The Zimmerman telegram provoked USA to join WW1 against Germany. If the telegram hadn't been sent, would USA have entered war against Germany?

The reason I ask is because it seems very strange.

Working from the assumption that Germany would have won the war if the US hadn't gotten involved, it's kind of strange that Germany provoked US to fight them.

  • Recommend closure as a counterfactual, and off topic for History Stack exchange. Counterfactuals inspire discussion, not answers. The bonus question and the "Why or why not" also invite debate/discussion.
    – MCW
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 10:03
  • Well, I changed the question. Also from other questions I would say the why part is off topic.
    – user4951
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 10:27
  • I offered some suggested edits; please revert if they're not helpful. Even now the question contains too many questions, and too much discussion of "what might have been". This question invites discussion/debate, and is a poor fit for Stack Exchange.
    – MCW
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 10:51
  • 1
    I think a better title would be how much influence does Zimmerman telegram have on US entering the war sealing Germany's fate.
    – user4951
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 11:49
  • 1
    Hmm. Not overruling the wisdom of the crowd here, but I really don't see how that other question is a duplicate of this one. They are both about the Zimmerman telegram, but that's about it.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 8:40

2 Answers 2


I think conventional wisdom holds that the U.S. entered World War I specifically because German submarines had sunk seven of its merchant ships. In his address to Congress on April 2, 1917 President Wilson referred to those incidents, but not to the Zimmermann telegram.

American ships have been sunk, American lives taken, in ways which it has stirred us very deeply to learn of ...

With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the government and people of the United States.

Publication of the telegram in the U.S. helped to sway public opinion against Germany, though. Foreign Secretary Zimmermann had misjudged this effect (he evidently thought its surfacing would rather help the German cause).

All in all, I think the Zimmermann telegram is more of an epiphenomenon (from the President's perspective, a helpful device towards executing a set strategy) than a necessary cause for the U.S. entering World War I. So yes, I think the U.S. would have entered the war event without the telegram's existence.

  • Then why would the German sunk American ship?
    – user4951
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 9:27
  • 1
    Wikipedia is your friend :)
    – Drux
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 9:37

The USA's entrance into WWI was primarily over the issue of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans. This was done purposely by the Germans, with full knowledge that it would result in a US declaration of war.

In the common practice of the day (aka: prize rules) it would have been perfectly reasonable for a beligerant to stop and board ships it suspected of supplying the enemy during a time of war. It would further have been fine for them to confiscate or (sink if not a passenger ship) any found to actually be carrying such supplies. However, they were supposed to make some kind of humane accomodation for crew and passengers.

However, Germany's fleet really couldn't match that of Great Britain and her allies on the surface. So they took to embargoing the allies using submarines (u-boats). A submarine obviously can't take on large amounts of passengers, didn't generally have room for a marine detachment required for a proper boarding action, and were quite vulnerable if they surfaced for any length of time. In short, the standard prize rules just didn't work for them.

The Germans mostly dealt with this by ignoring the prize rules. However, this was looked on by many others (including most in the USA) with horror, much like if somebody today publicly renounced the Geneva Conventions. This inevitably led to incidents, including some where American civilians were killed.

The Germans were quite aware of the American attitude on this, and for a while promised not to use the tactic purely to keep the Americans from joining the war. What changed things was the collapse of the Russians. The German high command began to think that combining an effective blocade of England via unrestricted submarine warfare with the large transfer of troops to the Western front which they were now capable of, they could win the war before the USA would have time to mobilize and join the fight in any effective numbers. The USA had a tiny army anyway, so it was possible that it might be a very long time indeed (if ever) before they could participate effectively.

Sadly for Germany, the English discovered ways to counter the increased u-boat activity (eg: the convoy system), and their new preponderance on the front was not enough in the era of trench warfare to break the stalemate. So even without the Americans, nothing effectively had changed.

Meanwhile the Americans drafted nearly 3 million men. Once they started coming over in force with fresh (effectively double-strength) units, at a rate of about 10,000 men a day, it was all over.

  • So without the submarine war German could have won.
    – user4951
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 11:51
  • Probably not. Without the sub war, I suspect the best they could have gotten was a more favorable armistice, once they finally got tired of fighting. I've gone back and italicised my sentence that makes this point. However, its possible that the late British introduction of the Tank may have changed things in unpreditcable ways, if things had drug on longer. see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanks_in_World_War_I
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 12:08
  • 1
    So the submarine welfare did them far more harm than good.
    – user4951
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 12:45
  • While this is a more complete answer the other one more directly answer the question. I personally like this answer more and +1 everyone.
    – user4951
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 14:58

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