Personal Stories

The Telegram, the Boat and Belgium.


e r j k p r u n c z y k

What was the Zimmerman Telegram?  How did it join the Lusitania and the “Rape of Belgium” as reasons why we entered World War I?   Here is a background as to why the United States tried to remain neutral and it has to do with the word: Trade.

The United States government, headed by President Woodrow Wilson vowed to remain neutral with all parties at the outbreak of World War I.   The United States had already participated in the War of 1898 with Spain, (President McKinley) which freed Cuba, ceded Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.  Spain paid $20 million payment to the United States regarding the Philippines.  This opened up trade with Asia.  At which point, turned the United States attention to the Hawaiian Islands in which an agreement was made in 1887 to lease land for a U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.  The Hawaiian Islands became a strategic route between the United States and Asia.  This meant trade between Asia and the United States; in turn the United States became a world power “economically.” Plus the United States developed the relationship with Panama in the Caribbean in 1905 by celebrating it as a new nation after the United States obtained the lease on a canal zone.  The canal became another route for trade.

In 1909 President Taft felt that United States was being short changed in Asia due to deals made between Europe, Japan and China.  He pressed for a much larger stake in trade with China.  When the Revolution of 1911 ended in China, the United States supported the Revolution who wanted to remove the Japanese domination from their lands.  Hence a long rivalry with Japan began which lead to the events of World War II.  However, trade again was the deciding factor in the relationship with China.

It was during World War I where two occurrences lead up to the United States final decision to participate in World War I.  First, the “Rape of Belgium” in which German invaded the neutral country as preparation for invading France.  The Germans killed numerous civilians in Belgium who did not want to participate in the war.  The German troops forced over 42,000 inhabitants to evacuate.  (Foundation n.d.)

Second: the sinking of the Lusitania.  This occurred off the Ireland coast in 1915, killing over 1,198 which included 128 Americans.  It was torpedoed by a German U-boat (Submarine).  President Wilson sent a message to the Germans to stop torpedoes on passenger boats without warning.   President Wilson was concerned that trade would vanish with the warring nations.  Profit (trade) was the main goal of the United States.  Of course, during the time of World War I the United States was trading with Britain and France far more than with Germany prior to entry in the War.

So why would a telegram to Mexico be so important?  Here is why:  In 1913: a coup resulted from the death of Francisco Madero who had declared himself President after years of Mexican dictators Porfirio Diaz rule.  The dictator had created a business environment to American investors.   Madero along with the general Huerta, began to rule in Mexico.  President Wilson began to back a Mexican leader named Venustiano Carranza and forged the forces of the United States into a Mexican revolution.  This deposed the Huerta regime and caused anger among the Mexico residents.  In 1916, General Pancho Villa killed several civilians at the U.S. Mexico border which resulted in President Wilson sending 11,000 troops to stamp out any uprisings on the border.  Fast forward to 1917: a telegram was intercepted by newspapers and published which stated in short that “Germany would help Mexico recover Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.”  The telegram was written by Arthur Zimmerman who was German’s foreign secretary.  The massacre of American’s at the U.S. border was still on American’s mind and the thought of German’s coming across the United States border that had finally thrust the United States into World War I as an Allied power.

In closing, the United States during its expansion period was focused on becoming an economic global power.  This meant trade with all nations in order to expand what it could trade out of the United States and what the country would get in return i.e., land, money and power.  To suggest that the United States could have continued down that path of trade without intervention in the war is a bit hard to swallow.  What I found fascinating that it wasn’t the death of over 1,100 passengers that got the United States involved in a war, nor a neutral country being terrorized by the German government.  It had to do with a telegram to Mexico.  It was the threat to our land and the key words “economic stability” that finally turned the page and got the United States involved.


1.Foundation, Army Heritage Center. Remember Belgium. (accessed January 23, 2014).

2.Henretta, J. A., Edwards, R.E., Self, R.O. America: A Concise History, Volume Two: Since 1865. Boston: St. Martin’s, 2012.