The Zimmermann test: six success factors for communicating to management

March 27, 2018

2018 is the year in which US President Trump plans to meet the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.


Could this be the prelude to a Korean peace treaty, ending the current armistice that has been in place since 1953?

2018 is also the year when we mark 100 years since the end of the First World War. Publishers are remembering the centennial remembrance to reissue books covering the period. One of those republished books (initially from 1958) is called The Zimmermann telegram1. It tells a fascinating story that I will summarise here.


Perilously close to concluding an unworthy peace

For the allied forces in the First World War (England, France, Russia), 1916 was not a good year. The central forces led by Germany proved too strong to be driven back from their initial territorial gains. Trench warfare proved exhausting. The war of attrition led to unimaginable suffering. In addition, the German submarine force proved capable of surprise attacks, sinking allied shipping at will. When nothing stopped them, Britain would be starved both of bullets and bread. Something had to be done and it had to happen fast.


Briefly put, the Western allies had two options:

–        conclude an unworthy peace with Germany, accepting a de facto German victory

–        mobilize the US to abandon their neutrality and join the Western allies in the fight


So far, the US had a staunchly isolationist policy ­ in today’s parlance: America first – albeit for pacifist rather than for today’s economic reasons. US President Wilson had studied all the facts and had made up his mind. This was a European war where the US had nothing to gain by joining but much to lose. With the British reaching their society’s point of exhaustion, the British dilemma was clear. When President Wilson stuck to not using guns, Britain would have to sue for a peace unworthy of everything it stood for.


The German chess game

German policy makers fully understood the British position and the fundamental reshuffle of the power balance if the US were to join the Allied side. Hence, their strategy had only a single aim: keep the US out of the continental European war. Diplomatic efforts – in today’s parlance: framing and fake news – were practiced but were not considered to be enough.

Instead, Germany would prefer the US was tied up in a domestic war. US forces bogged down in a local war would certainly not come to Europe to fight. Thus, German efforts focused on stirring up Japan to fight the US in California. More importantly, Germany allied with Mexico to stir up anti-US sentiment there. Germany capitalized on Mexican feelings regarding having lost states such as Arizona to the US in an earlier war. If only Mexico would start fighting the US on its southern border… This would keep the US busy in its homeland. Furthermore, when U-boats would intercept and sink shipping to the UK, further exhausting Britain, the British would see the hopelessness of their situation and conclude the victorious peace Germany also badly needed.


The intelligence breakthrough

In the best British traditions, gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail. In 1916, however, Britain faced an existential threat to its very culture and the empire it had created, so pragmatism was favoured over principles. Britain developed a strong capability to intercept and decode German diplomatic telegraphic traffic.

In January 1917, it picked up and decoded a telegram by German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann, pleading with the Mexicans to start war against the neutral US and promising German military support in the effort. The content of the telegram, once released in the US, incensed the US public opinion. It triggered isolationist and pacifists to join those that already favoured to join their UK ‘cousins’ in the war against the central forces. President Wilson had to accept the new reality: the US could no longer stand by: it had to declare war. In doing so, the forces it provided broke the stalemate in Europe and ended the war.

Where extensive literature is available on intelligence failures (think: Iraq war in 2003, 9/11, Pearl Harbor to name a few dossiers) it may also make sense to sometimes review intelligence successes. From a British perspective, intercepting, decoding and using the Zimmermann telegram to mobilize the neutral US army to join in and enable you to win the worst war in your history looks like a clear success. What factors determined that success? What generic lessons can we learn – also for those of us working in business?


Analysis of the Zimmermann telegram’ intelligence success

The scoop of the Zimmermann telegram as used by the British to pull the US into the war had at least the following attributes:


–        Timeliness

The British picked up the telegram and had it published before the US saw Mexicans attacking them – enabling the US to pacify Mexico and to obstruct German schemes.


–        Completeness

The decoded message showed ‘all there was’ – the facts spoke for themselves.


–        Accuracy

Initially many considered the telegram as fake news (there is no news under the sun) and disbelieved its authenticity. Germany, however, in the face of undeniable evidence, admitted its authorship, firing up US sentiment.


–        Novelty

The telegram unveiled German schemes that none in the US knew or had been willing to believe. It changed the perception on Germany and did so in favor of joining the naturally closest ally the US has ever had – good old Britain.


–        Relevance

The telegram revealed a clear and present danger to peace in the US homeland territory. How much more relevance can you ask for?


–        Actionability

When the telegram hit the US news, the country was divided on joining the war. There was a need for a decision, but no clear-cut case in favor of joining. One telegram changed it all. This is what I would call ‘actionable intelligence’: it enables and shapes the subsequent immediate decision-making.


Applying the identified attributes for success

The first thing to do when discovering what works in one case is to test whether it also works in another case. I selected another major intelligence success case to test the above attributes: the discovery of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil in late 1962 that triggered the peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. The attributes again proved useful.

The opposite test to a set of attributes is of course whether we need all attributes at all times. In this case, I decided to look into one part of the now infamous ‘weapons of mass destruction’ intelligence failure that preluded the 2003 Iraq war. One source codenamed Curveball claimed that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had an extensive biological weapon program. This later proved to be a fabrication. In the Curveball case, the attributes’ test showed clear flaws. There was directly a clear feeling that the intelligence Curveball made available was neither complete nor accurate. It was only that the intelligence suited those that wanted the war that made it being used.

Based on the above analysis of the three mentioned cases, I have made my case that using the six Zimmermann attributes to test the quality of your (intelligence) communication to management makes sense, even when your stakes are not as high as in 1916.



1.        Tuchman, B.W. [2016], The Zimmermann telegram – the astounding espionage operation that propelled America into the First World War, Penguin Random House, London, UK.


About the author

Erik ElgersmaErik Elgersma is author of The Strategic Analysis Cycle Toolbook and The Strategic Analysis Cycle Handbook. He is the director of Strategic Analysis at FrieslandCampina, one of the world’s largest dairy companies. He speaks and lectures frequently at universities and on business seminars on the topics of strategic analysis, competitive strategy and related data analysis and management. Erik holds a PhD from Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands, and is alumnus of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, Austria.






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