Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, September 27, 2019

When the Zimmermann Telegram Was Made Public in the United States

The Decoded Message

Between 1914 and the spring of 1917, the European nations engaged in a conflict that became known as World War I. While armies moved across the face of Europe, the United States remained neutral. In 1916 Woodrow Wilson was elected president for a second term, largely because of the slogan "He kept us out of war." Events in early 1917 would change that hope. In frustration over the effective British naval blockade, in February Germany broke its pledge to limit submarine warfare. In response to the breaking of the Sussex Pledge, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Germany.

Political Cartoonists Had a Field Day with the Telegram

It was "Arthur" Not "Alfred"
In January 1917, British cryptographers deciphered a telegram from German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German minister to Mexico, von Eckhardt, offering United States territory to Mexico in return for joining the German cause. This message helped draw the United States into the war and thus changed the course of history. The telegram had such an impact on American opinion that, according to David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers, "No other single crypt-analysis has had such enormous consequences." It is his opinion that "never before or since has so much turned upon the solution of a secret message."

In an effort to protect their intelligence from detection and to capitalize on growing anti-German sentiment in the United States, the British waited until 24 February to present the telegram to Woodrow Wilson. The American press published news of the telegram on 1 March. On 6 April 1917, the United States Congress formally declared war on Germany and its allies.

Source: U.S. National Archives


  1. Barbara Tuchman's The Zimmerman telegram (1958) is still one of the best-written, best-researched books on the Telegram, its overall context and its effects.

  2. Edward S. BernreuterOctober 8, 2019 at 3:01 PM

    That the US "remained neutral" is a real stretch. Before entering War, we were shipping supplies and war materiel and money. Recent evidence shows that Lusitania was carrying explosives. In the election of 1916 Wilson implied that he would continue to keep us out of war which was the wish of the American electorate. Our entry was a "false flag", like so many of our wars.