The Zimmerman Telegram

A Book Review

After three years of intense battle it was sadly clear that by 1917 victory was not on the horizon for any nation committed to World War I. Morale amongst battle fatigued soldiers challenged with munitions shortages was reaching critically low levels. The British blockade which had imposed a considerable inconvenience on the German war effort also had a serious impact on civilian life in Germany. The stalemate that cast a pall over the Western Front had reached every aspect of the war effort and all sides were anxious to break free to victory. Perhaps in a reaction to the blockade or a counter-move to the continual back and forth that was the naval arms race, the German’s made the decision to begin unrestricted submarine warfare. Perhaps the more fatal decision was the method in which they informed the German Ambassador in Washington D.C. and his counterpart in Mexico.  That decision would bring expected circumstances with unimagined outcomes.

The Zimmerman Telegram

The Zimmerman Telegram by Barbara W. Tuchman begins with a recounting of the infamous telegrams interception by the British Naval Intelligence. It was the first coded message of the day and its arrival was at best ordinary. Within two sentences Tuchman brings the reader into the story; a true story complete with drama and intrigue. This is not an easy read because it is not an easy story. It is unquestionably an anxious time period with tensions rising and falling amongst a long list of major participants. Tuchman not only keeps the litany of who’s who organized but illuminates actions to reveal held presumptions and their influence on decisions. Clearly no easy task but seamlessly accomplished in The Zimmerman Telegram.

 The book does an excellent job of relaying the facts behind the telegram as well as describing the personalities of the participants. This is important because each country seemed to have a very different agenda and personality did much to influence outcome. The Zimmerman Telegram reveals the very subtle nuances that clearly directed decisions helping the reader develop a better understanding of what actually transpired. One example is found in Tuchman’s discussion of Wilson’s Fourteen Point Plan; Tuchman’s explanation succinctly describes the plans value and shortcomings. Tuchman brings new understanding to the often repeated phrase “peace without victory” by making clear that Wilson’s plan, which took far too long to be presented and offered no gains for either side, would in a sense nullify three years of bitter and costly battle by all sides[1]. While this would have had virtually no impact on Wilson or the United States it did not rest well with Great Britain or France. Tuchman not only makes the point but draws the reader to sympathy for the countless lives that would have been lost in vain.                                  

Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the book is how Tuchman revealed the sheer complexity of the proposed alliance. The January telegram, which is sent to the German Ambassador in Washington D.C., indicates that unrestricted submarine warfare will begin in February. From Washington the telegram is forwarded to the German Ambassador in Mexico, who was instructed to discuss material as well as military alliance between Germany and Mexico if it appeared that the United States was going to enter the war on the side of the Allies. Material alliance would include the Mexican territory lost to the United States, specifically Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona[2]. This is information that would have otherwise required a road map to follow but Tuchman weeds through the telegram explaining sentence after sentence the specifics as well as the outcomes, neatly bringing the reader to an “ah ha” moment. It is one of many.               

On the surface the concept to incite war between the United States and Mexico has considerable merit. Not only would it tie down American forces on the continent but also slow down American aid going to the Allied Powers. A glaring oversight on Germany’s part was the inability of Mexico to actually re-take the former territories and then deal with the American’s who lived in them; a condition Tuchman illustrates quite well thus further establishing the book as one of the better narratives on the subject. Of course there are portions where Tuchman gets bogged down with the back story making it necessary to go back and re-read certain sections for clarification. Again, this is a complex subject that involved a large number of participants and overall Tuchman kept everyone and everything neatly organized.                                                              

There is multiple version of this book and readers will want to consider newer ones which contain updated information. Tuchman indicates that improvements in filming as well as classifying the documents captured from the German Foreign Office Archives revealed new and more robust information, as well as confirmed other information that was previously questioned[3].  This simply reinforces the notion that history is the interpretation of an event which has already occurred but continues to evolve. Tuchman’s work offers a solid addition to the historian’s library.


Tuchman, Barbara W. The Zimmerman Telegram. New York: Ballantine Books, 1985.

     [1] Barbara W. Tuchman. The Zimmerman Telegram. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985).

     [2] Ibid, 138

     [3] Ibid, ix