The Zimmermann Telegram: Mexico & Germany as WWI Allies?

Published: 9 May 2024

By Owen Rust
via TheCollector website


Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, devising a devious plan involving Mexico to divert America’s focus from the war.

During World War I, the United States actively sold weapons to the Allied powers of Britain and France. In an attempt to limit the role of American-made weapons, Germany threatened to sink any ships crossing the Atlantic with weapons bound for the Allies. Although the Lusitania incident of 1915 got Germany to back away from its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, its wartime struggles convinced it to re-institute this policy. Knowing that returning to unrestricted submarine warfare would likely draw the US into the war on the side of the Allies, Germany wanted a way to keep the American military occupied elsewhere. With tensions high between the US and Mexico, Germany approached Mexico about an alliance.

Setting the Stage: The Mexican-American War

A map showing the territory won from Mexico after the Mexican-American War (1846-48) between Texas and the Pacific Ocean. Source: Ashland University

Tensions have long been high along America’s southern border. In the early days of the Republic, what is now Mexico was the province of New Spain. When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, it bordered the United States along the territory purchased from France in 1803 (the Louisiana Purchase). The United States and Mexico soon clashed diplomatically over the breakaway republic of Texas, which won its independence from Mexico in 1836. Ironically, many Americans had immigrated to Texas illegally, heightening Mexico’s suspicion of the expansion-focused United States.

After multiple attempts, Texas was made part of the United States in 1845. This immediately sparked dispute between the US and Mexico regarding their respective borders: the US claimed the Rio Grande River was the border, while Mexico claimed the Nueces River–further to the northeast–was the border. After a shooting incident in the area between the two rivers, known as the Nueces Strip, launched the Mexican-American War in 1846, Mexico was forced to cede over half of its territory to the victorious United States. After the war, Mexico struggled through many periods of internal unrest following its humiliating loss of territory.

Setting the Stage: Veracruz & Pancho Villa

Images of Mexican rebel/revolutionary Pancho Villa, whose cross-border raids drew the US Army into northern Mexico to capture him. Source: Library of Congress

Unrest in Mexico continued through the early 20th century. Many Mexicans were upset at US foreign interventions in Latin America, which had begun in earnest under President Theodore Roosevelt. They were also tired of political corruption and unrest, especially the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which sparked a rapid chain of leadership changes in Mexico. In 1914, the United States occupied the Mexican port city of Veracruz after the Tampico Incident, where US Navy sailors were arrested while on a mission to protect US property in the region. After Mexican authorities gave what was considered an insufficient apology for the arrest, Congress and US President Woodrow Wilson decided to occupy the city of Veracruz.

Refusal to accept Mexico’s new president, Venustiano Carranza, led revolutionary (and former Carranza ally) Pancho Villa to invade the United States in 1916, likely in direct retaliation for US military assistance to Carranza-allied troops in 1915. On the morning of March 9, 1916, hundreds of raiders led by Villa swarmed the town of Columbus, New Mexico. Eighteen Americans were killed by the time US troops drove Villa’s forces away. In retaliation, the US sent an army into northern Mexico to hunt down Pancho Villa. Its leader, General John J. Pershing, would later be the leader of the American Expeditionary Forces to Europe during World War I.

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