If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Zimmermann Telegram

President Wilson kept the US neutral in World War I until 1917. Germany, feeling the pinch of a British blockade, resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, knowing it could provoke the US. Germany's Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, sent a secret telegram to Mexico, proposing an alliance and promising support for Mexico to reclaim Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The British intercepted the telegram, decoded it, and shared it with the US, sparking public outrage. Despite Mexico's dismissal of the proposal, the US entered the war a few months later. Created by Sal Khan.

Want to join the conversation?

  • starky sapling style avatar for user Hannah
    Why is this lesson so focused on America?
    As part of a series in "World History" it seems to put too much emphasis on America. It's certainly interesting, don't get me wrong, but it seems rather ethnocentric.
    For example, in the last video the sinking of the Lusitania was discussed and the deaths of 128 Americans was highlighted versus the 1070 or so who were British, Irish and Canadian and don't even have their own individual death toll.
    It wasn't discussed how the sinking of the Lusitania effected Britain (I'm sure they weren't too happy), and it would've been interesting to see more from the German perspective as to why they believed that the Lusitania was carrying heavy munitions.
    (30 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin tree style avatar for user JohnQ.PublicMk.2
      This lesson is primarily focused on the United States, because this video is about one of the causes that resulted in the United States entering the First World War. In fact, this section is mostly about the causes for American entry into the war. If you are more inclined to learn about the European powers in the First World War, I'd recommend you watch the sections preceding and seceding this section. While the European powers of the Triple Entente were primarily responsible for the victory, the American entrance into the war did help prevent a great many casualties due to the United States' industrial capabilities, as well as the increased manpower due to the incoming American troops.
      (35 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Asim Zaman
    What was the Mexicans opinion about all of this. Were they considering it?
    (10 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Wolf LSOP962
    The sinking of the Lusitania is so much more widely used as an excuse to enter the war. Was it a blind used because the Zimmerman telegram was considered too frightening to the public to think of war on our own border? Is this our "German Pearl Harbour"
    (11 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leafers sapling style avatar for user Jay
      The sinking of the Lusitania did not cause U.S. participation in WWI. Even though members of Congress and the general public were outraged over the incident, Wilson did not argue for military action, instead he aggressively condemned the action of the Germans and then tried to negotiate. The Germans did not exactly pledge to stop the unrestricted sub-warfare. They just backed down. It was the sinking of 5 other vessels and the U.S.S Sussex that caused Wilson and congress to threaten war, culminating in the Sussex Pledge. This was Germany's official pledge to stop their sub-warfare. The telegram was just the spark, and the sinking of american vessels was the rope. to u.s. involvement in WWI (metaphor to a stick of dynamite).
      (13 votes)
  • leaf grey style avatar for user cmaryk12296
    Was Germany trying to "provoke" the US into WW1 with this telegram, or did Germany really want to join forces with Mexico, but "incidentally" made the US involved in the war?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • stelly blue style avatar for user Jorge Daniel Garcia
    Mexico had a revolutionary war from 1910 to 1921. During this time, the person in the presidency and internal loyalties changed constantly. Who were the Germans trying to contact/influence? How did they expected Mexico to intervene, when Mexico was struggling with its own civil war?
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Ace
      The Germans thought that Mexico as a whole would want to get back at the United States. The United States had taken a lot of Mexican territory, and if the Mexicans thought that they had a chance of getting the land back because of German help, they would agree to attack the United States.
      (10 votes)
  • starky sapling style avatar for user Carley R.
    Can we in any way be certain that Britain didn't just write that telegram themselves, as a way to drag US into the war?
    The allies cut their losses by letting the US take some of their battles, and US benefited of the war by exporting weapons to its' allies.
    Other motives are possible, but the interesting question is, can we be certain that this wasn't some scheme to get the publics' approval to enter WW1?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • spunky sam green style avatar for user Michael Walker
      It's doubtful, previous to this point Germany had tried to drag the US and Mexico into a war to stop the export of arms to the Allies. The German High Command believed they would be able to use soldiers from the Eastern Front to defeat the British and French on the Western Front, and strangle Britain by unrestricted submarine warfare, before American forces could train and arrive in Europe in sufficient numbers.
      (5 votes)
  • starky tree style avatar for user William Rhone
    How do you decode the telegram?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Codes are known as "cyphers". They come in lots of different kinds, often involving high-level math. In the US Government, the National Security Administration (NSA) is the codebreaking arm of the government. When it's not spying on American Citizens' phone calls and email, it is breaking the codes of foreign operators that wish to conceal their nefarious doings from being known to the government.
      (6 votes)
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Brandon Hao
    In the Zimmerman telegram the Germans mention japan, but that part was not explain in the video. What was to happen with the Mexicans and the Japanese?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Joshua Roberts
    why was the US not on good terms with Mexico?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Luis Vélez
      One of the reasons that Sal mentions that the U.S. and Mexico were not on the best terms was because Mexican commander Pancho Villa had attacked Columbus, New Mexico on March 1916. This attacked caused the U.S. to launch an unsuccesful expedition into Mexico led by general John J. Pershing to try and capture Villa.
      (3 votes)
  • winston default style avatar for user Paul
    There is normally some loss of meaning with translations, i'm suspicious of language used in the English translation of the decrypted telegram, given the history of making the most of such situations. Question for native German speakers, is the translation used biased ?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • cacteye green style avatar for user Chase Eisenbrandt
      Sorry for the late response. As far as I can tell, there is no version of the telegram made public in its native German that is not encoded. While I know that German and English are similar in the roots, some German words simply cannot be translated easily into English. Personally, I would say that coming from the context that Britain wanted the U.S to join them in the war effort, I would say that it is completely plausible that the translation used could be biased, as seen that some of the words are rewritten in the telegram. Obviously, those could be errors, but that is just my opinion and speculation.
      (1 vote)

Video transcript

As we enter into 1917, the United States has been able to maintain its neutrality in World War I. In fact, President Wilson has just won a re-election based on the platform that he kept us out of war. And to large degree, he was able to keep the US out of war because the German Empire had pulled back from its unrestricted submarine warfare. After the sinking of the Lusitania and how angered America had gotten, they said, OK, we're not going to attack passenger vessels anymore. We're only going to attack things that are definitely British, non-passenger vessels. But as we go into January 1917, the British blockade on the Central Powers was having its effect. And the Central Powers were getting desperate, in particular Germany. And so they are eager to essentially do the same to the British. Once again, go with the unrestricted submarine warfare. But the Germans knew that if they were to go back to this, that it's likely that the US would enter the war on the side of the Allies. So knowing that was likely to happen. They said, well, how could we slow the US down. And the thinking was, well, maybe we could somehow enlisted the help of Mexico which at the time was not the best terms with the United States. And so Arthur Zimmerman who was the German Foreign Secretary, the equivalent of the United States Secretary of State. The Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmerman sends an encoded a telegram to the Mexicans. And it's encoded, especially because it has to go over lines that are controlled by the Americans. And in it, he actually proposes an alliance to slow the Americans down. So this is what he wrote. So this is a coded telegram. And then, it was actually intercepted by British intelligence and decoded and then shared with the Americans, and then that was also then made public to the American public. And so this is why it's fascinating to actually read this stuff. This is January 1917. This is the Germans talking to the Mexicans. "We intend to begin on the first 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 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--" they're talking about the president of Mexico. "--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 Zimmerman." Now, the Mexicans, when they read this, they really didn't take it too seriously. They didn't think that they could seriously engage the US in a war. They couldn't seriously take back or occupy these territories. So they didn't really think much of it. The real effect of this telegram was to make the American public angry. They were going to go back into the unrestricted submarine warfare. And the Germans, themselves, talk about ruthless-- "ruthless employment of our the submarines." So when people talk about, what were the causes. What brought the US into war? The ones that are typically cited are the unrestricted submarine warfare. The sinking of the Lusitania. The Zimmerman telegram that was trying to get Mexico to somehow get into a war with the US and reclaim these territories. And as we'll see, a few months after this, the US actually does declare war on Germany and enter into World War I.