Study Guide

Zimmermann Telegram Main Idea

By Arthur Zimmermann

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  • Main Idea

    Mexico, Please Attack the U.S.—Love, Germany

    Zimmermann (of the Zimmermann Telegram; yeah, that guy) is writing to Mexico to inform them that Germany's planning to start shooting at literally everything in the oceans. Ships, whales, whatever—it's all fair game now. Germany realizes that this might escalate the war to levels it can't control, or more importantly, can't win.

    Specifically, they're worried about what the U.S. might do, but they have a plan for that.

    Zimmermann tells Mexico that it should attack the U.S. and invite Japan along, too, for a kind of military double date. That way, the U.S. will get bogged down fighting Mexico, freeing up Germany to do whatever it wants on the seas without worrying about the consequences.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Why is it important for Germany to keep the U.S. neutral?
    2. What historic events made Mexico the target of Zimmermann's plot and not some other country?
    3. Why might it have been important for this plot to be kept secret?

    Chew on This

    Mexico would have been insane to take on the risk of attacking the U.S., even with Germany's help.

    Mexico should have accepted Zimmermann's proposal (and Germany's money) to take back the land that was unfairly stolen by the Americans during the Mexican-American War. It was probably their last chance.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    This German Foreign Minister dude named Arthur Zimmermann (we call him Art) sends a message to his German ambassador buddy in Mexico about a new strategy for winning World War I. His note gets intercepted, and nations on at least three continents are not at all pleased with its subject matter.

    The Text

    Zimmermann suggests that Mexico attack the U.S. as a distraction from all the nasty stuff Germany was planning to do in the Atlantic. As a bonus, maybe they'd get Texas, Arizona, and California. He also implies that Japan could attack the U.S., too, and that Germany would pay for it.


    Yo, Mexico, wanna fight the U.S.? xoxo Germany.

  • Questions

    • Why do you think unrestricted submarine warfare was so important to Germany's strategy in World War I? Wouldn't it have been simpler just to not shoot at American ships?
    • If James Bond, Jason Bourne, or Ethan Hunt had discovered the Zimmermann Telegram, what do you think they would have done about it? How would history be different if real-life was more like spy movies?
    • What do you think Mexico's reaction would have been if they'd secretly received the Zimmermann Telegram without it being intercepted? Would things have turned out differently? Do you think they would have shown it to the U.S. anyway?
    • If the American government today intercepted a similar note from a hostile foreign country (an encrypted email perhaps), do you think it would start a war?
    • Is it possible that any aspect of the Zimmermann Telegram was lost in translation/decoding? What would you ask Arthur Zimmermann if you could discuss with him his actual intentions?

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