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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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10 Things You Might Not Know About Tina Fey
Jenny Anderson, Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
Jenny Anderson, Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

Tina Fey has transformed modern comedy more than just about anyone else. From the main stage of Second City to the writer’s room of SNL to extremely fetch comedy blockbusters, Elizabeth Stamatina Fey has built a national stage with a dry, eye-popping sarcasm and political satire where no one is safe. She has a slew of Emmys, Golden Globes, SAG, PGA, and WGA awards to prove it—plus a recent Tony nomination (her first). But, more importantly, she’s the closest thing we have to a national comic laureate.

Here are 10 facts about a fantastically blorft American icon.

1. SHE DID A BOOK REPORT ON COMEDY WHEN SHE WAS 11.

Fey got a very early start in comedy, watching a lot of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart, and Norman Lear shows as a kid. Her father and mother sneaked her in to see Young Frankenstein and would let her stay up late to watch The Honeymooners. So it’s no surprise that she chose comedy as the subject of a middle school project. The only book she could get her hands on was Joe Franklin’s Encyclopedia of Comedians, but at least she made a friend. "I remember me and one other girl in my 8th grade class got to do an independent study because we finished the regular material early, and she chose to do hers on communism, and I chose to do mine on comedy," Fey told The A.V. Club. "We kept bumping into each other at the card catalog."

2. THE SCAR ON HER FACE CAME FROM A BIZARRE ATTACK THAT OCCURRED WHEN SHE WAS A CHILD.

Fey’s facial scar had been recognizable but unexplained for years until a profile in Vanity Fair revealed that the mark on her left cheek came from being slashed by a strange man when she was five years old. “She just thought somebody marked her with a pen,” her husband Jeff Richmond said. Fey wrote in Bossypants that it happened in an alleyway behind her Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, home when she was in kindergarten.

3. HER FIRST TV APPEARANCE WAS IN A BANK COMMERCIAL.

Saturday Night Live hired Fey as a writer in 1997. In 1995 she had the slightly more glamorous job of pitching Mutual Savings Bank with a radical floral applique vest and a handful of puns on the word “Hi.” In a bit of life imitating art, just as Liz Lemon’s 1-900-OKFACE commercial was unearthed and mocked on 30 Rock, the internet discovered Fey’s stint awkwardly cheering on high interest rates a few years ago and had a lot to say about her '90s hair.

4. SHE WAS THE FIRST WOMAN TO BE NAMED HEAD WRITER OF SNL.

Four years after that commercial and two after she joined Saturday Night Live’s writing staff, Fey earned a promotion to head writer. Up until that point, the head writers were named Michael, Herb, Bob, Jim, Steve. You get the picture. She acted as head writer for six seasons until moving on to write and executive produce 30 Rock. Since her departure, two more women (Paula Pell and Sara Schneider) have been head writers for the iconic show.

5. SHE’S THE YOUNGEST MARK TWAIN PRIZE WINNER.

Established in 1998, the Kennedy Center’s hilarious honor has mostly been awarded to funny people in the twilight of their careers. Richard Pryor was the first recipient, and comedians who made their marks decades prior like Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, and George Carlin followed. Fey earned the award in 2010 when she was 40 years old, and the age of her successors (Carol Burnett, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, David Letterman ...) signals that she may hold the title of youngest recipient for some time.

6. SHE WROTE SATIRE FOR HER HIGH SCHOOL NEWSPAPER.

Fey was an outstanding student who was involved in choir, drama, and tennis, and co-edited the school’s newspaper, The Acorn. She also wrote a satirical column addressing “school policy and teachers” under the pun-tastic pseudonym “The Colonel.” Fey also recalled getting in trouble because she tried to make a pun on the phrase “annals of history.” Cheeky.

7. SHE MADE HER RAP DEBUT WITH CHILDISH GAMBINO ON "REAL ESTATE."

Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) first gained notice as a member of Derrick Comedy in college, and Fey hired him at the age of 23 to write for 30 Rock. Before jumping from that show to Community, Glover put out his first mixtape under his stage name. After releasing his debut album, Camp, in 2011, Gambino dropped a sixth mixtape called Royalty that featured Fey rapping on a song called “Real Estate.” “My president is black, and my Prius is blue!"

8. SHE VOICED PRINCESSES IN A BELOVED PINBALL GAME.

Between the bank commercial and Saturday Night Live, Fey has an intriguing credit on her resume: the arcade pinball machine “Medieval Madness.” Most of the game’s Arthurian dialogue was written by Second City members Scott Adsit (Pete Hornberger on 30 Rock) and Kevin Dorff, who pulled in fellow Second City castmate Fey to voice for an “Opera Singer” princess, Cockney-speaking princesses, and a character with a southern drawl. (You can hear some of the outtakes here.)

9. SHE USED MEAN GIRLS TO PUSH BACK AGAINST STEREOTYPES OF WOMEN IN MATH.

Tina Fey and Lindsay Lohan in 'Mean Girls' (2004)
Paramount Home Entertainment

There’s a ton of interesting trivia about Mean Girls, Fey’s first foray into feature film screenwriting. She bid on the rights to Rosalind Wiseman’s book that inspired the movie without realizing it didn’t have a plot. She initially wrote a large part for herself but kept whittling it down to focus on the teenagers, and her first draft was “for sure R-rated.” Fey also chose to play a math teacher to fight prejudice. “It was an attempt on my part to counteract the stereotype that girls can’t do math. Even though I did not understand a word I was saying.” Fey used a friend’s calculus teacher boyfriend’s lesson plans in the script.

10. SHE SET UP A SCHOLARSHIP IN HER FATHER’S NAME TO HELP VETERANS.

Fey’s father Donald was a Korean War veteran who also studied journalism at Temple University. When he died in 2015, Fey and her brother Peter founded a memorial scholarship in his name that seeks to aid veterans who want to study journalism at Temple.

"He was really inspiring," Fey said. "A lot of kids grow up with dreams of doing those things and their parents are fearful and want them to get a law degree and have things to fall back on, but he and our mom always encouraged us to pursue whatever truly interested us." Fey also supports Autism Speaks, Mercy Corps, Love Our Children USA, and other charities.

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Deadpool Fans Have a Wild Theory About Who Cable Really Is
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Deadpool 2 is officially in theaters and ruling the box office just like its predecessor did back in 2015. But this installment is about more than just crude jokes and over-the-top action scenes; it also includes the debut of a longtime Marvel character that fans have been clamoring to see on the big screen since 2000’s X-Men hit theaters: Cable.

But the Cable in Deadpool 2 isn’t quite the one fans have gotten used to in the books—for starters, his powers and backstory are reined in considerably. While it’s easy to assume that’s by design, so that audiences can better relate to the character (which is played by Josh Brolin), some fans have speculated that the changes are because, well, this character isn’t really Cable at all; instead, Screen Rant has a theory that this version of the character is actually none other than an older Wolverine from the future.

So how can Wolverine be Cable? Well, it’s actually quite easy, considering that Wolverine was Cable in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe comics, which was a series of books in the 2000s that completely reimagined the regular Marvel Universe. In this reality, a grizzled, aged Wolverine takes on the Cable nickname and travels back in time to prevent a takeover of Earth from the villain Apocalypse.

We were already introduced to Apocalypse in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, and while he was defeated in the end, Screen Rant theorizes that he could return like he does in the Ultimate X-Men comics: by inhabiting the body of Nathaniel Essex, a.k.a. Mister Sinister. Essex was already name-dropped in Apocalypse and Deadpool 2, so it stands to reason that there might be some larger story on the horizon for him.

This would, of course, lead to more X-Men movies down the road, with Cable revealing his true nature and teaming with a crew of mutants that includes the classic X-Men cast as well as their younger selves to battle a newly formed Apocalypse. It’d also allow the character of Wolverine to live on in Brolin, leaving Hugh Jackman to enjoy a retired life without claws.

Obviously this is just one fan theory based on a comic storyline from over a decade ago. It would also have to ignore a whole host of continuity problems—including the events of Logan. But having a twist with Cable actually being Wolverine from the future (and likely from a different reality) is the type of headache-inducing madness the comics are known for.

[h/t: Screen Rant]

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