Lost in Translation

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The cable handed to America’s ambassador to Germany, James W. Gerard, in early January of 1917 was an unusual request.

Since the start of the Great War, Germany’s telegraph lifelines to the rest of the world had been severed by the Royal Navy.  But the undersea cables connecting the United States to Europe had remained undisturbed, and in an effort to demonstrate the nation’s commitment to their stated policy of neutrality, the Wilson administration had allowed Germany use of their lines.

The terms of Germany’s use of America’s transatlantic cables were fairly simple – all messages had to be transmitted “in the clear” – uncoded – or they would not be relaid to other German embassies.  The message in Gerard’s office was coded, set to be delivered to the German ambassador to the United States, Johann von Bernstorff, in Washington.  The cable was coming from the newly installed Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, who had won Wilson’s trust by positively responding to the American administration’s peace overtures.  Zimmermann was a career bureaucratic from a middle class family – not a member of the German royalty that Wilson privately blamed for the war.  In the interest in building trust with Zimmermann’s office, Gerard let the cable go through on January 16th, 1917.

The recipient may have been Ambassador Bernstorff, but Washington was not the message’s final destination.  Bernstorff relayed the contents to Germany’s Mexican ambassador – an offer of a German/Mexican/Japanese alliance against the United States.  In return for Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, Mexico would join the Central Powers in the event of America entering Europe’s war.

Arthur Zimmermann believed he was ensuring Germany’s defense.  Instead, he had poured the foundation of Germany’s eventual defeat.

The Zimmerman Telegram made headlines around the world and enraged the United States – leading to her entry into the Great War


The Mexico of 1917 was simmering with political mistrust and foreign intrigue.  And it had started – in small part – over an insufficient apology.   

The Mexican Revolution that had begun with Francisco Madero’s fraudulent defeat for the presidency in 1910 had eventually seen the rebel forces victorious and Madero installed as the nation’s chief executive.  Torn between the leftist sympathies of many of his rebellious commanders (Pancho Villa among them) and the conservative sensibilities of most of Mexico’s ruling class, Madero’s administration pleased few and frustrated all.  His assassination and overthrow by Gen. Victoriano Huerta in 1913 would ensure yet another revolution – and implicate the United States in the process.

Outgoing President William Howard Taft’s Mexican ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson, had supposedly supported and orchestrated the coup d’état, fearing Madero would nationalize American industries in Mexico.  Incoming President Woodrow Wilson was aghast at the ambassador’s role and quickly threw the U.S. government’s support behind the rebelling Constitutional Army of Venustiano Carranza.  An arms embargo was placed on Huerta’s Mexico as the nation again descended into civil war.

American troops march in Veracruz – the port city was occupied with the stated intention of aiding the Mexican rebels; it would only weaken Mexican-American relations

Wilson had hoped to have distanced the U.S. from Mexico’s dysfunction when 9 American sailors were arrested in Tampico for trespassing at a naval refueling station.  The arresting authorities were part of Huerta’s collapsing dictatorship, and eager to keep the U.S. out his affairs, Huerta’s government released the sailors and apologized.  It wasn’t enough for the United States.  The local American naval commander demanded a 21-gun salute in addition to the apology.  When the salute never occurred, the Wilson administration began plans for the occupation of the port of Veracruz.

The rationale for the invasion of Veracruz was far more complicated than a case of wounded national pride.  Wilson believed that by holding Veracruz, the U.S. government could weaken Huerta and help supply and unify the opposition groups fighting under the Constitutional banner.  But there was another foreign policy component motivating Wilson – German intervention.

As plans for the occupation of Veracruz were being drawn up, intelligence arrived that arms for the Huerta regime would be delivered on April 21st, 1914 from the German-registered cargo-steamer SS Ypiranga, all in clear violation of the American embargo.  2,300 Marines landed in Veracruz on the day of the supposed German arms shipment, capturing the port city with over 90 casualties.  Huerta’s army had already abandoned Veracruz – the resistance had come from average citizens enraged by the American intervention.  At least 500 militiamen and civilians were killed or wounded in what Wilson called “teaching democracy to the Mexicans.”

The U.S. supported the overthrow of Huerta after the outgoing Taft administration (or at least it’s ambassador) supported Huerta’s coup

But the intelligence over the German arms shipment was only half-right.  The ship delivering the arms was indeed German, but the weapons were not sent by the German government.  An American financier with holdings in Mexico had sent the guns to try and prop up Huerta’s losing effort.  It would have made little difference had the guns arrived as Huerta gave up to Carranza only months later.

But Veracruz had poisoned American/Mexican relations to the point that a Niagara Falls peace conference mediated by Argentina, Brazil and Chile was viewed as having prevented a larger war.  Despite intervening on his behalf, Carranza viewed American interests in Mexico with only suspicion.  The new Mexican government began looking for allies to offset their powerful neighbor.

Pancho Villa taunts Gen. John J. Pershing – American views and policy in Mexico in the 1910’s were a contradictory mess of intervention and disinterest


Arthur Balfour could hardly believe the content of the Zimmerman telegram – and he worried his American counterparts would hardly believe it either.

As Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Balfour had been given the telegram three weeks after it had been received and decoded by Britain’s Room 40 operation (the Bletchley Park of World War I).  The British had long since been decoding German telegrams, having seized Berlin’s diplomatic and naval ciphers early in the war, but never before had Room 40 held a communication of this magnitude.  For Room 40 and Balfour, the explosive contents of the telegram had to be weighed against potentially exposing Britain’s intelligence services – and American fears that the document was a forgery.

And forgery was precisely the initial American reaction to the telegram.  Edward Bell, the secretary of the American embassy in London, saw the document as entirely too self-serving to British interests.  Surely, the Germans couldn’t be as reckless and clumsy in their diplomatic overtures as Zimmerman’s communique suggested.  And Britain’s cover story to the Americans – that a British agent had bribed an employee of the commercial telegraph company for a decoded copy of the message in Mexico – seemed equally outlandish.  In Bell’s summation, the telegram appeared as a badly conceived British ploy to enlist American arms and industry in service to the Entente.

Room 40 decoders at work – the service could unscramble German communiques within hours of their transmission

Bell half-heartedly passed along the telegram to the U.S. ambassador Walter Hines Pages.  But this time, Page was presented with the actual ciphers by Balfour, as Britain’s Foreign Office agreed (over Room 40’s objections) to allow the Americans the ability to decipher the message themselves.  Britain’s willingness to expose their own military intelligence partially convinced Page that the telegram he held in his hands was, in his own words, a genuine “bombshell.”  With a new cover story that men of the First Indiana infantry division patrolling the Mexican border had captured the document, the secret of Britain’s intelligence services remained intact as German-American relations were about to become undone.


While Washington began the discussion of the implications of the Zimmerman telegram, the debate was much shorter in Mexico City.

By the beginning of 1917, President Venustiano Carranza’s military couldn’t even completely control Mexico, with the states of Chihuahua and Morelos remaining in rebellion, yet alone contemplate an American invasion.  Still, Carranza convened a military study of the feasibility of a Mexican-German-Japanese alliance.

The coded version of the Zimmerman telegram

Mexican relations with Japan were good, even to the point of negotiations over having a Japanese naval base on the Baja coast.  The Japanese certainly were willing to antagonize the U.S., as Japanese warships had appeared off of California’s coast in 1915, much to Washington’s concern.  Coupled with offers of German funds and training, Mexico appeared to have two powerful nations willing to provide critical assistance in the event of a war.

But the favorable conditions of such an alliance ended there.  The Japanese were unlikely to turn on their Entente partners.  And despite Berlin’s offers of largesse, the Germans had told Mexico that they couldn’t help underwrite an independent Mexican bank in 1916 – how could they afford to pay for a Mexican war?  Carranza and his generals easily saw through Zimmerman’s proposal.  Mexico wouldn’t offer itself up as American cannon fodder over the long-shot possibility of acquiring three Anglo-majority states with populaces loyal to the United States and armed to the teeth.

It wasn’t surprising that Carranza declined the German offer of alliance; it was surprising he even seriously considered it.

Despite the depiction in the cartoon, Germany wasn’t very apologetic about the Zimmerman telegram.  Zimmerman himself didn’t understand the outrage


The very existence of the telegram was a source of political humiliation for the Wilson administration.

Having spent four years, and a close re-election campaign, arguing that the United States should (and could) stay out of Europe’s war, Wilson had done more than simply articulate the popular opinion of neutrality – he had positioned himself as a would-be mediator.  In both 1915 and 1916, Wilson had sent his chief foreign adviser Edward M. House to Europe to personally negotiate with the major warring powers.  In May of 1916, Wilson publicly offered the United States as a peace broker, complete with an early version of the League of Nations to enforce any agreed-upon settlement.  It wasn’t merely a political ploy.  After winning re-election, Wilson continued to try and bring both sides to the negotiating table, even publicly proclaiming in January of 1917 that the only way to end the fighting was a “peace without victory” – a far cry from David Lloyd George’s “knockout” conditions.

In Wilson’s mind, a decisive victory would only plant the seeds for another war, as the defeated parties would rebel against the terms dictated to them.  In addition, as the war continued, it would be more and more difficult to keep the conflict from spreading.  Even Wilson seemed to sense the pull of the nation towards an eventual war, stating in October of 1916 that “this is the last war of the kind, or of any kind that involves the world, that the United States can keep out of.”

The most famous of the Zimmerman-related cartoon op-eds – most Americans were outraged that Germany had proposed a division of the United States

Reading the Zimmerman telegram, Wilson felt betrayed by a man who he had felt assured was willing to negotiate an end to the war.  But Wilson also knew that politics – to say nothing of diplomacy – required that the administration make the message publicly known, if the United States were to seriously consider joining the Great War.  Given the public’s reaction to the sinking of Lusitania in 1915, Wilson had a strong indication of where American sentiments would lead once the news became public.  The push to war would be almost unstoppable.  The president who had “Kept Us Out of War” now knew he would likely have to join the fight.


The American reaction to the publication of the Zimmerman telegram on March 1st, 1917 produced the results that Wilson’s administration anticipated.

Pro-German regions of the country decried the document as a British hoax while most of the rest of the country bellowed for war.  The “Preparedness Movement’ that had so vigorously opposed Wilson bitterly lashed out that they had been proven right, if only on the eve of Wilson’s second term and not before Election Day in 1916.  The Mexicans and Japanese would only confirm that they weren’t contemplating an anti-American alliance, doing everything in their power to sooth American fears.

Although Germany didn’t desire American territory, and didn’t offer California to Japan, post Zimmerman it became easy to suggest that Germany had set her sights on occupying America

What no one could have foreseen was Germany’s reaction.  Despite sizable doubts among portions of the American populace about the accuracy of the telegram, Arthur Zimmerman confessed to the media that the document – and offer – were real.  With British and American intelligence unable to fully demonstrate why the telegram was genuine without compromising their sources, Zimmerman could have easily denied the entire affair and kept American opinion at least partially divided.  Edward Bell previously couldn’t believe Zimmerman would have been as foolish as to create such a pretext for war; with his public admission, Zimmerman confirmed he was diplomatically inept.

To make matters worse for Germany, the Reichstag would endorse Zimmerman’s alliance offer, despite rumors that the legislative body would repudiate or relieve Zimmerman.  While German newspaper editorials savaged Zimmerman, decrying that the nation had needlessly provoked the United States with a poorly conceived alliance, the political leadership in Berlin stood behind their Foreign Minister.  Zimmerman himself expressed confusion as to the outrage – the offer was only valid if America went to war, and Germany wanted the U.S. to stay out of the fight.  But to American eyes, the message was clear – Germany was more than willing to carve up the United States.

Within a month of the publication of the Zimmerman telegram, America would be at war.

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