Barbara Tuchman’s classic book on the Great War The Zimmermann Telegram

07 Jul
Barbara Tuchman's classic book The Zimmerman Telegram

The Zimmermann Telegram

In Barbara W. Tuchman’s 1958 classic The Zimmermann Telegram, the late historian provides an eloquent synopsis of Germany’s efforts to draw Mexico into an alliance against the United States during the First World War through a coded Western Union telegram sent by German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to Germany’s Ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt in 1917. Tuchman’s eloquent and dramatic writing style in The Zimmermann Telegram lends itself to an informal and engrossing delivery typically found in popular history. Clearly this book’s success, and that of Tuchman herself, is the author’s posture and interpretation of the impact of Zimmermann’s telegram to Mexico on the First World War – conveyed in novel-like fashion.Interestingly enough, Tuchman’s thesis and argument for the telegram’s vital importance is stated at the end of her book, as opposed to its beginning, as is most typical in academic history. This dramatic punch – her contention of the telegram’s discovery and impact on America’s entry into the war, is summed up beautifully in Chapter Twelve’s “Obliged To Believe It”: “Had the telegram never been intercepted or never been published, inevitably the Germans would have done something else that would have brought us in eventually. But the time was already late and, had we delayed much longer, the Allies might have been forced to negotiate.”[1] Tuchman closes her argument by adding that to this degree the telegram changed the course of the First World War. It is easy for the reader to infer, as did I, that this single event may have had an impact on future events across Europe and more specifically, Germany – and the rise of the Third Reich.It was not the German U-boat menace in the North Atlantic that brought President Woodrow Wilson and Congress to a consensus for war and America as a late-entry belligerent – but rather the Zimmerman telegram. Zimmerman himself made the decision for war much easier for Wilson by foolishly admitting that he had in-fact authored the telegram. For without proof of the telegram’s origin, Wilson and Congress might not have reached their consensus at this point in time. In my mind this is Tuchman’s most salient concept; and, one that has furthered my understanding of the First World War as well as America’s entry-point into the conflict.

In my current research on Woodrow Wilson and his difficulties as president during this period in history, more importance is given to the German U-boat menace in the North Atlantic as a spark to war. In John Milton Cooper’s epic 2009 biography of Wilson, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, Cooper discusses the Zimmermann telegram not at great length, but offers German submarine atrocities as a catalyst in his speech to Congress of April 2, 1917.[2] In reviewing the Zimmermann telegram in both sources, in context, I am deferring to Tuchman’s view that the telegram was the turning point for Wilson and Congress. This is certainly no slight to Cooper’s work in Woodrow Wilson – I don’t believe it was Cooper’s intention to prove theories; but rather to write Wilson’s biography in a linear timeline-format, as historical fact, as opposed to a collection of episodes or arguments. To the vast collection of documentation on the First World War, I view Tuchman’s The Zimmermann Telegram as a significant contribution to the literature of background history and causation.

Tuchman’s unique connection to the subject – she, the granddaughter of Henry Morgenthau Sr., Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, shows in her passion for the history of the First World War. Her selection of sources is quite good – considering the distant period of the book’s writing (the 1950’s). Tuchman’s predominant utilization of primary sources (manuscript sources, printed official sources from Germany, the US, and Great Britain, and “contemporary works”) are valuable towards supporting her book’s arguments and storyline. Her limited reliance on secondary works, or sources, does not hinder The Zimmermann Telegram due to the subject’s narrow focus. As an historian and author Tuchman does not feel compelled to include complete bibliographies – especially those of secondary sources. She notes in the “Sources” section to her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Guns of August, from 1962, that “No other episode in history [The Great War] has been more fully documented by its participants. They seem to have known, while they lived it, that like the French Revolution, the First World War was one of the great convulsions of history, and each felt the hand of history heavily on his own shoulder.”[3] I believe that all great writers are connected to their subject in some fashion. For Tuchman it may have been her aforementioned lineage, as the hand of history on her own shoulder. Whatever her connection, her passion for the subject is clearly evident in her dramatic writing style found in The Zimmermann Telegram.

Finally, I enjoyed Tuchman’s book. Her brilliance in The Zimmermann Telegram fuels the “academic versus popular history” debate that continues amongst historians at every level.  The only observation that I have to Tuchman’s book is one of conciseness and length. Given her enthusiasm for the Great War and its nuances, I would have enjoyed expansion of select chapters in the book – at just two hundred pages I was left wanting for more history. Very little has been written on this topic since The Zimmermann Telegram was first published in 1958 – perhaps testament to Tuchman’s legacy as a writer. There is a new book scheduled for release in October 2012 on Arthur Zimmermann’s telegram to Mexico, titled  The Zimmermann Telegram: Intelligence, Diplomacy, and America’s Entry into World War I. Written by Thomas Boghart, and published by the Naval Institute Press, the book promises new insight into the history – at greater length. Boghart’s offering to the literature should be an interesting companion to Tuchman’s short but brilliant work in The Zimmerman Telegram.

Cooper, John Milton. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 2009. Page references are to the 2011 edition.
Tuchman, Barbara. The Zimmerman Telegram. New York: Ballantine Books, 1958. Page references are to the 1985 edition.
———. The Guns of August. New York: Ballantine Books, 1962. Page references are to the 2004 edition.

[1] Barbara Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985) 200.
[2] John Milton Cooper, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 2009) 385.
[3] Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: Ballantine Books, 1962) 441.


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