Footnotes in Foreign Relations 1:2

By Steven Specht No comments

The Reasons Behind the Zimmerman Telegram

TLDR: Only the United States is allowed to interfere in Mexican politics

Anyone who went through a middle school history class probably remembers something about British decoding the “Zimmerman Telegram” which prompted the US to actively enter World War I.

It was an attempt by the German government to secretly align itself with Mexico. In the event the US declared war on Germany, Mexico would declare war on the US. In exchange for Mexican assistance, a triumphant Germany carved up the world, Mexico would get back Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

It’s unclear why Mexico wouldn’t get California, Nevada, Colorado and Oklahoma in the bargain. Telegrams were kind of like Twitter in limiting character counts, so maybe #California would have put them over the character limit.

Anyway, public school history books didn’t do a great job of explaining why Germany was reaching out to Mexico in the first place. This is probably because the nation that would enter the WWI under a pledge to make the world “safe for democracy” had just engaged in some pretty shady, anti-democratic stuff south of the border.

Here’s that backstory.

Despite having a war from 1846-1848 US and Mexican relations were actually pretty good around the turn of the 19th Century and a 1909 summit between Presidents Porfirio Díaz and William Howard Taft would make history as the second time ever that a US president would visit another country. They discussed expanded rail connecting the two countries, increased cross-border investment, and bunch of other good stuff.

Things went sour the next year.

President Diaz who came to power in 1884 through less-than-democratic means said he was ready to step down after 26 years in power, promising free and fair elections.

Then he changed his mind, jailed his opponents, and announced victory in a fraudulent election where he received nearly 100-percent of the vote.

This was the tipping point of what would become the Mexican Revolution, a bloody ten-year conflict that would cost the lives of 2.5 million Mexicans.

The US had a large but schizophrenic role in the conflict.

The government changed hands twice in the next year before a democratic election put Francisco Madero in the presidency. Though Madero was elected democratically, he was less enthusiastic than Diaz about investment by US Oil companies. The US Ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson decided Madero had to go and instigated a coup against Madero by arming several disgruntled groups in Southern Mexico. When I say the ambassador decided, I mean that it’s unclear that the largely absentee President Taft was even aware of the plot that occurred in the final days of his presidency.

In a convoluted series of events, Madero would be murdered in Mexico City by forces loyal to his own Secretary of Interior, Victoriano Huerta. Huerta had been the Secretary of the Interior for less than an hour when he recognized the opportunity to hijack the coup and declare himself president. (Most of the original coup leaders had been killed or grievously injured).

The coup culminated a month before Woodrow Wilson took office in March of 1913. President Wilson (unrelated to Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson) was aghast at the fact that the US had instigated a coup that resulted in the death of a national leader. (Heads of state were GENERALLY not targeted by other countries at this point in history.)

So, Wilson decided to not recognize the Huerta regime.

Tensions would escalate dramatically over the next four years.

The US started off small, restricting supplies to the Huerta presidency and arming some of its opponents. After a trip ashore for fuel in Veracruz went sour, the sailors and Marines under Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher would invade Veracruz and hold the territory for the next 7 months, killing 300 Mexicans in the process. (They were mostly unarmed civilians). For their bravery in the face of such overwhelming odds, US Navy and Marine personnel would receive 56 Medals of Honor. (Only 126 would be awarded for the entirety of WWI.) At least one of the Marines tried to return his unearned medal. If you read my last installment, you might recognize the name of then Major, Smedley Butler.

The occupation of Veracruz was not the only US incursion into Mexico. One of our other surrogates, Pancho Villa got ticked off when we stopped arming him and decided raiding a US Army Garrison in New Mexico would be a good idea. We sent future WWI hero “Black Jack” Pershing across the border after Pancho Villa in March of 1916. Pershing would not leave Mexico until February of the next year, a month after the Zimmerman Telegram had been sent and two months before the US entered WWI.

So, Mexico wasn’t super happy at the time of the Zimmerman Telegram.

However, it was a long shot by Germany that ultimately cost them the war.

Power in Mexico was tenuous at best with half-a-dozen different factions vying for control of the country. Even if they could have organized behind one banner, US population was 6 times that of Mexico and they were already on a war footing, having been arming the British against Germany for years.

Instead of distracting the United States, it emboldened a population that had largely resisted war efforts up to that point.

Once US troops actively entered the war, it would be over in less than two years.