History, it seems, is one evolving story after another. Rarely does something happen on its own accord. Something along the way has led to that particular moment in time which could, would, or did bring about a monumental change in events of the world.
One chapter in the Valley’s history has those who feel America’s involvement in World War I would have been dramatically altered had it not been for the development of the Plan de San Diego and the interception of a little telegram called the Zimmerman Telegram, triggering, so some think, the reason for the U.S.’s participation in the war.
First thing to be considered in this takes us back in time. In 1848, there was an invasion of Mexico, beginning at the Nueces River, north of Corpus Christi, led by Gen. Zachary Taylor, resulting in the loss of one half of Mexico’s territory to the United States. For years after, little fires of unrest simmered in the U.S.-Mexican and Anglo-Mexicano relations, with certain factors wishing Mexico to be returned to its previous size, including five American states.
Fast forward to 1914.
San Diego, Texas, the county seat of Duval County, 10 miles west of Alice, where Confederate forces were stationed during the Civil War and, interestingly, Gen. Zachary Taylor and his troops briefly occupied in 1846.
It was, however, an event in 1915 which really put it on the map. Four Mexican nationals arrived in San Diego during the summer of 1914 with hopes of opening a tavern, which soon came to be the place of anti-anglo rhetoric. When the place closed due to falsification of documents, the quartet left town.
However, a document had been written, maybe even right there in that little tavern — though there are those who claim it was drafted in a jail in Monterrey — providing the formation of a “Liberating Army of Races and Peoples.” Made up of the Mexican Americans, African Americans and Japanese, they would “free” the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Colorado from United States reign.
The plan specified that an armed uprising against the United States would occur at 2 a.m., Feb. 20, 1915, and all anglo males over the age of 16 would be killed. That never happened, but as versions two and three of the Plan came out they would take the relationship between the Anglo community and Spanish-speaking community to a new level of animosity, distrust and suspicion.
During this time of the Mexican Revolution and WWI, the Plan made an easy slide into violence towards the Anglos from the Spanish-speaking rebels from both Texas and Mexico. In retribution, the Texas Rangers were called in, resulting in atrocities towards the Spanish-speaking peoples, including innocents on both sides.
The Germans had sent representatives to Laredo checking out the whole situation which gave them hope for an alliance with Mexico, believing their plan to get Mexico to war with the U.S. would split America’s forces should they join WWI and thus, lose all the way around.
It was at this time in January 1917, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann sent a coded telegram to the German Minister to Mexico proposing the alliance between the two countries. British cryptographers deciphered the telegram and “leaked” it to the U.S. on Feb. 24.
“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare,” said Zimmermann. “…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…”
By March 1, it was widely published in the media and the reaction across America was strong. On April 6, 1917 the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany and its allies. Did the Zimmermann Telegram lead the U.S. into war?
“The U.S. authorities took the telegram much more seriously than they would have because of their experience with the Plan de San Diego,” said Ben Johnson, Associate Professor of History, Southern Methodist University. “I think the Plan de San Diego is one of the most important things that ever happened in the Valley that helped shape national history. It prompted one of the bloodiest phases of racial violence in American history.”
Johnson states though the German’s overture to Mexico for an alliance would have happened anyway, it was the grisly outcome from the Plan de San Diego that made Americans more fearful about the Telegram.
There are so many intricacies about this period in the Valley and Mexico’s history, reading a book such as Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Méxicans into Americans by Ben Johnson, will tell you more of the story.
The reason this has all come to the forefront again is the acquisition of more than 400 original letters, telegrams, the signed February 20, 1915, manifesto, a draft of a manifesto directed at their “Negro brethren,” coded telegrams and a cipher wheel, lists of donors and recipients of donations, meeting and hotel receipts and printed handbills and broadsides used for propaganda. The collection will be ready for public access by late 2010 at the Museum of South Texas History.
“Much has been written about the Plan of San Diego in the last 20 years, but this collection offers a never before seen glimpse of the organization and its leaders,” said Barbara Stokes, Archivist and Senior Curator of the museum.
Taking a unique perspective in the unravelment of the mysteries in the documents is Dr. Joe Chance, retired head of the math department at UT Pan American. He took one of the coded documents and broke the code!
“They have a sequence of numbers. Each number represents a letter of the alphabet. The first thing I did is take the numbers and make a histogram (graph) of them. For example — 27, 18, 27, 34. We have 27 occurring twice. I count the number of times 27 occurs, I count the number of times 18 occurs, I count the number of times 34 occurs.
“One of the things that you know when you look at this is that - in the English language - the most frequently occurring letters are either ‘a’ or ‘e.’ You look at the histogram. The one that occurs the most is probably an ‘a’ or an ‘e.’ What complicates the situation is that this is done with three wheels.”
Making himself a cipher wheel with three rings, he numbers each one and turns them to test them.
“The way the person would do it is if they wanted to change it you would rotate the top wheel around to say 4, so ‘a’ would now be 4. These numbers run from one to - 26 (numbers of letters in the alphabet) x 3 — or roughly 78. What happens is the inside wheel has the bigger numbers.
“The telegram was long enough that I could break the first code, the outside code. Once I did that I could figure it out. I had ‘pre?to.’ I knew it was presto. The first 1 through 26 I could translate. But I knew this word — presto. That would tell me the missing letter was ‘s.’ So ‘s’ was 67. So I would set the inside wheel at 67.
“Once you find one number of this wheel you set it to that position and it gives you all the other letters. I cracked the outside wheel first — the 1 through 26.
Slowly but surely the telegram — in Spanish —turned into letters. Once done, he turned it over to have a translator bring it alive in English.
“It was fun. Fortunately there was enough. This was a real long telegram so the histogram worked out very well,” Dr. Chance said . “The other telegrams are very short.”
Whether new pieces to the puzzle will shed light to this important part of the Valley’s history is yet to be seen. For now, the past lies quietly asleep until it’s startled awake again — secret codes broken, new stories learned, truths changing the course of history.