Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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The Zimmerman Telegram

Arthur Zimmermann

Sometime in February 1917, Zimmerman the German foreign minister sent a telegram to the President of Mexico, in code. The Germans sensed their submarine warfare might win the war for them, he wrote, and so it might be very helpful to have a second front attacking the allies' main supplier, the United States. Germany would then win World War I, able to give Mexico --Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The British intercepted the telegram, decoded it, and wasted no time putting the translation on Woodrow Wilson's desk.

Wilson had just won a Presidential election on the platform, "He kept us out of the war." Furthermore, the Germans were the single largest ethnic minority in America. But no matter. Nevertheless, within a few days, Wilson stood before a joint meeting of Congress urging them to declare war on Germany.

Telegram in Code

The consequences were immediate: the German minority was cowed with shame and counting World War II as a continuation of World War I, sixty million people were subsequently killed because of a single heedless telegram. In retrospect, Wilson should have kept it quiet, privately negotiating something from Germany in return for ignoring the thoughtless telegram, and maybe keeping us out of two World wars. That's the sort of thing that gets played around with when a responsible leader creates an uproar over catching an enemy with red hands. Otherwise, the carelessness tempts diplomats to assume he really did want a war, and needed a pretext for it.

It may violate the Constitution or some partisan law created by Congress, but it's the way diplomacy has been conducted ever since--well, since Benjamin Franklin was Ambassador to France, at any rate. It isn't exactly leadership, but it might have saved millions of lives. Muhlenberg told us, "There's a time to preach, and a time to fight." What he seemed to forget was the part about preaching.

Originally published: Wednesday, March 15, 2017; most-recently modified: Monday, June 03, 2019