A Brief History
On March 1, 1917, one of the most provocative diplomatic messages known to history was disseminated in the American press, the so-called Zimmerman Telegram, sent by Germany to Mexico in January of 1917 and intercepted by the British who dutifully relayed the shocking message to American President Woodrow Wilson. An aghast and angry Wilson wanted to release the contents of the message to the world and the American people immediately but held the news until March 1, 1917. An outraged American public learned of German designs on the American mainland and the telegram was largely responsible for spurring the United States to declare war on the Central Powers, effectively spelling the doom of the Central Powers’ prospects for victory in World War I. While this document revealed German hopes of allying with a Latin American country late in the war to help that country conquer some U.S. territory, did any of the Central Powers ever want to themselves actually conquer any parts of Latin America before or during the Great War?
The only Central Power with any real ambitions regarding Latin America prior to or during the war was Germany, but German colonization efforts and aspirations in the Americas had been limited prior to World War I. Nevertheless, in 1904, Austin Harrison published The pan-Germanic doctrine; being a study of German political aims and aspirations that envisioned German control over Mexico and a strip of South America, with France, Portugal, and Italy dominating other parts of South America. Less than ten years later, in 1911, a German geographer and pan-Germanist named Otto Richard Tannenberg wrote a book called Groß-Deutschland: die Arbeit des 20ten Jahrhunderts or Greater Germany: The Work of the 20th Century that was translated in other languages, later influenced such Nazis as Heinrich Himmler, and had far more ambitious goals of German influence not just in Latin America but in the wider world. In this book, Tannenberg fantasized about redrawn maps of the world by 1950 in which Germany would greatly expand its territory to create a global empire, essentially dividing the world mostly with the United States, Britain, and Japan. The French colonial empire and the Russian Empire would be greatly reduced in size. With regards to Latin America, Tannenberg proposed the United States extending southwards to include all of Central America and into Colombia and Venezuela in South America. British control would extend from Peru to much of Brazil. Germany would gain control of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay to create German South America. Elsewhere in South America, Germany would also get Suriname, probably because it was then Dutch Guiana and Tannenberg’s vision of German expansion included Germany annexing the Netherlands in Europe and the subsequent “natural” acquisition of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), too. The proposed boundaries for Latin America are not exactly based on political boundaries but rather by drainage divides with Germany gaining what was then some of the most populous and productive areas of South America. Of course, as World War I actually played out a few years after the publication of Tannenberg’s book, the reality of world events surrounding World War I precluded any chance of the Tannenberg vision of German expansion into Latin America for several reasons. Germany and Britain were on opposite sides of the conflict. Moreover, the United States tended to be more sympathetic towards the British in the war, especially after such incidents as the sinking of the Lusitania and the publication of the Zimmerman Telegram, thus rendering any division of Latin America among Britain, Germany, and the United States as unrealistic.
Even if the pre-war dreams of German nationalists went beyond realistic goals, as a “World War,” The Great War participants would certainly be remiss to ignore any large part of the world, including the American continents and the associated islands offshore North and South America. Much of the Americas is referred to as “Latin America,” an area characterized by the Spanish and Portuguese languages based on prior history as Iberian colonial territories. Latin American countries and their populations had no particular affinity to either Britain, France, or the United States, and seemed to provide a potential ally for the Central Powers, or at least an area ripe for exploitation by those same powers, specifically Germany, which still had budding colonial interests in Latin America.
Other considerations that made Latin America important to the Central Powers, specifically Germany, included numerous efforts at diplomatic intrigue on the part of Germany to cajole, coerce and convince Latin American countries to side with Germany against a United States increasingly sympathetic to Britain as the war progressed. Another factor in the involvement of Germany vis a vis Latin America in World War I was the ongoing U-boat war, the submarine attacks against merchant ships with cargoes bound for Britain and France, some of which originated in Latin America, either the ships themselves or the cargoes they carried. The only real reason a more concerted effort was not made by the German Imperial Navy to isolate Latin America from supplying the Allies with food and war goods was the technology of the day which limited the efficiency of long range submarine operations, a limitation addressed by more sophisticated submarines and support tactics during World War II.
The German naval warfare effort in the waters surrounding Latin America had mixed results, with the dreaded U-boats preying upon merchant vessels believed to be carrying supplies for the Allied war effort. Surface action was even more of a mixed bag for Germany, including a military disaster for the German Imperial Navy in the Battle of the Falklands in December of 1914 resulting in the loss of 2 German armored cruisers, 2 German light cruisers, and 2 German merchant ships with no British ships lost at all. The German Navy suffered over 1800 men killed and over 200 men captured, while British personnel losses were a minimal 10 killed and 19 wounded. The Battle of the Falklands occurred just 5 weeks after a German naval victory at the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile, a naval clash that saw the British lose 2 armored cruisers sunk and a light cruiser damaged and the loss of over 1600 men killed, while the Germans suffered only 3 men wounded! That German naval victory was certainly short lived enough to fail to impress the Latin American countries Germany was attempting to woo.
The most notorious failed attempt by Germany to entice a Latin American country into allying with Germany concerned the infamous Zimmerman Telegram, sent by Arthur Zimmerman, an employee of the German Foreign Service, to the German ambassador in Mexico on January 17, 1917. The text of the telegram is as follows:
“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 of 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.
The message anticipated the entry of the United States into World War I against Germany in response to the upcoming resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, and the gist of that message concerned the wooing of Mexico into entering the War on the side of Germany against the United States, with a territorial gain for Mexico consisting of some Southwest American states. Germany had previously attempted to generate a war between Mexico and the United States, with the goal of distracting the U.S. from its policy of supplying food, materiel and munitions to Britain and France. With regards to the inclusion of Japan in the message, Japan had actually already entered the war on the side of the Allies against the Central Powers relatively early in the war (in 1914), and though they may have had long range goals concerning a presence in the Pacific side of Latin America, the Japanese declined any notion of switching sides to join the German side, further dashing German hopes of turning the tide of the war in their favor.
Why did Germany fail to gain Latin American allies? While relations between the United States and Latin American nations was often somewhat rocky, the U.S. had much more interaction in the Latin American sphere than Germany, with strong trade relationships and established connections that Germany could not match. The power of German trade and the reach of their military must have seemed minimal compared to the overshadowing presence of the “Colossus of the North” as the Latin Americans called the United States.
As for the “Colossus of the South,” the largest and most populous country in South America, Brazil, had tried to play the neutral card during World War I, with an eye to keeping lucrative trade contracts going strong with belligerent countries. After repeated incidents of U-boats sinking Brazilian ships and Brazilian cargoes, Brazil became the only Latin American country to directly declare war on the Central Powers during World War I when they made their war declaration on October 26th of 1917, after having severed diplomatic relations with Germany in April of 1917. While Brazil never did succeed in sending ground forces to fight the Central Powers, their navy did engage in anti-submarine warfare by escorting Brazilian ships on trans-Atlantic routes, although without any noted success against the German submarines. Brazil also sent a medical team to mainland Europe before the war ended.
While Latin America was largely spared the terror and ruin of World War I, at least so far as enormous land and sea battles, this situation was not because the Central Powers, mainly Germany, did not understand the strategic importance of the region. The Germans were well aware of the vast trove of food and raw materials available in Latin America, as well as the conveniently located islands that could have potentially harbored valuable submarine bases for their U-boats. As such, a continuous effort to secure the cooperation of Latin American countries and people to undermine the Allied war effort was pursued, though largely to no particularly good effect. Thus, at least one member of the Central Powers had designs on Latin America, although German conquest of Latin America seemed unrealistic and even German efforts to gain Latin American allies ultimately proved unsuccessful.
Question for students (and subscribers): Could the Central Powers have realistically conquered Latin America or at least brought any Latin American countries into the war on their side? How might the war have played out differently had the Central Powers succeeded in gaining firm allies from Latin America? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Mills, Bill. Treacherous Passage: Germany’s Secret Plot against the United States in Mexico during World War I. POTOMAC BOOKS, 2017.
Rinke, Stefan. Latin America and the First World War. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a political cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman (1869–1949) for the Zimmermann Telegram, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1926, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.
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