VFW Magazine — August 2017
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Telegraphing Treachery
Barry Hudock


America’s involvement in World War I had a massive impact on both the country and its place in the world. One century later, little-known details about why and how America entered the Great War remain fascinating. Among them is the important role played by a single, top-secret telegram.


By the beginning of 1917, World War I had already been raging in Europe for three years, while President Woodrow Wilson steadfastly resisted calls for America to join the Allied fight. And much of the American public supported his position. In November 1916, in fact, Wilson was elected to his second term as President with the help of campaign slogans that bragged “He Has Kept Us Out of War” and “War in Europe — Peace in America — God Bless Wilson.”

That stance became hard to maintain, though, as he began his second term. In January 1917, Germany announced it would begin unrestricted submarine warfare in the north Atlantic. All ships — regardless of purpose, passengers or nation of origin — were potential targets of attack. Since ship traffic in the region included both the cargo ships carrying goods between the U.S. and Europe and the cruise ships enjoyed by wealthy American vacationers, the new German policy threatened both the American economy and American lives.

To the astonishment of many, Wilson remained resolute against intervention, angering both the British government — which eagerly anticipated the support that American involvement would bring — and many previously supportive Americans startled by Germany’s stark provocation.

So tensions and stakes were both high when Frank Polk, head of the State Department’s Bureau of Secret Intelligence, walked into Wilson’s office on Feb. 25 to drop — metaphorically — a new political bombshell. Polk handed the President an intercepted telegram sent by the German Foreign Office to Germany’s ambassador to Mexico.

The telegram opened by informing the German ambassador of plans for unrestricted submarine warfare. Then it went on:

We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral STOP 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 lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona STOP The settlement in detail is left to you STOP You will inform the President [of Mexico] of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain....

In the President’s hand was evidence of a German proposal for alliance with Mexico that included an offer of support for Mexico taking by force the territory of three expansive American states. How it ended up in Wilson’s hand is one surprising part of the story, while the impact it actually had is a question that historians still ponder.


The head of the German Foreign Office at the time was Arthur Zimmermann, an uncertain bureaucrat disliked by the country’s military leadership. According to historian Thomas Boghardt, author of The Zimmermann Telegram: Intelligence, Diplomacy, and America’s Entry into World War I, Zimmermann was nearly consumed by anxiety and weariness that came with preparing for and then absorbing the diplomatic fallout that the German announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare inevitably brought.

It was during these days, at a routine staff meeting, that one of Zimmermann’s underlings, Hans Arthur von Kemnitz, first suggested the Germany-Mexico alliance. With Zimmermann’s approval, Kemnitz prepared a proposal for the Mexican government. Remarkably, Kemnitz’s draft of the message passed through a string of approvals with little consideration. Zimmermann himself signed off on it, with no comment or revision, on the same day he received it. The chancellor of Germany, it seems, never even saw or was informed of the telegram before it was sent on Jan. 16.

Equally remarkable, in retrospect, is the route the secret telegram took to get to the German embassy in Mexico. With German trans-Atlantic cables cut by Great Britain, the U.S. State Department had been allowing Germany to trans-mit encoded messages on American diplomatic cables. In effect, the State Department was routinely passing on messages of unknown content, presuming Germany’s goodwill.

So Germany’s foreign office gave the coded message to the U.S. ambassador in Berlin, who wired it to the U.S. embassy in Copenhagen, which sent it to the U.S. embassy in London. It then passed to the U. S. State Department in Washington, D. C., which delivered it to the German embassy there.

The German ambassador then sent the coded text to Germany’s embassy in Mexico via Western Union.

Essentially, a telegram proposing a German-Mexican alliance against the U. S., leading to a Mexican conquest of American territory, was transmitted with the unknowing cooperation of both the U.S. State Department and a private American communications company.

Unknown to the U.S. government at the time, Great Britain had, for two years, been routinely intercepting and decrypting the U.S. State Department’s cable traffic.

It therefore intercepted the Zimmermann telegram on its way to Washington, on Jan. 17, and decoded it within a few hours. Quickly realizing its importance, the cryptanalyst who decoded the telegram brought it directly to British Director of Naval Intelligence William Reginald Hall.

Hall recounted the momentous conversation in an autobiography years later.

“D’you want to bring America into the war?” the cryptanalyst asked Hall.

“Why?” Hall replied.

The cryptanalyst told Hall he had something that “might do the trick,” and handed him the message.

Knowing that news of the telegram would push the U.S. toward war with Germany, Great Britain was now in a position of wanting to make the telegram known to Wilson, but not wanting him to realize how they’d come upon it.

That problem was solved when the British intelligence also was able, two weeks later, to procure a copy of the same telegram as it had been sent between Washington and Mexico. Hall could now provide the telegram to Washington without revealing its primary source.

He did, and by the first week of April, America was at war. (See the timeline on pages 18-19.)


As this story has often been told, the Zimmermann telegram was the key factor in drawing the United States into World War I. Renowned 20th century historian Barbara Tuchman popularized the idea that it was World War I’s Pearl Harbor, pushing the American people to wholly reject their isolationism and rush headlong into war, much as the 1945 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had galvanized public opinion in favor of war.

But Boghardt questions Tuchman’s narrative, demonstrating that the facts are not so neat.

He approached the question by exploring editorial stances taken at the time by newspapers throughout the country.

“I expected to find a huge outcry, illustrating that isolationism had died overnight,” Boghardt said. “What surprised me was that very few newspapers changed their stances on the question. Those that had endorsed interventionism take the Zimmermann telegram as evidence that they were right. Those that had been against entering the war don’t change either. And after a week or so, the Zimmermann telegram completely disappears from the press.”

Boghardt says it’s clear that, contrary to Tuchman’s telling, America’s entry into World War I didn’t have the sort of unanimous public backing that buoyed our entry into World War II a generation later. He likened it more to public opinion at the start of the more recent war in Iraq, with some of the public highly skeptical.

Michael Neiberg, professor of history at the U.S. Army War College, agrees that the telegram was not a decisive factor.

“Events were headed in that direction anyway,” Neiberg said.

He noted there was already a growing “preparedness movement” in America and that several states had already begun readying their militias and National Guard members.

“Though Wilson was trying everything to avoid bringing the country into the war, much of the country was way ahead of him,” Neiberg said.

Even if, as seems clear, the United States would have ended up in World War I without it, the Zimmermann telegram remains a fascinating piece of American history.

Timeline to War in 1917

Jan. 17: British naval intelligence intercepts the Zimmermann telegram

Feb. 1: Germany begins unrestricted submarine warfare

Feb. 23: Britain provides Zimmermann telegram to U.S. ambassador

Feb. 25: President Wilson receives the telegram

March 1: Headlines across U.S. report telegram

March 20: Wilson’s cabinet unanimously advises declaration of war

April 2: Wilson asks Congress for declaration of a state of war with Germany

April 4: U.S. Senate votes in favor of war

April 6: House of Representatives votes in favor of war

FAR LEFT (TOP): “The Temptation” by John Knott was published March 2, 1917, in the Dallas Morning News. It depicts a German plan to give Mexico “generous financial support” and the opportunity to “reconquer” three U.S. states along the southern border in exchange for an alliance in World War I and help brokering a similar alliance with the Japanese Empire.

FAR LEFT (BOTTOM): The actual coded message sent as a Western Union telegram on Jan. 19, 1917, from Germany’s U.S. ambassador in Washington to Germany’s Mexico ambassador in Mexico City. Originating from the office of Foreign Secretary of the German Empire Arthur Zimmermann, the telegram notified Mexico of Germany’s intention to begin unrestricted submarine warfare on Feb. 1, 1917, and offered incentives to join the fight against America and its allies.

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