|The Zimmermann Telegram. This amazing|
coded proposal was for the final straw for the USA
One of the first British acts of aggression in WW1 took place in the English Channel in the early hours of 5th August 1914. Historians differ as to whether it was the cable ship (CS) Telcona or the CS Alert that did the deed, but they found and cut the German transatlantic telegraph cables. This badly hampered German messaging through the war, cutting them off from cable communication outside of Europe. They tried to retaliate against British Empire cables at various times, but were less effective. With respect to the USA and the rest of the Americas, Germany could only communicate with their embassies by two methods: by radio from Berlin to Long Island; or by a complex radio route passing via Stockholm and Buenos Aires, known as the Swedish Roundabout. Both of these routes were vulnerable to interception by the intelligence department housed within the British Admiralty – Room 40, led by Admiral Hall. We have already encountered Sir Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall’s set up (see post Jutland 2: the build up 24/4/16) as the prototype for Bletchley Park in WW2.
|Ambassador JH von|
Bernstorff. Stuck between
a rock and a hard place.
The previous post (see 16/2/2017) described how the decision to commence unrestricted U-boat warfare (UUW) was reached in early January 1917, but not announced until 31st, when neutral shipping was given seven days grace to find safety in port. Wilson, unaware of the fait accomplit, continued to lead intense diplomatic activity. He went so far as to permit the German Ambassador, Bernstorff, to communicate with Berlin via the US State Department cable to the American Embassy, on condition the facility was used for peaceful purposes. On 19th January Bernstorff was let in to the secret of the UUW decision, but sworn to silence until 31st . The poor Ambassador now found himself out of step with his superiors, just as his counterpart in London (Prince Lichnowsky) had done in July 1914. He cabled to Berlin to plead for an extension, otherwise war was inevitable. The curt response from the Kaiser was “I do not care”. On 27th January Bernstorff tried to reason one last time, via his new boss Zimmerman. His message reached the Reichs Chancellor, but Bethmann - now without influence - was simply told that the U-boats were at sea and nothing could be changed.
At 4pm on 31st January Bernstorff had the painful duty to inform Lansing, the USA Secretary of State, of the impending declaration. Wilson was shocked when the news reached him. He agonised for 48hrs before ordering that Bernstorff should be given his passports and expelled. Diplomatic relations duly broken off, Wilson stopped short of a declaration of war. He could not quite believe that Germany would go so far as to deliberately sink USA ships. He authorised the arming of merchantmen, and waited. Weeks of tension followed and thousands of ships languished in port. It was now that the actions of Zimmermann gave the fragile status quo its critical push.
Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann was unlike his shrewd and pacific predecessor Jagow. Behind bluster and bonhomie to the Americans, he was concocting an unpleasant (and astonishing) plot to support the effectiveness of UUW. Aware of the USA-Mexico tensions, he proposed an alliance with Mexico, that would trigger a Mexican invasion from the south. ‘When’ Germany was victorious, she would support Mexico in reclaiming the lost territories of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Not only would such an action deflect American resources from Europe, but it might also persuade Japan to change sides and take up old grievances against the USA. Crazy stuff, but method in the madness. On 16th January Zimmermann sent his coded telegram to Bernstorff, abusing Wilson’s State Department cable facility with a bellicose message that the hapless Bernstorff was ordered to forward to the German Ambassador to Mexico, Eckhart. On the same day as Eckhart received it, Room 40 in London intercepted and decoded it. It is reproduced here (from Robert Massie’s brilliant book Castles of Steel).
We intend to begin unrestricted submarine warfare on the first of February. We shall endeavour in spite of this to keep the United States neutral. In the event of 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 (Mexican) President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States 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 unrestricted employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England to make peace within a few months. Zimmermann.
Hall - apart from informing Lord Balfour, the Foreign Secretary - did nothing immediately with the dynamite now in his possession. Acting precipitately on intercepted information risked revealing
to the Germans that code and cypher systems were compromised (Bletchley Park faced the same challenge with Enigma in WW2). As the tensions rose through February, Balfour bided his time
until the 23rd, when he judged the moment was right to deliver it to the US Ambassador in London. Another bad shock for President Wilson, who recognised this as the final straw.
By 1st March, the New York Times had the telegram contents. There was a public outcry. On 3rd
March Zimmermann admitted the truth. Wilson havered still, before finally on 2nd April he took a
war declaration motion to a seething Congress. By 6th April, both the Senate and the House of Representatives had voted overwhelmingly for war. The USA was in.