The Zimmermann Telegram

Title:                  The Zimmerman Telegram

Author:                  Barbara W.Tuchman

Tuchman, Barbara W. (1966). The Zimmermann Telegram. New York, Macmillan

LCCN:    66026604

D511 .T77 1966


Date Updated:                     June 13, 2016

Dr. Paul Miller, former president of Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology, told me that one of his academic heroes was Barbara Tuchman, who spent untold hours researching in the New York City Library to write her outstanding books. The lone scholar, digging through masses of material, to arrive at a clear presentation of a historical story is a great one.

In this work, Tuchman presents a full account of the Zimmerman telegram from Mexico during WWI. The story that Barbara Tuchman tells is one of international diplomacy in the period just before WWI. Tuchman centers her story on the apex of a single article of communication (the telegram) and expands from there.

The story begins in the North Sea just before the British declaration of war on Germany. The British cable ship Telconia dredges the sea searching for five cables at the bottom connecting Germany’s communication with the of the European and North American continents. All five cables are cut. Furthermore, Britain coaxed Eastern Telegraph, the American owner of the only other cable to North America (running from North Africa to Brazil), to pull the cables that would allow German communication with the world. Germany was now bound to wireless communication for the duration of the war.

This is significant because it allowed the British to intercept secretly all German communications, and begin to decode them in the British Naval Intelligence office referred to as “Room 40”. Inside Room 40, Britain learned to crack the German code. This is how the British, and consequently the Americans, were able to learn about the Zimmermann Telegram.

The Telegram put the British in a precarious position. They desperately needed the United States to become a belligerent and enter the war against Germany if Britain hoped to win the war. At the same time if the British gave the Americans the Telegram and it was released, the Germans might deduce the existence of Room 40 and discover that their code had been unraveled, thereby compromising all British ability to “listen in” on the Germans for the rest of the war. Additionally, the Telegram was no guarantee that the United States would declare war against Germany or that the Americans would even believe the authenticity of the Telegram.

It is about the analysis of U.S., German, and British players and the revelation of how The Zimmermann Telegram was eventually delivered to the U.S. Government (without compromising Room 40, and at the same time successfully brought the U.S. into war against Germany) that Tuchman writes. Tuchman’s style is objective in construction, using factual evidence from many sources. She wrote the book fairly, comparing both the British and German sides, showing there were supporters on both sides in the United States. Through all of the descriptions she portrayed Woodrow Wilson as neutral until the end. She discusses the external forces on Wilson that tried to persuade him in all directions. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and former President Theodore Roosevelt supported the side of Britain and war; Robert LaFollette and other isolationist senators on the side of non-intervention.

Tuchman centered all events on the final outcome – would the Americans be persuaded to believe the authenticity of the Zimmermann Telegram? Would they declare war on Germany because of it? Tuchman is persuasive in her argument that it was ultimately the Zimmermann Telegram that caused Wilson to ask Congress for belligerency.

Tuchman’s sources are mostly first-hand accounts taken from the journals and diaries of major participants in the events that surrounded the Zimmermann Telegram. Important to her research were notes supplied by British Admiral Hall’s (Director of British Naval Intelligence) private secretary, as well as personal papers of Joseph Grew (U.S. Ambassador) and those papers of Ambassador Walter Hines Page. Further research by Tuchman was accredited to help from the Foreign Office Archives Office in London and the historical manuscripts of both President Wilson and Secretary of State Lansing.

Because The Zimmermann Telegram was well researched and convincing in its points, Tuchman reveals to the reader a deeper level of understanding surrounding the events that led up to the American declaration of war against Germany. Tuchman shrugged off the commonly held elementary notions that it was the sinking of the Lusitania, or the declaration of German unrestricted submarine warfare that caused the U.S. to declare its belligerency. She argues that while these events were certainly considerations in the decision for war, they were not enough to cause the U.S. to break its policy of neutrality.

Tuchman is successful in persuading the reader that it was the secret German proposal of a pact with Mexico and Japan that became the proverbial straw. Tuchman’s thesis that the Zimmermann Telegram was the single most important reason that America declared war against Germany is convincing. It clearly shows evidence for the German government’s theory that a secret pact with Mexico and Japan would be her only chance of defeating the United States in a war.

Tuchman points out that Germany made only two significant blunders that forced America into the war declaration. First, Germany’s mistaken belief that German intelligence was so superior to that of the Allies that the Allies could have never cracked the German code. Secondly, Zimmermann’s puzzling admission of the authenticity of the telegram when much of the American public and Congress believed it to be a British hoax (Britain could not reveal the authenticity without compromising Room 40).

In conclusion, Tuchman gives an exciting dimension of suspense to the events surrounding America’s entry into WWI by revealing first person accounts and minor personalities that played a role in the events leading to this crisis. She makes the valid argument that it was the Zimmermann Telegram that ultimately brought Wilson and the American Congress (and people) to this decision after a long period of neutrality toward Germany.

When the Germans decided in Feburary 1917, to unleash unrestricted submarine warfare against all merchant ships, neutral or belligerent, headed for Britain, it was not at all clear how the United Sates would react. Possibly, as the Germans hoped, American businesses would simply stop shipping goods. On the other hand, the United States might go to war over it. But the sentiment for neutrality and peace in the US remained strong.

The British decided to provide a nudge. In British Naval Intelligence, their “Room 40,” a decoding office, had intercepted and deciphered many German messages. William “Blinker” Hall, the head of the office (so named because he couldn’t stop blinking), had at hand the ideal decoded information. A month before the Germans announced their unrestricted submarine warfare policy, Nigel de Grey, a young decoder, walked into his office. Hall later recounted he tail in his own memoirs.

De Grey said, “D’you want to bring America into the war?”

Calmly, Hall responded, “Yes, my boy. Why?

De Grey answered: “I’ve got something here which – well it’s a rather astonishing message which might do the trick if we could use it. It isn’t very clear, I’m afraid, but I’m sure I’ve got the most important points right. It’s from the German Foreign Office to Bernstorff.” Count von Bernstorff was the German ambassador in the United States.

The “astonishing message” was later described by more than one historian as the single intelligence coup with the most profound consequences in WWI. It had been sent by the head of the German Foreign Ministry, Arthur Zimmerman. Decoded by the British, the message announced the plan to start unrestricted submarine warfare. It also instructed Bernstorff to pass on to the Mexican ambassador an offer to recognized the transfer back to Mexico of U.S. territory at the end of the war, if Mexico would join with German in war against the United States. That territory comprised most of the western United States, including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. The note also suggested that Mexico could help convince to settle on a separate peace.

The question confronting the British was how to use the telegram, especially without revealing that they had cracked the diplomatic code in which it was sent. Revealing that they had cracked the code would prompt the Germans to create a new one. Blinker Hall considered not using it at all, but simply waiting to see whether the unrestricted submarine attacks would bring the United States into the war.

Surprisingly, the Germans made it easy for Room 40 to conceal how they learned of the message. The Germans sent the message by three different routes, including not only the wireless telegraph, but also via cable sent from Sweden to the United States. Using a bit of deception, the British claimed they had uncovered the message in Mexico, and also provided enough information so that the Americans could decode the message from their own cable sources.

It was not at all clear that Wilson would regard attacks on U. S. shipping as an act of war. When he read the Zimmerman telegram, decoded and translated, he was shocked. When it was released to the press, the American public and Congress were outraged, and the arguments for neutrality were severely weakened.

While the United States might have gone to war as the sinking of U. S. ships began to increase, the telegram certainly helped tip the balance. The U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, after overwhelming votes in favor of war in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Mexico, of course, never took up the German offer.

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

The cryptanalytic achievement of the British in intercepting and deciphering the German Zimmermann telegrams was their greatest success in World War I and also one of the greatest and most significant cryptanalytic successes in history. Tuchman’s account of how it was accomplished and exploited is based on a study of the pertinent literature and documents. She deals with the cryptographic problems, the historical and political context, and the political and operational problems of its exploitation by the British. Her book provides, as DIS’s Bibliography[see below] commented, an outstanding example of the impact of intelligence on the course of history. In the 1966 Macmillan edition, Tuchman acknowledged new information had affected portions of her 1958 account of the cryptanalytic work. The declassification of Friedman and Mendelsohn’s The Zimmermann Telegram of January 16, 1917 and Its Cryptographic Background[2] modified her earlier account by disclosing the existence of a second German code. She also made reference to the article of C. J. Edmonds in the January 1960 issue of the Royal Central Asian Journal that raised the distinct possibility that the German cipher book reported as recovered from the German agent WASSMUSS in Persia was acquired in the legally questionable arrest of the German consul in Bushire. Wisely, she decided not to make any changes in the Alexander Szek story as one possible explanation of the acquisition of the German diplomatic code, despite the perennial denials of British authorities and doubts of experts such as Yves Gylden that such an operation ever existed. The startling item in Roskill’s 1981 Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty[3] raises for the first time the serious possibility that the story of Szek and his stealing of the German code for the British was true. Tuchman is an accomplished writer who describes well German activities in the United States and Mexico as background to the event. And looking at her long bibliography, one is struck by the fact that despite the importance of the telegram in world events and its fame, the tale had not been told as fully in English until Tuchman. Kahn in The Codebreakers[4] called her work “a masterly study of the political circumstances surrounding the telegram and its publication” but added that unfortunately it appeared before the 1965 declassification of the study of the cryptographic background of the telegram, done by Friedman and Mendelsohn in 1938. Friederich Katz’s The Secret War in Mexico[5] contains an up-to-date study of the cryptanalytical history of the Zimmermann Telegram.

This is a review by the Defense Intelligence School.[6]

A recounting of one of the most significant achievements in cryptanalysis during WWI which was a major element in bringing the U.S. into the war. Readable and well documented, this book provides an outstanding example of the impact of intelligence activities on the course of history.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[7]

A well-documented account of a significant achievement of British cryptanalysis during World War I. In January 1917 the British interception and deciphering of a telegram from Berlin would bring the United States to the aid of the Allies. The book describes the decoding and use of the telegram by the British.

[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 455-457

[2] Friedman, William F. (1938) and Charles J. Mendelsohn. The Zimmermann Telegram of January 16, 1917 And Its Cryptographic Background. Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Print. Off

[3] Roskill, Stephen (1981). Admiral of The Fleet Earl Beatty: The Last Naval Hero: An Intimate Biography. New York: Atheneum [LCCN: •        80019778]

[4] Kahn, David (1967). The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing. New York: Macmillan

[5] Katz, Friedrich (1981). The Secret War in Mexico : Europe, The United States, And The Mexican Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press [LCCN: 80026607]

[6] Defense Intelligence School (1981). Bibliography of Intelligence Literature: A Critical And Annotated Bibliography of Open-Source Literature (7th ed, rev.). Washington, DC: Defense Intelligence School, p. 612

[7] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 126



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