The Zimmermann Telegram

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 263rd installment in the series.  

January 16-17, 1917: The Zimmermann Telegram

Germany’s decision to resume unrestricted U-boat warfare at the beginning of 1917 was arguably the worst strategic decision of the First World War – but Germany dug the hole even deeper by attempting to start a war between Mexico and the United States. Together these ill-advised moves turned American public opinion decisively against the Central Powers, setting the stage for U.S. entry into the war in April 1917.

The secret initiative to bring Mexico into the war – which didn’t stay secret for long – was laid out in the “Zimmermann Telegram,” a coded message first sent by the German State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Arthur Zimmermann to the German ambassador to the U.S. Johann von Bernstorff, who passed it along to the ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckhardt (this indirect route was used in an attempt to avoid interception, futile as it turned out; below, the coded telegram from Bernstorff). 

In his previous role as undersecretary of foreign affairs Zimmermann enjoyed some success fomenting dissension abroad to distract Germany’s enemies from the European war, most notably the Easter Rising in Ireland, which complicated British war efforts and delivered a stinging propaganda defeat to the Allies, supposedly fighting for the rights of small countries. On taking the reins from the previous foreign secretary, Gottlieb von Jagow, Zimmermann naturally continued his predecessor’s policy of stirring up trouble between Mexico and the U.S. in order to distract the latter – an easy task considering their fraught relations following the Mexican Revolution, Tampico Incident, the repeated depredations of Pancho Villa, and the Punitive Expedition.

But now Zimmermann planned a dangerous escalation, reflecting the mounting stakes. With unrestricted U-boat warfare set to resume on February 1, 1917, Germany’s leaders knew there was a very good chance it would provoke the United States to join the war against them, and so (despite reassuring predictions from military hardliners that the American effort would be desultory at best) were willing to consider any gambit to refocus America’s attention away from Germany – ideally on an enemy closer to home. 

The Germans spared nothing in their effort to bring Mexico into the war, at least as far as promises go. The key enticement – and a diplomatic bombshell when revealed – was the offer to help Mexico win back the lost provinces of the American southwest, taken by the U.S. as spoils of victory in the Mexican-American War in 1848. Even more sensational, the Germans wanted Mexico to help convince Japan to turn on the U.S. as well, capitalizing on growing tension between the countries over Japanese expansion in the Pacific Ocean and aggression in China. The full text of the telegram delivered to Eckhardt read:

We intend to begin on the 1st of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor 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. Signed, Zimmermann.

Unfortunately for the Germans, Eckhardt and Mexico’s leader Venustiano Carranza (who would be sworn in as president on May 1, 1917) weren’t the only ones privy to this shocking proposal, transmitted by coded telegraph. Unbeknownst to the German foreign ministry the British Admiralty’s cryptography division, “Room 40,” had been monitoring German messages since the war began, and were routinely able to decode these messages with the help of captured codebooks and ciphers. 

The Zimmermann Telegram was originally dispatched from Berlin to Washington, D.C. on January 16, 1917 using standard diplomatic channels, which in wartime meant sending it on undersea telegraph cables via a neutral country – in this case Denmark. After receiving a copy of the intercepted message on January 17, 1917, the British code-breakers went to work and almost immediately realized the value of the intelligence gathered from the partially decoded document, which was bound to infuriate American public opinion and hopefully bring the U.S. into the war on the side of the Allies. They continued their work and by February 5 the message was nearly complete.

The Admiralty was understandably careful about sharing or acting on information uncovered by Room 40, in order to avoid arousing German suspicions that their codes were compromised, but the Zimmermann Telegram presented an opportunity too good to pass up. In order to bring the telegram to the attention of President Woodrow Wilson without tipping their hand to the Germans, and without disclosing the awkward fact that they were spying on American telegraph traffic, Room 40 chief Admiral William Hall came up with two clever ruses. First, the British would tell the Americans they obtained the telegram by bribing a telegraph company employee in Mexico; second, when it was time to go public they would make it appear the deciphered message had been obtained by British agents through treachery in Mexico City, rather than intercepted and deciphered as it crossed the Atlantic. 

For now the British kept their secret to themselves, in the hopes that Germany’s resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare would be enough to bring the U.S. into the war; they only disclosed the existence of the telegram on February 24, 1917, when their American cousins seemed to be dragging their feet (at which point the British were able to cover their tracks even more completely with the collaboration of the U.S. government, by staging additional deceptions to make it appear that it was American spies who obtained the text – this time through treachery in the German embassy in Washington, D.C. The full details of this exciting episode are set forth in Barbara Tuchman’s classic book, The Zimmermann Telegram. Above, the decoded version).

Meanwhile the Mexican government responded skeptically to the German proposal. U.S.-Mexican relations, while certainly at a low point during the Punitive Expedition, had apparently been improving since the summer of 1916, when Wilson disavowed war with Mexico and Carranza offered concessions. Further, Carranza’s generals warned that Mexico would never be able to absorb the large “Anglo” populations of the states in question, foreshadowing endless future conflicts with restive natives as well as the irredentist U.S. (top, an American cartoon after the telegram became public). 

Worse still, Mexico would bear the brunt of the war by itself, with no prospect of effective help from Germany thanks to the British naval blockade – a daunting prospect considering the Mexican Army could barely secure the country’s own northern territories (Japan was also unlikely to go to war lightly, as it relied on imports of American kerosene, cotton, and steel, and also depended on America as its largest export market). 

In short, Germany had unwittingly provided Britain with a deadly diplomatic weapon, sealing its own fate, all for the sake of an improbable – some might say fantastic – foreign adventure. Later, Zimmermann’s inexplicable admission that he was the author of the telegram put the final nail in the coffin of the reputation of Imperial Germany’s foreign service, already discredited by incompetent diplomacy in the lead-up to the war.

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Game of Thrones Fan Theories About How the Series Will End

HBO
HBO

Our faces are longer than Jon Snow’s right now. It’s been nearly a year since the last season of Game of Thrones ended, but season 8—the series's final one—won’t air until next spring. To tide you over until 2019, we’ve collected some of the most plausible as well as the most bonkers fan theories about what could go down in the final episodes. They predict everything from a new contender for the Iron Throne to a new species classification for a major character. On the bright side, we’ll all have plenty of time to debate these before the first episode airs.

1. JON SNOW WILL KILL DAENERYS.

Almost since the series began, fans have been predicting that Jon Snow is the Prince Who Was Promised—a reincarnation of the legendary hero Azor Ahai. But most predictions have overlooked a central piece of the Azor Ahai legend, which may spell doom for Daenerys: Azor Ahai, a lousy metallurgist, had a tough time forging his fabled flaming sword Lightbringer. Then he realized he needed to temper the blade by plunging it into the heart of his wife, Nissa Nissa, to imbue it with her power. (Because in the logic of this legend, killing a powerful woman turns a mediocre man into a hero.) If Jon Snow is Azor Ahai, the theory goes, then Daenerys will be his Nissa Nissa—the one true love he must kill in order to save the realm.

2. THE LANNISTERS’ REPAID DEBTS WILL BE THEIR DOWNFALL.

Lena Headey in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

You know the family creed: A Lannister always pays his debts. In Season 7, Cersei stayed true to her family name when she paid off a large debt to the Iron Bank. Most viewers read this as a play to buy the loyalty of the bank and its mercenary soldiers, but one Machiavellian Redditor has predicted that paying off the debt will have the opposite effect. “While the Lannisters were in debt to the Bank, the Bank had a vested interest in their success,” one Redditor wrote. Now that the debt is paid, the Iron Bank will invest in the side that seems to have the best chance of winning—and right now, that doesn’t look like Cersei's.

3. EURON GREYJOY IS THE FATHER OF CERSEI’S CHILD.

Somehow this seems more disturbing than Jamie being the baby’s incestuous father. PopSugar rolled out this hot take based on some circumstantial evidence. First, Euron and Cersei cooked up a plan to betray Jon and Daenerys without telling Jamie, which “raises the question about what else Cersei was doing with Euron behind Jamie’s back.” Then there’s the fact that Cersei just let Jamie ride north to fight the White Walkers, which doesn’t seem like a risk you’d want your unborn child’s father to take. She has no idea when or if he’ll be back. But on the other hand, she knows exactly where Euron will be. Perhaps she’s keeping an eye on her baby’s true father.

4. DAENERYS WILL DIE BEYOND THE WALL.

Redditor Try_Another_NO reached all the way back to season 2 to substantiate this theory about Daenerys’s demise. While Daenerys is in the House of the Undying, she has a series of possibly prophetic visions. She walks through the throne room in Kings Landing, which is damaged and filled with snow. Before she can touch the Iron Throne, she’s called away by a sound and suddenly finds herself walking beyond the wall. There she meets Khal Drogo who says he has resisted death to wait for her. According to the theory, these were clues about the series’s end: The White Walkers will threaten Kings Landing. Daenerys will turn away from the throne to fight the White Walkers. Death awaits her beyond the wall.

5. CLEGANEBOWL WILL FINALLY HAPPEN.

For years fans have eagerly awaited a fight between Sandor and Gregor Clegane, which has been affectionately dubbed “Cleganebowl.” In the season 7 finale, the Hound hinted that the much-hyped fight is coming when he told his brother, “You know who's coming for you.” The cryptic message also spawned a fan theory about the real origin of the Clegane brothers’ beef. Our only version of the tale comes from noted liar/sleazebag Littlefinger, who claimed Ser Gregor burned his brother’s face over a stolen toy. But Redditor 440k11 thinks the Hound has always had a talent for reading the future in the flames. In fact, the theory goes, the Hound saw his brother’s death foretold in a fire and told him about it. Enraged, young Gregor pushed his brother’s face into the fire he was reading, burning Sandor and cementing their lifelong enmity.

6. VARYS IS ACTUALLY A MERMAN.

The case for this one is watertight. The books make several mentions of merlings living alongside dragons, giants, and White Walkers—mythical creatures we know exist in Essos. Varys, meanwhile, constantly covers his lower body in long robes. What is he hiding? According to Redditor nightflyer, it’s his freaky fish body. In the books, it would explain his cryptic response when Tyrion threatened to have him thrown off a ship: “You might be disappointed by the result.” In the show, it might explain how Varys traveled from Dorne to Daenerys's ship in Mereen seemingly overnight in the middle of season 7. (It wasn’t lazy writing—he swam there!) In general, it might explain why he’s such a slimy weirdo.

7. THE MAESTERS ARE COLLUDING WITH CERSEI TO BEAT DAENERYS.

Finally, a fan theory fit for our political age! According to this theory, the maesters are natural enemies of magic. The strange forces that bring the dead back to life, reveal the future in fire, and allow Arya to wear many faces are beyond the maesters’ powers of rational explanation. But if magic were eliminated, the maesters’ monopoly on knowledge would continue unchallenged. It follows, then, that the maesters would feel comfortable with Cersei’s cruel reign but threatened by Daenerys’s magical dragons. Maybe that explains why a former maester built Cersei a weapon meant to kill dragons. And maybe the maesters will intervene in the conflict more directly in the next season.

8. ARYA WILL KILL CERSEI ... WEARING JAMIE’S FACE.

Maisie Williams in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Predicting that Jamie will kill Cersei is so mainstream. Seeing Jamie kill Cersei for the good of the realm would reprise his role as the Kingslayer (or Queenslayer). It would neatly fulfill the Volanqar prophecy—the prediction a witch made to a young Cersei, that she would be killed by a volanqar (which translates to "younger sibling" in High Valyrean). And it would be so easy. Reasoning that George RR Martin would never do something so obvious, and that Arya’s assassin character arc has to led to a more consequential target than Walder Frey, Redditor greypiano predicts that Arya will be Cersei’s killer. If she first kills Jamie and uses his face to catch Cersei unaware, then the volanqar prophecy will be confirmed (even if it’s on a technicality).

9. VISERION WILL COME BACK TO LIFE.

Here’s a fan theory for moms, from a mom. Redditor Cornholio_the_white wrote that after the season 7 finale, their mom called to say she was sad about Viserion’s death. But she had a prediction: “I think it’s going to remember its mother.” She explained that Daenerys’s love would free Viserion from the Night King’s spell. Cornholio_the_white scoffed. That wasn’t possible. The dragon was dead. But then Mom dropped a compelling counterargument: “Not if the Red Woman brings it back. They’re keeping her around for something.”

10. GENDRY IS THE LEGITIMATE CHILD OF CERSEI AND ROBERT BARATHEAN.

This theory throws another contender for the Iron Throne into the mix. It maintains that Gendry was not Robert Barathean’s bastard son—in fact, he was the only legitimate child of the king. We know that Cersei and Robert had a child—a “black-haired beauty”—who supposedly died shortly after birth. Curiously, Cersei says she never visited her firstborn child in the crypt, even though we know she is a fiercely devoted mother. Perhaps that’s because she knew her son was actually in Fleabottom as a blacksmith’s apprentice. And perhaps it was Cersei all along who was looking out for Gendry, securing his apprenticeship and protecting him from Joffrey’s purge of Robert’s bastards. Gendry, for his part, remembers only that his mother had yellow hair. If that yellow-haired woman was Cersei, Gendry would have the most legitimate claim to the Iron Throne of anyone in Westeros.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. To celebrate his birthday (he turns 73 today), here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios