The Zimmermann Telegram
- National Archives Education Team
- Making Connections
- Historical Era:
- The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
- Primary Historical Thinking Skill:
- Historical Analysis & Interpretation
- Bloom's Taxonomy:
In this activity, students will analyze the Zimmermann telegram to determine if the United States should have entered World War I based on its information and implications.
In January of 1917, British codebreakers deciphered a telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German Minister to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, offering United States territory to Mexico in return for joining the German cause. This message helped draw the United States into the war and thus changed the course of history.
In an effort to protect their intelligence from detection and to capitalize on growing anti-German sentiment in the United States, the British waited until February 24 to present the telegram to Woodrow Wilson. The American press published news of the telegram on March 1. On April 6, 1917, the United States Congress formally declared war on Germany and its allies.
This activity was adapted from an article formerly published on www.archives.gov/education and in the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) publication Social Education: Alexander, Mary and Marilyn Childress. “The Zimmerman Telegram.” Social Education 45, 4 (April 1981): 266.
This activity can be used during a unit on U.S. involvement in World War I. For grades 6-12, working individually or in small groups, with breaks for class discussion. Approximate time needed is 30 minutes.
Direct students begin the activity and look at the first two documents—the encoded Zimmermann Telegram and the partial Decode Worksheet. Ask them to look for clues and details about these two documents that may help explain their meaning and answer the questions posed in the activity. Discuss their findings.
On the encoded telegram, students may notice the series of numbers, a specific date, the places Mexico City and Galveston, and the terms German Legation and German Embassy. On the decode worksheet, students may notice that numbers are associated with specific terms, that many of the terms are in another language (specifically German), and that the places Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona are noted.
After discussing their findings, direct students to read the next document which includes the decoded Zimmermann telegram. Ask students to read, analyze, and summarize—identifying the author, audience, and purpose—the decoded Zimmermann telegram.
Students should note that in the message, Arthur Zimmermann, the Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, informed the Mexican government that Germany was going to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Zimmermann also invited Mexico to join the war on Germany’s side if the United States did not stay neutral in an effort to regain their lost territory of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.
After discussing the contents of the telegram, ask students to vote on whether or not the United States should have declared war on Germany based solely on the Zimmermann Telegram. Ask students to explain their opinions.
Explain to students that the Zimmermann Telegram, Germany’s resumption of submarine warfare and other factors led the United States to declare war against Germany in April 1917.
Documents in this activity:
- Zimmermann Telegram as Received by the German Ambassador to Mexico
- Decode Worksheet for a Portion of the Zimmermann Telegram by Edward Bell of the American Embassy in London
- Telegram from United States Ambassador Walter Page to President Woodrow Wilson Conveying a Translation of the Zimmermann Telegram