World War I was a conflict that engulfed numerous countries from 1914 to 1918. The countries involved in the war were either part of the Entente Powers or Allies (Britain, France, Russia, Serbia and their allies) and the Central Powers (composed of three empires, the German, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman plus the Kingdom of Bulgaria and their allies) Over 15 million people sacrificed their lives in what became one of the deadliest wars in all of history. More than 70 million people took part in the war, of which 60 million were Europeans.
The war is commonly said to have started as a result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in in the Serbian City of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The Archduke was heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which declared war on Serbia. Because there was such a complicated web of alliances among European nations at that time, other countries joined the fight. Because of these alliances, what began as a war between only two countries, Austria-Hungary and Serbia, grew into a war that spanned Europe and, over time spread around the world. Today, this war is known as World War I.
As the conflict spread across Europe, the United States remained neutral. This means it did not enter the war and did not officially choose a side to support. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1916 using the slogan "he kept us out of the war." Strong support among Americans for an isolationist policy meant there was a feeling that the country should not get involved in European alliances or disputes. This did not stop either the British or the Germans from attempting to lure the United States into the war on their side. Britain's goal was to portray the Germans as menacing and dangerous, while the Germans sought to grow support from the German-American communities in the United States.
The United States eventually did change course, abandoning its isolationism and joining the war. On April 6, 1917, the United States joined the Allies (Britain, France and Russia and their allies) for two major reasons, sometimes referred to as “the boat and the note.” The boat was the Lusitania and the note was the Zimmermann Telegram.
The Lusitania was a passenger cruise ship sunk by a German submarine (called a u-boat) on May 7, 1915. All but 39 of the nearly 2,000 people on board were killed, including 128 Americans. This attack on a civilian ship set off a huge backlash against Germany in the United States.
The rest of the information in this article will discuss the Zimmermann Telegram and the events that led the U.S. to participate in the war.
The Zimmermann telegram was a coded note sent by Germany's Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, in January 1917 with a message for the Mexican government. The note asked the Mexican government to declare war on the United States and promised to help Mexico take back Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. The British intercepted the telegram, deciphered it and then showed it to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in February. It was published in U.S. newspapers on March 1. With the Lusitania still angering Americans, public reaction in the United States against Germany was so strong that it became inevitable that the United States would join the war on the side fighting Germany.
The telegram was transmitted from Germany to Mexico through a transatlantic cable that the Germans believed was secure. They were wrong. When British agents intercepted the message and the cryptographers in London decoded it, the British government knew it finally had a way to get the United States to join the Allies and enter the war.
Meanwhile, the Germans delivered the message to Mexican President Venustiano Carranza, who rejected the proposed alliance. From Mexico's perspective, Germany's support would not overcome major drawbacks. One was that Mexico could not adequately arm itself to fight the Allies because the United States made almost all the weapons available in the Americas and the British controlled the seas and could block arms shipments to Mexico. In addition, even if Mexico decided that certain war with the United States was worth it to get back former territories, the populations now living there were largely English speaking Americans who would fight to stay part of the United States.
At first, many in the United States thought the Zimmermann telegram was a forgery perpetrated by the British. Arthur Zimmermann himself put an end to this speculation when he admitted the telegram was genuine on March 29. From there, Germany had all but sealed its fate as the United States immediately began a massive military build up to support the Allies. By the end of the war, Europe was a different place; four empires were gone, millions were dead and the continent suffered from both famine and disease.
At the Paris Peace Conference, the victorious Allied powers re-drew national borders and imposed severe penalties on Germany and the other Central Powers. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles officially ended World War I. Germany acknowledged responsibility for the war and agreed to pay out an enormous amount of compensation and territory to other nations. The terms of peace were so severe, particularly for Germany, that many believe they brought about the conditions that led to another devastating global conflict, World War II.