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Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Zimmermann Telegram, January 19, 1917

Today in 1917, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann sent a coded telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt. The contents of the telegram would send shockwaves through Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo. It would push a nation into war and help change the balance of power in Europe forever.

By January, 1917, the First World War had been raging in Europe for two and a half years. Hundreds of thousands of Europe's young men were dead and the continent was essentially cut in two by hundreds of miles of trenches. Offensive gains were often measured in yards; the same ground changed hands dozens of times. A generation was being lost in the mud of western Europe, and there seemed to be no end in sight.

In the telegram, Ambassador von Eckardt was instructed to contact the Mexican government and propose a military alliance between that nation and the Empire of Germany. The military alliance's main purpose was to ensure German support of a Mexican invasion of the United States in the event the US declared war on Germany. In return for Mexico going to war with America, Germany would provide monetary assistance and recognize the restoration of the former Mexican territories. To Americans, these territories were known as the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah. In addition, the telegram also stated that the government of Mexico should be encouraged to draw Japan into the alliance.

The message was sent via telegraph cable, but it did not take a direct route. At that time, US President Wilson had allowed German diplomats to have access to the private American telegraph line from Berlin to Washington. This was a good faith move by the White House in the hope that the trust engendered might lead to a peace initiative. The message was encrypted and sent to the German embassy in Washington via the US line. From there, it was sent to the German ambassador in Mexico.

Incredibly, the United States had no means to intercept the message and decrypt it. The country's military and political establishment stuck to the old adage, "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail." The British, however, were not so naive. British Naval Intelligence intercepted the telegram, decrypted it and immediately realized the political value of the message. Both anti-German and anti-Mexican sentiment in the United States was high---anti-German because over 100 Americans had been killed since 1915 in U-boat attacks and anti-Mexican because of Pancho Villa's recent raids into US border towns. Public disclosure of the telegram was almost guaranteed to push the United States into the war on the side of England, France and the other allied nations.

However, the British could not make the government in Washington aware of the telegram without admitting that they were monitoring US diplomatic traffic. This was sure to cause a rift in Anglo-American relations. But London got lucky. Intelligence analysts surmised, correctly as it turned out, that the German embassy in Washington would relay the message to Mexico City via a public telegraph service. It would still be encrypted, but use of the public telegraph lines would allow the Brits to claim that the telegraph had been intercepted in Mexico. To ensure that their theory was correct, a British agent in Mexico was sent to bribe a telegraph employee and obtain a copy of the message. All the bases were covered.

On February 23, 1917, what would become known as the Zimmermann telegram was delivered to the US ambassador in Britain. 48 hours later, it was in the hand of President Woodrow Wilson. On March 1st, the White House released the content of the telegram to the press. The text of the message was at first met with disbelief by the American populace. Their incredulity was seized upon by German diplomats and pro-German groups in the United States. They immediately called the telegram a fake propagated by those who wanted the US to enter the war.

Then, two days after the telegram first appeared in American newspapers, the unexpected occurred: Arthur Zimmermann, the author of the telegram, gave a speech in which he vouched for the authenticity of the message. He defended his actions, saying that the instructions in the telegram were only to be carried out if the United States entered the war against Germany. It made little difference: President Wilson broke off all negotiations with Germany. On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Four days later, they did so.

For their part, Mexico did study the German offer. In the end, they concluded the following things: first, that an invasion of the US would mean a prolonged war for which the nation was not prepared; second, that Germany could not maintain a steady supply line across the Atlantic and, finally, that the American population in the re-conquered territories would be impossible to control. The proposal was declined.

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