Monday, June 20, 2016

The Zimmermann Telegram by Barbara W. Tuchman


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I am a big fan of harpsichord music, although I understand not everyone is.  As a wedding present, a friend of mine bought me the complete works of William Byrd on keyboard.  This includes not only performances on the harpsichord but also the smaller clavier and organ.  Anyway, this is what I'm listening to.  Here's a link if you'd like to listen along. 

The Zimmermann Telegram was written in 1958 by Barbara W. Tuchman.  It is about the pivotal point that finally propelled a reluctant President Wilson along with a largely pacifist U.S. population that elected him twice to join a war effort barely before it was too late.

If no one has made a movie out of this they should, Tuchman's writing is superb.  A Tom Cruise action-packed movie couldn't move at a faster pace.  I also learned a lot that did not come up in my high school history class.

In high school we were taught that WWI came about unintentionally due to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, as allies and axis lined up against each other due to agreements that if this country went to war we would go to war with it etc.. so what should have been a local tragedy turned into a World War.

According to Tuchman's book, that is not quite what happened.  She lays the blame fully on the shoulders of the German Kaiser Wilhem.

The Kaiser invented the concept of "The Yellow Peril" to invoke paranoia and racism in Europeans and Americans in order to manipulate them against the Japanese, but, as it later turned out, he was also willing to negotiate with the Japanese as well as Mexicans to divert American interests from Europe and keep them out of WWI.

In short, WWI could have been avoided if the Kaiser was not power hungry for world dominion.  Yet he had the support of the Germans.  The seeds of Aryan superiority existed years before Hitler came to power.  Hitler simply knew how to fan the flame.

I learned more about Woodrow Wilson than I ever knew, at least as far as his attitude toward war and world war with Europe.  

He was the only president with a PhD and taught at several colleges, including Cornell and Princeton.  He was an intellectual and approached issues from a progressive, cerebral point of view.

Which goes to show that things can look academically good on paper and have little correlation to reality.  This includes his pacifist philosophy.  He tried to the very end to work for world peace, ignoring the real threat of Mexican dictatorships and  war hungry Germans.  He was fairly obtuse on this point, waiting until U Boats bombed American ships with heavy loss of life.  And then the Zimmermann Telegram.

British Intelligence, through a set of fortuitous circumstances as outlined in the book, received a code book the Germans used and were able to consequently intercept German communications to  the German Ambassadors in America and Mexico.  One of these was the Zimmermann Telegram.  Arthur Zimmermann was the Foreign Secretary of the German Empire.  His telegram was a communication to Eckhart, the German Ambassador in Mexico.  In it he anticipates unrestricted submarine warfare against the United States and a proposed alliance with Mexico.

The Kaiser had already been stirring things up with the Mexican dictators as well as the Japanese in order to occupy the Americans stateside so they would not have the resources to enter into the war and assist Britain and France.   He anticipated taking over these countries as well as carving up the States (with his little helpers, Mexico and Japan) after America could no longer defend herself.

Much of this was known or suspected by many of the Cabinet members in the U.S. House and Senate.  Wilson's personal advisors pleaded with him to realize how dangerous the situation was becoming.  Theodore Roosevelt stormed, fumed and threatened to "skin Wilson alive".  

But all to no avail.  Wilson held his pacifist philosophies too dear.  In this he reminds me of President Carter.  

When the Zimmermann Telegram first came to light, Wilson's supporters, American pacifists and even the Hearst newspapers laughed it off as a hoax, probably invented by the British to manipulate Americans into the war.

All that was put to rest when Zimmermann himself admitted to authoring the telegram.  No one knows why he admitted it, when he could have easily denied it. 

But for whatever reason, no one could any longer deny that Germany was planning on attacking the U.S. and Wilson, after years of dilly dallying, believing he could created world peace, jumped on board and WWI began.

I couldn't help comparing the events in this book with current events and human nature.  

For one, I observe the  groundless belief some people and unfortunately people in key positions of power hold that power hungry people don't exist.  They refuse to believe that evil exists and that there are powerful people in the world that passionately devote their lives to destroying whole civilizations for personal gain, profit and lust for dominion.  I have personal friends and family members that believe with all their heart that every war and act of terrorism is just a big misunderstanding and if we would lay down our weapons, so would they and...and...then we could all join hands and sing, "Let There Be Peace on Earth".

History has shown us again and again that this isn't true and our present day course doesn't look much different but there is a stubborn persistence in clinging to the ideology that "everyone wants peace."

That is what I find so disheartening about our present situation: our current leaders' refusal to be realistic about terrorism.  To call people paranoid when attack after attack transpires.  When our leaders' only reaction is to tell us to stop being "phobic" and "irrational" instead of telling us what they are going to do to keep their citizens safe, I feel that people are one day going to look at this time period the way history looks at President Wilson.

I suppose I got a little editorial there but those are the thoughts this book provoked.

But, to return to the book, I highly recommend this book for the insight it provides into one of the most important historical epochs of the last century. 

6 comments:

  1. This sounds so good. i am remotely familiar with the Zimmerman Telegram but thus book sounds like it fills in a lot.

    I read Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century and I thought it was outstanding. I want to read more of her books. I have also heard that The Guns of August was a must read History Book.

    I agree with much of what you have to say about terrorism. Though I think that some leaders are tempered language for good political reasons, there is a trend on the far Left that is completely unrealistic about the causes of terrorism and what it will take to defeat it. There are indeed parallels here to Wilson and the origins of this war.

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    1. Hello Brian! If Tuchman's other books are as good as this one, I will definitely be reading them.

      I understand why we cannot making sweeping generalizations about people of certain religions or ethnic backgrounds. I just wish our leaders would make concrete statements about how we are going to prevent future attacks, other than promote gun control.

      From what I've been reading, the FBI protocol needs overhauling. Maybe they could start with that.

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  2. I read this one years ago, and I remember being blown away by the style and content. It was such a revelation! Your fine posting/review reminds me that I need to make a trip to the library, grab a copy of the book, and read it again. Thanks!

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    1. Hi R.T. It's style and content were indeed wonderful. I hope you find a copy! I'm sure I will be reading it again in the future.

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  3. Sounds like a fascinating book. It is interesting what we are taught in school compared to what really happened...

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    1. Hi Chris! It's true. I am finding that I have to read several sources, books, before I feel as though I'm truly learning about a subject. I have discovered that with the different biographies of Mozart I am reading.

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I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.