Saturday, February 25, 2006

Your weekend history lesson II - Zimmerman Telegram

I'll bet you were sitting around just now pondering the reason(s) that the United States entered WWI, right? Well, OK, I'll help you out. Pay attention - there will be a test.

Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912 on a pledge to keep us out of war. That didn't work too well. Wilson was opposed to the military enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine. That is, he opposed the use of American military might in the Western Hemisphere to drive out or keep out foreign (European or Asian) influence. In this he was wholly unsuccessful. During his terms in office, the U. S. had to send troops to Haiti, The Dominican Republic and at least twice to Mexico, as well as to Europe when we entered WWI. And Mexico played a big role in our entry into WWI. So, what was the Zimmereman Telegram?

First, a little background. At about the same time that Wilson was winning the 1912 election and being inaugerated in 1913, the victors of the Mexican Revolution were seeing their great dreams of a democratic, free and just government go right into the toilet - or graveyard, as it were. Newly elected president Francisco Madero and his VP Pino Suarez were arrested and murdered by General Victoriano Huerta, with help from the American ambassador to Mexico, one Henry Lane Wilson (no relation to Woodrow). The ambassador, proving that actions by State Department bureaucrats against the interests of their boss, the president, as well as against the interests of the American people is not a new thing, had joined forces with American and European business magnates who were opposed to Madero's pledges of land and business reform in Mexico.

They were most especially frightened by Emiliano Zapata's campesino army and the reluctance of Madero to force Zapata to disarm after the revolution. So, they had Madero killed. Huerta was merely a none-too-bright and easily manipulated alcoholic who could be used to further the interests of American as well as European business entities. In other words, easily bribed with both money and the ever elusive title of "Emperor".

President Wilson had no truck with Huerta, who is still known today in Mexico as El Chacal (the jackal). Wilson recalled Henry Lane Wilson and fired him. The president also demanded that Huerta play no part in the upcoming Mexican presidential election. Huerta responded by dissolving the Mexican congress and arresting over 100 of its members. In addition, Huerta was opposed by the armies of Zapata, Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza, all allies of the fallen Madero.

Zapata was fighting for the rights of the Indians and campesinos, Villa had presidential aspirations himself as well as a thirst for revenge for the murder of his friend and benefactor Madero. Carranza? Well, it's hard to say. Let's be generous and say that Carranza was fighting to reconstitute the Mexican dream of a democratic and just nation-state. Keep in mind that we are dicussing dead men walking, here. Zapata, Villa and Carranza all ended up assassinated during the Decada de Dolores (decade of pain) that followed the assassinations of Madero and Pino Suarez. That "decade" of pain ended in, well . . . it has actually never ended. Mexico is the same basket case today that it was back then. But those are other stories for other days.

Wilson's refusal to deal with Huerta did not mean that he would choose to support any other aspirant to Mexico's Chapultepec Palace. He ordered an arms embargo against all the players. However, after Huerta dissolved the congress and arrested much of its membership, Wilson lifted the embargo against Carranza. This infuriated both Villa, who considered himself the Americans' best amigo, as well as Huerta. Villa's response was to cross the border from time to time to rob American banks and buy arms (including aircraft - Pancho Villa had one of the first of the world's air forces). Huerta's response was to go to the Japanese and the Germans for help.

Now, Huerta was not without some influence in the halls of power in Europe. His influence was in the form of - guess what? - that's right, oil. Great Britain, for one, received almost all of the oil required to power its great navy from Mexico. And all of the world's great navies were in the process of converting their ships from steam power to oil. 16 European powers, as well as Japan, formally recognized the Huerta government. President Wilson stood alone in refusing that recognition. However, the idiot Huerta played right into his hands, so to speak. In a secret deal with German Ambassador Admiral von Hintze, Huerta agreed, in return for armaments, to cut off oil supplies to Great Britain in the event of war with Germany. Germany loaded three ships with arms, ammunition and barbed wire (barbed wire?) and the Ypiranga, Bavaria and Kronprinzen Cecilesent were sent on their way to the eagerly awaiting Huerta.

The Tampico Incident
On April 16, 1914, the US gunboat USS Dolphin had stopped in the Mexican port of Tampico for supplies. The paymaster and several sailors went into town to purchase those supplies. Unknown to the Americans was that Huerta had placed Tampico under martial law. The local military commander promptly arrested the Americans. Admiral Mayo demanded their release and contacted Washington. Wilson, through diplomatic channels, demanded thier release as well as an apology. Huerta ordered the release of the American sailors but refused to apologise saying that Wilson should not expect an apology from a government whose existence the American president did not recognise. Admiral Mayo took this several steps further by demanding that the military commander of Tampico offer a 21 gun salute to the American gunboat. Everyone was really angry by this point and the testosterone was pumping. Wilson threatened to blockade the port of Vera Cruz if Huerta did not apologise. The American press had by this time picked up the story and was portraying it as a great insult to the American people.

The Vera Cruz Occupation
Meantime, the German ship Ypiranga was approaching Vera Cruz with 200 machine guns and 15,000,000 rounds of ammunition. Wilson was notified early in the morning on April 21, 1914, that the Yparinga would arrive in Vera Cruz that very day. Wilson wanted the ship stopped but did not want to cause a major incident with Germany by stopping the ship in international waters. The Tampico affair gave him an excuse, flimsy though it may have been, to enter the harbor of Vera Cruz, take the port city, and thereby deny the German ship access to the port. This Wilson did.

6000 sailors and Marines under the command of Admiral Fletcher attacked Vera Cruz and took the city before nightfall. The military commander of Vera Cruz fled the city with 1000 troops, leaving its defense to cadets from the local naval academy and to the townspeople. 19 Americans died in the fighting which took place mostly in downtown city streets. 126 Mexicans were reported killed. The Vera Cruz occupation lasted some seven months until US forces withdrew the following September. The dispute between Mexico and the US was being mediated by that time by the ABC coalition - Argentina, Brazil and Chile. The entire incident was an abject failure on the part of Wilson because the Yparinga as well as the Bavaria moved on to other ports to be unloaded. I cannot determine what became of the Kronprinzen Cecilesent.

It was during this incident that the term "Gringo" came to be used. The Marines would march around Vera Cruz singing a song called "Green Grow the Lilacs, Ho!". The Mexicans began referring to the Marines as "Green Grows" which became "Gringo". I subscribe to that version of the origen of Gringo, anyway.

Huerta Falls
While Huerta was dealing with a recalcitrant Wilson on his east coast, Carranza and Villa were attacking him from the west and north as well as Zapata from the center. Finally, Huerta called it quits and escaped Mexico aboard the German ship Dresden, just 3 days before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Saravejo which would plunge Europe into war. Now that El Chacal was gone, Carranza and Villa began fighting it out. The Germans still had a soft spot for their puppet Huerta and began plotting with him and one General Orosco to retake Mexico. Germany wanted America occupied with Mexico so that we would stay out of the European war. Meanwhile, Villa was negotiating with the Japanese who sent a half dozen warships to Baja California. The Monroe Doctrine was blowing up in Wilson's face.

The United States, regardless of our position vis a vis Great Britain and her allies contra Germany and her allies, was faced with Japanese warships within hours of our west coast, German warships and U-boats prowling around the Gulf of Mexico and a shooting war involving not infrequent incursions into US territory taking place all along the Mexican border. Now, Huerta arrives in New York City with almost a million dollars in German supplied cash. Huerta made his way south where he met up with his ally Orosco, but they were caught in New Mexico, arrested and imprisoned. Orosco managed to escape jail and got back to Mexico but Huerta was taken to Fort Bliss and placed in military custody. He was released to his family when he became ill with yellow fever but not allowed to leave the fort. He died on the grounds of Fort Bliss on January 14, 1916, from the effects of the yellow fever and acute alcoholism.

The Zimmerman Telegram
Meanwhile, Wilson had thrown his support to Carranza in the fight against Villa and supplied Carranza not only with weapons but also allowed Carranza's forces to pass through US territory aboard US trains to Agua Prieta, Mexico. There Carranza's forces met a badly outnumbered and out gunned Pancho Villa and defeated the Villistas. That was about the end of Villa's presidential aspirations as well as Japanese thoughts about entering the European war on the side of Germany by attacking the United States. It was not, however, the end of German hopes to bribe the Mexican government into a partnership to deny oil to Great Britain as well as occupy American forces.

US forces had already been in Mexico chasing Villa in response to his atack on Columbus, New Mexico. In fact, when General Pershing arrived in France, the only experience that his troops and officers had was the Villa punitive expedition. Pershing's young officers such as Patton, Bradley and MacArthur had actually seen very little in the way of fighting before they arrived in France. Germany was desperate to keep the Americans out of the war for as long as possible. It was Germany's hope that Great Britain could be forced to sue for peace before the Americans arrived.

The United States had an agreement with Germany allowing the Kaiser's diplomats to use our transatlantic cable for diplomatic communications. The section of the cable stretching under the English Channel from Europe to London was owned by the Scandanavian countries. The section linking London to the East Coast belonged to us. We had an agreement with Great Britain that US diplomatic transmissions were not to be tampered with. We allowed the Germans to use our diplomatic channels. British intelligence was tapping that cable, including our "protected" diplomatic channel.

On January 19th 1917, German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann sent a telegram, now called "The Zimmerman Telegram" - or "The Zimmerman Note" - using American diplomatic channels, to the German ambassador in Mexico City. It may have been one of the dumbest diplomatic communications ever sent. In fact, it was considered so stupid that, for some time, many believed it was a fake perpetrated by British intelligence to try to draw us into the war. That is until Zimmerman, not once but twice, on March 3 and again on March 29, admitted during speeches he gave in Europe to sending the telegram.

Zimmerman actually sent the telegram to the German ambassador in Washington from where it was forwarded to Mexico City. He did this to take advantage of the "protected" American diplomatic cable. The Brits had it before the German ambassador in Washington had it. It would be better to say that the British had part of it. The Germans used a new code which had only been partially decrypted by British intelligence. The British were able to decipher enough of it to understand its meaning but were in a quandry as to how to notify the Wilson gonvernment. The British did not want us to know they were illegaly intercepting American diplomatic communications.

Again, the Germans played right into their hands. The German embassy in Washington forwarded the telegram by Western Union land line to Mexico City. The British just had to go down to the Western Union office and bribe the telegraph operators to give them a copy of it. In addition, the German embassy in Washington had to re-encrypt the telegram with an older diplomatic code because their embassy in Mexico City did not yet have the new one. The old code had been broken for some time by British intelligence. Now the British could not only read the telegram word for word but also could pass it along to Wilson's government without fear of American recriminations for intercepting our mail.

The telegrams:

This is the original coded document.
National Archives and Records AdministrationIdentifier 302025

This is the British translation.
National Archives and Records Administration Identifier 302022

What the telegram means is that, with the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare (USW), the Americans would probably eventually have to enter the war against Germany. With Mexican and Japanese help, however, that intervention by US forces might not happen until Great Britain had already been forced to capitulate. In return, Mexico would receive the lost territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. But when the telegram was handed to President Wilson on February 24, 1917, possibly even before President Carranza had seen it, the jig was up for Germany. Wilson and his cabinet chewed on this for awhile, then released it to the American public on March 1, 1917.

Sorry, Fritz
The contents of the telegram along with US Merchant Marine losses from Germany's USW campaign were enough to sway American public opinion towards war - and war it became. As to why the telegram was considered such a bonehead move by Germany, it should be noted that the government of Carranza had no formal contacts with the Japanese government, never mind being able to exert any influence whatsoever with the land of the rising sun. Witness this reaction from the Japanese government:
Japanese Prime Minister Count Terauchi on the Zimmermann Telegram

The revelation of Germany's latest plot, looking to a combination between Japan and Mexico against the United States, is interesting in many ways.

We are surprised not so much by the persistent efforts of the Germans to cause an estrangement between Japan and the United States as by their complete failure of appreciating the aims and ideals of other nations.

Nothing is more repugnant to our sense of honour and to the lasting welfare of this country than to betray our allies and friends in time of trial and to become a party to a combination directed against the United States, to whom we are bound not only by the sentiments of true friendship, but also by the material interests of vast and far-reaching importance.

The proposal which is now reported to have been planned by the German Foreign Office has not been communicated to the Japanese Government up to this moment, either directly or indirectly, officially or unofficially, but should it ever cone to hand I can conceive no other form of reply than that of indignant and categorical refusal.
Some say that the contents of the telegram went so far beyond the pale that, indeed, the purpose of the telegram was to measure America's intent to enter the war. That seems just a bit beyond sound reasoning to me. Said David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers,
"No other single cryptanalysis has had such enormous consequences," and "never before or since has so much turned upon the solution of a secret message."
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