Hey! Randy

Across the Ocean on a Wire Came a War

Posted by heyrandy on June 27, 2008

The Zimmerman Telegram by Barbara W. Tuchman, Ballantine Books, New York: 1958, 1966. 195 pages, index, end notes.

There is no modern method of communication more obsolete than the telegraph.  It is difficult for most modern minds to even conceive of such a slow and clumsy system.  Yet the telegraph provided the first high speed, world wide communications.  The telegraph cut transatlantic communication time from days to mere hours, minutes for those who had private lines. (Remember this when you think that dial up Internet service is slow.)  Today the telegraph is a museum piece, replaced by the telephone and the Internet.  But in the early 20th century the telegraph was indispensable, especially to the world powers.

For all its benefits, the telegraph was the instrument of doom for Imperial Germany.  It was through the telegraph that an injudicious message was sent by Germany’s foreign minister to its ambassador in the United States.  It was this coded message that provided the final force the United States needed to enter the Great War on the side of England.

As the book’s title claims, the telegram was from Zimmerman, then German foreign minister.  The telegram, intercepted and decoded by the British and later given to the Americans, outlined a plan that Germany hoped would keep the Americans out of the war in Europe.  The plan called for the fomenting of a war between the U.S. and Mexico with Japan joining the Mexicans.

The German hope was that this fight along the southern U.S. border and in the Pacific would keep the America out of Europe should the U.S. ever give up its neutrality and side with the English and the French.  The plan, if enacted, would also require Mexico to cut off its oil shipments to England.  The prize for the Mexicans would be the regaining of the territory they lost in the Mexican-American war.  The Japanese would get all they could grab in the Pacific without the Americans to stop them.

The plan was bold, audacious; some may say reckless, but Germany was desperate.  The telegram, once exposed, had the opposite effect; it caused the Mexicans and the Japanese to deny any such offer had been made to them.  It caused an explosion of outrage throughout the U.S., especially in Texas.

Germany thought that America’s entry into the war would be of little consequence since she could not train, equip and transport enough troops to Europe in time to make a difference.  Germany was relying on its submarines to strangle England and France in to peace talks favorable to Germany.  If the Americans were too busy fighting the Japanese and the Mexicans there would be little chance of the American Army coming to Europe.

Had the submarine strategy been the only element of this plan, it is probable that the English and the French, especially after the withdrawal of the Russians, would have capitulated.  Both nations were destitute and worn down by the fighting.  Both nations had spent themselves into bankruptcy and suffered horrendous losses but obtained very little gain.

It was the telegram that made the difference.  Once America entered the war the Germans were doomed.

Along the way to this the author reveals the perfidy, schemes, ploys, deceptions and foibles that accompany statecraft.  It is a case of personalities, egos, pride, and stupidity versus cunning and skill.  Without the blunders the successes would have been less significant.  Without the pride, even racism, the stupid mistakes would have been avoided.  It was Germany’s sense of superiority that blinded her to the possibility that her code had been broken by the British.  If the Germans had given the matter some thought, they would have realized or suspected how the Americans got the telegram. They may have changed codes.  If the message had been sent by another means not subject to British spying, the scandal would might never have occurred.  If Zimmerman had not publicly admitted that the telegram was genuine, the effect of its revelation would have been muted.

It is really these types of things that make the book worth reading.  It delves into the behind the scenes events that so affect the way thing are done in public.

The telegraph is history.  So is the War to End All Wars to Make the World Safe for Democracy.  What continues, unabated, is the machinations, and blunders, of the powerful that seek more power.

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One Response to “Across the Ocean on a Wire Came a War”

  1. worldwar1letters said

    What is also interesting is that the U.S. was in such an uproar in part because it has already experienced military incursions from Mexico as an offshoot of the Mexican Revolution. In fact, the largest mobilization of U.S. forces since the Civil War was directed at securing the Mexican Border in 1916, long before the Zimmerman telegram was written.

    To learn more about this through the letters of a New England soldier who was there before going to France with the AEF, please visit http://worldwar1letters.wordpress.com.

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