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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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15 Festive Facts About Jingle All the Way
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20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In all of Arnold Schwarzenegger's film oeuvre, Jingle All the Way might just be the one that most exhibits the ugliness of humanity. Set on a fevered Christmas Eve brimming with desperate last-minute shoppers, Schwarzenegger's Howard Langston and Sinbad's postal worker character Myron Larabee find themselves battling one another to make themselves look good to their sons by getting their hands on the elusive Turbo Man action figure. The comedic genius Phil Hartman; Rita Wilson; future young Anakin Skywalker, Jake Lloyd; Laraine Newman; Harvey Korman; Martin Mull; Curtis Armstrong; and Chris Parnell were the other willing participants in this cult comedy, directed by Brian Levant. Here are some things you might not have known about the contemporary holiday classic.

1. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER WAS ABLE TO PLAY THE LEAD BECAUSE OF A DELAY ON A PLANET OF THE APES REMAKE.

Arnold Schwarzenegger signed up to star in the Apes remake in March of 1994, but 20th Century Fox rejected multiple scripts for the movie, including one co-written by Chris Columbus (Gremlins, The Goonies). Columbus left the project in late 1995, and Schwarzenegger followed him soon after, freeing him to sign up for Jingle All the Way, produced by Columbus, in February 1996. Fox's Planet of the Apes reboot found its way into theaters in 2001, starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Tim Burton.

2. SINBAD THOUGHT HE SCREWED UP THE AUDITION.

Sinbad in 'Jingle All the Way' (1996)
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Filming was delayed so that Sinbad could follow through on his commitment to travel to Bosnia with Hillary Clinton. Even though Columbus agreed to wait for him, the comedian still thought he "messed up" his audition and told his manager-brother he was going to quit show business.

3. OFFICER HUMMELL WAS INITIALLY WRITTEN AS A WOMAN.

Though the role of Officer Hummell was written for a woman, the part went to Robert Conrad. Conrad's explanation was that the producers "wanted someone who could pull up next to Arnold and tell him to pull over and he pulls over."

4. IT WAS CHRIS PARNELL'S FIRST MOVIE.

The future SNL star played the toy store clerk. "Well, it was my first movie role, and I didn't know how they typically shot scenes," Parnell admitted in a Reddit AMA. "So I had to laugh a lot, and I sort of spent all of my laughing energy in the wider takes, so by the time we got to the close-up shots, it was a real struggle to keep that going."

5. MARTIN MULL STAYED ON SET FOR OVER TWO WEEKS LONGER THAN HE WAS SUPPOSED TO.

Mull (KQRS D.J. a.k.a. Mr. Ponytail Man) was told it would just be a one- to two-day shoot for him. Unfortunately, his part had to be shot on a rainy day, and it didn't rain in Minneapolis for two and a half weeks.

6. PHIL HARTMAN MADE UP A BACKSTORY FOR HIS CHARACTER.


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Hartman (Ted Maltin) was probably joking for the film's official production notes, but you never know. "Ted is a guy who sued his employer for headaches caused by toner fumes and now hangs around the neighborhood and helps all the housewives," Hartman said. He also offered a take on how he was kind of being pigeonholed in Hollywood when he added, "Ted's another weasel to add my list of weasels."

7. HARTMAN ENTERTAINED HIS BORED YOUNG CO-STARS.

To keep young E.J. De la Pena (Johnny Maltin) and Jake Lloyd (Jamie Langston) from getting bored shooting a car scene all day, Hartman improvised songs designed to bring kids to hysterics. One tune contained the lyrics “You make my butt shine, the more you kiss it, the more it shines! The clock is ticking, so keep on licking, oh how you make my buttocks shine!”

"When you’re an 8 year old hearing that kind of potty humor, it was hilarious!" De la Pena remembered. "And we had a lot of fun."

8. JAMES BELUSHI HAD EXPERIENCE PLAYING SANTA BEFORE.

Belushi sort of trained to portray the Mall of America Santa in the movie by playing Kris Kringle for four years in "about 20" different homes, according to his estimation.

9. SHOOTING BEGAN IN MID-APRIL.

The Minneapolis/St.Paul areas were chosen because the producers figured they had the longest winter. But they also filmed in Los Angeles' Universal Studios for the big parade over a three week span, where it was typical hot California weather on the verge of summer. Sinbad remembered it was 100 degrees on the days when he wore the Dementor costume, and the water in his helmet had started to boil.

10. THE REAL TURBO MAN DIDN'T SWEAT.

Daniel Riordan's Turbo Man suit ensured he wouldn't have trouble with the scorching heat. He was wearing a vest underneath used by race car drivers. "They're very thin membrane vests that are filled with small, plastic tubing that's tightly coiled, back and forth, and they run cold water through it," Riordan explained. "So when they run it, it's like this cold water right up against your body and it was amazing. The sensation was fantastic."

11. TURBO MAN FIGURES WERE SOLD AT WAL-MART.

200,000 were originally produced and sold at 2,300 Wal-Mart shops for $25. They would have made more but, as Fox’s president of licensing and merchandising explained to Entertainment Weekly, there were only six and a half months to produce and promote Turbo Man toys, and it usually takes "well over a year."

12. THEY ALMOST SOLD DEMENTOR DOLLS TOO.

Sinbad recalled that the studio didn't sell Dementor action figures even though they tested high during research. "I had a prototype of the doll but they said 'give it back, we'll get you the real one when it comes out,'" Sinbad said." ...And dude, it NEVER came out!" Sinbad told Redditers his theory: "I think that they didn't want the competition between Turbo Man and my doll."

13. SOME PARENTS HAD ALCOHOL-RELATED COMPLAINTS AFTER TEST SCREENINGS.


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Schwarzenegger and Sinbad talking at a bar over some alcohol, and the fact that reindeer also imbibed in beer, were among some of the problems mothers and other early viewers took issue with.

14. THE FILMMAKERS WERE SUED FOR PLAGIARISM, AND LOST.

Randy Kornfield penned the official script, but high school teacher Brian Alan Webster alleged his Could This Be Christmas? script was very similar. The publishing firm that had the rights to Webster's script won a $19 million lawsuit from 20th Century Fox, but the ruling was overturned in 2004. Webster's screenplay was about “the quest of a Caucasian mother attempting to obtain a hard-to-get action figure toy as a Christmas gift for her son. In the course of this pursuit, she competes with an African-American woman, similarly seeking to give the action figure doll as a Christmas gift.”

15. THERE WAS A SEQUEL STARRING LARRY THE CABLE GUY.

None of the original cast members nor characters returned in the straight-to-DVD Jingle All the Way 2 (2014). It was produced by 20th Century Fox and WWE Studios and featured wrestler Santino Marella. Sinbad expressed incredulity when a Redditer inquired if he was asked to return for it. "What they are doing a new version without me! Ain't gonna work!"

Additional Sources:

Schaefer, Stephen: "Sinbad leaps at the chance to go postal in Jingle All the Way," December 6, 1996; Des Moines Register

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10 Rich Facts About Wall Street
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Twentieth Century Fox

It’s often said that the love of money is the root of all evil. Wall Street could have easily turned this sentiment into a tagline. A gripping financial thriller, the Oliver Stone classic is a cautionary tale whose message is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was released 30 years ago today.

1. OLIVER STONE WOULD DELIBERATELY TICK OFF MICHAEL DOUGLAS BETWEEN TAKES.

“As a director, he really tests you,” Douglas said of Stone. Around two weeks after shooting had started, Stone showed up at the actor’s trailer and asked “Are you on drugs? Because you look like you’ve never acted before in your life.” Mortified, Douglas took a look at some footage they’d already shot. Yet, after diligently reviewing it, he could find nothing wrong with his performance. “I came back to Oliver and said … ‘I think it’s okay,” Douglas remembers. “Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” Stone replied.

Eventually, Douglas wised up to his boss’s overly critical act. “Basically, what he wanted was to ratchet up that much more nastiness in Gordon Gekko,” Douglas explained. “And he was willing … for me to hate him for the rest of that movie just to bring it up a little more.” 

2. WALL STREET WON BOTH AN OSCAR AND A RAZZIE.


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Douglas’s cold portrayal of the unscrupulous Gekko netted him an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1988. On the other hand, critics were thoroughly unimpressed by leading lady Daryl Hannah, who took home a Worst Supporting Actress Razzie.

3. GORDON GEKKO’S FAMOUS PHONE WEIGHED TWO POUNDS.

In one pivotal scene, Gekko rings Bud with a state-of-the-art mobile communication device. Specifically, it’s a Motorola DynaTac 8000X. Released in 1983, this brick-shaped cell phone was 13 inches long, weighed two pounds, and cost the equivalent of $8,806 in modern dollars. During the 2010 sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the anachronistic gadget returned for a quick sight gag.

4. CHARLIE SHEEN CHOSE TO HAVE HIS REAL FATHER PORTRAY HIS FICTIONAL ONE.

“It was interesting having my dad play my dad,” Sheen said on the DVD's “making of” documentary. Wall Street’s most dramatic arc revolves around Bud and Carl Fox, who were played by Charlie and Martin Sheen, respectively. Stone had built a strong working relationship with the former on the set of 1986’s Platoon. So when the time came to cast Carl, he had the younger Sheen make the call, asking “Do you want Jack Lemmon or do you want your father?” “Oh, Jack Lemmon’s a genius,” the actor said, “but my dad’s my dad and he’s kind of a genius, too.”

5. SCREENWRITER STANLEY WEISER COULDN'T FIND INSPIRATION IN EITHER CRIME AND PUNISHMENT OR THE GREAT GATSBY.

Before the writer could get started, Stone gave him a little homework. Originally, the film was conceived as “Crime and Punishment on Wall Street.” When Weiser was brought aboard one fateful Friday, Stone told him to read Dostoyevsky’s novel over the weekend. “Not having taken an Evelyn Wood Speed Reading class, I went to UCLA and purchased the Cliffs Notes,” Weiser wrote in 2008.

But the literary exercise proved futile. “On Monday, I explained to Oliver that the paradigm for that masterwork would not mesh well with the story we wanted to tell.” In a flash, Stone hit him with another assignment. “Okay,” he ordered, “read The Great Gatsby tonight, and see if we can mine something out of it.” This time, Weiser simply rented the 1974 movie adaptation. Once again, though, inspiration eluded him.

Wall Street as we know it didn’t really start to take shape until after a change in tactic: When Gatsby led him nowhere, Weiser read everything about finance that he could track down and, along with Stone, “spent three weeks visiting brokerage houses, interviewing investors and getting a feel for the Weltanschauung of Wall Street.”

6. PARTS OF THE MOVIE WERE SHOT AT THE NEW YORK STOCK EXCHANGE DURING WORKING HOURS.


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Permission was secured with the help of Kenneth Lipper, a longtime Wall Street insider who also served as New York City's deputy mayor from 1982 to 1985. For the film, Stone brought him on board as the chief technical advisor.

7. TWO MONTHS BEFORE THE FILM’S RELEASE, THERE WAS A MAJOR WALL STREET CRASH IN REAL LIFE.

Historians now call it “Black Monday.” On October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by a staggering 22.6 percent. It was the largest single-day stock market decline of all time, with $500 billion suddenly going up in smoke. Wall Street would hit theaters on December 11, leading conspiracy theorists to wonder if Stone had seen the crisis coming and made his movie to exploit it. 

“I did not foresee the crash, as some people say, because if I had, I would have made a lot of money,” Stone quipped.

8. GEKKO WAS BASED ON THREE BIG-NAME FINANCIERS. 


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“If you need a friend, get a dog,” Gekko advises his young protégé. This quote was adapted from a remark that corporate raider Carl Icahn once made (which he had cribbed from Harry Truman). In 1985, Icahn became a notorious figure by taking over TWA airlines under the pretense of making it more profitable only to sell off its assets for his own gain. Gekko, no doubt, would’ve approved.

Wall Street’s charismatic antagonist also took cues from Asher Edelman, a financier and major league art enthusiast. Another source of inspiration was arbiter Ivan Boesky, who confessed to illegal insider trading in 1986 and ended up in jail in 1988 (more about him later).

9. STONE’S FATHER WAS A STOCKBROKER.

A survivor of the Great Depression, Louis Stone had a huge influence on his cinematically-inclined son. “The main motivation to make Wall Street was my father,” the director admitted. “He always said there were no good business movies, because the businessman was always the villain.” In the end, Wall Street was dedicated to the elder Stone, who passed away two years before its release. 

10. GEKKO’S BIG LINE IS NUMBER 57 ON THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE’S TOP 100 MOVIE QUOTES LIST.

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” finished just ahead of “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” from The Godfather: Part II. Gekko might as well have been quoting Boesky: At a 1985 commencement address given at UC Berkeley, the trader said “Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”

Newsweek later reported on the speech—and made a telling observation. “The strangest thing, when we come to look back,” the magazine argued, “will not just be that Ivan Boesky could say that at a business school graduation, but that it was greeted with laughter and applause.”

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