/176). This is part of the digital microfilm records collection which is currently free to download.
Given past Russian treatment of its Jewish population, it is perhaps unsurprising that many Jewish communities around the world viewed the Triple Entente with suspicion. It is also unsurprising that the allies recognised the importance of the Jewish lobby - particularly in the United States, but also elsewhere.
Of course, Russia was not the only country to have persecuted its Jewish population, and a letter in FO 800/176 makes the explicit point that Romania (another member of the Allied Powers):
"... has never carried out the provisions of the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 in regard to her Jews. Perhaps public opinion prevents her from doing so."
Wikipedia page on the Treaty of Berlin (1878)
In early 1916, the Jewish 'aspirations' for Palestine, had been presented by Lucien Wolf as follows:
"Great Britain and France, in the event of Palestine at the conclusion of war coming within the sphere of influence, to take account of the historical interests of the Jewish community in that country. The enjoyment of equal political rights with the rest of the population, of civil and religious liberty, of such municipal privileges as may be essential in towns and colonies inhabited by Jews and of reasonable facilities for colonization and emigration to be secured for the Jewish population"
At the same time, the British government was looking to get assurances from Russia,
"... for the proper treatment of Jews in Russia.
But explicitly asked the question:
"Could or would Russia keep any promises that she might make for the betterment of the Jews in Russia and what could England and France do to keep her to her engagements?"
So, there is no doubt that the Balfour Declaration was the end product of a long process attempting to encourage Jewish communities around the world to support the allies.
The problem for Mr Freedman's assertion, is that it is clear from the documents that Britain and France had by no means agreed a future position on Palestine when the United States entered the war on 6 April 1917.
Letters dated 16 April 1917 and 22 April 1917 in FO 800/176 show that no decision had yet been made about whether Palestine should be a protectorate of Britain or France (or even the United States), never mind the future of the region. The letter of 22nd April states:
"... Lloyd George's view seems to be that we shall be in Palestine by conquest and shall remain and that the French will have to accept our Protectorate; and - which is quite true - that we are the only people fit to rule a mixed population of Mahomedans, Jews, Roman Catholics and all religions ..."
So Mr Freedman would appear to be completely wrong about the nature of the Balfour Declaration.
The Zimmerman telegram
Since the individual who posted the comments (and, apparently, Benjamin Freedman!) seems unfamiliar with the Zimmerman telegram, and its importance to the entry of the United States into World War One, it is perhaps worth presenting a summary of the salient facts here.
In January 1917, the German Foreign Office sent a secret diplomatic telegram proposing a military alliance between Germany and Mexico. The telegram was intercepted and deciphered by British intelligence. The British then sent copies to President Wilson.
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We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain, and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President's attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.
President Wilson revealed the existence of the telegram to the press on 28 February 1917 and the press published the story the following day, 1 March 1917.
At this point, many Americans thought the telegram might be a British forgery, but on 3 March, the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann publicly admitted the telegram was genuine. The reasons for this have been dealt with in another question here on History:SE.
As you might expect, this caused outrage in America. Furthermore, Germany's stated intention to resume unrestricted submarine warfare brought back memories of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915. The result was a groundswell of popular opinion in favour of America declaring war against the German Empire on the side of the allies.
(That is not to say that there weren't still many who still opposed the war. Both sides wrote to their senators and congressmen to express their opinions - see below)
Benjamin Freedman's speech
Moving on to the cited source, which is a speech given by Benjamin Freedman in 1961. Wikipedia describes Mr Freedman as:
... an American businessman, Holocaust denier,and vocal anti-Zionist.
So my expectations were fairly low to begin with.
There is nothing in that speech to challenge Wikipedia's description of Mr Freedman, and even though my expectations were low, his speech failed to meet them. Indeed, when it comes to historical veracity, that speech managed to plumb unexpected depths.
Among other nonsense, Mr Freedman claims that:
"... [the United States] were suckered into -- that war merely so that the Zionists of the world could obtain Palestine. Now, that is something that the people in the United States have never been told. They never knew why we went into World War One."
going on to claim that:
"... the newspapers had been all pro-German..."
but "the Jews" somehow persuaded all the American news media to change how they wrote about Germany in response to a deal over Palestine, and
"... shortly after that, Mr. Wilson declared war on Germany."
He claims that the Balfour Declaration was a form of 'receipt' saying:
"The receipt took the form of a letter, and it was worded in very cryptic language so that the world at large wouldn't know what it was all about."
He then states that at the Paris Peace Conference:
"... they produced, for the first time to the knowledge of the Germans, this Balfour Declaration. So the Germans, for the first time realized, “Oh, that was the game! That's why the United States came into the war.” And the Germans for the first time realized that they were defeated, they suffered this terrific reparation that was slapped onto them, because the Zionists wanted Palestine and they were determined to get it at any cost."
Conspicuously absent from Mr Freedman's speech is any mention of the Zimmerman telegram, or the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic in early 1917, but perhaps that is not surprising!
So, let's deal with those points in turn.
Was the Balfour Declaration written in very cryptic language so that the world at large wouldn't know what it was all about?
No. We have the text and it is hardly what most English speakers would call 'cryptic'. German intelligence had fluent English speakers on their staff (much as British intelligence employed fluent German speakers).
We can probably assume that more of his audience in 1961 had never heard of the Balfour Declaration, and that fewer still had read it. However, in the 21st century we have the advantage of the Internet so we can check (and the actual text can be read in The Times article above).
Did the German delegation really see the Balfour Declaration for the first time at the Paris Peace Conference?
It seems highly unlikely, given that it had been published in a newspaper. The idea that German intelligence had failed to notice the announcement frankly beggars belief!
Did Woodrow Wilson declare war on Germany?
Under article 1, section 8, of the United States Constitution, it is the United States Congress which retains the authority to declare war, not the President.
In fact, Woodrow Wilson asked that a Special Session of Congress be convened to declare war on the German Empire. That session convened and debated the President's request and the issues surrounding that request, before formally declaring war on 6 April 1917.
So, the big question. Was the United States "suckered" into the First World War so that "the Zionists of the world could obtain Palestine"?
As we saw above, the key reasons were the exposure of the proposed military alliance between Germany and Mexico in the Zimmerman telegram, and Germany's stated intention to resume unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. But do we have to rely on secondary sources like history books or tertiary sources like Wikipedia to confirm this? Can't we go to the original records and check the primary sources.
In fact we can. The records have been released to the public and many are available online. So, if we are to discover the reasons why the United States actually declared war on Germany, the obvious place to look would be the records of that debate.
Special Session of the US Senate
The record of that Special Session, which ran from 5 March 1917 to 16 March 16 1917 can be found in the Congressional Record, Volume 55, Part 1 (March 5, 1917 to April 24, 1917). Copies can be downloaded in PDF form from the US Government Publishing Office, archive.org, and several other sites, but be aware that the file sizes are very large - especially if you are working from a mobile device.
The records include a lot of administrative detail which is not particularly relevant to the central matters for which the Special Session was convened, but the business of government still had to be dealt with.
After that, a number of representations to Congress are included. Many, especially from German-American and pacifist groups, were opposed to American involvement in what they describe as a 'European war'. Many more were in favour of the United States declaring war on the German Empire, and it is fascinating to read about the wide variety of people who had written to express an opinion.
Almost nobody who has ever read anything about the events leading up to America declaring war on Germany will be surprised to discover that the two issues that dominated the debate were the Zimmerman telegram, and Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic.
I shall quote just one example to illustrate the point.
Republican Senator Lawrence Y. Sherman from Illinois was no fan of Democrat President Woodrow Wilson. During the debate he remarked:
"[President Wilson] said other nations had a right to spill as much blood as they pleased, and that it was no concern of ours. He called for absolute neutrality. The destruction of the Lusitania, the policy of unrestricted submarine frightfulness, created in his bosom no horror; it shocked no sensibility; it caused no proclamation, no convening of Congress in special session, or attack upon the rules of the Senate. He viewed it with indifference and dismissed it without apology or regret."
and yet he expressed his willingness to vote in favour of a declaration of war on the German Empire. He gave his reasons as follows:
"Two things have decided me on that course. One is the danger zone created by an arbitrary decree at Berlin some time ago, in which the open sea was withdrawn as a way of commerce for the neutral world. The open sea has been made a theatre of war involuntarily to peaceful nations. so that no ship, belligerent or neutral, can navigate it. I regard it as indefensible, as utterly without right as to neutrals in either peace or war. It is destructive of our maritime rights.
Again, the admitted effort of Zimmermann, in charge of foreign affairs for the German Imperial Government, who has undertaken to involve Japan and Mexico against us, is an indication of deliberate hostile intent. Whether it would have come to any practical end or not, we need not inquire to-day. It is sufficient that it is admitted that this was done, and I regard that alone as an act of war against us. It justifies us in the passage of such a bill;"
The text of the resolution was a follows:
WHEREAS, The Imperial German Government has committed repeated acts of war against the Government and the people of the United States of America; therefore, be it
Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial German Government, which has thus been thrust upon the United States, is hereby formally declared; and
That the President be, and he is hereby, authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the United States and the resources of the Government to carry on war against the Imperial German Government; and to bring the conflict to a successful termination all the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.
On 4 April 1917, the Senate voted on the resolution. it passed with 82 votes in favour and 6 votes against.
The resolution came before the House of Representatives on 6 April 1917, with 373 votes in favour and 50 votes against.