San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

January 17th, 2013
Bartee Haile: Brits intercept telegram and U.S. goes to war

This Week in Texas History:
A column

In a presumably secure cable sent on Jan. 16, 1917, the German foreign minister let his man in Mexico in on the biggest secret of the war, but little did he know the Brits were reading his mail.

In the opening days of 1917, the third year of the trench stalemate on the other side
of the Atlantic, the Kaiser’s High Command made a daring decision. Gambling the United States could not field a combat-ready army within six months, the German strategists came up with a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare.

The kickoff date for the all-out offensive was Feb. 1, 1917, and with any luck at all
Great Britain would surrender by summer. But for the unlucky Germans that was a bad bet.

Emboldened by the green light given the U-boats, German foreign minister Arthur Zimmerman played his international trump card. A Mexico City envoy was supposed to be relayed by merchant ship, but a last-minute cancellation of the cruise caused a fateful change in plans.

Using three different routes, including the U.S. state department cable obligingly
provided by President Woodrow Wilson, Zimmerman sent the sinister instructions on Jan. 16. The coded dispatch informed the German ambassador of the scheduled U-boat blitz.

On the off-chance Wilson lost his temper, Zimmerman ordered his emissary to
“make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.” Furthermore, to Mexican dictator Carranza the subtle suggestion should be made that he invite the Japanese to the party.

Zimmerman did not suspect that months earlier British intelligence had cracked the
top-secret German code. The Mexico message was routinely intercepted, and in a matter of hours London knew exactly what Berlin was up to.

A few days later, Wilson spoke from the moral mountaintop in a speech to the U.S.
Senate. His naive call for “peace without victory” so angered the British that they decided to withhold for the time being the text of the deciphered telegram.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

On the afternoon of Jan. 31, hours before the U-boats were unleashed, Germany
formally notified the American secretary of state that open season had been declared on high-seas shipping. This was the last straw for most U.S. officials, but Wilson took the ominous development in stride.

At a tense meeting of the cabinet, the president repeated his unswerving resolve to
keep America on the sidelines. Asked his personal preference, the ex-professor shocked everybody in attendance by frankly admitting he did not care which side won the war.

South of the border, however, the Germans’ timing was could not have been worse.
Wilson had issued orders on Jan. 25 for the punitive expedition pursuing Pancho Villa to come home. Had American soldiers still been on Mexican soil when the Zimmerman proposal was presented to Carranza, he probably would have jumped at the chance to get even with the gringos.

Realizing Wilson required proof of the Huns’ hostile intentions, the British finally
handed the text of the Zimmerman cable to the American ambassador in late February. Careful to conceal their source, they advised the diplomat that the original version of the message could be found in the files of his own government.

The whole incredible tale, minus the embarrassing state department connection, was cleared for publication. The sensational story broke in the American press on Mar. 1, and dumbfounded Texans devoured the unbelievable details of the plot that targeted the Lone Star State for a sneak attack from Germany, Mexico and Japan.

Typical of the coverage were headlines in the Houston Chronicle that blared,
“White House Confirms Teutonic Conspiracy. Germany’s World-Power Lust is Bared.”

Alongside the Zimmerman Telegram in all its uncensored glory, the El Paso Times railed against diabolical Germans “writhing in the slime of intrigue.”

In San Antonio The Light painted a frightening picture of outnumbered Texans overrun by a Prussian-led horde of Mexican and Japanese troops.

Die-hard pacifists and publisher William Randolph Hearst scorned the telegram as a forgery even after Wilson vouched for its authenticity. But all doubts were dispelled, when Zimmerman himself confessed it was genuine.

Wilson tried to ride out the storm, as he had the sinking of the Lusitania, but the
momentum of fast-paced events took charge. German subs sent three American freighters to the bottom on Mar. 18, and two days later the president was cornered by a unified cabinet demanding a declaration of war.

Five short months after winning a second term with the slogan, “He kept us out of
war,” Woodrow Wilson told a solemn Congress, “The world must be made safe for
democracy.” Thanks to a colossal German goof, the Yanks were coming.


San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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