The Zimmerman Telegram. Barbara Tuchman.

Tuchman, Barbara. The Zimmerman Telegram. Ballantine, New York, 1958. NF;3/18.

A good friend gave me this interesting take on one of the most critical events in World War I. The British were master code-breakers, superior it turned out (though helped along by Lady Luck) to the Germans who are rendered here as incorrectly presuming their own superiority. President Woodrow Wilson, world peace ideologist, had been resisting entering the war and continued to, but was forced to actively side with the Allies when the British decoded, and everyone saw, an unmistakably treacherous message from Berlin to Germans in North America, the eponymous telegram. The rest is history.

German high command was communicating both with Mexico and Japan, hoping to create a threat of invasion of the United States from the South which would have preoccupied the Americans long enough, the Germans had hoped, for their submarines to control the Atlantic and stop supply ships from reaching Britain.

The English codebreaking eggheads were holed up in an unassuming office (“Room 40”) overseen by brilliant Rear-Admiral Sir William Reginald Hall. Once having understood the encoded telegram (courtesy in part of a lucky break retrieving a code book from a sinking German ship) Hall faced a classic espionage dilemma: how to release the potentially history-changing information without revealing that the British were decoding German messages, causing the Germans to scuttle their codes. Again, fortune smiled and he was able to concoct a plausible alternative for the information coming to light.

Barbara Tuchman’s writing is consistently natural and engaging with the possibly a wee-bit stuffy flavour that would have been au courant in the 1950s. I don’t think she quite comes out and says so, but it’s clear one of her thoughts here would have been how hideously contingent the conduct and outcome of WW I  (and so any war or huge human events) really are. We still live in a garden of forking paths, all millions but one of which disappear as the wind blows this way and that and time and events roll on irrespective.

As I’ve said before I’m no history buff and can’t comment on where this little book stands among academics and no-doubt still-alive controversies of various kinds. But I liked it and might even have learned a little bit. 8.8/8.8.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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