America was finally tipped into declaring war against Germany in 1917 following the release of the Zimmermann Telegram, a message from the Germans proposing an anti-American alliance to Mexico which would see Mexico take back Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
Barbara Tuchman’s lively account of the affair was first published in 1958 and it is a tribute to the popularity of the book that it was turned into an audio book just this year.
The book is based on an impressive grasp of the detailed evidence. At times the description of what people were thinking, where they were sitting and how they felt clearly goes beyond what the evidence directly proves, making the account read more like a careful dramatisation than a dry academic recitation.
And drama aplenty there is: ingenious British code-breaking, dramatic chases around the Middle East, nefarious plotting to subvert governments and all for the very highest in political stakes – the outcome of a war engulfing the world.
Some parts of the book have rather dated – even the 1966 preface flags up the volume of new evidence available since the original publication – and the clichéd picture of German personality traits feels very much of another era.
For readers not too interested in the detailed history of American-Mexican relations, the sections on the plots and counter-plots in Mexican politics can feel a little slow. Yet even a skim read through these details gives a vivid picture of Mexican instability, American nervousness over its southern frontier and a climate in which spies and plots prospered.
It all makes for a highly enjoyable read in addition to being a thought provoking reminder about how often people frame evidence to fit their views: those for whom the telegram suited their political views were generally easy to persuade that it was genuine and many of those who found it ran against their previous views initially latched on to all sorts of arguments for dismissing it as a fake. That lesson is still highly relevant today.