"it's a rather astonishing message which might do the trick"
March 4, 2017 1:06 AM   Subscribe

100 years ago this week, the Zimmermann telegram went public. In January 1917 the German government invited Mexico to attack the United States, and suggested Japan play a role. While Mexico demurred, Britain's signals intelligence office caught and decrypted the coded message, then gave it to American diplomats, who soon published it in newspapers. Several weeks later Arthur Zimmermann, Germany's State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, publicly confirmed the telegram's authorship and contents. In a few months, based on the telegram and other issues, president Wilson took America into World War One.

This occurred in the first World War's third year, and was a strategic move to weaken a power likely to intervene on the Entente's side against Germany, thanks to the aggressive expansion of submarine warfare. America broke diplomatic relations with Germany over the u-boat campaign. The Zimmermann gambit clearly backfired.

The Japanese government's response.

The Khan Academy's take.

(Previously on AskMe)
posted by doctornemo (10 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Also, don't miss Erik Larson's Dead Wake, which includes the Zimmerman telegram in the backstory of the Lusitania. Fantastic book, like all his others.
posted by Dashy at 5:48 AM on March 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

One of the bests books on this episode is Barbara Tuchman's The Zimmerman Telegram. Also very worthwhile is her The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 and, especially, The Guns of August.
posted by mono blanco at 7:29 AM on March 4, 2017 [5 favorites]

When stymied on the battlefield, the Germans showed ingenuity in undermining their adversaries through other means-- witness the conveyance of Lenin from Switzerland to Russia to bring about a unilateral cessation of hostilities on the Eastern Front. Remind anyone of anything?
posted by homerica at 7:48 AM on March 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

I was reading about this recently in Singh's The Code Book. It was particularly fascinating to me how the British kept a lid on their discovery for a while so as to protect their intelligence assets. Not to turn every thread into a thread about current events, but it gives me hope that certain materials may yet be out there.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:24 AM on March 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm ambivalent about US entry into WWI. As the initial link makes clear, the Zimmerman telegram was nothing on its own. Mexico wasn't going to attack the US. So if the Anglophile Wilson and his top foreign advisors hadn't already wanted war it could have been handled through diplomatic channels. This was, like the Maine, used for propaganda. (I also think the war started as a Great Power clash with both sides willing to spill blood for land and prestige.) The war was also hastened the marginalization of Progressivism, with opponents like Johnson & LaFollette roundly attacked and socialist Debs locked up.

OTOH the way things shaped out by 1917 a German victory would have been horrible for the world, and although France and Britain probably could have won the US entrance made it certain.
posted by mark k at 9:41 AM on March 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Why on Earth would Zimmermann ever admit the telegram was real?! It's simple to deny, and leaves ambiguity over whether or not you're specifically making WWI-style carving-up-your-enemy's-territory promises about a country you're trying to keep out of the war.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 11:12 AM on March 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

According to Wiki, he was emphasizing the "only if America entered the war would this happen" aspect. It's not clear to me from the description if this was to lessen damage already done, or if he was trying to still use Mexico as a stick.

Makes sense if everyone already believed it was authentic though (which they did.)
posted by mark k at 4:04 PM on March 4, 2017

My half chihuahua half dachshund dog is named for this telegram. I thought you should know.
posted by vorpal bunny at 8:06 PM on March 4, 2017 [6 favorites]

While the Zimmermann Note is famous for its brazen skulduggery, the smoking gun for the United States entry into WWI was the start of unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic. The German military believed that a general blockade of Great Britain would force them to come to terms in a matter of months, if not weeks. However too much fuel, food, and matériel was getting in under flags of neutral countries. So the U-Boats were given orders to start attacking American civilian shipping in the war zone.

I think Zimmemann's speech is likely a reflection of German views at the time. Zimmermann likely knew that unrestricted submarine warfare was going to destroy U.S.-German relations. He may have had faith that the German navy could starve out Great Britain before the U.S. could fully mobilize.

So instead, appeal to Germany's allies and blame America. America has been shipping supplies to our enemies. America cut off diplomatic discussion of our submarine attacks on American shipping. America has been spying on private and confidential diplomatic correspondence that we trusted them to relay as a neutral country. Are these really the actions of a neutral country?
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:09 PM on March 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm wending my way through Tooze's The Deluge, in which he argues that the u-boats and Zimmerman telegram were the actions taken to interdict possible American entry, and which ended up precipitating it.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:57 AM on March 10, 2017

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