11/30/09 - germany and mexico

In today's excerpt - in 1917 the American public was resistant to entering World War I and Woodrow Wilson had just been re-elected on the promise to keep America out of that war when Germany made a colossal diplomatic blunder that drew America in:

"As 1917 began the war was not going well for Britain. There seemed to be no end to the slaughter on the Western Front, yet there were no obvious signs of Germany being defeated. Food shortages threatened and the Asquith government had fallen. Worse, Germany was about to start unrestricted U-boat warfare in the Atlantic from February 1st with, it was feared, a substantially larger U-boat fleet. Much depended on whether America could be brought into the war.

"Unrestricted U-boat warfare meant that every enemy and neutral ship found near the war zone would be sunk without warning. The Germans envisaged U- boats sinking 600,000 tons a month, forcing Britain to capitulate before the next harvest. Admiral von Holtzendorff told the Kaiser: 'I guarantee that the U-boat will lead to victory ... I guarantee on my word as a naval officer that no American will set foot on the Continent.'

"Enter Arthur Zimmermann, the new German Foreign Minister, a blunt speaker who considered himself an expert on American affairs. He developed a plan to keep America out of Europe once U-boats started sinking American ships. He proposed to establish a German-Mexican alliance, promising the Mexicans that if America entered the war and following a German victory, Mexico would have restored to her the territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. ...

"On January 16th 1917 [Zimmermann] sent a coded cable via the American cable channel to his ambassador in Washington Count Bernstorff. It contained his overture to Mexico proposing a military alliance against America. Bernstorff was instructed to pass on the message to his counterpart Ambassador Eckhardt in Mexico City. ...

"The full text of the Zimmermann telegram read:

"Most Secret: For Your Excellency's personal information and to be handed on to the Imperial (German) Minister in Mexico.

"We intend to begin un-restricted submarine warfare on the first of February. We shall endeavour in spite of this to keep the United States neutral. In the event of this not succeeding we make Mexico a proposal of an 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 detail is left to you.

"You will inform the President [of Mexico] 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. Acknowledge receipt. Zimmermann. ...

"The telegram [intercepted and decoded by the British and] was passed to Washington with the explanation that the British copy had been 'bought in Mexico'. The contents of the telegram were passed on to the Associated Press on February 28th. It sparked eight-column headlines next morning. It caused a sensation in America but at the same time aroused suspicion among Washington politicians about whether the telegram was authentic. Some even sniffed a cunning British scheme to propel America into war.

"Confirmation came from an unexpected source. To Lansing's 'profound amazement and relief' Zimmermann himself admitted his authorship. Overnight the mid-Western isolationist press dropped its pacifist posture. The Chicago Daily Tribune said the United States could no longer expect to keep out of 'active participation in the present conflict.'

"On April 6th 1917 America went to war with Germany as Wilson told a joint session of Congress: 'The world must be made safe for democracy.' "


David Nicholas


Lucky Break: the Zimmermann Telegram


History Today


September 2007


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