Rob Hardy on books


Article Comment 

The Zimmermann Telegram



Rob Hardy


In 1958, the famous historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a book all about the notorious Zimmermann Note of World War I. It has remained, until now, the key book on a fascinating and important facet of the war. Not anymore. The Zimmermann Telegram: Intelligence, Diplomacy, and America's Entry into World War I (Naval Institute Press) by historian Thomas Boghardt ought to be definitive. He isn't out to savage Tuchman; he explains that in her time, decades after the war, Tuchman could not get access to documents that were still classified, and her ability to examine the cryptography and German sources about the telegram were minimal. Boghardt explains that now all the secrets are out, but still he found primary sources that had never been used in previous work on the telegram. He has presented details about the German foreign service, its use of ciphers, the manner in which the telegram was intercepted, and its effects upon President Wilson and the entrance of the US into the European conflict. This is a wonderful book of detailed history. 




The Zimmermann of the telegram was Arthur Zimmerman, a German foreign secretary. He was not the original author of the telegram, but had under his charge a minor official Hans Arthur von Kemnitz, who conceived it and wrote the first draft. Zimmermann may well not have studied the message written by his protégé; he himself was a career diplomat, but tended to be careless, and he didn't know anything much about Mexico, where the telegram was headed. Zimmermann sent it independently; neither the German general staff, the Kaiser, nor the chancellor knew that it was being sent, and Boghardt indicates that the lack of a central policy-making body for the German federation, and the encroachments of the military into diplomatic action, made this sort of lack of oversight common. It is clear from the way the telegraph was developed that it was not part of any overarching German strategy for western conquest, for there was no such thing.  




The subject of the telegram was an offer to Mexico of its "lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona." Germany would cede such lands to the Mexicans if, should the Americans enter the war on the side of the allies, the Mexicans would commit to an attack on the United States. This goony proposal would have been quashed if it had been seen beforehand by anyone knowledgeable about the disorder in Mexico, and Mexico's relative weakness compared to the US. It was encrypted using the standard German codes of the time, and off it went. The British had cut Germany's overseas telegraph cables in the North Sea, so Germany had to transmit messages by radio. When America was trying to play neutral, the State Department allowed Germany to send encoded messages among the diplomatic cables sent to Washington, and had enough good faith in Germany to allow the messages to remain in code. These messages, in the general flow of traffic, would be handed to the US ambassador in Berlin, who would transmit them to Copenhagen, and on to the US London embassy, then to the State Department in Washington, and finally to the German ambassador. America was naïve, and the Germans perfidious, but the messages were being read by the British, who had early in the war realized how important decryption was to be.  




The Zimmermann telegram, with its stupid and explosive overture to Mexico, was read by the British code expert, Naval Captain William "Blinker" Hall. Hall started a misinformation campaign that has afflicted historians of the Zimmermann telegram ever since, but Boghardt sets things straight. Hall realized that the telegram would be a valuable inducement to have the Americans join the allied side in the war, and he wanted them to know what Germany was up to. However, if the Americans knew the British were eavesdropping, there might have been a scandal between Washington and London which would have the opposite effect. So Hall invented a cover story; there was no mention of radio decryption, but instead the British had seen the telegram when it was physically forwarded from the German Embassy in Washington to that in Mexico City. It wasn't true, but the Britons did eventually bribe a Mexican telegraph employee and did get a copy of the telegram; that was, however, after Hall told his tale. Not only did Hall get the information to Washington, but he boldly and unilaterally did so while his nation's Foreign Office vacillated over what to do with the information. Hall handed the telegram to an American intelligence officer in London; he had thus shared a highly sensitive document with another government without his own government authorizing it. 




The common understanding of the effects of the telegram when President Wilson got it and released it to the press is that it created animosity toward Germany that wildly accelerated America's joining the Allies. Indeed, on 1 March 1917, newspapers all over the US published the headlines about Germany's foolish proposal. Boghardt, however, finds that there was little change in attitude once the plot was revealed. There were no opinion polls at the time, but he has examined newspapers and their editorial positions. At a time when most newspapers were advocating intervention in the war or a pacific neutrality, he finds that few changed their stances due to the telegram. He reprints here a selection of editorial cartoons which generally show that there was no fear engendered by the Mexican threat, just a surprise at Germany's ham-handed attempt to make a second front should the US enter the war. The Houston Post was surprised at the "degree of stupidity" in Berlin, and the Washington Post called it "sheer lunacy."  




Naturally, the telegram did not help the German cause, but Boghardt shows that it was not a decisive blunder bringing America into the war. The main precipitant to America's eventual entry was the unrestricted submarine warfare meant to keep supplies from getting to England. In his last chapter examining the "butterfly effect" of the telegram, Boghardt explains that the Britons who had exposed the telegram thought it would bring America immediately into the war, but this did not happen; it took another month for war to be declared. It was an extra propaganda tool used to increase the American interventionist position, but it made little difference to the public. It did, however, disillusion Wilson about his hopes for negotiating a peaceful settlement in Europe. American ships being torpedoed would have driven us into the war one way or the other, and it might be that the telegram enabled Wilson to take action earlier than he would have otherwise, but it would have been only a few weeks difference. That earlier entry, however, may have forestalled an impending economic collapse in Britain. 




The Zimmermann Telegram thus has as its subject a diplomatic kerfuffle which it reveals as less important to the war than previous historians had thought. Nonetheless, the book describes "complex decisions and events involving secrecy, diplomacy, and propaganda," forces that were in play a century ago just as they are now. The detailed analysis here, drawing from documents of the time, tells us much that is new about the telegram, its decryption, and the tricks which not only brought it to light in 1917 but also kept the whole story from being told until now. 




back to top






Follow Us:

Follow Us on Facebook

Follow Us on Twitter

Follow Us via Email