REVIEW: The Zimmerman Telegram (1958)

A Book by Barbara W. Tuchman

After reading the classic historical text The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman, I noticed she has some other military history books under her belt, and decided to continue my 2022 trend of reading far more books about World War I than I likely should. Pretty soon, I am going to turn into one of those guys that interjects quips about the Battle of Stalingrad into casual conversation if I keep this up. So until that happens, I plan to enjoy the ride and keep this going. While 1958’s The Zimmerman Telegram doesn’t have the fanfare that Tuchman’s later book would get, it is still an interesting book that takes a look and the how’s and why’s of one of history’s biggest blunders. While The Central Powers were unlikely to win the war, actively bringing a “neutral power” in to fight alongside your enemies is never a good call, and Arthur Zimmerman basically handed The Allied Powers their own success by goading the U.S. into the war.

“In January 1917, the British intercepted a secret telegram from Berlin that they knew would finally bring America into World War I. How they put it to use makes for an incredible true tale of espionage and intrigue.”

This book looks at everything leading up to and during the debacle that was the ill-fated telegram, including the reasons why Zimmerman felt that Mexico and Japan would be willing to jump in as proxies for Germany, and how the Telegram was nearly brushed off as a hoax, until he confirmed it outright. With just about every aspect of World War I, it becomes very clear that many in leadership positions had no idea what they were doing, and this is a prime example. Ib actually learned a lot from this book because I honestly didn’t know a lot about Japan’s place in the war until I finished it.

They are often overlooked and treated as wild-cards that had little to do with the war as a whole. Sure, Japan basically was a part of the war entirely because of colonialism, making no qualms that the entire reason they entered was to take Germany’s Pacific territories. Whenever called upon, there was always quid-pro-quo involved with one of these territories, and especially in their practical annexation of China. Because of this Germany saw them as easy to flip, and actively stirred up anti-japanese sentiment in the U.S. hoping it would drag Japan to their side. I actually was unaware that kaiser Wilhelm II was basically the originator of the term “The Yellow Peril” for this very reason. Zimmerman also over-estimated Mexico’s willingness to get into a full-fledged war with the U.S. despite tensions from The Pancho Villa Expedition, with the entire premise of the telegram falling flat.

Overall, I enjoyed this book despite both its age and relative narrow focus. That said, I appreciate talking about this topic, as it is boiled down to a single chapter in most World War I books, and rarely are Mexico or Japan even mentioned. I’m sure some of the information presented here is out of date, especially considering the timeframe for declassifying documents would have happened long after the publication of this. Either way I’m sure you won’t find a better book on what led the U.S. into World War I, and Barbara W. Tuchman is easily one of the most readable authors that tackled the subject.


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