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Failed Diplomacy: the Zimmermann Telegram

This PSA immerses learners in the debate and outrage over the Zimmermann Telegram by utilizing period newspaper articles, U.S. Congressional Records, posters, and political cartoons. The student will understand the reasons which angered and impassioned Texas.


    This PSA uses U.S. Senate records, National Archives and Records (NARA) documents, and World War I posters, along with newspaper articles and cartoons from the Dallas Morning News to examine United States and Texan reaction to the Zimmermann Telegram. The learner will gain an understanding of how public outrage over the telegram combined with smoldering resentment over the sinking of the Lusitania, May 7th, 1915, and anger over the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare would lead to a U.S. declaration of war.

    Worksheet questions stem from a variety of learning styles so that each student has the opportunity to shine. Teachers may also modify and easily incorporate these worksheets into their predesigned lesson plans.

    The web links provided will help each instructor prepare, research, and present interesting reputable sites during lectures.


    The decoded telegram from German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government, proposing a German-Mexican alliance against the United States, reads:

    "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 or 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 telegram was intercepted by the British, published in American newspapers, and cemented American opinions against the Germans. The telegram had such an impact on public opinion that, according to David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers, "No other single cryptanalysis has had such enormous consequences."


Failed Diplomacy: the Zimmermann Telegram

by Vale Fitzpatrick

Most Texans maintained the attitude that World War I was begun and fought for European issues that did not concern the United States. Most Texans therefore, while concerned about the conflict, did not want to be involved. After the development of trench warfare most Americans were grateful for their traditional isolation and the existence of the Atlantic Ocean.

By the beginning of World War I, America led the world in production of grain and livestock. It also led the world in production of steel, coal, wheat, and petroleum products, and in 1913 America accounted for 11 percent of world trade.1 Between January 1915 and April 1917, U.S. banking tycoon, John Pierpont Morgan, being staunchly pro-British, bought more than 43 billion dollars worth of goods for Great Britain and France. 60 percent of the items were arms and munitions and the remainder foodstuffs, raw materials, chemicals, machine tools and similar items. By July 1916, U.S. firms were supplying the British Empire with three-quarters of its light artillery shells. By spring 1917, U.S. industry was manufacturing more than 15,000 British and Russian rifles daily. The British and thus their allies were irrevocably dependent on the U. S. for munitions and financing. Historian Paul Koistinen declared Britain’s “dependence was total.” American financing of “almost $10 million a day” supported Britian’s war effort.2 In 1917 Germany and Austria produced 17,078,139 tons of steel to France and Britain’s 12,036,000. America produced 45,060,607 tons, and if it entered the conflict would add 93,400,000 people to the Allies—nearly equaling Germany and Austria’s combined population of 115,553,130.3 Allied dependence on America was not lost on the German High Command; if that supply line could be severed, or America distracted, Germany could triumph.

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American opinion turned against Imperial Germany after the May 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. Out of 1,959 passengers and crew on the ship, 1,195 perished. Of those, 124 were Americans, including multimillionaire Alfred Vanderbilt. In defense of the sinking, Germany stated that the Lusitania was built with funds from the British Admiralty and officially classed as an auxiliary cruiser. Further, it was armed, was carrying contraband ammunition, and was sunk in a war zone.4 Germany eventually paid reparations to the victims’ families, a fact which did little to cool the smoldering resentment among many Americans.

On 31 January 1917, Germany abandoned the Sussex Pledge on the advice of General Erich Ludendorff, who took a calculated gamble—estimating that even if unrestricted submarine warfare drew America into the war, Germany could defeat the western allies within one year with troops freed from the Russian front before American troops arrived in force. Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann promised that he could embroil the U.S. in a war with Mexico precluding any military aid even if they entered the war on the allies’ side. He based his strategy on the ill feeling generated in Mexico by General John Pershing’s punitive expedition and “the military incompetence of the United States. . . revealed by the campaign against Villa.” The German High Command decided to allow Zimmermann’s attempt. Heinrich von Eckhardt, the German Ambassador to Mexico, assured Zimmermann that Mexican leader General Venustiano Carranza would be receptive towards such an alliance.5 On 19 January 1917 Zimmermann, sent his now infamous telegram to von Eckhardt in Mexico City, suggesting that if Mexico declared war on the U.S. it would receive financial and military support from Germany to reclaim Texas, New Mexico and California. Additionally Mexico was to invite Japan to betray the allies. The message was intercepted and decoded by British Naval Intelligence. On 24 February 1917 a copy was given to Ambassador Walter Hines Page who turned it over to the U.S. State Department, which verified its authenticity. President Woodrow Wilson revealed the Zimmermann Telegram to the press on 1 March 1917. Once released to the public it caused a storm of outrage. Nowhere was that anger more focused than in Texas.

The attitude in Texas turned sharply against the Central Powers after the Zimmermann telegram was published. Texans were already angry with Mexico due to Pancho Villa’s attacks and the continuing unrest along the border. The telegram with its call for a secret alliance and encouragement for Mexico to attack the United States brought many Texans to support U.S. entry into the “European conflict.” Thus Germany’s plan to involve the United States in a war with Mexico backfired and failed utterly. The Zimmermann Telegram generated an upswing in popular support for U.S. entry into the conflict on the side of the Allies. Precisely what the German High Command wanted to avoid now happened when America, with its vast resources and manpower, declared war on Germany.

After the declaration of war, Texans responded patriotically. 988,000 registered under the national draft law, and 198,000 saw service in the armed forces during the course of the war, four of whom received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Texas suffered 5,170 killed in action, 4,748 of which served in the army.6 Several military camps were established in Texas to train soldiers: Camp MacArthur at Waco, Camp Logan at Houston, Camp Travis (90th Division) at San Antonio, and Camp Bowie (36th Division) at Fort Worth. Locally, Texas State Councils of Defense were established to support the war effort, manage rationing, keep morale high, and ensure the security of the state.

America’s entry into the war came at an opportune moment as Allied manpower and morale was waning. In 1917 after the failure of the Neville offensive, the French army mutinied and refused to engage in offensive actions. The British bled themselves white at the Third Battle of Ypres, suffering 310,000 casualties. Russia collapsed in revolution and withdrew from the conflict, while Germany crushed Italy in the Caparetto offensive. The sight of fresh, eager American doughboys was a tremendous boost to British and French morale, and limited the time in which Germany could hope to achieve victory before Allied numerical superiority became overwhelming.7



1Robert H. Zieger, America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 10-30.

2Paul A. C. Koistinen, Mobilizing for Modern War: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1865-1919 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997) 133-34.

3Correlli Barnett, The Sword Bearers: Supreme Command in the First World War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), 233-34.

4Byron Farwell, Over There: The United States in the Great War 1917-1918 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 25.

5Friedrich Katz, The Life and Times of Pancho Villa (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 612, 660, 663-64.

6Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "WORLD WAR I," (accessed August 29, 2005)

7Farwell, 49.