The Zimmermann Telegram: Definition & Summary

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

The Zimmermann Telegram was 162 simple words that pulled the United States into World War I against the German Empire. Find out about the message and its role in this lesson. Take a short quiz at the end to see what you've learned.

Europe's Problems

Like the teenage years, there were many issues and events facing Europe in the years 1914-1917. Many nations were not getting along in what would be called the Great War, later known as World War I. These countries included Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, and Germany. Led by Woodrow Wilson, the United States pledged to remain neutral and stay out of Europe's problems. But Germany had other ideas. They sent a coded letter, known as the Zimmermann Telegram, to Mexico pledging that if they would fight the US, Germany would help them recover lands lost to American expansion. The telegram was a simple 162 word message, but one that brought with it many questions and with them, many answers.

Who and What was Involved?

The Zimmermann Telegram was a coded message sent to Mexico from Germany. Arthur Zimmermann, the German Foreign Minister, was the telegram's author. The intended recipient was Germany's foreign ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt. His job was to pass it off to the Mexican government as top secret: for their eyes only.

Arthur Zimmermann, author of the Zimmermann Telegram and German Foreign Minister
Arthur Zimmerman

What was the Purpose and Promise of the Message?

In the telegram, Germany proposed an alliance with Mexico. They promised that if Mexico would become allies with the Germans, they would support an attack by Mexico on the United States.

Why would Mexico want to attack the US? The answer was simple: land. During the era of American expansion, Mexico lost the lands that are today Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Germany help would allow Mexico to take back what they had lost.

Map of territory Germany promised Mexico (light green) and original Mexican border (red line)
Mexico Territory

What did the message contain? The January 16th telegram was written in secret code as was the norm for wartime letters. Translated, the message is simple and straightforward:

'We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President's attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.' Signed, Zimmermann

Zimmermann Telegram: Cryptic version (L), Translated version (R)
Zimmerman Telegram

What was the US like During This Time?

The United States was an interesting place in the decade of the 1910s. Immigration increased the population massively, especially in cities. The economy, fresh off the Industrial Revolution, was booming. Culture was thriving and a major part of society. The nation was also a world power, but focused mainly on the Western Hemisphere. As such, they stayed out of the issues that faced Europe.

However, Europe was a different story. The German Empire, among others, was doing what it could to take over the continent and also to control trade and shipping routes. It sunk ship after ship through its use of submarines, including those from the US that were providing the US allies with supplies.

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