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Say what? Outrageous facts shared from our history books

Say what? Outrageous facts shared from our history books

Posted: Friday, July 31, 2009 8:01 pm
By: By John Brannon

Say what? Outrageous facts shared from our history books | John Brannon, Just A Thought
For subject matter in this column, this week, I use what I call “Say what?!!” history. It is outrageous. It is ludicrous. It is fact.
Back in 1917, a high German official spawned the idea in his head — What was he smoking? — of giving away Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Of course, the three states were neither his or Germany’s to give away. To whom? To Mexico.
His wacko idea didn’t remain simply an abstract concept. He acted on it and proposed a deal to the Mexican government. He was serious.
What we have here is the infamous Zimmerman telegram.
In early 1917, World War I raged. But America wasn’t in it. Not yet.
President Woodrow Wilson, a pacifist at heart, wanted America to stay neutral in the conflict. Therefore, he was reluctant to do anything that might get the country involved.
Then came the Zimmerman telegram revealing some behind-the-scenes hijinks by the German high command.
Its contents were hidden by a four- and five-digit code. The telegram was sent on Jan. 16, 1917, by German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmerman to Johann von Bernstorff, the German ambassador in Washington. On Jan. 19, von Bernstorff forwarded the encrypted cable to Heinrich von Eckardt, the German ambassador in Mexico.
The Germans had secretly planned to resume unrestricted submarine warfare on Feb. 1. German chancellor Bethmann Hollweg feared resumption would draw the United States into the conflict on the side of the Allies, Britain and France.
The telegram instructed ambassador Eckardt that he was to approach the Mexican government with a proposal for a military alliance: Join Germany in its fight with the Allies, and Mexico could reclaim territory it had lost in the Mexican-American War, specifically the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. And that’s not all. Berlin wanted Eckardt to urge Mexico to help broker an alliance between Germany and Japan.
But, alas, all good plans of mice and men …
The telegram was intercepted by British intelligence and decoded by British cryptographers in Room 40 at the Admiralty. The decrypted version — with copies in German and English — was shown to U.S. Ambassador Walter Page in London.
Here are some excerpts from the telegram: “On the first of February, we intend to begin unrestricted submarine warfare … it is our intention to keep the United States of America neutral … we propose an alliance on the following basis with Mexico: That we shall make war together and make peace together.”
Page reported it to President Wilson. Imagine his shock and disappointment to learn the hard way that Imperial Germany had been playing him for a sucker.
His sense of fair play greatly offended, Wilson made the telegram’s contents public, and, to use a quaint little saying from Mississippi, the fat was in the fire.
It didn’t help that on Feb. 1, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and did, as mentioned in the telegraph, enact “ruthless employment of our submarines.”
Many deaths were caused by the new type sea warfare, including those of American passengers on British ships. In its previous campaign, German submarines sank the RMS Lusitania (May 1915), the SS Housatonic and the SS Californian. Much of the American public wanted the United States to respond in kind, but Wilson held back, until slapped in the face by the Zimmerman message.
According to historian Kenneth S. Davis (“FDR, The Beckoning of Destiny 1882-1928”), Wilson underwent some gut-wrenching soul searching before he decided American must fight this evil.
At first, he asked Congress to arm American ships so they could defend themselves from submarine attack. Then on April 2, 1917, he asked Congress for a formal declaration of war on Germany. On April 6, 1917, Congress complied, bringing the country into World War I.
The Zimmerman telegram was not the sole reason that America entered World War I, but it was undoubtedly among the Top Five or Top 10.
A foreign government that would give away three of our states? It boggles the mind.
All this happened almost 100 years ago. Yet its effect on me, each time I come across it in some book, is always the same: “Say what?!”
Staff reporter John Brannon may be contacted by e-mail at
Published in The Messenger 7.31.09


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