Zimmermann Telegram
The Zimmermann Telegram (or Zimmermann Note) was a 1917 diplomatic proposal from the German Empire
German Empire
The German Empire refers to Germany during the "Second Reich" period from the unification of Germany and proclamation of Wilhelm I as German Emperor on 18 January 1871, to 1918, when it became a federal republic after defeat in World War I and the abdication of the Emperor, Wilhelm II.The German...

 to Mexico
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

 to make war against the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

. The proposal was caught by the British before it could get to Mexico. The revelation angered the Americans and led in part to a U.S. declaration of war in April.

The message came as a coded
Code (cryptography)
In cryptography, a code is a method used to transform a message into an obscured form, preventing those who do not possess special information, or key, required to apply the transform from understanding what is actually transmitted. The usual method is to use a codebook with a list of common...

 telegram dispatched by the Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, Arthur Zimmermann
Arthur Zimmermann
Arthur Zimmermann was State Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the German Empire from November 22, 1916, until his resignation on August 6, 1917. His name is associated with the Zimmermann Telegram during World War I...

, on January 16, 1917, to the German ambassador in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington, "the District", or simply D.C., is the capital of the United States. On July 16, 1790, the United States Congress approved the creation of a permanent national capital as permitted by the U.S. Constitution....

, Johann von Bernstorff
Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff
Johann Heinrich Graf von Bernstorff was a German politician and the ambassador to the United States and Mexico from 1908 to 1917.- Early life :...

, at the height of World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

. On January 19, Bernstorff, per Zimmermann's request, forwarded the telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt
Heinrich von Eckardt
Heinrich von Eckardt was the ambassador for the German Empire in Mexico, assuming office around 1915 and spending most of his time as ambassador during World War I...

. Zimmermann sent the telegram in anticipation of the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany on February 1, an act which German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg
Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg
Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg was a German politician and statesman who served as Chancellor of the German Empire from 1909 to 1917.-Origins:...

 feared would draw the neutral U.S. into war on the side of the Allies
Allies of World War I
The Entente Powers were the countries at war with the Central Powers during World War I. The members of the Triple Entente were the United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire; Italy entered the war on their side in 1915...

. The telegram instructed Ambassador Eckardt that if the U.S. appeared likely to enter the war, he was to approach the Mexican Government with a proposal for military alliance. He was to offer Mexico material aid in the reclamation of territory lost during the Mexican–American War
Mexican–American War
The Mexican–American War, also known as the First American Intervention, the Mexican War, or the U.S.–Mexican War, was an armed conflict between the United States and Mexico from 1846 to 1848 in the wake of the 1845 U.S...

 (the Southeastern section of the area of the Mexican Cession
Mexican Cession
The Mexican Cession of 1848 is a historical name in the United States for the region of the present day southwestern United States that Mexico ceded to the U.S...

 of 1848) and the Gadsden Purchase
Gadsden Purchase
The Gadsden Purchase is a region of present-day southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico that was purchased by the United States in a treaty signed by James Gadsden, the American ambassador to Mexico at the time, on December 30, 1853. It was then ratified, with changes, by the U.S...

, specifically the American states
U.S. state
A U.S. state is any one of the 50 federated states of the United States of America that share sovereignty with the federal government. Because of this shared sovereignty, an American is a citizen both of the federal entity and of his or her state of domicile. Four states use the official title of...

 of Texas
Texas is the second largest U.S. state by both area and population, and the largest state by area in the contiguous United States.The name, based on the Caddo word "Tejas" meaning "friends" or "allies", was applied by the Spanish to the Caddo themselves and to the region of their settlement in...

, New Mexico
New Mexico
New Mexico is a state located in the southwest and western regions of the United States. New Mexico is also usually considered one of the Mountain States. With a population density of 16 per square mile, New Mexico is the sixth-most sparsely inhabited U.S...

, and Arizona
Arizona ; is a state located in the southwestern region of the United States. It is also part of the western United States and the mountain west. The capital and largest city is Phoenix...

. Eckardt was also instructed to urge Mexico to help broker an alliance between Germany and the Japanese Empire.

The Zimmermann Telegram was intercepted and decoded by the British
British people
The British are citizens of the United Kingdom, of the Isle of Man, any of the Channel Islands, or of any of the British overseas territories, and their descendants...

 cryptographers of Room 40
Room 40
In the history of Cryptanalysis, Room 40 was the section in the Admiralty most identified with the British cryptoanalysis effort during the First World War.Room 40 was formed in October 1914, shortly after the start of the war...

. The portrayal of its contents in the American press on March 1 caused public outrage that contributed to the U.S.'s declaration of war against Germany and its allies on April 6.

The Telegram

Zimmermann's message was:
FROM 2nd from London # 5747.
"We intend to begin on the first 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

Mexican response

The Telegram was part of a German effort to distract the U.S. and divert American aid going to the Triple Entente
Allies of World War I
The Entente Powers were the countries at war with the Central Powers during World War I. The members of the Triple Entente were the United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire; Italy entered the war on their side in 1915...

. Germany had long sought to incite a war between Mexico and the U.S., which would have tied down American forces and slowed the export of American arms.

Mexican President Venustiano Carranza
Venustiano Carranza
Venustiano Carranza de la Garza, was one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution. He ultimately became President of Mexico following the overthrow of the dictatorial Huerta regime in the summer of 1914 and during his administration the current constitution of Mexico was drafted...

 assigned a general to assess the feasibility of a Mexican takeover of their former territories. The general concluded that it would not be possible or even desirable for the following reasons:
  • Attempting to re-take the former territories would mean unavoidable war with the much stronger U.S.
  • Germany's promises of "generous financial support" were empty. Mexico could not buy arms, ammunition, or other war supplies, because the U.S. was the only sizable arms manufacturer in the Americas
    The Americas, or America , are lands in the Western hemisphere, also known as the New World. In English, the plural form the Americas is often used to refer to the landmasses of North America and South America with their associated islands and regions, while the singular form America is primarily...

    . The British Royal Navy
    Royal Navy
    The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

     controlled the Atlantic sea lanes, so Germany could not be counted on to supply Mexico with war supplies directly.
  • Even if Mexico had the military means to win the conflict with the U.S. and re-take the area in question, Mexico would have had severe difficulty accommodating and/or pacifying the large, well-armed, English-speaking population.
  • Other foreign relations were at stake. Mexico had cooperated with the so-called ABC nations in South America to prevent a war with the U.S., generally improving relations all around. If Mexico were to enter war against the U.S. it would strain relations with those same ABC nations—who would later declare war on Germany.

Carranza formally declined Zimmermann's proposals on April 14, by which time the U.S. had declared war on Germany.

British interception

The Telegram was transmitted by radio and also across two telegraph routes under the cover of diplomatic messages by two neutral governments, Sweden and the U.S., Germany lacked direct telegraphic access to the Western hemisphere because the British had cut the German cables in the Atlantic and shut down German stations in neutral countries. This forced Germany to use British and American cables instead, despite the risk of interception. The Zimmermann messages passed over cables that touched on British soil, and as a result were intercepted there by British intelligence.

On the other hand, President Woodrow Wilson had granted the German diplomats permission to send their messages under the cover of U.S. diplomatic traffic in hopes that this would enable Germany to remain in touch with the U.S. and further Wilson's aims of ending the war. The Germans believed this privilege would allow them to send sensitive messages to the Western hemisphere in relative safety, since the British would be unable to use any incriminating telegram they intercepted without admitting that they were spying on American diplomatic traffic. The message passing through this way was sent from Berlin
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and is one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.45 million people, Berlin is Germany's largest city. It is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union...

 to the German ambassador in Washington
Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington, "the District", or simply D.C., is the capital of the United States. On July 16, 1790, the United States Congress approved the creation of a permanent national capital as permitted by the U.S. Constitution....

, Johann von Bernstorff, for re-transmission to von Eckardt in Mexico.

The Telegram was intercepted as soon as it was sent. The codebreakers in Room 40
Room 40
In the history of Cryptanalysis, Room 40 was the section in the Admiralty most identified with the British cryptoanalysis effort during the First World War.Room 40 was formed in October 1914, shortly after the start of the war...

 at the Admiralty
The Admiralty was formerly the authority in the Kingdom of England, and later in the United Kingdom, responsible for the command of the Royal Navy...

 received a copy and decrypted
Cryptanalysis is the study of methods for obtaining the meaning of encrypted information, without access to the secret information that is normally required to do so. Typically, this involves knowing how the system works and finding a secret key...

 enough to understand the general meaning of it. The German Foreign Office encrypted the Telegram with cipher 0075, which Room 40 had partly broken. The British code breakers were able to decipher the German code thanks to codebooks seized early in the war from the SMS Magdeburg
SMS Magdeburg
Seiner Majestät Schiff Magdeburg was a light cruiser of the German Imperial Navy. The first of her class, she was built as part of the 1908 German naval program. Her class was notable for being the first to introduce a new hull form and replace the bow ram with a cruiser bow shape...

 in a battle in the Gulf of Finland
Gulf of Finland
The Gulf of Finland is the easternmost arm of the Baltic Sea. It extends between Finland and Estonia all the way to Saint Petersburg in Russia, where the river Neva drains into it. Other major cities around the gulf include Helsinki and Tallinn...


The British government wanted to use the incriminating Telegram, as it provided a splendid opportunity to draw the U.S. into World War I on the Allied side. Anti-German feeling in the U.S. was particularly strong at that moment, due to the German policy of "unrestricted" submarine
A submarine is a watercraft capable of independent operation below the surface of the water. It differs from a submersible, which has more limited underwater capability...

 warfare. But the British had two problems: they had to explain to the Americans how they got the ciphertext
In cryptography, ciphertext is the result of encryption performed on plaintext using an algorithm, called a cipher. Ciphertext is also known as encrypted or encoded information because it contains a form of the original plaintext that is unreadable by a human or computer without the proper cipher...

 of the Telegram, without telling the Americans about the British intelligence operation spying on Americans' diplomatic traffic; and second, they had to have a public explanation of how they had the Telegram's deciphered text without admitting to Germany that they had broken the German code.

The British solved the first problem by also getting the ciphertext of the Telegram from the telegraph office in Mexico. The British knew that the German Embassy in Washington would relay the message by commercial telegraph, so the Mexican telegraph office would have the solved ciphertext. "Mr. H.", a British agent in Mexico, bribed an employee of the commercial telegraph company for a copy of the message (Sir Thomas Hohler
Thomas Hohler
Sir Thomas Beaumont Hohler, KCMG, CB, JP was a British diplomat.During World War I, he was head of the British delegation to Mexico, in Mexico City, and was involved in the interception of the German Zimmermann Telegram that was used to promote the entry of the United States into the war...

, then British ambassador in Mexico, claims to have been Mr. H in his autobiography). This ciphertext could be passed to the Americans without embarrassment. The retransmission was enciphered using cipher 13040, which Britain had captured a copy of in Mesopotamia
Mesopotamian Campaign
The Mesopotamian campaign was a campaign in the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I fought between the Allies represented by the British Empire, mostly troops from the Indian Empire, and the Central Powers, mostly of the Ottoman Empire.- Background :...

, so by mid-February the British had the complete text.

The second problem was solved by a cover story that the Telegram's deciphered text had been stolen in Mexico (The U.S. was informed that it was truly broken, but played along and backed up the cover story). The German government refused to consider a possible code break, and instead sent von Eckardt on a witch-hunt for a traitor in the embassy in Mexico.

British use of the Telegram

On February 19, "Blinker" Hall
William Reginald Hall
Admiral Sir William Reginald Hall, KCMG, CB, RN was the British Director of Naval Intelligence from 1914 to 1919...

, the head of Room 40, showed the Telegram to the secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Britain, Edward Bell. Bell was at first incredulous, thinking it was a forgery, then enraged. On February 20 Hall informally sent a copy to U.S. ambassador Walter Page
Walter Hines Page
Walter Hines Page was an American journalist, publisher, and diplomat. He was the United States ambassador to the United Kingdom during World War I.-Biography:...

. On February 23, Page met with Foreign Minister Balfour, and was given the ciphertext, the message in German, and the English translation. Then Page reported the story to President Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President of the United States, from 1913 to 1921. A leader of the Progressive Movement, he served as President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, and then as the Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913...

, including details to be verified from telegraph company files in the U.S.

Effect in the United States

Popular sentiment in the U.S. at that time was anti-Mexican as well as anti-German, while Mexico was anti-American and in some cases, anti-European. General John J. Pershing
John J. Pershing
John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing, GCB , was a general officer in the United States Army who led the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I...

 had long been chasing the revolutionary Pancho Villa
Pancho Villa
José Doroteo Arango Arámbula – better known by his pseudonym Francisco Villa or its hypocorism Pancho Villa – was one of the most prominent Mexican Revolutionary generals....

, who had carried out several cross-border raids. News of the Telegram further inflamed tensions between the U.S. and Mexico.

On the other hand, there was also a notable anti-British sentiment in the U.S., particularly among German and Irish Americans. Until the early months of 1917 American press coverage of Britain and France was not much more sympathetic than press coverage of Germany. Above all, the vast majority of Americans wished to avoid the conflict in Europe. At first, the Telegram was widely believed to be a forgery perpetrated by British intelligence. This belief, which was not restricted to pacifist and pro-German lobbies, was promoted by German and Mexican diplomats, and by some American papers, especially the Hearst
William Randolph Hearst
William Randolph Hearst was an American business magnate and leading newspaper publisher. Hearst entered the publishing business in 1887, after taking control of The San Francisco Examiner from his father...

 press empire. Those doubts were removed by Arthur Zimmermann himself. First on March 3, 1917, he said, "I cannot deny it. It is true." Then on March 29, 1917, Zimmermann gave a speech in which he admitted the telegram was genuine.

On February 1, Germany had resumed "unrestricted" submarine warfare, which caused many civilian deaths, including American passengers on British ships. This caused widespread anti-German sentiment. The Telegram greatly increased this feeling. Besides the highly provocative anti-U.S. proposal to Mexico, the Telegram also mentioned "ruthless employment of our submarines." It was perceived as especially offensive that the coded Telegram had been transmitted via the U.S. embassy in Berlin and the U.S.-operated cable from Denmark.

Historical post-script

The Telegram was not an isolated case of German-Mexican collaboration, for Germany had long sought to incite a war between Mexico and the U.S., which would have tied down American forces and slowed the export of American arms to the Allies. The Germans had engaged in a pattern of actively arming, funding and advising the Mexicans, as shown by the 1914 SS Ypiranga
SS Ypiranga
The S.S. Ypiranga was a German-registered cargo-steamer owned and operated by Hamburg-America Line shipping company. It was built in 1908 by Germania Werft and is 448.4’ x 55.3’, with a maximum gross burden of 8,142 tonnes. After launching, the Ypiranga was found to be notoriously unsteady at sea...

 arms-shipping incident, and German advisors present during the 1918 Battle of Ambos Nogales
Battle of Ambos Nogales
The Battle of Ambos Nogales , or the Third Battle of Nogales, was an engagement fought on August 27, 1918 between United States Army forces, stationed in Nogales, Arizona, and the Carrancista garrison of Nogales, Sonora...

. The German Naval Intelligence officer Franz von Rintelen
Franz von Rintelen
Captain Franz Dagobert Johannes von Rintelen was a German Naval Intelligence officer in the United States during World War I....

 had attempted to incite a war between Mexico and the U.S. in 1915, giving Victoriano Huerta
Victoriano Huerta
José Victoriano Huerta Márquez was a Mexican military officer and president of Mexico. Huerta's supporters were known as Huertistas during the Mexican Revolution...

 $12 million. The German saboteur Lothar Witzke
Lothar Witzke
Lothar Witzke was a German spy and saboteur active in the United States and Mexico during World War I.- Naval career :Born in Posen , Witzke was educated at Posen Academy then entered the German Naval Academy as a seventeen-year-old cadet. By the beginning of the war he was a lieutenant in the...

, responsible for the March 1917 munitions explosion at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard
Mare Island Naval Shipyard
The Mare Island Naval Shipyard was the first United States Navy base established on the Pacific Ocean. It is located 25 miles northeast of San Francisco in Vallejo, California. The Napa River goes through the Mare Island Strait and separates the peninsula shipyard from the main portion of the...

 in the Bay Area, and possibly responsible for the July 1916 Black Tom explosion
Black Tom explosion
The Black Tom explosion on July 30, 1916 in Jersey City, New Jersey was an act of sabotage on American ammunition supplies by German agents to prevent the materiel from being used by the Allies in World War I.- Black Tom Island :...

 in New Jersey, was based in Mexico City. The failure of the Americans under General John J. Pershing to capture Pancho Villa
Pancho Villa
José Doroteo Arango Arámbula – better known by his pseudonym Francisco Villa or its hypocorism Pancho Villa – was one of the most prominent Mexican Revolutionary generals....

 in 1916, in the movement of President Carranza in favor of Germany emboldened the Germans to write the Zimmerman note.

In October 2005, it was revealed that an original typescript of the deciphered Zimmermann Telegram had recently been discovered by an unnamed historian who was researching and preparing an official history of the United Kingdom's Government Communications Headquarters
Government Communications Headquarters
The Government Communications Headquarters is a British intelligence agency responsible for providing signals intelligence and information assurance to the UK government and armed forces...

 (GCHQ). The document is believed to be the actual telegram shown to the American ambassador in London in 1917. Marked in Admiral Hall's handwriting at the top of the document are the words: "This is the one handed to Dr Page and exposed by the President." Since many of the secret documents in this incident had been destroyed, it had previously been assumed that the original typed "decrypt" was gone forever. However, after discovery of this document, the GCHQ official historian said: "I believe that this is indeed the same document that Balfour handed to Page."

External links

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