True Spies Episode 116: Special Relationships Part I: The Zimmermann Telegram
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Vanessa Kirby, and this is True Spies Special Relationships, Part 1 - The Zimmermann Telegram. 1917. The Atlantic Ocean. A battlefield. German U-boats lurk beneath the black waves seeking easy prey in the hulking warships and merchant vessels of the Allied fleets. Deeper still, thick metallic tendrils carry signals from continent to continent. The telegraph network is the first electronic messaging system to connect the globe. In wartime, its potential - to help, or to hinder - is hard to overstate. Of all the telegrams sent during those desperate final months of the Great War, one stands out as truly historic. Not because of its contents - although they’re certainly not easily dismissed. It’s because of how it’s intercepted, decrypted, and weaponized by British intelligence. This is the story of the Zimmermann Telegram, and how one message changed the world. One message, and one man. His name was Captain Blinker Hall.
ANTHONY WELLS: He was called Blinker because he had a little thing on his face and he twitched. So his nickname was Blinker, but he was a Navy captain.
NARRATOR: And a spy, naturally. In 1914, Sir William Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall became head of the Royal Navy’s Naval Intelligence Division just like his father before him.
ANTHONY WELLS: He was a son, actually, of William Henry Hall, who was, in fact, the first director of Naval Intelligence.
NARRATOR: Spying and saltwater mingled in Blinker’s blood. And in Britain, neither one could operate without the other.
ANTHONY WELLS: Remember one critical thing, British naval intelligence was the prime intelligence agency. MI6 and all of that? Well, they weren't founded till after the Great War was over. And, the first head of MI6, the first director, was Royal Navy Commander Mansfield Cumming, who signed his name ‘C’ because his name was Cumming, right? And so every highly classified document that he ever sent out was just a simple ‘C’. And that persists to today.
NARRATOR: Welcome to the first episode of a three-part anthology about key moments in the history of the Special Relationship - the powerful diplomatic and intelligence-sharing alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom. Some believe that this relationship starts when Captain Blinker Hall intercepts the Zimmermann Telegram, bringing the USA into the carnage of the First World War. It’s the moment in which old enemies first become brothers in arms, charting a course for a century of friendship.
ANTHONY WELLS: The Zimmermann Telegram was archetypal, critical in the evolution of not just the whole signals intelligence world and its critical value to intelligence, but also the beginning of a very Special Relationship with the United States.
NARRATOR: The voice you’ve been hearing belongs to Dr. Anthony Wells. For more than 50 years, he operated within the Five Eyes intelligence community - the alliance between the USA, the United Kingdom, and three of its former imperial dependents - Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
ANTHONY WELLS: And I have worked for both British intelligence as a British citizen and United States intelligence as an American citizen. So I've been around for quite a long time and it's been an honor and pleasure to work in this incredible community.
NARRATOR: Anthony’s being modest. To our knowledge, he’s the only living person to have top clearance in both the US and UK intelligence communities.
ANTHONY WELLS: I had the honor to serve over here in the United States in the mid-70s when I was a career British Naval officer when I was working very closely with various parts of the United States Navy in the United States intelligence community on various programs associated with the Soviet Union.
NARRATOR: The Cold War - Anthony’s own arena - did much to solidify the Special Relationship. Britain, America and its allies led the vanguard against the Soviet Union. But the Special Relationship didn’t happen overnight. Before a mutual understanding formed during the Second World War, Britain and America’s troubled history loomed large. That’s certainly the case in the early years of the 20th century.
ANTHONY WELLS: Relations weren't diplomatically antagonistic, but in terms of American public opinion and the United States Congress, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, there was a sense of Britain as an imperial power. It was a colonizing power.
NARRATOR: When the Great War broke out in 1914, America saw no reason to involve itself.
ANTHONY WELLS: The Americans weren't exactly predisposed to Britain and certainly not predisposed to sending hundreds of thousands of young Americans to, basically, support Britain and its allies, and die on the battlefield of the battlefields of Europe to support what they thought was very much a typical European war.
NARRATOR: President Woodrow Wilson listened to his public. It would take a tectonic shift in the political landscape before the US put boots on the ground in Flanders. Fortunately for the British, they had a secret weapon - a surefire way to bring their former colony to their aid. Operating from Room 40 of the Admiralty Building, the Naval Intelligence Division was the UK’s eyes and ears abroad. But not everyone recognized its vast potential.
ANTHONY WELLS: Blinker Hall didn't have an easy ride in the early years of being director of Naval Intelligence. The idea of operational intelligence where data could be flashed to the fleet, giving them really critical information, was actually - seems a little extraordinary now - but was resented. There's a lot of antipathy to this. One famous admiral said that anyone who went into intelligence would turn a British Naval officer into an ‘indifferent clerk’.
NARRATOR: Room 40’s team was made up of civilian cryptanalysts and a few uniformed personnel who were unfit for active service.
ANTHONY WELLS: These people were anathema to career naval officers.
NARRATOR: This attitude cost lives. In 1916, the British had lost 151 ships in the Battle of Jutland - more than twice that of the German Navy. The losses were deemed, in part, to be a result of poor communication between the Admiralty in London and the Commanders on the sea.
ANTHONY WELLS: And it was a shame because there wasn't that institutional training and experience to know how to use ‘operational intelligence’ - as it later was called - based on critical communications intercepts and decryptions. So there was that problem Hall faced. But he overcame all that and he overcame it with just one word: success. You deliver the goods.
NARRATOR: As well as operational intelligence, Captain Blinker Hall is keenly aware of the power of diplomacy. Mainly, he’s concerned with how it might be used against Britain.
ANTHONY WELLS: Now Blinker Hall did one very critical thing at the beginning of World War I and that was to cut - listen, this is important - cut the German undersea communication cables to the United States.
NARRATOR: If you’re thinking, “Did I just hear what I think I heard?” then yes, you did. Blinker Hall severed communications between Germany and the US. Now, as a result of that, they couldn't communicate with the United States.
NARRATOR: But why, exactly? So they actually - you wouldn't believe this, but it's true - the United States, because they were neutral at the time, actually offered the Germans to use American communications. Yeah. Between Berlin and Washington, D.C.
NARRATOR: The United States was, on paper, a neutral power - and free to trade with whomever they pleased. Of course, they would find a way to keep channels to Berlin open. Blinker Hall knew this.
ANTHONY WELLS: And, of course, Blinker Hall knew one very critical thing - he was a genius - that they passed through a substation in a little place called Porthcurno in Cornwall.
NARRATOR: Porthcurno, on the southwest coast of England, is an unassuming kind of place, as much back then as it is today. But it played an important role in the Transatlantic telegraph network. And now, with their network severed, the Germans had no choice but to use it.
ANTHONY WELLS: So guess what he did? He had a team of people in there tapping the American cables that carried all the encrypted - now, this is the critical thing - the encrypted German communications between Berlin and Washington, D.C.
NARRATOR: What Blinker Hall’s cryptologists uncovered in the wires would have genuinely world-changing implications - both for the war and for the future of intelligence work.
ANTHONY WELLS: So if you go back to 1914-18 - and particularly 1917 - Hall's people, were they the precursors to the great Bletchley Park? They were.
NARRATOR: By 1917, both sides had sustained casualties numbering in the millions. Eager to bring the conflict to a close, the German Navy was planning to resume the sinking of merchant and civilian vessels. They’d stopped in 1916 after the USA enforced the Sussex pledge - a piece of legislation that threatened to sever US-German relations if non-combatant boats were sunk. This betrayal, as well as President Wilson’s reputation as an Anglophile, made it almost inevitable that the USA would enter the war on the side of Britain. Berlin would do everything in its power to make sure that didn’t happen. In the Foreign Office of the German Empire, an audacious plot was hatched.
ANTHONY WELLS: The key intention of the Germans was to distract the United States by an attack upon the southwestern United States by an invasion of Mexican forces supported by the Germans in terms of funding and weapons and training.
NARRATOR: If the German plan was allowed to succeed, then the United States would be too busy fighting a war on its southern border to interfere in European affairs. The states of Texas, New Mexico, California, Arizona, and Nevada - all former Mexican territories - could play host to the first bloodshed on American soil since the Civil War. It’s a little-known plan that, had it gone ahead, would have changed the course of history.
ANTHONY WELLS: I mean, this is a cataclysmic event both for the United States and also for the Allies.
NARRATOR: And the architect of this gambit? One Arthur Zimmerman, a senior German civil servant.
ANTHONY WELLS: Zimmermann was the German foreign minister. So a very powerful guy, a number one political strategist, diplomatic, political, military, diplomatic strategist. He was the one that initiated this with the military elite in Germany. And he was the one that put together the plan and was working very closely with the German ambassador in Mexico City, with the Mexicans to do all of this.
NARRATOR: In January of 1917, Zimmermann began sending encrypted messages to the German ambassador in Mexico City. Ironically, these messages had to pass through the United States itself on their way South. But the Americans, acting in good faith as a neutral power, allowed the secret communications to flow without interrogating their contents.
ANTHONY WELLS: They thought, “Oh, it's just another message they're sending, right? They are sending dozens and dozens of messages daily. And so this is just one more.”
NARRATOR: Fortunately, the British Naval Intelligence Division was ahead of its time - Blinker Hall’s civilian codebreakers might not have been the most popular gang in the Admiralty, but you couldn’t argue with their results.
ANTHONY WELLS: Blinker Hall's organization before the war already acquired various codes, German codes, both military and diplomatic.
NARRATOR: A Great War in Europe had been predicted years before the first shot was fired. The fault lines of such a conflict had already been drawn. With this in mind, Room 40 of the NID had already been hard at work, obtaining and decrypting various German encryptions both military and diplomatic.
ANTHONY WELLS: No one else had ever done this before in the history of, if you like, in quotes, “intelligence”. So it was unbelievable that Hall and his people had that vision to use all that particular way of collecting intelligence, basically, communications intercept, but at the same time to develop the brainpower, to do the decryption, because this is all in code.
NARRATOR: On the 16th of January 1917, their efforts paid off.
ANTHONY WELLS: When they intercepted the critical one, the one that laid out the plan, on January the 16th, 1917, the cryptologists in Room 40 were just absolutely amazed at what the plan was.
ANTHONY WELLS: It happened to be the Zimmermann Telegram.
NARRATOR: Arthur Zimmermann has revealed his hand. He’s sent the all-important message to Mexico. Germany’s act of subterfuge against the United States is officially in motion. Room 40 has the opportunity to stop it before it begins. It’s at this point that you might expect a tidy conclusion to the story. Blinker Hall goes straight to Woodrow Wilson and exposes the German plot. America joins the war and the rest is history. Lovely. Well, that’s not how it happens. This is espionage, remember. There’s no such thing as simple.
ANTHONY WELLS: They were very worried in the Admiralty that the Americans would think this was some kind of British subterfuge.
NARRATOR: The British are as desperate as the Germans to bring an end to the slaughter in Europe and everyone knows it. And if you know anything about the way the British Empire operated - and the American government certainly did - then you’d be naive to trust in their good intentions. A German-backed Mexican invasion plot? Now we’ve heard it all. Plus, the fact that the Brits had been tapping American cables would hardly endear them to their cousins across the water.
ANTHONY WELLS: Britain had already acquired the codes, so they had done things that they didn't share with the Americans because they weren't Allies at the time and they weren't sharing intelligence at that point in time.
NARRATOR: Even if President Wilson’s pro-British sympathies shielded His Majesty’s Government from a public dressing down by the White House, the anti-war American media would seize on the opportunity to cast aspersions. A good portion of the United States Congress would follow their lead. After all, Wilson’s 1916 reelection had been narrowly won on the basis that he had kept America out of the war. Being seen to enter the fray on the back of biased British intelligence would be politically disastrous.
ANTHONY WELLS: And so Hall was like, “Oh, I've got a problem here. I've got critical information. It's highly secure. It's unique in terms of its decryption and what we've done in order to acquire it and then decrypt it, but the content is catastrophic in terms of American security.”
NARRATOR: When you’re undertaking espionage at this level, a bad outcome goes beyond a captured spy or an expelled diplomat. These are the decisions that chart the flow of history. So the dilemma Blinker Hall faces is this: How to get this information to the American people without triggering a backlash that might end the war early - for all the wrong reasons.
ANTHONY WELLS: And this is why the role of the American Ambassador in London, Walter Hines Page, is so important. And the relationship that Blinker Hall had with him at a personal level and with Edward Bell, who was the other top guy in the embassy.
NARRATOR: If you’ve listened to this podcast before, you’ll know that human relationships are perhaps the most important factor in spycraft. Blinker Hall’s relationships with Walter Hines Page and Edward Bell, two senior American diplomats in London, are the foundation for what comes next.
ANTHONY WELLS: He made a decision that he was going to go tell these two men what he'd got and how and why. And they believed him because they trusted him.
NARRATOR: Walter Hines Page has the ear of Woodrow Wilson - it’s not for nothing that Blinker Hall counts him as a friend. He arranges a top-secret meeting with the president.
ANTHONY WELLS: Woodrow Wilson, when he heard the background, it was explained to him obviously very secretly. No one, very few people in Washington, knew what it was.
NARRATOR: Wilson trusts Hines Page and he’s convinced of Room 40’s good intentions. All well and good, but that’s the easy part. One down, approximately 100 million Americans to go. To convince them, what the Naval Intelligence Division needs is an alibi - a believable means by which they might have come across the Zimmermann Telegram without spying on a neutral foreign power. Once again, the key is people - signals intelligence can only get you so far.
ANTHONY WELLS: Blinker Hall had agents in different places. He had, what we would call today, human intelligence, which is, the classical espionage business, the MI6, CIA, things where people are recruited by American and British agents - or their surrogates or sub-surrogates, sub-sub-sub surrogates - to do things for them on their behalf.
NARRATOR: One of Hall’s agents just happens to be very well-placed to help pull the wool over the eyes of the American public. Within the German embassy in Mexico City, a spy was at work. His motivation? Money, naturally.
ANTHONY WELLS: They bought off a very important clerk there who worked for them and was able to handle material.
NARRATOR: Blinker’s spy within the German Embassy has access to a trove of sensitive documents, including the Zimmermann Telegram. So Blinker, like a Chess master, sacrifices a pawn in the service of a greater good. He decides to let Wilson announce to the world that it’s this spy in the German Embassy who provided the offending telegram to the Brits - that the information was bought, not acquired by subterfuge.
ANTHONY WELLS: So, in fact, we know the truth. And of course, Woodrow Wilson knew the truth, but it was never made public knowledge for a long, long time.
NARRATOR: This white lie has the desired effect. Wilson goes public with the explosive revelation using Blinker’s Mexican alibi, of course.
ANTHONY WELLS: It was quite dramatic. See, the way the White House handled it was pretty clever in terms of release and briefings and the president making public announcements and holding press conferences and then the media - all the all of the big dailies in the United States - went for the German jugular, so to speak, in explaining what the Germans are up to in terms of threatening the United States in the southwest with an invasion. So it turned the tide.
NARRATOR: It’s not a completely clean win. A significant fraction of American skeptics point out that the telegram could have been forged by the British, regardless of its supposed origins. Oddly enough, it’s Arthur Zimmermann himself who puts their doubts to rest. During a speech at the German parliament in March 1917, he publicly admits his role in the plot. At the same time, he implores the American people not to take it personally - as long as they remain neutral, he says, they have nothing to fear from the Kaiser. Eight days later, Woodrow Wilson declares war on Germany. We all know what happens next. Victory. And the foundation of victories to come. Obviously, the Zimmermann Telegram led to the building of relationships between the Naval Intelligence Division in London and the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C., which became absolutely critical in the 1920s and then into the '30s for the lead up to World War Two.
NARRATOR: More than 20 years later, in August 1941, a cool summer breeze blows across the water of Placentia Bay, Newfoundland - at Canada’s easternmost tip. The HMS Prince of Wales, a 37,000-tonne Royal Navy warship, is the first of two enormous vessels to weigh anchor in the bay. It’s carrying an important passenger - Winston Churchill. The Prime Minister is a long way from home. Soon enough, it’s joined by the USS Augusta, carrying none other than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
ANTHONY WELLS: The president came up from Washington very secretly without anyone knowing about it.
NARRATOR: The USA has yet to join the Second World War. The attack on Pearl Harbor is still four months out, and once again, the American public is reluctant to sacrifice its fathers, brothers, and sons. Woodrow Wilson has been in his grave for almost 20 years. Blinker Hall is long since retired. Now, Churchill and Roosevelt pick up the baton. The two men disappear into the hulking mass of the Prince of Wales. Their meeting is closely guarded - the exact details of their conversation are not recorded. These are war talks, and secrecy is paramount. Publicly, this momentous meeting between two Great Men of History results in the Atlantic Charter - a joint statement that codifies Britain and America’s shared values, and their vision for the post-war world.
ANTHONY WELLS: However, what happened below decks was a lot of secret handshakes that went on only between a few people.
NARRATOR: Unbeknownst to those outside their tight-knit circle, the foundations have just been laid for the next 80 years of intelligence sharing between their two nations.
ANTHONY WELLS: And that was when the - if you like - the handshake was struck that created what I today call the Five Eyes.
NARRATOR: This new war, against a truly existential threat, will require absolute trust - absolute friendship.
ANTHONY WELLS: So it was a very, very important interpersonal thing as well. And I've stressed in many domains the fact that the Five Eyes relationship is all about people. It's about exchanges on a 24/7 basis, people working in this agency and that, in all the capitals and outplaces of the Five Eyes community in all sorts of places that most people have never heard of, where you've got Americans, British, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders working together. And it's that community that has endured and I was part of it. I'm proud to have been part of it. I know so many Americans and Canadians and everyone. And we are it. Politicians, I'm not being mean about politicians, but they come and go. The politicians, they don't have that enduring continuity that exists in an institution built on relationships as well as exchanging technology and the actual hardcore intelligence and figuring out, what bad people are up to. And it's all about people. And I think Blinker Hall was very, very important in building the relationships that he did with the United States.
NARRATOR: In next week’s episode of True Spies, we’ll take you to another vital chapter in the history of the Special Relationship - the early years of World War II.
ANTHONY WELLS: Lisbon was probably the most intensive intelligence place on the planet during these crucial years of the war before the tide turned against the Germans.
NARRATOR: With Anthony as our guide, we’ll enter a nest of British Navy spies that laid the groundwork for the most powerful American intelligence agency of the 20th Century. We’ll meet new characters who helped to build the modern intelligence community and some familiar faces too.
ANTHONY WELLS: Room 39 was the center of British Naval intelligence in the Admiralty building in London headed by Admiral Godfrey, Vice Admiral Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence, and, naturally, his personal assistant who most people don't realize. It's a gentleman called Ian Fleming, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming.
NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next time for another top-secret encounter with the spies who shaped history. Or, if you’re a subscriber to Spyscape Plus on Apple Podcasts, there’s no need to wait. You can listen to the first episode right now.
For more than 50 years, Dr. Anthony R Wells has worked with the Five Eyes intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He is the only living person to have worked for British Intelligence as a British citizen, and US Intelligence as an American citizen. He was called to the Bar by Lincoln’s Inn in 1980 when a Commander in the Royal Navy and lives in Virginia.