The Zimmermann Telegram was the final piece that launched America into World War I. But what was the Zimmermann Telegram? And what were its consequences for World War One and beyond? Shelli Boyd explains.
What was the Zimmermann Telegram?
Until 1917, the US had remained officially neutral in World War I. And while some more Anglophile groups were more inclined to back the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia, many Americans wanted the US to remain neutral. The position of neutrality in World War One was the platform that then-president Woodrow Wilson used to win re-election in November 1916, and he was determined to stand by it. However, several events made it difficult for President Wilson to stay neutral. And there was encouragement from the Triple Entente, who wanted the US to join the war against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.
The first event that angered many Americans was Germany’s attack of the British liner RMS Lusitania in 1915. The sinking of the Lusitania killed 1,198 civilians, including 129 Americans. Other liners were also attacked by German forces. Still, President Wilson managed to stay neutral as Germany agreed to limit the damage from such attacks, although this did not last. In January 1917 Germany decided to re-launch unrestricted submarine warfare, hoping to restrict food supplies in to Britain and leading to its surrender. The Germans knew this could encourage American participation in the war, and they hoped they could weaken Britain fast enough that any American response would be too late. However the Zimmermann Telegram also played a key role in US participation.
What was the Zimmermann Telegram?
The Zimmermann Telegram was a coded message sent by the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German Ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt. In the telegram he proposed an alliance between Germany and Mexico that could help Germany win the war and Mexico to regain territories previously lost to the USA: the US states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
The reason it was sent was to divert American attention and support from Europe. Aware that America could enter the war following the approach of unrestricted German submarine warfare, Germany wanted to keep America and its resources occupied long enough with a war with Mexico so that it could weaken and defeat Britain. Mexico ultimately rejected the proposal due to internal instability and as it was very unlikely that it would defeat the US in a war.
The Zimmermann Telegram, though, was intercepted by British Intelligence. British code-breakers, notably Nigel de Grey, were able to crack the code quickly. However, the British, worried that the information would expose their intelligence network, including interception of American diplomatic communications, at first did not release the contents. After being sent on January 19, 1917, it was not until late February that the British had enough evidence – and a story about how it obtained the information - to share with the American Embassy in London. From there it went to Wilson.
When did America enter WWI?
President Wilson did not actually believe the Zimmermann Telegram when first informed of its contents, but the British had enough evidence to convince him. After Wilson, it was released to the American media and, of course, it triggered outrage among the American public.
The Zimmermann Telegram was effective in convincing President Wilson to join the war, but just as importantly, it was the final piece that triggered the anger and support of American citizens. After all, it was just a few months before that the American public had voted for Wilson, who did not want to join the war. A month after the Zimmermann Telegram was revealed, the US was no longer interested in maintaining its neutrality in the war, and officially joined World War One on April 6, 1917 by declaring war on Germany.
The consequences of the Zimmermann Telegram beyond the war
A key consequence of the Zimmermann Telegram was to enrage American citizens and so encourage them to volunteer into joining the war. Alongside this, it made the Selective Service Act of May 1917 more acceptable to the American public. The Act supported the need for more soldiers through the draft, and required men aged 21 to 30 to register for the military. The United States was able to send large numbers of troops in 1918, which greatly helped Britain and France after Russia withdrew from the war (which happened formally in March 1918).
The Zimmermann Telegram also had serious impacts on the internal politics of the US. After entering the war, the Selective Service Act led to nearly 5 million American men joining the army, around 2 million as volunteers and nearly 3 million as part of the draft. Female workers often took over the jobs left by these men. The new-found economic status of women helped support the demand to give voting rights to women.
The Zimmermann Telegram sparked the US into joining the World War I; however it was not the sole reason why they joined. The other factors were that the US was already under pressure from allies to join and due to the unrestricted warfare of Germany - the Zimmermann Telegram was the last straw.
The Zimmermann Telegram played a large role in World War I, in terms of how the American public viewed the war, and the timely inclusion of US forces helped the Allied Powers overcome the German Army.
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