The Zimmermann Telegram

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 263rd installment in the series.  

January 16-17, 1917: The Zimmermann Telegram

Germany’s decision to resume unrestricted U-boat warfare at the beginning of 1917 was arguably the worst strategic decision of the First World War – but Germany dug the hole even deeper by attempting to start a war between Mexico and the United States. Together these ill-advised moves turned American public opinion decisively against the Central Powers, setting the stage for U.S. entry into the war in April 1917.

The secret initiative to bring Mexico into the war – which didn’t stay secret for long – was laid out in the “Zimmermann Telegram,” a coded message first sent by the German State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Arthur Zimmermann to the German ambassador to the U.S. Johann von Bernstorff, who passed it along to the ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckhardt (this indirect route was used in an attempt to avoid interception, futile as it turned out; below, the coded telegram from Bernstorff). 

In his previous role as undersecretary of foreign affairs Zimmermann enjoyed some success fomenting dissension abroad to distract Germany’s enemies from the European war, most notably the Easter Rising in Ireland, which complicated British war efforts and delivered a stinging propaganda defeat to the Allies, supposedly fighting for the rights of small countries. On taking the reins from the previous foreign secretary, Gottlieb von Jagow, Zimmermann naturally continued his predecessor’s policy of stirring up trouble between Mexico and the U.S. in order to distract the latter – an easy task considering their fraught relations following the Mexican Revolution, Tampico Incident, the repeated depredations of Pancho Villa, and the Punitive Expedition.

But now Zimmermann planned a dangerous escalation, reflecting the mounting stakes. With unrestricted U-boat warfare set to resume on February 1, 1917, Germany’s leaders knew there was a very good chance it would provoke the United States to join the war against them, and so (despite reassuring predictions from military hardliners that the American effort would be desultory at best) were willing to consider any gambit to refocus America’s attention away from Germany – ideally on an enemy closer to home. 

The Germans spared nothing in their effort to bring Mexico into the war, at least as far as promises go. The key enticement – and a diplomatic bombshell when revealed – was the offer to help Mexico win back the lost provinces of the American southwest, taken by the U.S. as spoils of victory in the Mexican-American War in 1848. Even more sensational, the Germans wanted Mexico to help convince Japan to turn on the U.S. as well, capitalizing on growing tension between the countries over Japanese expansion in the Pacific Ocean and aggression in China. The full text of the telegram delivered to Eckhardt read:

We intend to begin on the 1st of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace. Signed, Zimmermann.

Unfortunately for the Germans, Eckhardt and Mexico’s leader Venustiano Carranza (who would be sworn in as president on May 1, 1917) weren’t the only ones privy to this shocking proposal, transmitted by coded telegraph. Unbeknownst to the German foreign ministry the British Admiralty’s cryptography division, “Room 40,” had been monitoring German messages since the war began, and were routinely able to decode these messages with the help of captured codebooks and ciphers. 

The Zimmermann Telegram was originally dispatched from Berlin to Washington, D.C. on January 16, 1917 using standard diplomatic channels, which in wartime meant sending it on undersea telegraph cables via a neutral country – in this case Denmark. After receiving a copy of the intercepted message on January 17, 1917, the British code-breakers went to work and almost immediately realized the value of the intelligence gathered from the partially decoded document, which was bound to infuriate American public opinion and hopefully bring the U.S. into the war on the side of the Allies. They continued their work and by February 5 the message was nearly complete.

The Admiralty was understandably careful about sharing or acting on information uncovered by Room 40, in order to avoid arousing German suspicions that their codes were compromised, but the Zimmermann Telegram presented an opportunity too good to pass up. In order to bring the telegram to the attention of President Woodrow Wilson without tipping their hand to the Germans, and without disclosing the awkward fact that they were spying on American telegraph traffic, Room 40 chief Admiral William Hall came up with two clever ruses. First, the British would tell the Americans they obtained the telegram by bribing a telegraph company employee in Mexico; second, when it was time to go public they would make it appear the deciphered message had been obtained by British agents through treachery in Mexico City, rather than intercepted and deciphered as it crossed the Atlantic. 

For now the British kept their secret to themselves, in the hopes that Germany’s resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare would be enough to bring the U.S. into the war; they only disclosed the existence of the telegram on February 24, 1917, when their American cousins seemed to be dragging their feet (at which point the British were able to cover their tracks even more completely with the collaboration of the U.S. government, by staging additional deceptions to make it appear that it was American spies who obtained the text – this time through treachery in the German embassy in Washington, D.C. The full details of this exciting episode are set forth in Barbara Tuchman’s classic book, The Zimmermann Telegram. Above, the decoded version).

Meanwhile the Mexican government responded skeptically to the German proposal. U.S.-Mexican relations, while certainly at a low point during the Punitive Expedition, had apparently been improving since the summer of 1916, when Wilson disavowed war with Mexico and Carranza offered concessions. Further, Carranza’s generals warned that Mexico would never be able to absorb the large “Anglo” populations of the states in question, foreshadowing endless future conflicts with restive natives as well as the irredentist U.S. (top, an American cartoon after the telegram became public). 

Worse still, Mexico would bear the brunt of the war by itself, with no prospect of effective help from Germany thanks to the British naval blockade – a daunting prospect considering the Mexican Army could barely secure the country’s own northern territories (Japan was also unlikely to go to war lightly, as it relied on imports of American kerosene, cotton, and steel, and also depended on America as its largest export market). 

In short, Germany had unwittingly provided Britain with a deadly diplomatic weapon, sealing its own fate, all for the sake of an improbable – some might say fantastic – foreign adventure. Later, Zimmermann’s inexplicable admission that he was the author of the telegram put the final nail in the coffin of the reputation of Imperial Germany’s foreign service, already discredited by incompetent diplomacy in the lead-up to the war.

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Forgotten Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials

A scene from Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976).
A scene from Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976).
Rankin/Bass Productions

If you're prone to picturing your favorite Christmas characters as stop-motion puppets, you can thank Rankin/Bass. The production company founded by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass found success in transforming holiday songs and myths into fully-developed television specials in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Their most popular specials, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, are still staples of holiday programming decades after they first aired.

But not every holiday film that played under the Rankin/Bass banner was an instant success. After adapting the most beloved Christmas stories, the company broadened its definition of holiday material, with varying degrees of success. Some films were forgettable, and others were so strange and unsettling that young viewers forced themselves to forget. Here are some Rankin/Bass specials that may be missing from holiday television marathons this year.

1. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)

Scene from Rudolph's Shiny New Year.
Rankin/Bass Productions

After the stressful events of his 1964 Christmas special, Rudolph deserved a vacation. In Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976), the red-nosed reindeer barely has a day to rest before being sent on his next adventure. When Santa Claus and his reindeer return home to the North Pole after delivering presents on Christmas, they learn that Happy the Baby New Year is missing. It’s up to Rudolph to bring him home before midnight on New Year’s Eve or else the calendar will be stuck at December 31. And because it wouldn’t be a Rankin/Bass cartoon without a terrifying villain, a vulture named Eon the Terrible is racing to catch Happy first so he can live forever. Thankfully, Rudolph has a caveman, a Medieval knight, and Benjamin Franklin on his side.

2. The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (1976)

Scene from The Little Drummer Boy, Book II.
Rankin/Bass Productions

The Little Drummer Boy from 1968 ends with the birth of Jesus Christ, a.k.a. the events of Christmas. This meant that Rankin/Bass’s most overtly religious Christmas special wasn’t an obvious choice for a follow-up, but the studio still released one in 1976. The Little Drummer Boy, Book II is inspired by "Silver Bells"—a song whose lyrics have nothing to do with the first Christmas at Bethlehem. In the sequel, the drummer boy Aaron and the wise man Melchior join forces to protect silver bells made for baby Jesus from the Roman soldiers plotting to steal them.

3. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

Scene from Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey.
Rankin/Bass Productions

By the late 1970s, it was apparent that Rankin/Bass was running out of Christmas myths to expand into television specials. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, their 1977 stop motion film, tells the story of an outcast donkey who experiences a series of traumatic events during the Roman Empire. After being bullied by other animals, left for dead by his owner, and suffering the loss of his mother, Nestor becomes a hero by carrying a pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, where she gives birth to Jesus. Needless to say, Nestor, the Long-Eared Donkey didn’t have the same cultural impact as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

4. The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow (1975)

Scene from The First Christmas.
Rankin/Bass Productions

It may have a happy ending, but The First Christmas (1975) is the bleakest movie on this list. An orphaned shepherd named Lucas is taken in by a group of nuns after he’s blinded by lightning. When snow falls during the abbey’s Christmas pageant, Lucas miraculously regains his eyesight and sees snow for the first time. The story swaps Rankin/Bass's signature humor and fantasy for heavy-handed sentimentality, which may be why it didn’t land as well with kids as the company’s other holiday specials. One highlight is a voice performance by Angela Lansbury as the narrator.

5. Jack Frost (1979)

Scene from Jack Frost.
Rankin/Bass Productions

So this film from 1979 is technically a Groundhog Day special, but its connection to winter means it’s usually lumped in with the rest of Rankin/Bass’s Christmas programming. A groundhog named Pardon-Me-Pete (voiced by Buddy Hackett) narrates the story of Jack Frost. After Jack Frost falls in love with a woman on Earth, Father Winter agrees to make him human, with the catch that Jack will turn back into a sprite if he fails to obtain a house, a horse, a bag of gold, and a wife by the first sign of spring. The special is notable for its weird characters, including a villain with a clockwork horse and henchmen. And—spoiler alert!—because Jack doesn’t get the girl at the end, it’s one of the few Rankin/Bass films that doesn’t have a happy ending.

6. Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979)

Scene from Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July.
Rankin/Bass Productions

In 1979, Rankin/Bass gave two of its most iconic Christmas characters—Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—their own movie. The studio was so confident in the product that Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July even had a brief theatrical release overseas. But the film has failed to take the place of the original specials in the public consciousness—maybe because seeing snow snakes terrorize Rudolph and watching an evil wizard transform into a tree were too much for younger viewers to handle.

7. Pinocchio's Christmas (1980)

Scene from Pinocchio's Christmas.
Rankin/Bass Productions

The story of Pinocchio may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Christmas, but that didn’t stop Rankin/Bass from turning the classic Italian fairytale into a holiday special. Pinocchio's Christmas (1980) features many of the same themes and characters as The Adventures of Pinocchio—only this version of the tale centers around the puppet’s first Christmas. Santa Claus even makes a cameo appearance.

8. The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

Scene from The Stingiest Man in Town.
Rankin/Bass Productions

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is one of the most widely adapted stories of all time, so of course it shows up in Rankin/Bass’s filmography. An insect named B.A.H. Humbug narrates this musical retelling from 1978, with Walter Matthau starring as Ebeneezer Scrooge. The Stingiest Man in Town joins Frosty the Snowman as one of the few Rankin/Bass Christmas productions made with traditional 2D animation instead of stop-motion.

9. The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold (1981)

Scene from The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold.
Rankin/Bass Productions

Rankin/Bass’s streak of mashing up Christmas with other holidays reached peak weirdness in 1981. That’s when the studio released The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold—a story that follows a young Irish sailor who helps a clan of leprechauns protect their gold from an evil banshee named Old Mag the Hag. By trying to create a special that could air around Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day, the filmmakers ended up with something that made little sense at any time of year.

10. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)

Scene from The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.
Rankin/Bass Productions

In 1970, Rankin/Bass explored how Kris Kringle became Santa Claus with Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. Fifteen years later, the studio produced a film that provided an alternate origin story for the character, based on L. Frank Baum's 1902 children's book of the same name. This second special wasn’t as well-received as the first. It starts with an antler-sporting sorcerer called the Great Ak finding an abandoned baby in the forest. The child is taken in and raised by wood nymphs, eventually growing up to become a jolly man who delivers toys to children—all while fighting monsters called Awgwas on the side. It ends with a council of mythical beings granting Santa Claus immortality. What was arguably Rankin/Bass’s most unusual Christmas special was also the last to use stop-motion animation.

2020 Golden Globes: The Full List of Nominees

Andrew Scott stars in Fleabag.
Andrew Scott stars in Fleabag.
Steve Schofield/Amazon Studios

Awards season is officially upon us and we're all rushing out to the movie theater—or, more frequently, our own couches—to load up on some of the year's biggest movie and television titles.

Now that the 2020 Golden Globe nominations have been announced, it's clear that Netflix's investment in original content like Martin Scorsese's The Irishman and Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, which scored the most nominations with six, was a wise decision.

On the television side, streaming emerged victorious as well; The Crown landed a total of four nominations while Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Amazon hit Fleabag earned three, including one for "Hot Priest" Andrew Scott, who was a notable Emmy snub. Amazingly, Game of Thrones was nominated for just a single award: a Best Actor in a Drama Series nomination for Kit Harington.

Below is the full list of nominees for the 77th annual Golden Globe Awards, which will take place on January 5, 2020.

Best Motion Picture, Drama

1917
The Irishman
Joker
Marriage Story
The Two Popes

Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Jojo Rabbit
Knives Out
Rocketman
Dolemite Is My Name

Best Motion Picture—Foreign Language

The Farewell
Pain and Glory
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Parasite
Les Misérables

Best Director, Motion Picture

Bong Joon Ho, Parasite
Sam Mendes, 1917
Todd Phillips, Joker
Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

Best Screenplay—Motion Picture

Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story
Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, Parasite
Anthony McCarten, The Two Popes
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Steven Zaillian, The Irishman

Best Original Score, Motion Picture

Alexandre Desplat, Little Women
Hildur Gudnadottir, Joker
Randy Newman, Marriage Story
Thomas Newman, 1917
Daniel Pemberton, Motherless Brooklyn

Best Original Song—Motion Picture

Beautiful Ghosts, Cats
I'm Gonna Love Me Again, Rocketman
Into the Unknown, Frozen II
Spirit, The Lion King
Stand Up, Harriet

Best Actor in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture

Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
Al Pacino, The Irishman
Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Actress in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture

Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell
Annette Bening, The Report
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
Margot Robbie, Bombshell

Best Actor in a Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy

Daniel Craig, Knives Out
Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Taron Egerton, Rocketman
Eddie Murphy, Dolemite Is My Name

Best Motion Picture—Animated

Frozen II
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Missing Link
Toy Story 4
Lion King

Best Actor in a Motion Picture—Drama

Christian Bale, Ford v Ferrari
Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes

Best Actress in a Motion Picture—Drama

Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Renée Zellweger, Judy

Best Actress in a Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy

Awkwafina, The Farewell
Ana de Armas, Knives Out
Cate Blanchett, Where'd You Go, Bernadette
Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart
Emma Thompson, Late Night

Best Performance by an Actor in a Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Christopher Abbott, Catch-22
Sacha Baron Cohen, The Spy
Russell Crowe, The Loudest Voice
Jared Harris, Chernobyl
Sam Rockwell, Fosse/Verdon

Best Performance by an Actress in a Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Kaitlyn Dever, Unbelievable
Joey King, The Act
Helen Mirren, Catherine the Great
Merritt Wever, Unbelievable
Michelle Williams, Fosse/Verdon

Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Catch-22, Hulu
Chernobyl, HBO
Fosse/Verdon, FX
The Loudest Voice, Showtime
Unbelievable, Netflix

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Patricia Arquette, The Act
Helena Bonham Carter, The Crown
Toni Collette, Unbelievable
Meryl Streep, Big Little Lies
Emily Watson, Chernobyl

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series, Drama

Brian Cox, Succession
Kit Harington, Game of Thrones
Rami Malek, Mr. Robot
Tobias Menzies, The Crown
Billy Porter, Pose

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Alan Arkin, The Kominsky Method
Kieran Culkin, Succession
Andrew Scott, Fleabag
Stellan Skarsgård, Chernobyl
Henry Winkler, Barry

Best Television Series—Drama

Big Little Lies, HBO
The Crown, Netflix
Killing Eve, AMC
The Morning Show, Apple TV+
Succession, HBO

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series, Drama

Jennifer Aniston, The Morning Show
Olivia Colman, The Crown
Jodie Comer, Killing Eve
Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies
Reese Witherspoon, The Morning Show

Best Television Series—Musical or Comedy

Barry, HBO
Fleabag, Amazon
The Kominsky Method, Netflix
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Amazon
The Politician, Netflix

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