Commenting on the course of events in the Second World War, the British comic writer John O’Farrell, in his 2007 book An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, notes:
As a shell-shocked Britain struggled through 1941, it was still alone in the war, without adequate equipment or defences, short of food and with no prospect of striking any meaningful blow against the enemy. German conquests stretched from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean; there was nothing that Britain could do but clear up the rubble and try to keep building tanks, guns and planes in the hope that perhaps Adolf Hitler might make some sort of silly mistake. By the end of the year, he had invaded Russia and declared war on the United States, which as mistakes go were both quite big ones.
What O’Farrell doesn’t mention in the book is that the German government had form when it came to foolhardy wartime actions against America, with the the 1917 Zimmermann Telegram being a classic (and still controversial) example. (Meanwhile, we’ll have to leave to one side O’Farrell’s lazy misconception that Britain was “alone in the war”… Why do so many people, particularly in the UK, continue to forget the contribution of her Commonwealth allies…?)
Suggesting to the Mexican government that you can help them regain lost land in the US if they go to war on your side certainly seems about as insane a foreign-policy gamble as it’s possible to imagine, but then it’s worth thinking about the state of international relations a century ago. The Great War had ground on to a muddy and bloody stalemate on the Western Front, the Balkans, the Alps and the Middle East – although the Russians on the Eastern Front were only another military disaster away from total meltdown, and if such an important cog in the Allies’ machinery were to be removed from the scene then this would obviously aid the Central Powers’ cause.
America, however, was proving to be quite a big fly in the Germans’ ointment. While Woodrow Wilson, fresh from re-election on a peace ticket, was still reluctant to commit the United States to a European-centred conflict, he and his people were, in the main, more sympathetic to the Allied cause, and American trade was exclusively with the Allies. This was due in no small part to the Germans’ on/off policy of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare. In plain English, this policy meant German submarines would torpedo (without warning) anything that floated, even if it was a neutral ship, in a desperate attempt to break out of the Royal Navy’s blockade of the North Sea, which was slowly but steadily starving their soldiers and citizens. It was obviously too much to hope for to expect the German government to realise that torpedo-ing any ship in sight would, at the very least, leave them with an international public-relations problem…
Into this perfect diplomatic storm stepped, in January 1917, the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, who telegraphed a very bold (or very stupid) encrypted message to his country’s ambassador in Mexico City:
We intend to begin on 1 February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavour 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.
The “lost territory” to which Zimmermann was referring had been seized by the US from Mexico after their victory in the Mexican War of 1846-48. As is clear from the Telegram, Zimmermann’s aim was not to provoke the Americans, but only to take evasive diplomatic action in the event of their joining the war on the side of Britain and France. Whatever their thoughts about the loss of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico seventy years earlier, the Mexican government weren’t prepared to take the Germans’ bait. Mexico’s president, Venustiano Carranza (alluded to in the Telegram), ordered a feasibility study into the merits of a war with the US, and the study concluded, sure enough, that it wasn’t worth it: America was far stronger, and would inevitably win, and even in the unlikely event of Mexico regaining the lost territories, there was no guarantee it could hang on to them, given their large (and heavily armed) English-speaking population who would offer sustained resistance. Zimmermann was also being a tad presumptuous (to say the least) with his idea that the Japanese could be persuaded to change sides in the War: Japan would feel cheated and betrayed by the Allies, and thirst for revenge against them, but not until long after the Great War had ended.
Of course, Zimmermann’s gamble failed when his encrypted Telegram was intercepted, and then decoded, by British intelligence, who then passed the offending document on to the President. Needless to say, Wilson and his cabinet were outraged at the Germans’ actions, and the contents of Zimmermann’s telegram were published in the national media on 1 March 1917. Public opinion, already strongly anti-German, was now fiercely so, and increasing numbers of Americans supported the idea of joining the War on the side of the Allies. There were also elements of the American press that doubted whether the Telegram was real, with some Heart papers wondering out loud whether it was a forgery from British intelligence. Such doubts were quashed by Zimmermann himself on 3 March, who admitted in a news conference that yes, he had sent the note.
Unfortunately for the Mexicans, public opinion in the US also became more strongly anti-Mexican, to the extent that a bloody “border incident” would in the following year break out in the frontier town of Nogales. Not for the first or last time, misunderstandings between the two nations on either side of the world’s most-crossed frontier would leave lasting, damaging effects.
While it was Germany’s Unrestricted Submarine Warfare policy that ultimately decided America’s war destiny a century ago, the crazy actions of the chief German diplomat had the most lasting impact on President Wilson himself. To quote the historian Barbara Tuchman, ‘No single more devastating blow was delivered against Wilson’s resistance to entering the war.‘