January 11, 1917: Zimmermann Telegram Sent



I assume that there must be a greater example of diplomatic folly than the Zimmermann Telegram, but I cannot think of it at the moment.  Believing that the entry of the US into the Great War was inevitable with the planned resumption by Germany of unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping, the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann on January 11, 1917 sent the following telegram in code to the German ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckardt:

“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

The sheer madness of this cannot be overstated.  Mexico was still in the throes of the Mexican Revolution and posed no threat to the US.  The US had recently demonstrated that it could dispatch military forces into Mexico with impunity.  Threatening the physical integrity of the US converted a far off European conflict into a direct threat against the US.  If the US did intervene in the Great War, an additional conflict with Mexico would barely resister in regard to the immense military mobilization that the US would undergo.


Mexican President Venustiano Carranza appointed a military commission to study the proposal and they quickly reported that Mexico stood no chance in a war with the US.  The British intercepted the telegram as it was sent through British territory on its way to Mexico via the German embassy in the US.  After the British translated it, they retained it to release it to their American “cousins” at an opportune time.

Published in: on January 11, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments (6)  
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  1. I have been thinking. At the head of German thinking, such as it was, there was, I believe, an understanding that Germany’s own actions would soon make war with America inevitable. Germany was slowly being strangled by the Allied blockade, and did not have the naval strength to break it. Pound for pound, German ships were better than British ones, as they showed at the Jutland, but the British, French, Italians, Russians, and Japanese, together, made up a naval force that simply could not be broken by anything the Germans and their Austrian allies could do. So the Germans had opted for submarine warfare, something that, to contemporaries, had seemed just as bad and criminal as the invasion of Belgium. They had already abandoned it once under American pressure, but by 1917, and in spite of the land advance into Russia, they were out of options. I don’t think it is often appreciated just how bad the German situation was already by mid-1917: the country was short of every kind of resource – the winter of of 1917 was long remembered as “turnip winter”, because the citizenry could eat nothing else – and was being outproduced by Allied heavy industry, which also had brought in that new nightmare, the tank, whose still undefined potential already kept German generals awake at night. Austria was at its last gasp; in September they informed Berlin that another Italian push would finish them. And Russia, in spite of its near-collapse, still kept huge German armies tied down merely by refusing to accept that it was beaten. The Russian republican government had been heard to say that they would fight all the way to the Urals.

    The logic of returning to unlimited submarine warfare was that the economic prevalence of the Allies had to be broken, and that the only way to do so was to make the sea inaccessible to them. But that is feeble at best, since the main sources of coal, steel and foodstuffs for the Allies were on the homeland territories. What I really read there is the increasingly irrational product of baffled rage, of a sense that blow after blow only seemed to make the enemy stronger, that their sense of national and indeed racial superiority did not correspond with the fact, that a motley coalition of lesser nations was bringing the great Reich down. It was, I think, an excuse for a desire to destroy, to smash, to spread grief and horror in every way possible – no longer war, but terrorism. Only they knew, even then, that to do so would bring the last and already the greatest of great powers crashing and raging in.

    I do not see this as a rational decision, but rather as the by-product of delusion and despair. The Germans could not contemplate being defeated. If America came in, then what was already menacing would become inevitable. So something had to be done to distract America and tie her down. In reality this was impossible, because no power in the world had the interest, let alone the power, to attack America. The only powerful and traditional enemy was the British Empire, and German actions had managed to bring these two frowning giants almost to each other’s arms. So German fantasy seized on Mexico, not because it was likely, but because the alternative was to accept despair; just as in the second frolic they seized on the death of Roosevelt.

    • Imagine Fabio if the Germans could have looked ahead and seen that they were about to drive Russia out of the War and decided to thereby forego resuming unrestricted submarine warfare, and perhaps forestall an American intervention. Them imagine a 1918 without an American intervention and where Germany goes on a peace offensive in the West and offers a status quo ante in the West to France, Italy and Great Britain while Germany keeps its eastern conquests, with a status quo ante as far as the Ottoman Empire goes except the ceding of Mesopotamia, Arabia and Palestine. I think the Allies would have been hard put to reject such a deal considering how war weary their populations were. I could even imagine a unilateral withdrawal by Germany out of Belgium and France, and a withdrawal by Germany and Austria from occupied Italian territory, with the statement from them that as far as they were concerned the war in the West was over.

      • There was not going to be a compromise peace. The Austrian former prime minister, Count Ottokar Czernin, testifies in his memoirs that all peace feelers, without exception, came from the Empires; the Allies were resolved to fight on to the end. The general mood was given voice by Clemenceau: “I will fight before Paris, I will fight in Paris, I will fight behind Paris.” As circumstances grew seemingly more desperate, all the three major Allies placed in power new governments – Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Orlando – charged with carrying on the war by every means available. You underrate the fury and loathing that German tactics had aroused in Europe. The war weariness that prevailed after the war is largely to be ascribed to the fact that the people realized that all their sacrifices STILL had not demolished Germany.

        Germany could have won, if America did not intervene. But the odds were that she would have lost still. The three main allies were still outproducing Germany; the seas were still closed to her; and the tank was still in place.

      • “You underrate the fury and loathing that German tactics had aroused in Europe.”

        Perhaps. However the French army was a broken reed by 1917 with Petain telling French troops that they would wait for the Americans and the tanks. The Brits were running out of manpower to fill their divisions by the end of 1917. Caporetto ended 1917 in Italy with disaster for the Allies. I agree that the Allied governments were dedicated to fighting it out. However, they may have reached the point where their generals could promise, at best, only stalemate without American intervention. In 1918 of course the collapse of Germany took the Allies by surprise, it being thought that a 1919 campaign would have been necessary.

  2. Yeah, sure. We all needed to be saved by the Americans. Of course.

    • The Allies at the time Fabio were certainly eager for American troops, food and the American navy to help defeat the U-boats. It is all a matter of hope for victory. By the time Russia dropped out the Allies in the West had confidence in ultimate victory due to the prospect of America sending however many troops across the Atlantic to achieve ultimate victory. With out that hope, the fall and winter of 1917 would have been quite grim for the Allies.

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