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.

15 Facts About Rushmore On Its 20th Anniversary

The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

On December 11, 1998, Wes Anderson introduced the world to his unique brand of whimsical comedy with Rushmore. Though it wasn't his feature directorial debut—he had released Bottle Rocket, which he adapted from a short, in 1996—it was his first major Hollywood movie. And kicked off his still-ongoing collaborations with a stable of talented actors that includes Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. It was also the second film Anderson co-wrote with Owen Wilson.

To celebrate the quirky comedy's 20th anniversary, here are some things you might not know about Rushmore.

1. Rushmore Academy was the director's Alma Mater.

Wes Anderson sent location scouts across the United States and Canada to find the perfect high school to shoot the movie. He was having a tough time trying to find the school, until his mother sent him a picture of his old high school in Houston, Texas: St. John's School. Anderson thought it was the perfect location to make the movie.

2. Bill Murray wanted to make Rushmore for free.

Bill Murray in Rushmore (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Once Bill Murray read the screenplay, he wanted to be in the movie so badly that he considered appearing in it for free. Murray ended up working on Rushmore at scale with the Screen Actors Guild day rate minimum for smaller indie film projects. Anderson estimated that Murray made about $9000 for his work on the film.

3. Film critic Pauline Kael had a private screening.

Pauline Kael’s film criticism was a major influence on Anderson’s view of cinema. “Your thoughts and writing about the movies [have] been a very important source of inspiration for me and my movies, and I hope you don't regret that," he once wrote to her.

Kael retired from The New Yorker in 1991, so Anderson arranged for her to have a private screening of Rushmore before the film came out in 1998. He wrote about the screening in the introduction to the published version of the screenplay, and shared what Kael told him about the film: "I genuinely don't know what to make of this movie."

4. It was Jason Schwartzman’s first film role.

Casting directors searched throughout the United States, Canada, and England to find a young actor to play the lead role of Max Fischer. Australian actor Noah Taylor was the frontrunner for the part when, on the last day of casting in Los Angeles, Jason Schwartzman auditioned. He was wearing a prep school blazer with a Rushmore Academy patch that he made himself.

5. Owen Wilson's private school experiences inspired some of the movie's plot points.

As a sophomore at St. Mark High School in Dallas, Texas, Rushmore co-writer Owen Wilson was expelled for stealing his geometry teacher's textbook (the one that contained all the answers); he went to Thomas Jefferson High School to complete 10th grade. This was the inspiration for when Max is expelled from Rushmore Academy and is forced to attend Grover Cleveland High School.

Although Wilson doesn’t have a credited role in Rushmore, he does appear as Ms. Cross’s deceased husband, Edward Appleby, in a photo in Appleby’s childhood bedroom.

6. Wilson's Dad Inspired a Moment in the Movie.

Wilson’s father, Robert Wilson, was the inspiration for Herman Blume’s speech about privilege at the beginning of Rushmore.

7. Alexis Bledel was an extra in the film.


Getty Images

Before she starred as Rory Gilmore on Gilmore Girls, actress Alexis Bledel was an uncredited extra—she played a Grover Cleveland High School student—in Rushmore. You can see her in the background in various scenes, including dancing with the character Magnus Buchan (Stephen McCole) at the end of the film.

8. Both Anderson and Wilson's brothers had parts in the movie.

Owen and Luke Wilson’s older brother Andrew plays Rushmore Academy’s baseball coach, Coach Beck. He also appeared in Anderson’s directorial debut, Bottle Rocket, playing the bully John Mapplethorpe.

Eric Chase Anderson, Wes's brother, plays the architect who designs Max’s aquarium.

9. The Movie's Editor Made a Cameo.

Rushmore editor David Moritz plays the Dynamite Salesman; he sells Max the dynamite and explosives for his stage play Heaven and Hell at the end of the film.

10. Producers Made a Deal to get a Bentley.

Producers needed a Bentley for Murray's character, Herman Blume, but Rushmore’s production budget was only $20 million and they couldn’t afford to rent one. A Houston resident was willing to lend them his Bentley if they gave his daughter a role in the film. Producers agreed; the man's daughter plays an usher who seats Miss Cross at Max’s play at the end of the movie.

11. Mason Gamble's role in Dennis the Menace almost cost him the part of Dirk Calloway in Rushmore.

Mason Gamble in Rushmore (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Wilson referred to the character of Dirk Calloway, played by Mason Gamble, as the conscience of the film. Originally, Anderson didn’t want to cast Gamble in the part because of the actor’s previous—and very recognizable—role as Dennis Mitchell in the 1993 live-action movie Dennis the Menace.

12. Rushmore Upset Francis Ford Coppola.

Director Francis Ford Coppola owns a winery, and when he first saw Rushmore, he was upset with Anderson because he used Coppola’s chief Napa Valley wine rival during Max's post-play celebration. (It probably didn't help matters that Coppola is Schwartzman's uncle.)

13. Anderson's Brother Did the Movie's Criterion Collection Artwork.

The Criterion Collection edition of 'Rushmore' (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Eric Chase Anderson did the artwork for the Criterion Collection DVD cover, an interoperation of a shot from the montage of Max’s extracurricular activities at the beginning of the movie. The Yankee Racer shot is itself a recreation of a photo from French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue, taken in 1909 when he was only 15.

14. Schwartzman waxed his chest to play Max.

Although Max only shows his chest once in the film (during the high school wrestling match), Anderson made Schwartzman wax his chest for the duration of Rushmore's filming.

15. The Max Fischer Players Appeared on MTV.

During the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, the Max Fischer Players recreated the year's hit movies—The Truman Show, Armageddon, and Out of Sight—as stage plays.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2014.

Harry Potter Star Daniel Radcliffe Says Broadway Made Him a Better Actor

Dominik Bindl, Getty Images
Dominik Bindl, Getty Images

For 10 years, moviegoers watched as Daniel Radcliffe matured on film throughout eight Harry Potter films. But the 29-year-old recently revealed that he believes the bulk of his professional growth has occurred as a result of his Broadway stage work.

“It gives me a lot of confidence as an actor, which is not always something that I’ve felt,” Radcliffe told Variety. “I feel like doing theater ... it was really very important for me psychologically.”

Radcliffe starred in a number of films after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the final film in the franchise, including The Woman in Black, Now You See Me 2, and Lost in London. His Broadway credits include Equus, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and The Cripple of Inishmaan.

“There’s something about doing it without an editor to save you, or a myriad of things in post-production that can help you out, something that made me go: ‘OK, I can act,’" Radcliffe continued. "I’ve grown a little bit as an actor every time I’ve gone back to the theater."

Radcliffe crediting his professional growth to working in theater may leave some Potterheads wondering if he thinks playing Harry Potter for so long held him back.

“Not professionally, at all,” he said. “There were moments when probably I coped with the personal effects of Harry Potter not as well as I could have. But professionally, no.”

According to Radcliffe, "There are directors that were, I think, excited to—I am quoting one of them here and I won’t say who—'reinvent' me.”

Radcliffe fans can gauge that reinvention for themselves with The Lifespan of a Fact, the new Broadway play starring Radcliffe, Bobby Cannavale, and Cherry Jones. It is running at New York City's Studio 54 through January 13, 2019.

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