Intelligence in Public Literature

The Zimmermann Telegram: Intelligence, Diplomacy, and America's Entry into World War I

Thomas Boghardt (Naval Institute Press, 2012), 319 pp., illustrations, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by John Ehrman

Since 1 March 1917, the day its decrypted text was published in US newspapers, the Zimmermann telegram has been a subject of popular fascination. The reason the story is so captivating is not hard to understand: it is a morality play, a story of deception, codebreaking, and high diplomacy. Not surprisingly, though, these elements also have obscured the truth about the telegram, whether because historians have had a difficult time sorting the facts or because of deliberate distortion and mythmaking. In his new history, The Zimmermann Telegram, military and intelligence historian Thomas Boghardt presents a meticulously researched and well-written account that clarifies the story of the telegram and likely will be the standard for many years to come.

The basic story is well known. As Germany prepared in January 1917 to begin unrestricted submarine warfare—a move likely to bring the United States into World War I—Berlin’s foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, approved a proposal to the Mexican government that offered it the opportunity to recover territories lost to the United States if it joined the war on Berlin's side. British intelligence, however, intercepted and decrypted the cable and then gave the text to Walter Hines Page, the US ambassador in London. Page forwarded the text to the State Department, and it was shown to President Wilson and Secretary of State Lansing. Lansing, in turn, gave the text to an Associated Press correspondent. The uproar that followed publication, generations of schoolchildren have been taught, helped propel the United States into the war.

The strength of The Zimmermann Telegram is the multiple perspectives that Boghardt uses to tell the story. For general readers, there is plenty of fun. Fascinating, even eccentric characters populate the tale. Foremost among these is the chief of the British navy's codebreaking branch, Captain William Reginald “Blinker” Hall. Hall, in Boghardt’s description, was a charismatic man and brilliant intelligence operator and politician. He earned his nickname because “when excited…his piercing eyes took to frequent blinking.” Hall also had false teeth that clicked as he spoke, and he used these tics to overcome opponents in Whitehall debates: “When making a point, he clicked his false teeth horridly, and his icy stare and wiggling eyebrows were said to work wonders in negotiations.” (83)

Hall is the key player in the book. Boghardt gives a good account of how he established his operation, known as Room 40, and then expanded it into the best intercept and codebreaking operation in the world. It is a glimpse, too, of the birth of an intelligence service and how—under Hall’s firm hand—it operated with virtually no supervision from above, something that would be almost inconceivable today, when intelligence services are bureaucratized and seek to integrate their operations. Ironically, though, Hall’s success contributed to the creation of the modern intelligence bureaucracy. After the war, the British realized how valuable Room 40 had been and took steps to place it on a firm institutional footing, creating what is now GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters, which—along with NSA—is one of the world’s leading SIGINT agencies.

On the German side, too, the characters tend to be interesting, although not because of their abilities. Zimmermann himself was a hardworking plodder who “did not respond well to stress” and who had a poor understanding of European politics—hardly the qualities one would look for in a foreign minister. (24) As for Hans Arthur von Kemnitz, who suggested the proposal to Mexico and drafted the telegram, Boghardt simply notes that his “performance as a diplomat was subpar” even before he came up with his scheme. (53) After the war, Kemnitz was unable to find employment as a diplomat, but after 1933 suddenly discovered that he long had been a loyal Nazi and tried to find a job in the new regime’s foreign affairs apparatus. Even the Nazis did not want him, however, and he died in well-deserved obscurity.

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Posted: Oct 24, 2013 01:08 PM
Last Updated: Oct 24, 2013 01:08 PM