(Editor’s note: This is the 92nd installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from J. Sydney Jones, author of the acclaimed “Viennese Mystery” series (Requiem in Vienna and The Empty Mirror), set in Vienna at the turn of the last century. Jones also writes a lively blog called Scene of the Crime.)
“Make war together, make peace together.”
That was the crux of a telegram sent in January 1917 by Germany’s foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to Mexico via the German ambassador in Washington, D.C. What Zimmerman offered was a chance for Mexico to reclaim its lost territories in the American Southwest, simply by allying with Germany in the event that the United States declared war against the Central Powers--hardly a remote possibility, as Germany was set to recommence its unrestricted submarine warfare in a matter of weeks.
In other words, Germany was telling Mexico, Join us, and you’ll get Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico back.
But the telegram never became the diplomatic coup it was intended to be; instead, it was turned into the crux of a real-life spy thriller that sounds like something from John Buchan, or better yet, John le Carré. And it is the subject of Barbara Tuchman’s 1958 bestseller, The Zimmermann Telegram.
I know--we are pushing the envelope here with a work of non-fiction, but trust me, this book not only reads like a thriller; it is also structured like one.
Like the best spy novels, Tuchman’s book is told from multiple points of view; it shifts location from London to Berlin to Washington to Mexico in a dizzying whirl of cross and double-cross, encoding and decoding lore, back-corridor negotiating and haggling; and it has a cast of high-profile, sometimes pompous, sometimes noble, sometimes risible characters that keeps the reader always guessing for motive and means.
“The first message of the morning watch plopped out of the pneumatic tube into the wire basket with no more premonitory rattle than usual,” writes Tuchman at the start of her book. A classic sort of in medias res opener that is familiar from all good, fast-paced thrillers. I remember reading that sentence as a college student in a freshman modern European history survey course, and it hooked me. It still does. It was the first time I encountered hard-driving narrative history that could equal the best of fiction for pace and action.
The “message” in question, so innocent-seeming at first, is, of course the intercepted telegram sent by Zimmermann. The pneumatic tube spitting out its staple products is located in the ultra-secret Room 40 at British Naval Intelligence, the center of cryptanalysis for the Brits and run by the legendary Admiral William Reginald “Blinker” Hall. The folks in Room 40 are quickly able to decipher the telegram, as they have broken the German code. Soon analysts, strategists, and politicians in England will know they have geo-political gold: the smoking-gun evidence of evil intentions by the Kaiser and his cronies that will force the reluctant and insular Americans into the bloody fray of the First World War, and thereby end the deadly trench-war stalemate in Europe. (Ironically, in the Second World War the British trotted out a similar scenario--fabricated this time--prior to Pearl Harbor. A suddenly discovered German map displayed Mexico and the United States checkerboarded into German administrative districts, or Gau. This formed the basis of William Boyd’s 2006 novel, Restless.)
But now, as all good thriller writers do, Tuchman ups the stakes. There are complications upon complications. The British cannot simply hand over the decoded message to President Woodrow Wilson. First, they are guilty of poaching the telegram from a supposedly secure cable that Washington has established with Berlin in hopes of keeping peace communications open. Second, they do not want to let the Germans know they have cracked their code, in which case it will be changed and future valuable information will be lost. The British want their cryptographic pie and to eat it, as well.
Even as a fix is found for these early complications--fabrication of a tale that the telegram (left) has been discovered via the telegraph office in Mexico--others arise. Will the telegram be discounted as a forgery, a nefarious British invention by American isolationists such as Senator Robert La Follette? Can pro-war Americans such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and former President Theodore Roosevelt be counted on to back its authenticity? What will the anti-war Wilson do if and when the telegram is put into his hands?
Author Tuchman lets us see each of these characters in turn, using a few brisk and memorable words to fix them in our minds, as she does with Admiral Hall upon our first meeting, dubbing him “a demonic Mr. Punch in uniform.”
Meanwhile, the tide seems to be turning in Europe; resumption of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare could spell the end for the Allies, cut off from American aid. Can the telegram save the cause? Tuchman sets the clock ticking, and the reader feels the urgency, feels the anguished tug of war between competing agencies and governments, all after the American prize.
And then on April 2, 1917, the Allies won that prize, with the American declaration of war on Germany. Although many people blamed Germany’s torpedoing of civilian ships for Wilson’s agonized decision, Tuchman has gone behind the scenes to show us other reasons for U.S. involvement. Hers is a tale of conspiracy and deceit mixed with occasional splendid bravery that can serve as the model for any aspiring thriller writer.
Commenting on the importance of the incident, Tuchman notes in the last lines of her book: “In itself the Zimmermann telegram was only a pebble on the long road of history. But a pebble can kill a Goliath, and this one killed the American illusion that we could go about our business happily separate from other nations. In world affairs it was a German Minister’s minor plot. In the lives of the American people it was the end of innocence.”
A thriller with a message. Now, that is cause for celebration.
So how is it that a professional historian, a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and the author of such best-selling and critically acclaimed works as The Guns of August, The Proud Tower, A Distant Mirror, The March of Folly, Practicing History, and Stilwell and the American Experience in China, was able to write such moving narrative history?
Well, because she was not a professional historian, not an academic. In a New York Times interview, Tuchman shared the secret of her success--she had never attended graduate school, content with a bachelor’s from Radcliffe: “It’s what saved me, I think. If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled any writing capacity.”
Amen to that.