Barbara Tuchman, The Zimmerman Telegram (1958). Recommended.
It is far fetched and yet true story of how the Kaiser's Germany tried off-and-on to encourage animosity between Japan and the USA, between Mexico and the USA and then an alliance between Japan and Mexico against the USA, or between the Japan, Mexico, and Germany against the USA to keep the USA out of European affairs, especially in the years for American neutrality in WWI. The various schemes were launched independently by several German agents and government departments promoted a Japan-Mexico alliance funded in part by Germany to keep the USA locked into North America. It included either a Japanese invasion or inflitration through Baja California. The prize offered to the Japanese would be the Philippines and Hawaii and to Mexico the return of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. If Mexico could be won over it might stop the flow of Tampico oil for USA navy and might offer naval basis to U-boats along with the oil.
In World War I Japan had allied itself with the England and France, but once it had occupied the German possessions -- Guam, Samoa, and the Marshall Islands -- in the Pacific it had no further interest in the war. Germany was willing to give those up for Japan to dabble in Mexico. There was even at one time mention briefly of a formal military alliance of Germany, Japan, and Mexico.
The Japanese encouraged the approaches to see what was on offer, but never seemed to be seriously considering it. But simply being receptive was disturbing intelligence in Washington. The real value of Japan to the Western European alliance was that it secured Russia's Asian border so it could concentrate its armies in Poland and not have to hold back some to guard against a Japanese attack and replay of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Accordingly, to the Western Allies the goal was to neutralize Japan one way or another. Anything that jeopardized that neutrality was dangerous. Hence the German efforts to do just that.
At the time Mexico was a cauldron of vying war lords throughout this period: Villa, Huerta, Carranza, and others. Each willing to promise anything to get arms and gold, each hating El Norte. (Well that just about sums up a great of Mexican history to today.)
President Woodrow Wilson is presented as an inflexible idealist who could not shape his manner, means, or message to the circumstances. He worked from elevated first principles for all times and all places, and so not suitable for any particular time or place. His invasion(s) of Mexico was for its own good! He found it very frustrating that Mexicans did not realize that and acquiesce. His goal was regime change! History is repetitive. He was quite upset that Mexicans resisted and united against his invasions.
Colonel House features largely in this story as one who enjoyed playing the game that he often lost sight of what it as all for. Because he enjoyed wire pulling so much, he overestimated his own influence.
Wilson ignored the reports and advice of diplomats because he knew they did not imbibe his goals of world peace and were concerned only with American interests, including business interest in Mexico and with Germany. Instead he relied on House who never said anything Wilson might not want to hear.
Robert Lansing came early to the conclusion that war with Germany was inevitable. He was reading the diplomatic reports and realized Germany would never compromise to make peace.
The most astounding thing was that Colonel House convinced Wilson to let the German embassy in Washington DC use State Department cables, during US neutrality, to communicate with Berlin and for the German foreign office to reply by the same means ostensibly to consider peace terms but in fact it was to avoid British intelligence surveillance in communicating to Mexico from Washington DC. The Secretary of State, Lansing, to his credit resisted and demanded a written order from Wilson each of the many times over weeks, because it violated neutrality.
Even after the Zimmerman Telegram was revealed the Germans kept using it this American channel. It seems never to have occurred to any German that the code had been broken somewhere. They tried to trace the leak and the English tried to conceal it. Zimmerman, by the way, was the German foreign minister.
The Zimmerman Telegram was timed to coincide with the launch unrestricted submarine warfare with the up of an uprising in Mexico and the prospect of a Japanese attack on The Philippines, or Hawaii, or even California to paralyze the USA. The German General staff estimated Britain could only hold out six months with unrestricted submarine attacked. If the USA was pinned down for a time, it might be long enough to compel a British surrender. Without Britain, France would, the Germans supposed, fall over.
The declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare depended on having 200 U-boats operational to go to unrestricted warfare to cover the sea approaches to Britain. When that number was reached, the declaration was made.
The British had broken the code and since the German sent that Telegram three times, such was their confidence in the impenetrability of the code, once via the neutral Swedish diplomatic route which the Swedes offered to Germany throughout the war in violation of their own neutrality, via radio from Berlin, and by Telegram to Washington D.C., they got it. The British wanted to conceal the fact that they had cracked the code so that the German would keep using it. So they had to figure out a way to reveal the message to the USA in such a way to prove its authenticity but not so much as to reveal how the USA came to have it. That is a convoluted story best read.
Yet there is more. The authenticity was denied by American pacifists like Robert LaFollette. The Senate was set to block. Then Zimmerman in Berlin called a press conference. The opening question came from a pro-German American journalist who said 'Of course,you are going to deny it....' But no, Zimmerman said, ‘I can't deny it because it is true.‘ End game! Then he proceeded to split hairs about whether the putative alliance was to apply before or after the USA entered the war. Too late, the admission undercut the deniers in the USA.
Let's count the blunders there. Zimmerman did not need to have a press conference. If there was one, he could have sent someone else. If he went, he could have stalled, temporized, or prevaricated since time was the essence. Remarkably he continued in office.
When the telegram was revealed, the fact that it had been transmitted unknowingly by the State Department was omitted.
Tuchman argues that the German were determined to win the war because to settle or lose would mean a revolt that would lead to a regime change and Kaiser would be gone. They were right...
The book has many marvelous turns of the phrase, and enough skulduggery for several Le Carré novels. Spies and counter spies tripping over each other.
A few quibbles. A lot of guesses are passed off as fact, e.g., 'when he read the telegram, his heartbeat faster..' 'When the Kaiser again ....., he felt his grasp on reality slipping away.' How can she possibly know the inner mind of all these characters. Of course, it adds a human touch to offer these comments and makes it read like a novel, but .... it is sheer speculation. She could have said 'he might have felt his grasping reality' or 'his must have beat faster' but these subjunctive constructions reveal the description as hypothesis not as fact. Just in case she was paraphrasing a source I checked the notes three or four times and found nothing to support the text.
She also more than once reifies a nation, 'Germany reacted.., rather than which Germans or 'the State Department was embarrassed when..,' rather who was embarrassed.
She underestimates William Jennings Bryan and disparages him as though she had recently seen the play 'Inherit the Wind‘ (1955). He was certainly the most well travelled man in Wilson's cabinet and he read German and his wife spoke French on their travels. I have no doubt that he would have blunted the pervasive and pernicious influence of Colonel House in the State Department.
She makes no mention of that superstar journalist of the day H L Mencken who was pro-German. Yet he made enough noise for six others.
I was keen to read this as a precursor to her great book The Guns of August (1962), and also because I found that the Zimmerman Telegram was hardly mentioned in the biography of President Wilson I read, yet I recalled it to be of great importance.