Book Summary: The Zimmerman Telegram

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The Zimmermann Telegram By Barbara W. Tuchman (256 pg)

Brief Overview

As the fourth year of the “war to end all wars” began, it seemed to be at a continuously deadly standstill.  Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (Central Powers) versus Great Britain, France and Russia (Allied Powers) were about all fought out.  Japan supported the Allied Powers, but Japan still seemed possibly open to changing sides if it suited their interests. 

Years of horrible war and it looked like each only had death and destruction to show for it all.   Austria-Hungary was ready to collapse.  Russia was about ready for a revolution.  Britain and France suffered too many deadly battles for little or no gain.  And, Germany was about to run out of supplies.  They decided to risk unrestricted submarine (U-Boats) warfare.

The basic problem was that the United States insisted that Germany not do that, to respect the rights of non-combatants like the Americans.  President Wilson won in 1916 on a “he kept us out of war” ticket, but U.S. neutrality had its limits.  Germany was playing a game of beat the clock, including the time it would take for the US. to be on full war footing.

This book is about a German “side hustle” of sorts.  Why not try to get Mexico on its side?  Mexico?  Why not?  Mexico always was at least somewhat unstable, leaving an opening for foreign investment and interference (consider Cinco De Mayo).  

Monroe Doctrine be damned.  Plus, U.S.-Mexican relations were not great either, including the threat of Mexican outlaws raiding border towns.  A bit of revenge for the Mexican War might also be tempting.  The German Foreign Secretary (Zimmerman) sent a secret offer to Mexico offering in return for their assistance to help them regain the territory lost in that conflict.

It didn’t go well.  This book provides many behind-the-scenes details, including the spycraft that was used to fight the Germans.  Some might from books, television, and films be familiar with code-breaking during World War II.  But, there was a lot of that sort of thing here too.   

In the end, not only was the telegram a bust, but it also helped push U.S. entry into World War I.  Zimmermann soon lost his job; Germany’s loss of the war would occur in November 1918.  

Favorite Quote

In itself, the Zimmerman telegram was only a pebble on the long road of history.  But a pebble can kill a Goliath, and this one killed the American illusion that we could go about our business happily separate from other nations.  

This quote not only shows the author’s literary flair but also places the telegram into its proper perspective.  It was not the only way for the U.S to enter World War I.  But, its release did play a key role in convincing the U.S. that its attempt at isolation was no longer workable.   

Should I Read It?

Tuchman once said that her lack of a scholarly degree helped her writing:  “It’s what saved me, I think.  If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled any writing capacity.”

Writers with degrees can dispute such an argument, perhaps told tongue in cheek, but she is famous for her skillful narrative history.  This book starts with a scene out of a spy thriller, with a secret dispatch “plopping out of the pneumatic tube” on a “gray morning [as] cold as Britain’s fortunes.”  She draws you into the story in cinematic fashion.

The book is also a good source of history, including helping to address the still underrepresented role of Mexico in modern history books.  The behind the scenes political and military details might eventually bore some readers.  But, the book provides a good account of WWI era U.S.-Mexican relations and how foreign nations got involved in the mix.   

The reader might also be turned off by various allusions (“like Captain Hook in Peter Pan” is but one questionable choice) and certain dramatic touches.  A “just the facts, ma’am” approach (like Joe Friday …) this is not.  Others will appreciate this as a sort of “Tuchman flair.”  

The Zimmerman Telegram still is a worthwhile read (an audio version was released but a decade ago) over a half-century later.  Do check up on other historical portrayals, including those providing more up to the minute scholarship, but enjoy this gem as well.  

Some black and white photographs and the actual telegram (code and translation) included. 

Comprehensive Summary


A preface to the 1966 edition provides some new details obtained since the first edition in the 1950s. Newly declassified material and recently published accounts of certain details clarify mostly minor points.  It shows how new information can change historical works, and readers should be on guard that other new information clarifies certain details of the book as well.  

A Telegram Waylaid 

January 1917.  British Naval Intelligence decodes a message from Germany.  Not only does it mention plans to begin unrestricted submarine warfare, but proposes an alliance with Mexico.  

The chapter also discusses how the British obtained access to German transatlantic cables and access to German codes.  

The Clever Kaiser and the Yellow Peril 

Germany tried to hype up the threat of the rising power of Japan, including the possibility that Japan was working with Mexico. Japan had some sort of business going on there, but the details were hazy. Meanwhile, the U.S. had growing interest in Latin America.

“Seize the Customs House at Once!” 

Various complications in the Southwest U.S. in the 1910s.  Japan is upset at discrimination against Japanese residents in California.  Unrest in Mexico threatens relations with the United States.  And, Germany continues its plans to somehow intervene to advance their own interests.

The Third Partner—Japan 

World War I began in August 1914.  Quick victory soon was clearly not possible.  

Germany had two goals: (1) cut off American war supplies by forcing the U.S. to get mixed in with Mexican/Japan conflicts (2) frighten Russia out of the war by pushing Japan into joining Germany’s side.  German propaganda hyped the idea of Japanese involvement in Mexico.   

“Von Rintelen Came Here, Backed by Millions ” 

Captain Franz von Rintelen, German naval officer, is chosen to try to stage a coup to bring back General Huerta as head of Mexico.  It did not go well though there is various plotting involved. 

Viva Villa!—Made in Germany 

General Huerta dies, but the bandit Pancho Villa causes a lot of trouble for the U.S., including raids on U.S. soil.  Germany appreciates the U.S. focusing its energy on such matters, making it less likely the U.S. will help the Allies. The English obtains messages that seem to suggest Germany trying to ally with the Mexican government; passes information to the Americans.  

[U.S. military forces are sent to the area and eventually cross into Mexico territory to protect the U.S. border.  Will this leave an opening for a third nation to take advantage?]  

“Our Friend Zimmermann” 

Arthur Zimmermann becomes Foreign Minister of Germany.  

The U.S. sees him as a charming pro-American type, but he supports the growing pressure to use unrestricted submarine warfare. President Wilson strongly opposed that as a violation of international law.  Zimmerman ridicules him as a hypocrite to the German media.    

The Trap 

The war was at a standstill as President Wilson ran for re-election in 1916.  Wilson saw himself as  a possible go-between for peace negotiations.  Neither side was really open to compromise or acting in good faith,  but Wilson convinced himself there was some hope.     

The Telegram Is Sent

Germany settled on the policy of unrestrained submarine warfare, to be announced at the end of January 1917.  Zimmerman sends the infamous telegraph to the German minister in Mexico.  Wilson’s peace negotiations fail and Germany announces their new submarine policy.  

Meanwhile, American military forces leave Mexico, improving relations between those two countries.  Germany hoped the presence of the forces — in place to deal with the disorder at the border — would encourage a Mexican-German alliance.  

“The Most Dramatic Moment in All My Life”

The situation looked desperate in England as unrestricted submarine warfare began and it looked like even now that President Wilson would not join the war on the side of the Allies. 

The Zimmermann telegram as well as a second one proposing German negotiations with Japan is fully decoded.  The English give the Zimmerman telegram to the American ambassador.  

The Telegram in Washington 

President Wilson receives the telegram and he arranges for it to be released to the press.  Wilson hoped it would help the passage of the Armed Ship Bill, a final means for the U.S. not to completely have to go to war with Germany.  Zimmermann admits the information is accurate.  

Obliged to Believe It 

Zimmermann’s admission helped to turn the United States, who until that moment was “indifferent” to the idea of war, against Germany.  Sinking of three American ships sealed the deal.  In April 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany.  

Mexico and Japan decided to reject Germany’s offers of an alliance.  

Points to Ponder

An important part of the story was the British breaking Germany’s code, allowing them to read the Zimmermann Telegram.  How would have things changed if full secrecy could be retained?  Was Tuchman right to argue that the Germans should have not been so sure of their security?  

The role of Germany (and Japan) in U.S.-Mexican relations might surprise people, but it is appropriate in the middle of a “world war.”  It also shows the various complexities in international relationships.  A later book by Tuchman talks about the “first salute” of the new nation of the United States; it came from a Dutch cannon!  

About the Author

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912-89) studied history and literature in college, but never obtained a professional history degree.  She worked as a researcher in Asia, a correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, and in the Office of War Information during WWII.  

She is most well known for her historical works on a range of topics. Tuchman won various awards, including twice winning the Pulitzer Prize.  Her other books include:

  • The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700
  • Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour
  • The Guns of August
  • The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890–1914
  • Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45
  • Notes from China
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century
  • Practicing History: Selected Essays
  • The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam
  • The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution

Is The Zimmermann Telegram a Reliable Source?

The book is well-sourced (over thirty pages of endnotes) and Barbara Tuchman was regularly praised for her historical research.  

Samuel Flagg Bemis, the Yale diplomatic historian, argued the value and importance of the book lay in Mrs. Tuchman’s “brilliant use of well known materials, her sureness of insight and her competent grasp of a complicated chapter of diplomatic history.”

The author herself noted declassified information clarified certain details discussed in an earlier edition.  More details likely came out in the next fifty years.  Likewise, narrative history like this repeatedly includes judgments on what someone is thinking and character traits that are somewhat supposition and opinion.  Be on the lookout for that sort of thing.  

But, on the whole, this book is still respected as a historically accurate account of the events.