Feature Articles - The Zimmermann Telegram

Photograph of the coded Zimmermann telegram By Charles F. Horne, commentary published in Volume 5 of Source Records of the Great War<, 1921.

Time clears our perspective upon many matters.

The Zimmermann note was an official letter sent secretly by Zimmermann, Germany's Secretary of Foreign Affairs, to her Minister in Mexico, directing him to attempt to unite Mexico and Japan with Germany in war against the United States.

This document was captured by the United States secret service upon the Texas border, and was disclosed to the American public on February 28th, at the height of the brief interval of indignation and uncertainty between America's breaking of diplomatic relations and her declaring war.

Thus revealed, the note had a profound psychological effect.  More than anything else, it hardened the peace-loving American people to the conviction that war with Germany was an absolutely necessary step.

Many Americans regarded the note as another piece of German treachery, like the blowing up of their factories and placing bombs upon their ships; and they voiced their renewed anger against the false foe who encouraged secret murder while wearing the mask of peace.

Today, however, most statesmen would agree that the note lay well within Germany's rights.  It expressly stated that the alliance against the United States was only to be attempted if and after the fact was certain that there was to be "an outbreak of war".

The deeper influence of the note upon Americans, therefore, depended not so much upon its evidence of Germany's evil methods of attack, but upon its revelation that she had no intention whatever of limiting her U-boat warfare so as to placate them.  She had "counted the cost".

If she could coax or frighten them into submitting to this U-boat destruction, good; if not, she meant to fight.  Of America's backing down from the diplomatic stand of 1916, with all its background of American patience and German violence and subterfuge, there was no possibility whatever.

Americans knew that surely; though Germany apparently did not, Hence the Zimmermann note told them that the war, the Great War, had come to them at last.

What strikes one most about the Zimmermann note today is not its perfidy, but its folly, its utter folly and futility.  Mexico knew well that no German ship, no aid in men or in munitions, could possibly reach her.  She delighted much in annoying the United States; but what chance was there that she would deliberately invite destruction by declaring war to oblige Germany?

Or, even if we conceive Mexico guilty of such murderous madness, what effect could it have upon the United States beyond the holding of a few thousand troops upon the southern border, while the rest of the nation turned with increased anger and determination to Germany's overthrow?

When to this we add the absurdity of supposing that Mexico could at all sway the policy of Japan, the Zimmermann note becomes so monumental a stupidity that many men did not believe it could possibly be genuine, until Herr Zimmermann himself acknowledged it.

It would seem more logical to assume that Germany meant the note for just what it achieved, meant it, that is, to be revealed and thus to confirm America's intent for war.

The "Blue Max" was a reference to the prestigious German Pour le Merite medal.

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