The Zimmermann Telegram by Barbara Tuchman
Paperback, 256 pages
March 12, 1985
Source: Purchased for assigned reading for WWI class
“In January 1917, the war in Europe was, at best, a tragic standoff. Britain knew that all was lost unless the United States joined the war, but President Wilson was unshakable in his neutrality. At just this moment, a crack team of British decoders in a quiet office known as Room 40 intercepted a document that would change history. The Zimmermann telegram was a top-secret message to the president of Mexico, inviting him to join Germany and Japan in an invasion of the United States. How Britain managed to inform the American government without revealing that the German codes had been broken makes for an incredible story of espionage and intrigue as only Barbara W. Tuchman could tell it.”
Author Barbara W. Tuchman does an excellent job of bringing to light all of the detailed little events that transpired in the lead up to the decision for the United States to enter the war on the side of the Allies. The Zimmerman Telegram was one of the last attempts, of many made by Germany, to tie up the United States in its wartime belligerency with events on its own side of the Atlantic, thus allowing Germany to execute their submarine plan to bring Britain to its knees in a matter of months. Within a very short amount of pages, Tuchman clearly and concisely elucidates the leading actions as well as the immediate aftermath of the telegram’s revelation. Despite being published in the 1950s, her work is still relevant today, albeit with some criticisms.
One of the great strengths of this work is that it is written as narrative non-fiction. The events covered by this book effortlessly lend themselves to this style of writing. Each act of espionage and the inner machinations of Britain’s ubiquitous Room 40 read like the events of a James Bond novel. Tuchman equally infuses the narrative with fact as well with a writing style that oozes modern day action thriller. With no trouble I could envision this facet of history of the First World War playing out on screen today.
By focusing the scope of her work tightly on this signature event in the entrance of the United States into the war, Tuchman is able to bring forward the real importance of the proposed German/Mexican/Japanese alliance. The Zimmermann Telegram is often covered in works on the First World War, however in all of the books I have read on the subject I never felt the importance or believable reality of this alliance. Tuchman spends chapters explaining how during this time period the United States was concerned with the very real threat that Mexico, with the aid of the Germans or the Japanese, could bring to them at home.
One of the things that should be noted is that this book was originally published in 1958. This brings up the issue that some facts surrounding this event have had to be inferred because a lot of the information was still concealed at the time of publication (and even after the revision in 1966). Tuchman speaks to this point to some extent in her author’s note. I have not read anything else this in-depth on this event, but it does make me wonder if in the last sixty years any additional information has been released from various archives that changes the perception of these events. Maybe an exploration of a more recently published book on this subject would be beneficial to my understanding of these events to serve as a comparison to Tuchman’s work.
My one real critique of The Zimmermann Telegram is that Tuchman does occasionally allow for her bias and opinions to bleed into her writing. I know that it can be a very difficult exercise to refrain from including bias in non-fiction writing, but that is a general expectation in non-fiction. One example (of many) in the text of the author’s visible bias is as follows, “Field Marshal von Hindenburg, despite a vague uneasiness stirring the heavy processes of his mind, had allowed himself to be persuaded by his demonic colleague, General Ludendorff” (Tuchman 126). Even just this little slip in the use of the word “demonic” to describe General Ludendorff can show the reader the author’s bias toward the man, certainly, but they could further infer (correctly or not) her views on Germany and Germans in general. It certainly made me wonder if I should believe her account entirely or question it to some extent.
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Also by Barbara Tuchman:
The Guns of August
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914
The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam
Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45
The First Salute
Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour
Find Barbara Tuchman: Random House Website
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