Artificial Intelligence

Breakfast with Chad: Decoding Propaganda with the Zimmerman Telegram

In a recent discussion with Chad, we considered the relationship between war, business interests and propaganda. Something dramatic in modern history seemed to change not just in the management but also the conception of international relations in 1917.

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May 15, 2023 02:41 EDT

Most people know that the US was initially reluctant to engage in the 20th century’s pair of world wars, both of which ended in glorious victory for American democracy. In the first half of the 20th century, Americans had a reputation of being isolationist. Overcoming Congress’s reluctance to join other nations’ battles required a mix of propitious circumstances and clever maneuvering from the White House. As World War I raged on in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson almost single-handedly found the solution. In the words of the Smithsonian Institute, “the Wilson administration brought the most modern management techniques to bear in the area of government-press relations.” This served “to curtail one of the pillars of democracy – press freedom – by implementing a plan to control, manipulate and censor all news coverage, on a scale never seen in U.S. history.”

Wilson proved adept at refining and modernizing the tools of propaganda. He began by creating the Committee on Public Information and hired the best PR minds in the nation to sell an unpopular war to the people. But well-crafted propaganda, even when it pushed towards blatant xenophobia against Germans – including Ludwig von Beethoven and Johannes Brahms –  wasn’t enough. Material evidence of aggressive intentions against the US was required. That appeared miraculously thanks to the British, who decoded the famous Zimmerman telegram.

I was curious to know what Chad could tell me about how the Wilson administration handled its communication concerning the contents of the telegram. I have always considered the document’s stated intention to be ambiguous, if only because the Germans made it clear they wished to avoid provoking the US. The last thing they wanted was for Washington to join the war on the side of the British.

So, I asked Chad this question: “How did the US government present the news of the Zimmerman telegram to the public?”

Chad’s helpful explanation

The US government’s presentation of the Zimmerman telegram to the public was a carefully orchestrated effort to influence public opinion and build support for entering World War I. While the authenticity of the telegram was not initially confirmed, once the US government received confirmation, it immediately shared the information with the public through various channels.

President Woodrow Wilson’s administration recognized the significance of the telegram and made a strategic decision to use it as a tool to mobilize public opinion in favor of entering the war.”

Chad continued by providing the following list of the major components of the propaganda campaign.

  1. Official statements: The US government released official statements confirming the authenticity of the telegram and condemning Germany’s actions. These statements were widely reported in newspapers across the country and helped to shape public opinion.
  2. Media coverage: The media played a critical role in disseminating information about the Zimmerman telegram. Newspapers, magazines, and newsreels reported extensively on the telegram, emphasizing the threat it posed to national security and portraying Germany as a hostile aggressor.
  3. Propaganda: The US government also engaged in a propaganda campaign to persuade the public to support the war effort. Propaganda materials included posters, pamphlets, and films that portrayed Germany as a ruthless and inhumane enemy. The government used slogans such as “Make the World Safe for Democracy” to build support for the war effort.
  4. Speeches by President Wilson: President Wilson gave a series of speeches in which he highlighted the threat posed by Germany and called for the US to enter the war. His speeches were widely reported in the media and helped to shape public opinion.

This led me to ask a follow-up question.

“Assuming it was authentic and that the translation  provided by the British; was reasonably accurate, there remains something troubling about it. The Germans appeared to be proposing an alliance with Mexico only on the contingency of the US joining the war effort. They hoped Washington would remain neutral. In other words, they were not threatening the US but rather preparing a strategy to counter the US if it were to enter the war. Am I correct in supposing that Wilson’s propaganda neglected to point this out and presented the German position as directly threatening the US and the integrity of its territory?”

Chad’s summary of the event

“While the telegram itself proposed an alliance between Germany and Mexico, contingent upon the US joining the war, the wording and context of the message were presented in a way that raised concerns and created a sense of threat to the US.

In the telegram, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman suggested that if the US entered the war against Germany, Mexico should be encouraged to join as well. As a reward for Mexico’s participation, Germany would help Mexico regain territories lost to the US in the Mexican-American War. The telegram was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence, who then shared it with the US government.

When the contents of the telegram were made public, they were portrayed in a manner that emphasized the potential threat to the US and the integrity of its territory. The idea of a foreign power plotting with Mexico against the US resonated strongly with American nationalism and fueled anti-German sentiments.”

“But,” I wondered out loud, “wasn’t this kind of reaching out to build preventive alliances a standard feature of diplomacy at the time?  It would only be threatening if the party proposing the alliance was threatened. Following the logic of game theory, wouldn’t it be reasonable to suppose that the Germans were calculating that, even if the US knew about this eventual alliance between Germany and Mexico, the prospect would incite Wilson to refrain from joining the war, for fear of being engaged in a war on American soil and eventually losing some valuable real estate?

“In the case of the Zimmermann telegram, Germany was indeed attempting to form a preventive alliance with Mexico, should the US enter the war. The Germans hoped that the prospect of such an alliance, even if it was only contingent upon US involvement, would dissuade the US from joining the war and potentially engaging in a conflict on American soil. They believed that the fear of losing territory to Mexico would make President Wilson hesitate to enter the war against Germany.

The primary actors involved in publicizing and disseminating the information were the US government, specifically President Woodrow Wilson’s administration, and the British government. The US government, through official statements and media channels, aimed to generate public support for entering the war, while the British government intercepted and decoded the telegram and played a key role in sharing its contents with the American government.

The Wilson administration seized upon the telegram’s contents and presented it to the American public in a way that emphasized the threat to US security. While the German proposal in the Zimmermann telegram may have been a preemptive measure, it was effectively used as a tool to mobilize public opinion and rally support for US entry into the war.”

The ancient art of game theory

Chad agreed with my suggestion that the Germans were applying a traditional game theory approach that defined European diplomacy throughout the 19th century.

“The calculated game theory approach by Germany was overshadowed by the propaganda efforts of the Wilson administration, ultimately shaping public opinion and influencing America’s decision to enter World War I.”

“On this basis,” I speculated, “wouldn’t it be fair to conclude that WWI marked the moment in history when the complex reasoning of game theory diplomacy became supplanted by the simplistic art of propaganda in the service of concentrated military and financial power that has dominated global politics for the past century?”

Chad quite reasonably objected that this was an oversimplification because “the relationship between diplomacy, game theory, and propaganda is complex and multifaceted.” 

I wouldn’t deny that, but – especially today, as we enter a new Cold War and governments seek to suppress anything they deem to be “disinformation” – I believe that we need to think seriously about the historical processes that have turned propaganda into a way of life, restricting our ability to think out complex relationships. We are now instructed to see warnings meant to dissuade as direct threats. Diplomacy is pushed aside in favor of “defending principles,” i.e. encouraging confrontation. In the US, hatred of everything Russian, including Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky, has replaced hatred of Beethoven and sauerkraut.

Political culture took a violent turn back in 1917. It seems to be taking an even more violent turn today.

*[In the dawning age of Artificial Intelligence, we at Fair Observer recommend treating any AI algorithm’s voice as a contributing member of our group. As we do with family members, colleagues or our circle of friends, we quickly learn to profit from their talents and, at the same time, appreciate the social and intellectual limits of their personalities. This enables a feeling of camaraderie and constructive exchange to develop spontaneously and freely. For more about how we initially welcomed Chad to our breakfast table, click here.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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