Thursday, June 1, 2017
The Zimmermann Telegram, by Barbara W. Tuchman
This book doesn't deal terribly much with the aftermath of the Zimmermann Telegram, which is fairly well known. Instead, Tuchman puts the Zimmermann Telegram within the larger context of politics in the early twentieth century and how Germany trying to get Japan and Mexico to fight the United States wasn't quite as far-fetched an idea as it may seem to us. Tuchman chronicles how Germany sought to expand their influence within Central and South America as a counter-balance to American and European power. This was during an era when Americans frequently intervened in Mexican affairs, to the point of sending most of the army under General Pershing in an ill-starred attempt to capture Pancho Villa. So the Mexican population, resentful of Yankee interference, was willing to accept German help. In addition, Wilhelm II's continual harping on the Yellow Peril and the spreading of rumors that the Japanese were already in Mexico with plans to attack the Panama Canal further made a collaboration between Germany, Japan, and Mexico all that much more likely.
I did find out this book was published half a century ago, first in 1958, which gives me some cause for concern, especially when Tuchman tends to stereotype the Germans as blindly arrogant, jealous of their English cousins, but ultimately bungling buffoons whose own arrogance exposes their stupidity. On the one hand, there is some cause to be concerned by this assessment because Tuchman seems to cast everyone, from the Kaiser on down, into the same mold. To be fair I have read other historical texts such as Absolute Destruction by Isabel Hull which delved deeply into the German military and political apparatus which was definitely blindingly overconfident of its own abilities and assumed things would work exactly as planned. Which caused considerable problems for Germany when almost nothing went as planned during World War I. How deeply this ran within the military and political establishments is a little harder to tell but there does seem to be evidence it was strong enough to seriously hamper German strategic ability.
Overall I think this book is interesting but I feel it deals a lot more with the background to the telegram rather than the message and its aftereffects. We get very detailed explanations as to how the Zimmermann Telegram could seem even halfway plausible to the German government and how the British intercepted and decoded German communications before we finally get to the telegram being revealed to Woodrow Wilson and later the American public. Tuchman does give a good sense of how it galvanized American support for intervention in the war, a prospect that most of the population previously was very lukewarm on. But I feel like we didn't get to see the aftermath which was just as important.
I also worry a little bit that Tuchman falls into the fallacy of assuming historical figures had the same knowledge and perspective as we have now and blaming them for not acting differently. In some, or even most cases, people cannot be certain how their actions will turn out in the future so we cannot always blame people for engaging in what seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be a terrible, terrible idea. But it definitely provided some additional information that I didn't already know about the First World War.