Diplomatic Cables, from Adams to Zimmermann

ConfidentialThe recent Wikileaks revelations are unprecedented. Never before has so much inside information exposing American diplomacy been made public—especially concerning contemporary issues. But earlier incidents of great historical importance also involved publication of secret diplomatic communications, from the XYZ Affair during John Adams’s presidency to the Zimmermann telegram during Woodrow Wilson’s.

The XYZ Affair involved French and U.S. diplomats and resulted in a limited, undeclared war between the United States and its former ally. In the late 1700s, France was fighting a series of wars, including against Great Britain. As U.S.-British relations were improving, France began seizing American merchant ships. President John Adams responded by sending diplomats to negotiate with France. The American envoys were approached by several intermediaries who demanded a $250,000 bribe for an audience with France’s foreign minister, Talleyrand. As negotiations continued, diplomatic dispatches that described the attempt at bribery by the French officials—whose names were “redacted” with the letters W, X, Y, and Z—reached Adams. When the diplomatic correspondence became public, calls for war with France increased.

Another famous incident involving the release of a diplomatic message occurred during the early years of World War I, while the United States was trying to remain neutral. President Woodrow Wilson had promised to keep the nation out of the war, but in February 1917 German submarines launched attacks on U.S. shipping in the Atlantic. In January the British had deciphered a telegram sent by the German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to Germany’s ambassador in Mexico. In it, Mexico was offered the opportunity to regain “lost” United States territory if it would enter an alliance with Germany. When the American press published news of the telegram, the resulting uproar helped push the United States into the war on the side of Britain and France.

Related Links

  • The XYZ Affair and the Quasi-War with France, 1798–1800
    This is just one of dozens of articles in the Office of the Historian, U.S. State Department, on the diplomatic history of the United States; it features the XYZ Affair, which occurred during the presidency of John Adams.
    (Source: U.S. Department of State; accessed December 1, 2010)
  • Teaching with Documents: The Zimmermann Telegram
    This Web page, especially designed for educators and students, explores one of the most famous diplomatic cables in U.S. history: the Zimmermann telegram.
    (Source: The National Archives; accessed December 1, 2010)
  • Foreign Relations Series: Volumes Online
    This Web page provides links to online articles from Foreign Relations of the United States, the official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity; organized by presidential administrations, from Truman to Johnson.
    (Source: U.S. Department of State; accessed December 1, 2010)
  • The National Security Archive
    This is the Web site of the National Security Archive, an independent nongovernmental research institute and library that collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
    (Source: George Washington University; accessed December 1, 2010)



  1. all 3 says:

    You my friend are a genius

  2. purple black says:

    Thank you for a great post.

    • Aslan says:

      Clear, informitave, simple. Could I send you some e-hugs?

      • Elielton says:

        I just said to my wife yesterday that if I had a time macnhie, I’d go back and kill Hitler first and then the guy who invented the snowboard (yes I’m a skier and don’t much like snowboarders). Now I know it should have been Zimmermann first and then the snowboard guy!Seriously though, you could argue that Woodrow Wilson was looking for an excuse to take the US into the war (and his whole League of Nations idealism didn’t exactly help the situation post WW1). So maybe he ought to be #1 (still followed by the snowboard guy of course)

  3. JPB says: