Welcome to the Wannaskan Almanac for Friday.
On this day in 1917, American newspaper readers woke up to discover that Germany had offered to give Mexico's lost territories of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico back to Mexico if Mexico would declare war on the United States. Germany was bogged down in fighting with Britain and France on the Western Front. Germany was being strangled by the British blockade while Britain could receive supplies from the U.S. Germany decided it had to start sinking these supply ships using its submarines.
The U.S. population was deeply divided about entering the war. President Wilson wanted to send troops to help Britain, but Congress said no. Germany knew that if she started sinking American ships, Congress would be forced to declare war. If Germany could get Mexico to attack the U.S., that would tie down U.S. troops at home and keep them out of Europe.
This offer to Mexico had been made in an encrypted telegram to the Mexican government, written by Arthur Zimmerman, Secretary for Foreign Affairs for the German Government. One of Zimmerman's jobs was to incite rebellions that would improve Germany's prospects. Germany sent the exiled Lenin back to Russia to help start the Russian Revolution, which took Russia out of the war. Russia had been an ally of Britain and France. Other attempts in India, Ireland and this one in Mexico went nowhere.
How the telegram was revealed is quite interesting. At the beginning of the war, Britain had cut Germany's undersea cables to the U.S. If Germany wanted to communicate with the U.S. government it had to take its messages to the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. The message then went to Denmark, Sweden, and finally through Britain, which maintained the transatlantic cable. Of course British Intelligence was copying all these messages, which some would call unethical.
These messages were supposed to be in plain text, not encoded. But for some reason, the American ambassador in Berlin agreed to let Zimmerman's message go in code. The British could read the German code. They had gotten part of the German code book after a battle in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the rest from a sinking German ship. The British knew that if the Americans saw this message, it would be one more motivation for the U.S. to declare war on Germany.
But the British were in a pickle. They didn't want the Americans to know they were reading their mail. Also, they didn't want the Germans to know they had broken their code. So they came up with cover stories that they had bribed the Mexican telegraph operator to get the coded message, and that a British agent in the German Embassy in Mexico had stolen a decoded version of the telegram.
Everyone swallowed the bait dangled before them. The American public was outraged. There were still suspicions among those opposed to entering the war that the message was a British forgery. But on March 29th, Zimmerman himself admitted it was true. He hoped to explain his side of the story, but it was too late. On April 6th, the U.S. declared war on Germany. After a million or so more deaths, Germany surrendered.
The British have always been good at getting out of trouble when their backs are against the wall. In World War II they would invent radar to let them know when German bombers were approaching. They would also break the new and improved German code.
Let us hope they are clever enough to find a way out of their present crisis.
|It's easy when you know the code (and German).|