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