The Alliance with Mexico and Japan Proposed by Germany

[The New York Times/Current History, April 1917]

An important phase growing out of our rupture with Germany and the subsequent drift toward war…was the uncovering of an anti-American alliance proposed by Germany with Mexico and Japan in the event the threatened war ensued. The plot was revealed by the publication on March 1, 1917, of a letter dated Jan. 19, 1917, signed by the German Foreign Secretary and addressed to the German Minister, von Eckhardt, in Mexico City. The text of the letter is as follows:

Berlin, Jan. 19, 1917.

On Feb. 1 we intend to begin submarine warfare unrestricted. In spite of this, it is our intention to endeavor to keep neutral the United States of America.

If this attempt is not successful, we propose an alliance on the following basis with Mexico: That we shall make war together and together make peace. We shall give general financial support, and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. The details are left to you for settlement. You are instructed to inform the President of Mexico of the above in the greatest confidence as soon as it is certain that there will be an outbreak of war with the United States, and suggest that the President of Mexico, on his own initiative, should communicate with Japan suggesting adherence at once to this plan. At the same time, offer to mediate between Germany and Japan. Please call to the attention of the President of Mexico that the employment of ruthless submarine warfare now promises to compel England to make peace in a few months.
ZIMMERMANN.

The revelation created a profound impression throughout the country. The immediate effect on Congress was the elimination of practically all opposition to the proposal then pending to authorize the President to proceed at once to arm American merchantmen against German submarines; it also crystallized the conviction throughout the country that the German submarine blockade must be sternly resisted, even though it resulted in a declaration of war by Germany. A question having been raised in the United States Senate as to the authenticity of the letter, a resolution was passed requesting the President to inform the Senate as to the genuineness of the German note; thereupon the following reply was communicated by the Executive on the same day:

Washington, D. C., March 1, 1917.

To the Senate:

In response to the resolution adopted by the Senate on March 1, 1917, requesting the President to furnish the Senate, if not incompatible with the public interest, whatever information he has concerning the note published in the press of this date purporting to have been sent Jan. 19, 1917, by the German Secretary for Foreign Affairs to the German Minister to Mexico, I transmit herewith a report by the Secretary of State, which has my approval.
WOODROW WILSON.

[Inclosure.]
To the President:

The resolution adopted by the United States Senate on March 1, 1917, requesting that that body be furnished, if not incompatible with the public interest, whatever information you have concerning the note published in the press of this date, purporting to have been sent Jan. 19, 1917, by the German Secretary for Foreign Affairs to the German Minister to Mexico, I have the honor to state that the Government is in possession of evidence which establishes the fact that the note referred to is authentic, and that it is in possession of the Government of the United States, and that the evidence was procured by this Government during the present week, but that it is, in my opinion, incompatible with the public interest to send to the Senate at the present time any further information in possession of the Government of the United States relative to the note mentioned in the resolution of the Senate. Respectfully submitted,
ROBERT LANSING.

How the Note Was Obtained

The authorities have given no intimation as to how the Zimmermann note was procured, but an unconfirmed explanation was given that four men of the First Indiana Infantry, a noncommissioned officer and three privates, doing patrol duty along the Rio Grande near Llano Grande, Texas, had overhauled a messenger sent by the German Ambassador, Count von Bernstorff, and found the note on his person. The details as related in a dispatch from Houston, Texas, are as follows:

"Just opposite where the messenger attempted to sneak across the river was stationed a squad of thirty-five Carranza 'rurales,' fashioned after the organization of 'Texas Rangers.' However, the messenger did not meet the 'rurales,' but four men of Company G, First Indiana Infantry, and they got the Zimmermann note and other papers from his person. They caught him near the town of Progreso, where he was arrested on Feb. 21, when he attempted to cross the Rio Grande, twelve miles below San Juan Ferry and twenty-five miles west of the International Bridge at Brownsville, Texas, the two regulation crossings. Since the patrol of the border was begun no person is allowed to cross without being questioned, searched, and minutely examined by the patrol bodies, made up of four men and covering every foot of territory from Sam Fordyce, Texas, to Brownsville, Texas, along the Rio Grande a distance of 106 miles. The messenger doubtless was following explicit instructions as to where to cross, and in so doing he aroused the suspicions of the militiamen."

It is stated, and not officially denied, that the document was in the hands of the President when he broke off relations with Germany by dismissing the Ambassador, but its absolute authenticity was not established until a day or two before it was made public.

Confirmed by Germany

When the Zimmermann proposal was first made public it evoked indignant protests from pro-Germans throughout the country, on the ground that it was spurious, and that its publication was a political trick. The German press in America denounced it as a palpable forgery, a clumsy artifice to influence American sentiment. However, on March 3 Secretary Zimmermann himself acknowledged that the letter was genuine, and the following statement was telegraphed from Berlin that day by the German Official News Bureau, the Overseas News Agency:

Foreign Secretary Zimmermann was asked by a staff member of the Overseas News Agency about the English report that "a German plot had been revealed to get Mexico to declare war against the United States and to secure Japan's aid against the United States." Secretary Zimmermann answered: "You understand that it is impossible for me to discuss the facts of this 'revealed plot' just at this moment and under these circumstances. I therefore may be allowed to limit my answer to what is said in the English reports, which certainly are not inspired by sympathy with Germany. The English report expressly states that Germany expected and wished to remain on terms of friendship with the United States, but that we had prepared measures of defense in case the United States declared war against Germany. I fail to see how such a ' plot ' is inspired by unfriendliness on our part. It would mean nothing but that we would use means universally admitted in war, in case the United States declared war.

"The most important part of the alleged plot is its condition and form. The whole 'plot' falls flat to the ground in case the United States does not declare war against us. And if we really, "as the report alleges, considered the possibility of hostile acts of the United States against us, then we really had reasons to do so.

"An Argentine newspaper a short while ago really 'revealed a plot ' when it told that the United States last year suggested to other American republics common action against Germany and her allies. This ' plot ' apparently was not conditional in the least.

The news as published by La Prensa (Buenos Aires) agrees well with the interpretation given, for instance, by an American newspaper man, Edward Price, in Berlin and London, who said that the United States was waiting only for the proper moment in order opportunely to assist the Entente. The same American stated that Americans from the beginning of the war really participated in it by putting the immense resources of the United States at the Entente's disposal, and that Americans had not declared war only because they felt sure that assistance by friendly neutrality would be during that time much more efficient for the Entente than direct participation in the war. Whether this American newspaper man reported the facts exactly we were at a loss to judge in satisfactory fashion, since we were more or less completely cut off from communication with the United States.

"But there were other facts which seemed to confirm this and similar assurances. Everybody knows these facts, and I need not repeat them. The Entente propaganda services have sufficiently heralded all these pro-Entente demonstrations in the United States. And if you link these demonstrations with the actual attitude of the United States, then it is obvious that it was not frivolous on our part to consider what defensive measures we should take in case we were attacked by the United States."

German Comment

The German newspaper press was cautious in its comments on the disclosure, though some influential organs criticised the manoeuvre as unwise. It was at first reported that the Reichstag would repudiate the Minister and demand his dismissal, but this story proved to be wholly unfounded. The Reichstag Budget Committee at an executive session on March 5, lasting six hours, unequivocally indorsed the action of the Foreign Office by unanimous vote. The Government's efforts to negotiate an alliance in the eventuality of war with the United States was approved as being within the legitimate scope of military precautions. The committee expressed regrets at the misfortune which resulted in the interception of Foreign Secretary Zimmermann's note.

After Dr. Zimmermann had given his report in regard to the instructions to the German Minister in Mexico the subject was debated by members of the Reichstag. Reporting the debate, the Overseas News Agency said that a National Liberal member reminded the committee that President Wilson had attempted to instigate neutrals against Germany. He said he was unable to object to Dr. Zimmermann's action.

Members of the Socialist minority criticised unfavorably the Foreign Secretary's move. Their remarks evoked energetic protests from a member of the Catholic Party. A Conservative member declared Dr. Zimmermann's action was unobjectionable and should be indorsed. The objections raised by the members of the Socialist minority were criticised by other Socialists.

The most caustic criticism of the matter came from Theodor Wolff, editor of the influential Berliner Tageblatt, who wrote:

The invitation to Mexico would have been a mistake even if it had not strayed from the right road. The fresh spirit of enterprise it shows too impatiently eliminated sober judgment. The Minister to Mexico was instructed to hold out the conquest of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to Carranza, and it would certainly be interesting to see the face of the wily Mexican when this offer was made. The idea, too, that through Carranza's mediation one could win over rather self-conscious Japan is somewhat strange. With Russia, England, and America, all leading powers in Eastern Asia, standing on the other side, Japan will certainly not be very amenable to Mexico's influence. It is not probable one can help along the world's history in this way.

Naturally no man says a word about morality in this connection; in the first place, morality has for a long time been that thing whose nonobservance is self-understood; secondly, it hasn't the least to do with the Mexican matter. It is not immoral to offer Mexico an alliance for the eventuality of war, and it would not be immoral even to ask Japan, "My yellow beauty, will you go with me?" One who does so is far from being a Machiavelli.

Likewise, nothing justifies the charge that the authors of the plan have touched the fuse to the American powder barrel. The development of things would have been approximately the same, even without the Mexican correspondence. Neither should one condemn an action because it fails. The greatest diplomatic geniuses have occasionally gone wrong.

After we have thus blown ourselves up with righteousness, we can quietly say that the jewel of statesmanship went lost between Berlin and Mexico.

Georg Bernhard in the Vossische Zeitung expressed disapproval in these terms:

To begin with we cannot see what interest we might have in offering the Mexicans bits of American territory. Mexico is carrying on a war of defense against the Union. The Mexicans know full well for what reasons, not only financial, but political, the United States is forced to seek an extension of its territory beyond the Mexican boundary. The American need to defend the Panama Canal is a perpetual menace to every State lying between the Canal and the United States boundary. Therefore these States are bound to look upon the German proffer to assist them in their defense as highly valuable.

Wholly incomprehensible, however, is the inspiration of our diplomacy to negotiate with Japan by way of Mexico. It betrays a wholly false estimate of latent possibilities. We are fully acquainted with Japan's attitude toward America. All the beautiful speeches of the statesmen in Washington and Tokio cannot deceive us, for beneath the mask of friendship the two grimmest foes of the future are facing one another. Long before the war we were aware that Japanese diplomacy was not only astute, but very purposeful, and we know further that among no people has the art of keeping one's face been so keenly developed. Whoever assumed that Japan, in this war, would probably forsake her allegiance to her friends betrays anything but a diplomatic line of reasoning.

Mexico and Japan Speak

The State Department announced that it had no reason to believe that the Zimmermann proposal had ever been presented to the Mexican Government, and the Mexican Chargé d'Affaires of the Mexican Embassy at Washington, Ramon de Negri, issued a formal statement denying that the Carranza Government had been in any way implicated in the matter. The Japanese Embassy at Washington also issued a formal statement denouncing the letter as a "monstrous plot," and adding:

"If such a proposal were made, it is one that could not be entertained by the Japanese Government, as it is an absolutely impossible proposal. Japan is not only in honor bound to her allies in the Entente, but could not entertain the idea of entering into any such alliance at the expense of the United States."

The Japanese Foreign Minister, Viscount Motono, considered the suggestion ridiculous, and added: "If Mexico received the proposal, that country showed intelligence in not transmitting it to Japan." The Prime Minister of Japan, Count Terauchi, made the following statement regarding the matter on March 5:

The revelation of Germany's latest plot, looking to a combination between Japan and Mexico against the United States, is interesting in many ways. We are surprised not so much by the persistent efforts of the Germans to cause an estrangement between Japan and the United' States as by their complete failure of appreciating the aims and ideals of other nations.

Nothing is more repugnant to our sense of honor and to the lasting welfare of this country than to betray our allies and friends in time of trial and to become a party to a combination directed against the United States, to whom we are bound not only by the sentiments of true friendship, but also by the material interests of vast and far-reaching importance.

The proposal which is now reported to have been planned by the German Foreign Office has not been communicated to the Japanese Government up to this moment, either directly or indirectly, officially or unofficially, but should it ever come to hand I can conceive no other form of reply than that of indignant and categorical refusal.

The Mikado of Japan sent President Wilson the following greeting on his second inauguration on March 5:

On the occasion of your inauguration as the President of the United States of America we desire to offer to you our sincere congratulations and to express our ardent wishes that your Administration may be attended by brilliant successes in the future, as it has been in the past, and that the United States may grow more and more in its prosperity.

Attitude of Caranza

The exposure of the proposed German-Mexican-Japanese alliance was followed by disclosures of intrigues by alleged German agents in nearly all the Central and South American States. On March 9 it was reported that Washington had discovered that a wireless station has been installed in Mexico, whereby direct communication could be had with Germany. Numerous reports came from points in Central and South America of plottings to involve various States in quarrels, and one circumstantial story was related to the effect that efforts had been made to embroil Mexico with all the Central American States, with the promise that Mexico should be permitted to acquire nearly all of Guatemala and British Honduras.

Carranza, the de facto President of Mexico, made no announcement regarding the exposure of the plot, and it was remarked that no official repudiation of the proposal had been made by any important official of the Carranza Government. It is recalled that on Feb. 12, 1917, Secretary Lansing received from R. P. de Negri, Chargé d'Affaires of the Mexican Embassy at Washington, the copy of an identical note which the de facto Government of Mexico had also dispatched to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Spain, Sweden, Norway, and other nations, asking that they and the United States join with Mexico in an international agreement to prohibit the exportation of munitions and foodstuffs to the belligerents in Europe.

This proposal, contrary to international law and to the principles of neutrality as laid down by the United States in its notes to the German and Austro-Hungarian Governments, caused critics of international affairs to say that, as the Central Powers were the only ones to be benefited by the proposal, it was probably due to German influence on General Carranza or to Carranza's own desire to have a hand in the European quarrel.

Carranza's Intervention Note

The text of the Carranza note reads, in part:

Over two years ago there began on the old Continent the most gigantic armed conflict which history records, spreading death, desolation, and misery among the belligerent nations. This tragic struggle has deeply wounded the sentiments of humanity of all the countries not taking any part in the struggle, and it would not be just or humane that these nations should remain indifferent before such great disaster. A deep sentiment of human brotherhood therefore obliges the Mexican Government to offer its modest co-operation in order to bring about the cessation of the struggle….

The present European war seems to the whole world as a great conflagration, as a great plague that ought to have been isolated and limited long ago, in order to shorten its duration and avoid its extension. Far from that, the commerce of the neutral countries of the world, and particularly that of America, has a great responsibility before history, because all the neutral nations, more or less, have lent their assistance in money, in provisions, in munitions, or in fuel, and in this way have fed and prolonged this great conflagration.

By reason of high human morals and for their own national preservation, the neutral nations are obligated to abandon this procedure, and also to refuse to continue lending this assistance that has made possible the continuation of the war for over two years. To this end the Mexican Government, acting within the most strict respect for the sovereignty of the countries at war, inspired by the highest humanitarian sentiments, and guided at the same time by the sentiment of self-conservation and defense, permits itself to propose to the Government of your Excellency, as it is also doing to the other neutral Governments, that, working in mutual accord and proceeding upon the basis of the most absolute equality for both groups of combatant powers, to [we?] invite them to put an end to the present war, either by themselves or taking advantage of the good offices or of the friendly mediation of all the nations that jointly may accept this invitation.

If within a reasonable length of time peace cannot be established by this means, the neutral countries will then take the necessary measures in order to confine the conflagration to its strict limits, refusing to the belligerents all kinds of supplies and stopping merchant traffic with the nations of the world until the end of the war is achieved.

The Mexican Government recognizes that in its proposition it steps aside a little from the principles of international law which until now have been in force in the relations of the neutrals with the belligerents. But we ought to recognize that the present European war is a conflict without any precedent in the history of humanity, which demands supreme effort and new remedies that cannot be found within the narrow and somewhat egotistical limits of international law as known up to date.

The Government of Mexico understands that no neutral nation, powerful as* it may be, could by itself take a step of this nature, and that the result of this measure only can be reached with the co-operation of the neutral Governments possessing the greatest international influence before the belligerent nations.

It pertains especially to the United States, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile in America, and to Spain, Sweden, and Norway in Europe, which are more influential and more at liberty to take a determined stand before the belligerents concerned, to foster this initiative, which, not because it proceeds from a nation which is supposed to be weak at the present time, and therefore incapable of an effective international effort, is nevertheless worthy of serious study and minute consideration.

The proposal at the time brought sharp protests from the newspapers and prominent spokesmen of all the countries, and was denounced as a movement in the interest of Germany. General Carranza expressed surprise that his suggestion should be so construed, and disclaimed that it was made in the interest of any of the belligerents.

Earlier Intrigues in Mexico

German plottings with reference to Mexico were first divulged on Dec. 8, 1915, when it was reported that Franz Rintelen, an intimate friend of the German Crown Prince, and one of the financial advisers of the German Admiralty, had been sent to the United States in the Spring of that year for the double purpose of stirring up strikes in American factories engaged in the manufacture of munitions for the Allies, and also of bringing about a war between the United States and Mexico, the purpose of the last-named plot being to create a situation in this country which would make impossible the sale of war materials to the Allies so long as the Mexican trouble lasted.

Rintelen arrived in. the United States in April, 1915, under an assumed name, which he changed to another assumed name shortly after his arrival. He had offices in a New York bank building, and was known to the other tenants as Hansen. As Hansen he went to an uptown hotel with a letter of introduction to a man who was at that time a power in Mexican affairs.

The letter introducing him was written by an official of a bank in which Austro-Hungarian officials in this country have kept large accounts. Rintelen also had an account in this bank, which at one time amounted to several hundred thousand dollars. This money, according to American Secret Service agents, was part of a large fund given to Rintelen by the German Government to carry out the anti-American conspiracies which caused the Berlin authorities to send him to the United States. The total amount of the fund said to have been at the disposal of Rintelen has been placed by responsible officials as high as $30,000,000.

Huerta and Rintelen

A few weeks after Rintelen arrived in New York, Victoriano Huerta, former dictator of Mexico, arrived here from Spain. He had fled to the latter country a few weeks following the American occupation of Vera Cruz, in the Spring of 1914. There is every reason to believe that Rintelen also came to this country from Spain, and that while in that country he had conferred with Huerta and other prominent Mexicans who were then in exile there.

Shortly after his arrival in New York Huerta met Rintelen. Several times later he met and conferred with Captain von Papen, then the German Military Attaché in Washington. Von Papen subsequently was recalled by the German Government at the request of President Wilson. The reason of the recall has never been made public, but those who are in close touch with the situation have never seen fit to deny that the Mexican activities of German agents had something to do with the disgracing of the Attaché.

The German proposition to Huerta was submitted to him at a conference held in a Fifth Avenue hotel, at which there were present, besides Huerta and Rintelen, at least one former Foreign Minister of the Mexican Government and several other Mexicans whose names were household words south of the Rio Grande five years ago.

Von Papen was not at this conference, but he conferred subsequently with Huerta. Von Papen is said to have gone to the border in the Summer of 1915, and, with trusted German agents, made a close study of the situation from a military point of view. Huerta took kindly to the German proposition, and a few weeks later he announced that he had decided to make New York his home, and rented a house on Long Island. This statement regarding a change of residence proved to be a ruse to throw the United States Secret Service agents off Huerta's track, for a few days after he moved to his Long Island home he disappeared. The Secret Service agents found him in Missouri, speeding on a limited train for El Paso, Texas, where it was learned he was to be joined by confederates and was to slip across the line near Juarez and start the new revolution, the purpose of which was to bring on a war with the United States. The Germans, it is said, had promised Huerta 10,000 rifles, a huge amount of ammunition, and a first credit of about $10,000,000 to finance the enterprise.

Huerta never arrived at El Paso. Instead, the Government agents intercepted him in New Mexico, near the Texas line, and made him a prisoner. Pascual Orozco, a former Madero chieftain, who was also in the plot, was killed a few weeks later in trying to escape into Mexico. Whether or not Huerta ever confessed to the Federal authorities his part in the German plot has never been stated, but the impression is that he died in the jail at San Antonio without telling what he knew of the affair.

The arrest of Huerta and the subsequent investigation by the Secret Service agents resulted in the flight from this country of Rintelen. He sailed on a Holland-America liner on a fraudulent Swiss passport, and was arrested by the British when his ship called at Falmouth for examination by the British military authorities. He is still a prisoner of war in Great Britain, the place of confinement being, it is said, a prison near London.

A significant indication of the attitude of the Carranza Government toward Japan lies in the fact that about the time the Zimmermann note was due to be delivered at Mexico City the Mexican Government canceled orders for 20,000,000 rifle cartridges that had been let in this country and transferred them to Japanese munitions works. The ostensible reason given was the irksome regulation imposed by our Government in regard to deliveries.

It is stated that by March 10 there were 6,000 Germans in various parts of Mexico, all trained soldiers, and that the number is increasing rapidly by the departure from American cities of hundreds each week for Mexico.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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