December 4th, 2012


Book Review: The Zimmermann Telegram, by Barbara Tuchman

The German telegram that propelled America into World War I.

The Zimmermann Telegram

Scribner, 1958, 244 pages

In the dark winter of 1917, as World War I was deadlocked, Britain knew that Europe could be saved only if the United States joined the war. But President Wilson remained unshakable in his neutrality. Then, with a single stroke, the tool to propel America into the war came into a quiet British office. One of countless messages intercepted by the crack team of British decoders, the Zimmermann telegram was a top-secret message from Berlin inviting Mexico to join Japan in an invasion of the United States. Mexico would recover her lost American territories while keeping the U.S. occupied on her side of the Atlantic.

How Britain managed to inform America of Germany's plan without revealing that the German codes had been broken makes for an incredible, true story of espionage, intrigue, and international politics, as only Barbara W. Tuchman could tell it.

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Verdict: Probably the definitive work about one of the deciding events of World War I, at least as far as the U.S. was concerned. One of those small things on which history hinged, but also illustrates how much individual personalities may also have swayed history. Also provides a broad look at America's political and geographical situation in the early 20th century, when the U.S. was still the big, dumb new kid and its borders were not so immutable.

I'm rather surprised no one has ever made a movie about this historical episode.

My complete list of book reviews.