World War I - Lesson Plan, Zimmermann Telegram Illustration

World War I - Zimmermann Telegram Lesson Plan

For Teachers - WW1 Lesson Plan, Zimmermann Telegram

Lesson Plan: This lesson is designed to follow a lesson on propaganda, and precede a lesson on the Lusitania and submarine warfare.

As the class enters, have on your board, overhead, projector or computers the following question: How would react if you saw in the news that Iran or ISIS sent a secret message to Mexico promising them free oil and money if Mexico would invade the USA and take Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California?

Have class write down a quick response.

Discuss various responses with the class.  (I don't care, I am angry, I would laugh it's so ridiculous, Like they have a chance, etc.)

Once discussion settles down, give students a quick background on the Zimmermann telegram, show the class the transcript of the Zimmerman telegram.

Background: The Zimmermann Telegram (or Zimmermann note) was a secret, coded message sent in Jan 1917 by the German foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, to his subordinate, the German ambassador in Mexico, before the United States entered the war. It proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico if the US did enter the war. This telegram was intercepted by the British. It was decoded and shared with US President Wilson in late February 1917. The telegram was published on the front page of American newspapers across the country on March 1, 1917.

Decoded message text of the Zimmermann Telegram: (The president referred to in this telegram is the President of Mexico)

"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 or 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 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, ZIMMERMANN

Ask the class if they have the same reaction to this secret message as they did to the question asked as they entered the classroom.

Ask class how the British might use this telegram as a propaganda tool.

Say something like: The Germans did not wish the United States to enter the war as an ally of Britain. But, if they did enter the war, the Germans wanted the American military split, not only assisting Britain and her allies overseas but also busy protecting the Texas, New Mexico and Arizona borders at home from invasion by Mexico, which would, of course, weaken their assistance overseas.

End with the point again that the Germans sent this proposal to Mexico since they were going to start unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters around Britain (setting up for a lesson on Submarine Warfare and the Lusitania.) So what is unrestrictive submarine warfare? We'll talk more about that next time we meet, but in brief: To the Germans, unrestrictive submarine warfare meant that the German navy intended to use submarines to attack both military and non-military vessels, like tankers and cargo ships. Submarines were new. Torpedoes were the silent killers. They were terrifying. Tankers and cargo ships were unarmed.

Optional lesson end: Tell your students that US President Woodrow Wilson did not, as expected by the British, allow the release of the Zimmermann telegram in the American newspapers to pressure him into asking Congress to declare war on Germany. Although he was angry, as were the American people, Wilson did not believe this failed attempt by the German foreign ambassador to entangle Mexico in a war against the United States was a strong enough reason to risk American lives overseas. He believed American vessels would be safe from a German submarine attack as the United States was not a participant in the war.

More Lesson Plans

The Zimmermann Telegram, lesson plan

The Zimmermann Telegram - Decoding a Message, lesson with handout

The Real Zimmermann Telegram - Coded and Decoded, primary documents

Next: The Lusitania, lesson plan

Prior: Propaganda, lesson plan

For Kids

The Zimmermann Telegram

For Fun: Interactive Secret Code Games for Kids (these have nothing to with WW1, but are fun and show kids more about secret codes