Because this is a narrative history (as are pretty much all of Tuchman’s) part of the job of the review, as I see it, is to separate the history itself from the telling of that history. Here, Tuchman gives a much more detailed accounting of the Zimmerman Telegram (Note), which for most American, exists as either a figurative footnote or a literal blurb in their high school American history classes.
So the story here mostly revolves around a few key themes: cryptography — what is it and why do we have it and how did it function at the time and why does it cause the actors here to work in the ways they do; what’s the deal with Woodrow Wilson anyway; did we really care who won the war; what’s the connection among Germany, Mexico, and Japan?
So we begin with a basic understanding of cryptography. For the book’s purposes it’s important to think like someone in a war office breaking codes. How can you successfully use the information you gather from the broken codes (which took years to break) without giving up the extreme advantage of having broken the code (ie tipping your hand)? So this sometimes leads to inaction in the face of information, sometimes it leads to strange action, and of course, sometimes it leads to deaths on your side. What’s the deal with Wilson? Well, he’s a truly terrible racist who somehow got the reputation of statesman after WWI, but was a kind of nerdy America Firster who really didn’t want America in the war. He also didn’t know who we were going to support if we got in. Whether that’s because terms weren’t clear enough yet or not, it meant in his role as head of a neutral nation he gave aid and comfort to many sides. So going beyond staying out, he offered, for the purposes of this book, use of American communication the belligerents. This sort of opportunistic view of the war has always seemed dilletantish to me. And so the last point, the connection between those three countries. Japan had been at war with Russia at the turn of the century, and of course would spend the 1890s through the 1930s expanding their empire, but especially in waging a lopsided war against China. Mexico, a neutral country to WWI, but also one with a growing (and ever present) tension with the US because of the revolution became a target for this kind of espionage. So having Mexico work toward convincing the US that Japan was an imminent threat (the threat, as articulated did happen to look a lot like Pearl Harbor ultimately would). In addition, Japan had had diplomatic relations within Mexico centuries earlier via Spanish arrival in Japan. So the US was split politically because the East Coast feared their approximation to the war in Europe (along with the Atlantic ship sinkings) and the West Coast feared Japan more for the potential of the same, so their was indecision, or more so, inaction.
So when the code was broken and the telegram intercepted (on US wires, no less) by British, the pretext was there for formally demand Germany be a belligerent and things became clearer.
I like Tuchman a lot, but while the history is this book is interesting, it’s clearly a book she’s still getting her ducks in a row on writing wise. It’s not sloppy or anything like that, but it does feel too plotted, and even sometimes too dry.