The Zimmerman Telegram, by Barbara W. Tuchman
This book may seem to be a very unusual one to be the second book by this author that one has read. Not surprisingly, given my preference for earlier history to that of the 20th and 21st century, the first book I read of the author’s was her thoughtful discussion of the 14th century: A Distant Mirror. Knowing that she has written a lot about World War I history, I thought it would be worthwhile to see what other books she has written and this one was one that my library had and the first of those books that I managed to get around to reading. And I must say that I am not sure what to think of the book upon reading it. It is a compelling tale, to be sure, both of British espionage excellence as well as the arrogance of the Germans in assuming that their codes were so secure that no one could break them. The book makes Woodrow Wilson out to be an Obamaesque president in terms of his foreign policy, which is certainly entertaining to read, but which leaves me with a bit of uncertainty about how exactly I should feel as an American about how we ended up in World War I.
This book is about 200 pages or so, by no means a long one, and it contains a fair amount of context about the story it tells, which is probably for the best as this would be a very short story without that context. Tuchman begins in media res with the British transcription of the Zimmerman telegram and their dilemma about how to inform the Americans without revealing the source of their knowledge about the telegram’s contents. After that the author goes back to the background of Wilhelm II’s efforts at geopolitics in stirring up trouble with Japan and Russia, the context of America’s problems with Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, and Germany’s own bungling efforts at diplomacy with the United States during World War II, where the suave ambassador sought desperately to maintain American neutrality despite Germany’s aggressive behaviors. Finally, we see the trap that was set for Germany and the way that the admission that the Zimmerman telegram represented German aims to pit the USA against Mexico led almost instantly to an American mood that was fixed on war with Germany, with all that entailed for success for the Allied cause.
A great deal of this book is told with considerable humor, as the author examines the way that Wilson was completely inept in his handling of Mexico’s political situation, and genuinely committed to staying out of war if possible until his hand was forced by a popular mood that left no honorable exit. Wilson is not shown as being very competent when it came to either handling his supporters (like Col. House), understanding the wisdom of his cabinet (in particular, the sagacious if rather anxious Lansing), or in dealing with the vexations of foreign policy. In particular, Wilson seems badly to have misjudged the unwillingness of either the Allies or the Central Powers to have a negotiated peace as well as various pressures, including those of survival, that forced both sides to seek victory or face the destruction of their ruling regimes, a fear that particularly haunted Germany’s leadership. The author also manages to give plenty of cameo appearances to figures like Mexican General Huerta, who died close to Mexico under American arrest, Max von Papen, who predictably found himself in the center of action and able to deal with the politically shifts of the time, and even a future leader of Czechoslovakia who helped set up a spy ring to undermine Austro-Hungarian diplomatic efforts in the United States (!).