February 24, 1917: British Release Decode of Zimmerman Telegram

Posted on February 24, 2012
By Callie Oettinger

From OurDocuments.Gov:

In January of 1917, British cryptographers deciphered a telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German Minister to Mexico, von Eckhardt, offering United States territory to Mexico in return for joining the German cause. To protect their intelligence from detection and to capitalize on growing anti-German sentiment in the United States, the British waited to present the telegram to President Wilson. Meanwhile, frustration over the effective British naval blockade caused Germany to break its pledge to limit submarine warfare. In response, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Germany in February.

On February 24 Britain released the Zimmerman telegram to Wilson, and news of the telegram was published widely in the American press on March 1. The telegram had such an impact on American opinion that, according to David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers, “No other single cryptanalysis has had such enormous consequences.” It is his opinion that “never before or since has so much turned upon the solution of a secret message.” On April 6, 1917, the United States Congress formally declared war on Germany and its allies. The Zimmerman telegram clearly had helped draw the United States into the war and thus changed the course of history.

Photostat of Zimmermann Telegram, as received by the German Ambassador to Mexico, January 19, 1917 The idea that Germany was proposing to give away a chunk of the United States to Mexico was so outlandish, many people doubted the telegram’s authenticity. This copy, obtained by the State Department from Western Union, and the decode of the message, served to authenticate the Zimmermann Telegram. Image and Caption: National Archives.

Page 1, Telegram from U.S. Ambassador Walter Page to President Woodrow Wilson conveying a translation of the intercepted Zimmermann Telegram from Germany to Mexico, in which Germany proposed an alliance and disclosed its plans to begin unrestricted submarine warfare, February 24, 1917. Image and caption: National Archives.

Page 2, Telegram from U.S. Ambassador Walter Page to President Woodrow Wilson conveying a translation of the intercepted Zimmermann Telegram from Germany to Mexico, in which Germany proposed an alliance and disclosed its plans to begin unrestricted submarine warfare, February 24, 1917. Image and caption: National Archives.

Page 3, Telegram from U.S. Ambassador Walter Page to President Woodrow Wilson conveying a translation of the intercepted Zimmermann Telegram from Germany to Mexico, in which Germany proposed an alliance and disclosed its plans to begin unrestricted submarine warfare, February 24, 1917. Image and caption: National Archives.

Page 4, Telegram from U.S. Ambassador Walter Page to President Woodrow Wilson conveying a translation of the intercepted Zimmermann Telegram from Germany to Mexico, in which Germany proposed an alliance and disclosed its plans to begin unrestricted submarine warfare, February 24, 1917. Image and caption: National Archives.

Telegram from Acting Secretary of State Frank L. Polk to the American Embassy in Mexico City, February 26, 1917, page 1. This message summarized the Zimmermann Telegram and predicted the sensation it would cause when released to the American public. Image and Caption: National Archives.

Telegram from Acting Secretary of State Frank L. Polk to the American Embassy in Mexico City, February 26, 1917, page 2. This message summarized the Zimmermann Telegram and predicted the sensation it would cause when released to the American public. Image and Caption: National Archives.

Partial decode of the Zimmermann Telegram made by Edward Bell of the American Embassy in London, sent to the State Department, March 2, 1917. Image and caption: National Archives.

Partial decode of the Zimmermann Telegram made by Edward Bell of the American Embassy in London, sent to the State Department, March 2, 1917. Image and caption: National Archives.

 


CALLIE OETTINGER was Command Posts’ first managing editor. Her interest in military history, policy and fiction took root when she was a kid, traveling and living the life of an Army Brat, and continues today.

 

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