zimmermann telegram 

How one telegram helped to lead America toward war 

By Scott Bomboy
via the National Constitution Center web site

On this day in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson learned of a shocking piece of paper that made America’s entry into World War I inevitable. And current research shows the Americans didn’t know everything German diplomats intended.

The Zimmermann Telegram was a message sent on January 12, 1917, from the German foreign minister Arthur Zimmerman to the country’s embassy in Washington, D.C., to be relayed to German representatives in Mexico. 

In the message, Zimmermann instructed the German diplomats to approach the Mexican government, if United States entered the war in Europe, to offer an alliance between Germany and Mexico. The Germans would offer “generous financial support” to Mexico as an ally, with the following proposal, “an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.” Zimmermann also said Germany planned to start unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, an act that could force the Americans toward a conflict with Germany.

To be sure, the Zimmermann telegram by itself didn’t force the United States’ entry into World War I; that would come five weeks after the telegram was made public, when the Senate and the House passed war resolutions. But its existence became a turning point in the debate over intervention, and it did lead to solidarity between the President and Congress over “the war to end all wars.”

President Wilson broke off diplomatic relations on February 3, 1917, after German submarine attacks resumed. But without evidence of expanded German hostilities, Wilson and the Americans remained neutral, at least in the short-term.

Three months earlier, President Wilson won a narrow victory for a second term against Charles Evans Hughes, with the promise to keep America out of the European war. On February 26, 1917, he was dealing with a Republican Senate filibuster over arming merchant ships when shocking news arrived at the White House via the U.S. ambassador in Great Britain, Walter Hines Page.

British code breakers obtained two copies of the coded Zimmermann telegram, and they were able to break the cypher using a broken code and comparing the telegrams. Not only was Zimmermann willing to finance an adventure by the Mexican government to reclaim territory lost to the United States, it wanted Mexico to intercede with Japan to get Japan to switch sides in the war. (Japan played a limited role against Germany in World War I.) 

Read the entire article on the National Constitution Center web site.

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