DC at Night

DC at Night

Saturday, October 20, 2012

WWI and the Zimmermann Telegram

In 1917, Germany was embroiled with the Allies in what came to be called World War I. While engaged in fierce land and sea battles, Germany had also been quite involved in a global covert program aimed at mobilizing actions that would divert Allied attention and troops from the European battle front.

The Germans had focused on 5 areas. They were:

  • Canada, where saboteurs were recruited to blow up military supply installations
  • North Africa, where Muslims were being encouraged to declare a Jihad against the Allies
  • India, where Germans were helping Hindu nationalists in their struggle for independence against their British rulers
  • Ireland, where Germany played a role in the 1916 Irish independence uprising in Dublin
  • Russia, where Germany helped V.I. Lenin and other Communist leaders re-enter the country and create the Bolshevik Revolution
Even though most of the world had been at war for 3 years, an isolationist America had been officially neutral. But Germany was convinced that America would eventually enter the war on the Allies side and so came up with a secret plan to cripple the American military before it could became involved in Europe..

The Germans sent a coded dispatch to the Mexican government, promising to help Mexico and then return their former territories of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona if it would initiate a war with America. The dispatch came to be known as the Zimmermann Telegram after its author, Foreign Secretary of the German Empire Arthur Zimmermann.

Obviously, history reveals that the called for actions never happened, but the Zimmermann Telegram has provided historians with much study and speculation ever since it was discovered.

Recently, Thomas Boghardt, the former historian of the International Spy Museum and currently the Senior Historian for the U.S. Army Center for Military History here in D.C, appeared at the National Archives to discuss his new book The Zimmermann Telegram: Intelligence, Diplomacy, and America's Entry into World War I.

"Just like they did in other areas of the world, Germany was trying to exploit Mexican discontent," Boghardt said. "People say it (the sending of the telegram) was stupid, outlandish, and unrealistic, but it was in keeping with what Germany was doing in other places."

Ironically, the Americans were actually responsible for Mexican officials receiving the coded message since it was transferred to the American Embassy in London, then shipped to the Mexican Embassy in Washington, then finally forwarded to Mexico.

However, what the Germans didn't know was that the British were routinely intercepting and reading all incoming and outgoing American communication from the London Embassy. British espionage director William Hall ordered the Zimmermann Telegram decoded and then embarked on a complicated scheme that would allow him to divulge the contents of the message to the Americans without letting them know how he had obtained the information.

"He (Hall) was scared to death that the Americans would find out how he originally got the telegram," Boghardt said. 

The revelation of Germany's secret plans for a U.S. attack caused a quick response in the United States. Until that time, President Woodrow Wilson had been working to mediate a peace between the warring European powers, but he immediately stopped all such efforts.

"It didn't have as much impact as is often claimed. It's too simplistic to say that the Zimmermann Telegram prompted the United States to enter the war, but it certainly hastened its entry," Boghardt said. "Of course, it didn't really go anywhere and the moment it was made public, it was dead."

Boghardt said that while pro-war newspapers fanned the flames, many Americans never took the German-called-for Mexican threat seriously. "It didn't have the kind of impact as compared with Pearl Harbor or 9/11," Boghardt contended.

But Boghardt said the interception of the telegram did have much historical relevance. "It was an intelligence gathering watershed moment," he noted. Until that time, most espionage had involved flesh and blood spies. But this incident proved the value of communication interception. "It would repeat on a much larger scale during World War II and the Cold War," Boghardt explained. 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Here is the actual wording of the intercepted telegram. "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." Signed, ZIMMERMANN." 

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