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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.

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entertainment
10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars
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Winning an Oscar is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you’re Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you’d think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are, Colin Firth.

1. ANGELINA JOLIE

After Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world wrinkle their noses, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage with the rest of Marcheline’s belongings when she died in 2007, but it hasn’t yet surfaced. “I didn’t actually lose it,” Jolie said, “but nobody knows where it is at the moment.”

2. WHOOPI GOLDBERG

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. “Oscar will never leave my house again,” Goldberg said.

3. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

When Olympia Dukakis’s Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. “For $78,” they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. MARLON BRANDO

“I don’t know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront,” Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. “Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared.” He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. “The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don’t know where it is now.”

5. JEFF BRIDGES

Jeff Bridges had just won his Oscar in 2010 for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the next year’s ceremony, where he was up for another one. He lost to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. “It’s been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now,” the actor admitted. “I’m hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven’t won a spare! But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better.” Which brings us to ...

6. COLIN FIRTH

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed the British actor as he said those words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. MATT DAMON

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn’t sure where his award went. “I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it,” Damon said in 2007.

8. MARGARET O'BRIEN

In 1945, seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O’Briens' maid took the award home to polish, as she had done before, but never came back to work. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O’Brien’s mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O’Brien. “I’ll never give it to anyone to polish again,” she said.

9. BING CROSBY

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school’s library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a three-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. “I wanted to make people laugh,” the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. HATTIE MCDANIEL

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

An earlier version of this post ran in 2013.

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Pop Culture
"Weird Al" Yankovic Is Getting the Funko Treatment
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Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images

Though the New York Toy Fair—the largest trade show for playthings in the western hemisphere—won't officially kick off until Saturday, February 17, kids and kids-at-heart are already finding much to get excited about as the world's biggest toy companies ready to unleash their newest wares on the world. One item that has gotten us—and fans of fine parody songs everywhere—excited is "Weird Al" Yankovic's induction into the Funko Pop! family. The accordion-loving songwriter behind hits like "Eat It," "White & Nerdy," "Amish Paradise," and "Smells Like Nirvana" shared the news via Twitter, and included what we can only hope is a final rendering of his miniaturized, blockheaded vinyl likeness:

In late December, Funko announced that a Weird Al toy would be coming in 2018 as part of the beloved brand's Pop Rocks series. Though we know he'll be joined by Alice Cooper, Kurt Cobain, Elton John, and the members of Mötley Crüe, there's no word yet on exactly when you’ll be able to get your hands on Pop! Al. But knowing that he's coming is enough … for now.

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