on June 13, 2004
Like the World War Two Enigma saga, the Zimmerman Telegram is a story that arguably gains even more relevance than ever before in today's information age. In short, in 1917 British intelligence leaked to the United States the fact that German's Foreign Office was plotting to co-opt Mexico into World War One on the side of the Central Powers, using as an inducement the prospect of regaining territories lost to America during the Mexican War of 1846. It was this revelation, and not unrestricted submarine war, that triggered Wilson's declaration of war against Germany. Tuchman weaves a story that takes us from Japan (which also harbored ambitions of annexing American territory), through North America and over to London, where Room 40's codebreakers discovered the Kaiser's diabolical plot to seize Texas and then agonized over how and whether to tell Washington. Particularly amusing are the stories of Count Johann von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to America, a notorious ladies' man whose influence the French and British successfully undermined using pictures of the Count with two young swimsuit-clad women.
on February 1, 2004
I've first learned of the Zimmermann Telegram from "The Code Book" by Simon Singh (highly recommended itself), and looked for more information on the story; Barbara Tuchman's "The Zimmerman Telegram" filled in the details job splendidly. The buildup is suspenseful, the characters are colorfully drawn, and the settings are well detailed. Tuchman skillfully puts the reader in the minds of those involved, allowing you to understand their mindset and identify with their emotions. This is indeed much closer to a mystery novel than to a regular history book, and it is a better read for it.
There are a few small things I felt that marred full enjoyment. These are minor issues indeed, but worth noting. The first is that while most of the book reads as a Novel, as I've mentioned above, in a few occasions it feels as though you can feel Tuchman's voice herself giving her personal opinion (as an historian) on characters in the story. This is not a problem in and of itself, but it doesn't fit with the general mood of the book, so it seems out of place. Another point is that a few important issues were not sufficiently detailed (at least in my view): For instance, the agreement between the US and Germany about the surfacing of submarines is only hinted at, but it itself is never mentioned, which seems important, because the book skips between the conditions that existed before and after the agreement, and this can cause confusion at times. Or, as another example, one of the biggest questions (again, to me) that is hardly touched is why Zimmerman confirmed he sent the telegram after it was made public - surely this was the action that made war impossible to avoid.
All in all, however, these small issues do not diminish the book in any great manner, and it still remains a superb account of one of the most pivotal, yet little known events of the 20th century. Highly recommended!
on March 26, 2002
This is one of my favorite Barbara Tuchman works. It is the story of the Zimmermann Telegram, a message sent by the German Foreign Minister to the Mexican Government in early 1917. In essence the Telegram was an attempt to make Mexico a German ally in the event of the US entering World War I on the Allied side, with the bait being the possibility of Mexico reclaiming the states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. When British Intelligence intercepted and decoded the Telegram they made certain that the US government and public heard about it quickly in the hopes of bringing the US into the war.
The book is more than just the story of the Telegram itself. It includes a run through of the various German espionage efforts in the US before and during World War I and a good description of the unease felt by the US at the mysterious German machinations, including possibly collusion with Japan and an attempt to take control of the Panama Canal.
Like all of Tuchman's works, The Zimmermann Telegram is scholarly without being dull, and a real delight.
on September 13, 2001
The story of the Zimmermann Telegram is a gem of history that literally is a ripping good yarn.
The nutshell: In the middle of WWI, German foreign minister Zimmermann -- worried about how to keep America occupied on our side of the Atlantic and out of the Allied camp -- sent a telegram instructing his Mexican envoy to propose an alliance between Mexico, Japan and Germany. The payoff for our southern neighbor: the restoration of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to the country of Mexico.
This very fine book is many facets tightly woven in 200 pages: British code breakers. German diplomatic efforts. President Wilson's unshakable will for neutrality. Mexican and Japanese intrigue. Submarine warfare. Mexican revolution and America's chase for Pancho Villa.
The story has drama (the fight to persuade Wilson that US interests lay with the Allies and not in being a neutral broker of peace), excitement (British code breaking efforts and the intrigue to get the telegram published / into American hands), and near comedy (German bungling with codes, diplomatic missions and high strategy)written by the masterful Barbara Tuchman.
The author takes all these elements -- which are almost Shakespearean in their complexity and interplay -- and crafts a terrifically exciting history. A very fine read.
on April 21, 2001
While the Zimmerman Telegram is one of the most important documents in history, and is perhaps the greatest result of code breaking in history, it is nonetheless frequently overlooked. Most people have at least heard "Remember the Lusitania" which had essentially nothing to do with the U.S. entering WWI. Few, however, are familiar with this short telegram that is truly a hinge on which history turned.
One cannot blame Barbara Tuchman for this, however, as this work brings alive the intrigue of the time like no other. Reading like a spy novel, and yet all the more chilling because it's true, Tuchman navigates the reader through the murky waters of WWI intrigue. We learn how, in a misguided effort to distract the U.S. from Europe, Germany sought to foment trouble on the U.S./Mexican border. We learn how the British scrambled to inform the Americans of this, without comprimising their sources. And we learn how a tortured President Wilson was forced to take the steps towards war.
"The Zimmerman Telegram" is history as it should be written; loaded with primary sources, and with the breathless pace that events really unfolded. While better known for "The Guns of August", it is this work that makes me rank Barabara Tuchman as one of the best historians of the 20th Century. Enjoy!
on January 15, 2001
This book is history at its very best. Tuchman has brought to life an amazing story of espionage and deceit that reads like an Ian Fleming novel. Her fluid writing style keeps you turning the pages. Although the outcome is known, the reader still finds themselves asking what will happen.
The book covers Germany's pre-war intrigues in Mexico, and then once the war starts, follows the agents sent to America to keep us out of the war. She discusses how German spies plotted to take over munitions factories and stop the flow of war goods to the Allies...and how they nearly succeeded. The story also discusses how Wilson was tormented by the decision to bring America into the war, and how he really did wish peace for the world. Yet, when confronted with the Zimmerman Telegram, which offered Mexico the reacquisition of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, Wilson was left with no choice but war.
It is incredible at how a blunder by one German official was able to bring the world's most powerful nation into the fold against them. Yet that stays with the theme of WW I, and the Zimmerman Telegram may have been the biggest blunder of the war. Thanks to Barbara Tuchman, we know how it all came to pass.
on December 20, 2000
I approached this as a general reader in search of a good read, not as a historian. It was a good read, and I learned much more about a piece of our history that I last studied nearly 30 years ago. Tuchman writes with urgency and though her work is well documented, her narrative is never bogged down by wavering, stuttering scholarspeak or footnotes that lie like logs and potholes on the way to the next sentence. Some may argue her premise, that the revelation of the Zimmerman telegraph was the one motivator that would compel Wilson to finally send American troops into World War I combat, but Tuchman makes a persuasive case. Her strengths beyond a capable writing style lie in character development of the players on two sides of the Atlantic and an ability to track all of their movements with clarity as they converge on the fateful entrance of the US into the conflict. In reading this, I was reminded that our contemporary Congress is not unique in its image-conscious, bull-headed, snappish judgment. I was especially taken by what is obviously a legacy of the Civil War, the deep-rooted American fear of conflict on its own soil.
on November 23, 2000
Ms. Tuchman wrote "The Guns of August" which I believe is the best book ever written about WWI. Unfortunately, she also wrote the book, "The Proud Tower" about the times just before WWI. The Proud Tower was a bore. As such, I wasn't sure what to think before I bought this one. I was hopeful that it might be good and, I was right. The Zimmerman Telegraph is a very good book which, if you like history and mystery, you should enjoy. The Zimmerman Telegraph was especially interesting to me because, while I was in school, I had a professor who taught his belief that the Zimmerman Telegraph was a fraud. It was not. The Zimmerman telegaph was very real and with it the British may have changed the tides of history. .
But first, what is the Zimmerman telegraph? Mr. Zimmerman was a German ambassador during WWI. As the war progressed, both sides looked for allies which would tip the scales in the war in Europe. Mr. Zimmerman, and his cohorts, were instructed to induce Mexico into fighting on the German side, if American declared for the allies.
Because General Pershing, who was to lead the Amercian troops in Europe, had invaded Mexico during this time (to attack a bandit revolutionary Pancho Villa); Because America had taken about 1/3 of Mexico eighty years earlier; And because America's army was one of the smallest in the world - Mexico's entry into the war seem possible to German leaders 5000 miles away.
Mr. Zimmerman, in secret code, wired back and forth to Germany to learn what he should do, and what he should offer. Worse, at times, the Germanys borrowed American supplies, while negotiating about declaring war on America. The British learned about these messages and wanted to share them with the Americans. But how could they do it, without arrising their suspicions and those of later American professors?
The truth is an exciting mystery story filled with real people whom we love and hate, because Ms. Tuchman makes them so real. She has a talent, when applied, which makes the past - present. I could picture these events as they happened, understand the people, and even sympathize with the ones I didn't like before I read this book.
The other thing Ms. Tuchman does so well is to explain motivations. In Europe, for example, there was disputed land between Germany and France. This land was take in 1870. In 1914, the shame of this action still was present throughout France. Indeed, in many units, it was a battlecry. Surely some Mexicans felt the same about California? Ms. Tuchman shows us why some people felt that a Germany-Mexican alliance was a good thing. And a thing which the Mexicans would want.
There is much more that this book discusses. But, as referenced above, this book is mainly about how the British broke the German codes and how they "leaked" this information to the Americans. War is never fought for one reason. But the main reason America fought in WWI may have been this telegram - and the Germany-Mexican alliance it proposed. A masterful job by Ms. Tuchman.
on February 13, 1999
The story that Barbara Tuchman tells in The Zimmermann Telegram is one of international diplomacy in the period just before World War One. Tuchman centers her story on the apex of a single article of communication (the telegram) and expands from there. The story begins in the North Sea just before the British declaration of war on Germany. The British cable ship Telconia dredges the sea searching for five cables at the bottom connecting Germany's communication with the of the European and North American continents. All five cables are cut. Furthermore, Britain coaxed Eastern Telegraph, the American owner of the only other cable to North America (running from North Africa to Brazil), to pull the cables that would allow German communication with the world. Germany was now bound to wireless communication for the duration of the war. This is significant because it allowed the British to secretly intercept all German communications, and begin to decode them in the British Naval Intelligence office referred to as "Room 40". Inside Room 40, Britain learned to crack the German code. This is how the British, and consequently the Americans, were able to learn about the Zimmermann Telegram. The Telegram put the British in a precarious position. They desperately needed the United States to become a belligerent and enter the war against Germany if Britain hoped to win the war. At the same time if the British gave the Americans the Telegram and it was released, the Germans might deduce the existence of Room 40 and discover that their code had been unraveled, thereby compromising all British ability to "listen in" on the Germans for the rest of the war. Additionally, the Telegram was no guarantee that the United States would declare war against Germany or that the Americans would even believe the authenticity of the Telegram. It is the analysis of U.S., German, and British players and the revelation of how The Zimmermann Telegram was eventually delivered to the U.S. Government (without compromising Room 40, and at the same time successfully brought the U.S. into war against Germany) that Tuchman wrote about. Tuchman's style was objective in construction by use of factual evidence from many sources. She wrote the book fairly, comparing both the British and German sides. She illustrated that there were supporters on both sides in the United States. Through all of the descriptions she portrayed Woodrow Wilson as neutral until the end, and discussed the external forces on Wilson that tried to persuade him in all directions. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and former President Theodore Roosevelt supported the side of Britain and war; Robert LaFollette and other isolationist senators on the side of non-intervention. Tuchman centered all events on the final outcome-would the Americans be persuaded to believe the authenticity of the Zimmermann Telegram? Would they declare war on Germany because of it? Tuchman was persuasive in her argument that it was ultimately the Zimmermann Telegram that caused Wilson to ask Congress for belligerency. Her sources were mostly first-hand accounts taken from the journals and diaries of major participants in the events that surrounded the Zimmermann Telegram. Important to her research were notes supplied by British Admiral Hall's (Director of British Naval Intelligence) private secretary, as well as personal papers of Joseph Grew (U.S. Ambassador) and those papers of Ambassador Walter Hines Page. Further research by Tuchman was accredited to help from the Foreign Office Archives Office in London and the historical manuscripts of both President Wilson and Secretary of State Lansing. Because The Zimmermann Telegram was well researched and convincing in its points, Tuchman revealed to the reader a deeper level of understanding surrounding the events that led up to the American declaration of war against Germany. Tuchman shrugged off the commonly held elementary notions that it was the sinking of the Lusitania, or the declaration of German unrestricted submarine warfare that caused the U.S. to declare its belligerency. She argued that while these events were certainly considerations in the decision for war, they were not enough to cause the U.S. to break its policy of neutrality. She was successful in persuading the reader that it was the secret German proposal of a pact with Mexico and Japan that became the proverbial straw. Tuchman's thesis that the Zimmermann Telegram was the single most important reason that America declared war against Germany was a believable one. It clearly showed evidence for the German government's theory that a secret pact with Mexico and Japan would be her only chance of defeating The United States in a war. Tuchman pointed out that Germany made only two significant blunders that forced America into the war declaration. First, Germany's mistaken ignorance that German intelligence was so superior to that of the Allies that the Allies could have never cracked the German code. Secondly, Zimmermann's puzzling admission of the authenticity of the telegram when much of the American public and Congress believed it to be a British hoax (Britain could not reveal the authenticity without compromising Room 40). In conclusion, Tuchman gave an exciting dimension of suspense to the events surrounding America's entry into World War One by revealing first person accounts and minor personalities that played a role in the events leading to this crux. She made the valid argument that it was the Zimmermann Telegram that ultimately brought Wilson and the American Congress (and people) to this decision after a long period of neutrality toward Germany.
on December 9, 2001
first of all...i am a deep tuchman fan and am in the process of reading everything she has written.
i loved the whole drama behind the telegram and it is to the author's credit that so much insightful information could find its way into her story.
the main problem i had with this book is that sometimes, it went into too many details that were designed to strengthen the story but in the end side-tracked it. a small example is needed since i feel badly about criticising tuchman without explaining: when talking about how america reacted to the telegram, she goes through a few pages of quotes from different newspapers...she did not have to...i know that this is a result from trying to get the reader involved in what actually happened so many years ago, but all it wanted to make me do was skip the pages.
still, it is a strong book based on a spectacularly strong story and that seems just to strange to be true.