The Zimmerman telegram was a diplomatic message from officials in Germany to the Mexican president, sent in 1917. After being intercepted and decoded by Britain's intelligence community, its contents were found to be an offer of monetary compensation, retaking of previously-held lands, and a strategic alliance between Germany and Mexico, in exchange for Mexico's military aid in the First World War should American involvement become inevitable.

After the contents of the letter became public and sparked outrage, German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmerman publicly confirmed the authenticity of the message, further sparking controversy, and ultimately cementing America's already fairly definitive alignment against Germany for the duration of the war.

Why would Germany publicly acknowledge the contents of the letter, though? Denial of the letter's contents or authenticity (possibly mixed with an accusation that the UK had forged it, in its own interests) may have created hesitation and confusion among America's military brass, which could've given Germany an advantage during the rest of the war.

6 Answers 6


Arthur Zimmerman appears to have been trying to avoid being blamed by the German press and politicians for bringing the USA into the war. Placing your personal interests ahead of those of your country when you're a government minister is rarely a good idea.

He said:

... despite the submarine offensive, he had hoped that the USA would remain neutral. His instructions (to the Mexican government) were only to be carried out after the US declared war, and he believed his instructions to be "absolutely loyal as regards the US". In fact, he blamed President Wilson for breaking off relations with Germany "with extraordinary roughness" after the telegram was received, and that therefore the German ambassador "no longer had the opportunity to explain the German attitude, and that the US government had declined to negotiate".

So he was claiming that his instructions to the German embassy in Mexico had been a contingency plan for use in case the US declared war, and was blaming President Wilson for a hasty and ill-considered breaking off of relations. I don't know if this had his desired effect within Germany, but it certainly increased the chances that the USA would go to war. That was disastrous for Germany; other not-so-great decisions by Zimmerman included helping to trigger the October Revolution in Russia.

  • 17
    I disagree about his role in the Russian revolution. It was a good move on his part because it took Russia out of the war. Now, if the Russian revolution had failed, then it would've been a bad call.
    – Wes Sayeed
    Mar 29, 2017 at 4:38
  • 2
    Was it really a good move for Germany to create USSR in a long term? This might help then in WW1 somehow but then .. Mar 29, 2017 at 12:31
  • 2
    @LeosLiterak If Germany was working under the assumption that they'd win the war, then it could've been a good long-term move. As the telegram shows, they were clearly open to strategic and diplomatic alliances with countries they weren't actively fighting -- and having a friend on the other side of Europe likely wouldn't have been a bad call long-term.
    – Jules
    Mar 29, 2017 at 12:38
  • 1
    I did not meant their intentions but actual result which was horrific. Would communist succeed in Russia without German help? Could they spread without red Moscow? Mar 29, 2017 at 12:51
  • 4
    @LeosLiterak This isn't the place for counter-factual speculation. And Germany seems to currently be doing pretty well compared to most of the countries that were wholly under the communists.
    – user22111
    Mar 29, 2017 at 18:02

President Wilson revealed the existence of the telegram to the press on 28 February 1917. The press published the story the next day 1 March 1917 (and remember that Berlin is 6 hours ahead of Washington time). The German embassy in Washington would have had to send a telegram to Germany to inform them that the contents of what we now call "The Zimmermann Telegram" had been made public.

At that point, Germany had little choice but to respond, and to respond quickly.

Denial was never an option, since the cipher-text was still held in the telegraph company files in the United States and could be checked. The United States ambassador, Walter Hines Page, had these details (presumably from the head of Room 40, William Reginald Hall) and had included them with his report to President Wilson.

By claiming that his instructions (to the Mexican government)

... were only to be carried out after the US declared war ...

(quoted by @John Dallman in his answer above)

the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, presumably hoped to minimise the damage that had already been done.


Zimmerman's actions reflected the style of his boss, Kaiser Wilhelm II. This was a blunt, heavy-handed "take no prisoners, make no apologies approach" that the Kaiser displayed in crisis after crisis; the Kruger Telegram congratulating the Boers on their suppression of the "Jameson Raid" that led to the Boer War; the "Hun statement" urging German soldiers to be merciless as Huns against Chinese "Boxers;" the Moroccan Crisis, that saw Germany trying to deprive France of Morocco; and the Daily Telegram affair that had Wilhelm listing France, Russia and Japan as his antagonists, (but excluding Britain).

You can characterize Zimmerman's actions as unwise, but no one can claim that he didn't speak for his government.

  • 2
    Yeah; neither Zimmerman nor Wilhelm had the makings of a Bismark. May 6, 2017 at 21:17
  • 1
    @PieterGeerkens: How true, how true.
    – Tom Au
    May 6, 2017 at 21:36
  • 3
    @Bregalad: Regarding Chinese "Boxers," Kaiser Wilhelm told his troops: "Should you encounter the enemy, he will be defeated! No quarter will be given! Prisoners will not be taken! Whoever falls into your hands is forfeited...may the name German be affirmed by you in such a way in China that no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German." That is "take no prisoners" speech. (Redensart.) Quite literally.
    – Tom Au
    May 7, 2017 at 13:13

Why did Germany officially acknowledge the contents of the Zimmerman telegram?

The United States could already verify independently that the British provided message was genuine even without Zimmerman's admission. Germany and the U.S. both understood that.

The way the Germans conveyed diplomatic messages to Mexico back in 1917 was encoding them and then giving them to the United States Embassy in Germany for retransmission. From the US Embassy they would go through a series of neutral countries before ending up in London to be transmitted across the ocean. British had cut Germany's transatlantic cables at the onset of the war and permitted the United States servicing Germany's diplomatic correspondence as part of President Wilson's peace initiative. Probable also because it allowed the British to intercept and read everything Germany was saying to it's embassies. From London the messages would go to the United States across a translation cable operated by the United States and Sweeden who were both neutrals, before being wired from the US to Mexico. So the United States already had the encrypted message directly from Germany. The United States could track it's origins all the way back to Berlin were it was hand delivered to the US Embassy. The British gave the US the translation along with the encrypted text, so it was already known that the message was unimpeachable. The United States had the encrypted text directly from Germany they just couldn't read it until the British did so for them.

Zimmerman Intercept (British Interception)
The message was delivered to the United States Embassy in Berlin and then transmitted by diplomatic cable first to Copenhagen and then to London for onward transmission over transatlantic cable to Washington.

Direct telegraph transmission of the telegram was not possible because the British had cut the German international cables at the outbreak of war.

In the United States the Zimmerman Letter was represented as Germany inciting Mexico to attack in exchange for money, arms, and territory. But that's a misrepresentation.

The Zimmerman letter was not sent to the Mexican Government (President Carranza) but to the German ambassador to Mexico. It was instruction to the German ambassador only to be pursued if the United States first declared war on Germany. As such Arthur Zimmerman's entire correspondence was being mischaracterized by the United States from his perspective. Zimmerman was astonished that the United States and President Wilson broke off diplomatic ties and ongoing negotiations with Germany after they received the Letter from Britain's foreign secretary Arthur Belfour.

These were the thoughts which Arthur Zimmerman presented in his March 29th, 1917 speech. That his letter was not a plot against the United States, but a contingency plan between two government functionaries sent by secure channels which was never to have seen the light of day if the unthinkable did not occur. The United States entering WWI. As it turns out it was used as the perfect excuse for the Wilson Administration to pursue a course of action which they were already strongly considering.

Prior to The United States being made aware of the Zimmerman Letter by the British. February 20, 1917 the United States was already well down the path of going to war with Germany.

  • May 7, 1915, German submarine torpedoed the Lusitania, off the coast of Ireland. Killing 1,200 men, women, and children, including 128 Americans, lost their lives.
  • July 21, 1915, President Wilson issues an ultimatum, to the effect that the US would regard any subsequent sinkings as "deliberately unfriendly".
  • August 19, 1915 The White Star liner SS Arabic, outward bound for America, 50 mi (80 km) south of Kinsale. The loss of 44 passengers and crew, 3 of whom were American.
  • Aug 28, 1915, German Chancellor issued new orders to submarine commanders and relayed them to Washington, stating that until further notice, all passenger ships could only be sunk after warning and the saving of passengers and crews.
  • Jan 31, 1917 - Germany announces they are resuming unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic.
  • Feb. 3, 1917 - United States breaks off diplomatic ties to Germany.
  • February 20, 1917 - The United States ambassador to Britain is presented with the Zimmerman Letter: see Use by the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Belfour.
  • Feb 22, 1917 - Congress passed a $250 million arms appropriations bill intended to make the United States ready for war.
  • February 28, 1917 - President Woodrow Wilson releases the Zimmerman Letter: see Use to the Press.
  • March, 1917 - Germany sink four U.S. merchant ships
  • March 29th, 1917 - Arthur Zimmerman gives a speech acknowledging his telegram to the German ambassador of Mexico.
  • April 2, 1917 - President Wilson asks congress to declare war on Germany.

If they'd denied it the US wouldn't have believed them anyway.

It would also have made them look weak. Who would go into a similar alliance with somebody who's prepared to rat on you like that?


The German ambassador was acting prudently and addressing contingencies. Zimmerman was doing what ambassadors are supposed to do and what, no doubt, the British, Russian and French ambassadors were doing. The Zimmerman telegram merely proposed an alliance between Mexico and Germany IF the latter found itself in a war with the USA. Why shouldn't Germany have taken such possible precautions given the sham neutrality America practiced during 1914-17. When he admitted the telegram was his it was, no doubt, because how could it seem objectionable to seek alliances if the US declared war? It seems closer to the truth that Wilson was itching for war, and that the speed with which the Americans transformed the telegram into a pretext for it came as a surprise to the Germans.

  • The problem with this is 'oh we were arranging the invasion of your country with very specific division of spoils' is never going to play well with the people you are plotting against, especially when you say that the cause of that war is your planned unrestricted submarine warfare against the country
    – user31561
    May 12, 2019 at 21:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.