Friday, April 24, 2020

The Plague Books: The Zimmermanns

The Zimmermann Telegram by Thomas Boghardt, Naval Institute Press, 2012
The Zimmerman Telegram by Barbara W. Tuchman, Macmillan Publishing, 1958, 1966 Edition

As I've mentioned, I have been taking advantage of my sequestered lifestyle to catch up on my reading. I have accumulated a large number of books that I've eventually intended to consume, and now, without a commute and with them at easy hand, I find the time to do so. Have some reviews.

Provenance: Two different books with the same name. Both these books come from the local Half-Price Books down in the valley (I think). The Tuchman version was purchased and consumed years ago, and is truly a used book - it lacks any marking of previous ownership, but the spine opens easily and the flyleaf cover is slightly ripped at the corners. Someone read this book and sold it, with a bundle of others, to the store. The Boghardt version is an overprint - they ran a larger print-run than they sold, so it went in a box with eleven of its others to a warehouse, then another warehouse, and lastly to the local HPB. This volume was the most recent purchase of mine before everything shut down, along with a copy of The Lost City of Z, which I am currently abandoning (30 pages in and I have no less than THREE different expeditions lost in the Amazon jungle. I fear if I continue the entire state of Rhode Island will be lost there.).

Review: When I was in high school, I always thought that the sinking of the Lusitania was why US entered into WWI. Years later I realized that the timeline didn't match up, the Lusitania, a British passenger ship (now admitted to be carrying munitions) was torpedoed by a German U-boat in May of 1915, but the US didn't enter into the war properly until early 1917. Later I learned that it was the resumption of unrestricted naval warfare in the Atlantic (which meant attacking neutral ships, including US ones). And then I found out about the Zimmermann Telegram, where the German government contacted Mexico with an offer of support if they would attack the US in the event that the US entered the war on the British side, offering them the lost territories in the American Southwest.

Americans love their inciting moments. Pearl Harbor. 9/11. The Maine in Havana harbor. It is the rallying point that we can get behind to take on enemies. We don't do so well when we have to creep up on a war, make a rational decision to commit. Was the War of 1812 really about American seamen being impressed onto British ships? Or was it about expansion in the Northwest Territories as the western War Hawks wanted? Or just opportunism because England was dealing with Napoleon? The Gulf of Tonkin turns out to be suspiciously wonky as a casus belli. So it makes sense that we fixate on the earlier sinking of the Lusitania or the Zimmerman telegram as the spark that unleashes the flames of war.

Maybe, maybe not. And I found Tuchman's book to be very strong in making that argument when I first read it. Hers is a popular history, a well-organized tale well-told. She tracks the writing and the intercept of the telegram through spies in foreign lands, Swedish back-channels, and recovered codebooks. The telegram drops on America like a bombshell and rallies us to take on the Hun.

Boghardt disagrees, and has the benefit of forty years of additional research in the area. He had access to the files in the German Foreign Office in Willhelmstrassen that Tuchman did not, and the ability to dig down beneath the mildly disingenuous interviews with the British spymasters to produce a more nuanced version of the events.

Boghardt's description of the German Foreign Office at Wilhelmstrasse is like a Teutonic version of The Office. Everyone has their own pet projects, their own fears, their own promotional goals. The Zimmermann telegram doesn't belong so much to Zimmermann as to his assistant, von Kemnitz, who Tuchman excludes from her 1966 edition as a shadowy figure lurking at the margins. From internal documents, the whole alliance with Mexico was von Kemnitz's favorite. Boghardt shows that the plan was swept up in other matters as an afterthought, since Zimmermann and the rest were more concerned about the upcoming announcement that Germany was going to return to unrestricted submarine warfare. THAT was what the Foreign Office was sure to bring the US in on the English side, and offering to support Mexico in case of war was just a side offer.

How the Brits got the telegram is another point of discrepancy. Tuchman relied on the stories of Captain William Reginald Hall, the director of British naval intelligence, and passed along the official line of Swedish roundabouts and captured code books. On review of the play, however, the Germans sent the infamous coded telegram through (then-neutral) American channels, and asked the American to just pass the word along to the German Embassy there (without looking at it, or breaking the code). Hall and the Brits were intercepting and reading the US diplomatic posts and had already broken the German code. British Naval Intelligence then had to figure out how to tell the Americans about the plot without revealing that they had been spying on their hopeful allies. And after the war, they reinforced the cover story in order to not reveal that they were STILL reading the American's diplomatic mail.

The announcement of the Telegram (leaked to the American Press) was not an immediate hammerblow to neutrality but was a major jolt to the system. The US was not blase about the telegram (and the examples Boghardt uses to show that it was no big deal were not effective), but it did not immediately turn the US to a war footing. Isolationist, rpo-neutral and pro-German factions in the government (there were more Germans in Milwaukee than in Berlin at the time) concentrated not on the news of the plot, but rather on where it came from. Many suspected it was a British scheme to pull the US into the war (and it was, but like the best plots, had its roots in reality). Congress argued for days on the matter, until Wilson stepped in and asked for the declaration of war before Congress adjourned.

Ultimately, the Zimmermann telegram was the final straw for Wilson. Portrayed by Boghardt as the last proponent of peaceful resolution in his own administration, the effrontery and outrageousness of the German offer was enough to move him off the fence. While unrestricted naval warfare was the cause on-paper, the Zimmermann Telegram, and how it was spun, ultimately moved him to action sooner as opposed to later.

And Mexico as a German ally? I think it more possible than either Boghardt or Tuchman consider. We had grabbed those huge chunks of Mexican land in 1848. In 1916, we physically invaded Mexico with Pershing's Punitive Expedition, not to mention grabbing Vera Cruz, their major port for a while in 1914. So yeah, regardless of the Mexican government's attitude (they were in the midst of a three-way civil war at the time), it was worth considering.

And while the plan of the Zimmermann telegram seems far-fetched, it matched up with successes from the German Foreign Office. They encouraged subjugated populations for form second, third, and fifth fronts to stretch their opponents' resources thin. Yes, the Zimmermann telegram backfired. But the Easter Rising in Belfast was a success (from the German  side, who capitalized on the resistance being crushed by the Brits. For the Irish themselves, not so much),. And after the telegram, Zimmermann pulled off one of the coups of the war in organizing Lenin's sealed train, sending the Communist leader back into Russia at a critical point. Neither Tuchman nor Boghardt mention this, as both narratives create the impression that after the telegram, Zimmermann entered into twilight.

Ultimately, both books have value. Tuchman's gives the once standard view, supported by traditional sources, while Borhardt's deals with a lot more detail into the whys and wherefores. Neither comes right out and claims the Telegram was the primary reason we went into war, but make good cases for it to be a strong influence on America's decision.

More later,