Lessons learned from a century ago can have impacts today according to historians attending the Maritime History Symposium at U.S. Naval War College (NWC), Newport, Rhode Island, recently.
The symposium, titled “Intelligence and Action: The Zimmermann Telegram and U.S. Naval Strategy in the First World War” focused on the infamous missive which precipitated U.S. entry into The Great War in 1917.
Learning from the past to help understand the present remains a valuable tool for the Navy, according to David Kohnen, interim chair of NWC’s Maritime History Center and symposium organizer.
“Studying important historical events fits right into the CNO’s direction to study history and understand it such that you can draw perspective from the past upon challenges that we face today and into the future,” said Kohnen.
A century ago this week, the British intercepted an encrypted the wireless transmission between Arthur Zimmermann, imperial German foreign minister, and Heinrich von Eckardt, the German representative in Mexico.
The deciphered message revealed a German plan to sponsor a Mexican campaign against the United States. The Germans also discussed a prospective alliance with the Japanese to attack American interests in the Pacific.
One aspect of the intriguing events was that the United States at first believed the British had invented the telegram to deceive America into entering the war.
The symposium studied all the historical elements of the telegram that helped push the United States into the war.
“It’s important to learn from the past so you don’t make the same mistakes over again,” said retired Rear Adm. Samuel Cox, director of Naval History and Heritage Command who attended the symposium. “These lessons also dovetail nicely with the CNO’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority which says we want to know our history and not relearn the mistakes of the past the hard way.”
Panel discussions included: Empires at War and American Neutrality Strategy, Cybernetic Influences – the Zimmermann Telegram, and First World War and the Twenty-First Century.
Going forward, the object is to take the lessons they learned out to the Fleet, according to both Cox and Kohnen.
“The next questions is ‘How do we take what we learned from this symposium and get it into a format that the rest of the Navy will get some benefit from?’” said Cox.
Kohnen agreed that the goal of the event was to raise awareness.
“We hope to start a conversation, not just inside the Naval War College but outside the walls and throughout the academic and military worlds,” said Kohnen. “I want them both to understand that Naval War College is a center for maritime history scholarship that is a resource to the nation.”
Kohnen said another benefit of the conference was finding that there is “still a lot of work to do and there is still a lot of research for historians to understand. By focusing on the U.S. Navy and the role of Naval War College specifically, we’ve been able to highlight some of the things that need additional scrutiny.”
NWC is an upper-level professional military education institution that includes a one-year resident program that graduates 600 resident students a year, and a multifaceted distance education program that graduates more than 1,000 students per year. Its missions include educating and developing leaders, helping define the future of the Navy, supporting combat readiness, and strengthening maritime partnerships. Students earn Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) credit and either a diploma or a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies or Defense and Strategic Studies. Established in 1884, U.S. Naval War College is the oldest institution of its kind in the world. More than 50,000 students have graduated since its first class of nine students in 1885 and about 300 of today’s active duty admirals, generals and senior executive service leaders are alumni.