Reading History: Dark Invasion & The Zimmermann Telegram

by Randy Murray on June 11, 2014

I often lament the truly poor writing education that most American’s receive, but that is nothing compared to the complete lack of exposure to history (and don’t get me started on science).

I find history to be absolutely fascinating, but you would’t know that by looking at history books used in K-12 education. It’s a crime. There are so many questions that can be raised and explored. Here are just a few:

  • Why does the U.S. have a “special” relationship with England and yet looks at the French with suspicion and disdain (especially when we fought TWO wars to get the English out of our hair and the French were essential in helping us gaining our freedom)?
  • What really caused the World Wars?
  • Was Napoleon a good guy or a bad guy? And what did he have to do with the world wars?
  • Was the South in the American Civil war in any way justified for their secession and launch of the war?
  • And what exactly happened in China over the last three thousand years or so?

So many questions. So many fascinating things to learn and explore. And so many vital things that are connected to how the world works today.

I recently picked up a book that I heard about on Fresh Air. Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America. It is a fascinating topic and the book is short and very readable. I find the subject utterly fascinating and largely unknown by the current American public. It’s an interesting look at how Germany built and operated a huge terrorist network in the United States with the intention of keeping the U.S. out of the war and disrupting its ability to support the allies. And inside this dark world of spies, murderers, and criminals are the roots of much more evil to come in the next war.

But after reading this book I felt unsatisfied. It’s a good book, not a great book. It’s too light, too much on the surface. There were a number of things that caught my interest, but not enough there to really satisfy. And the same ground has been covered much more effectively.

And so, looking for real sustenance after this light appetizer, I went to my shelves and picked up another book on the same period and topic, a much better book by all measures, written over 50 years ago: The Zimmermann Telegram. Barbara Tuchman is a superior historian, writer, and story teller. This book has real depth about the intrigue and machinations that eventually backfired and brought the US into the war, along with the great evil perpetrated and how it has carried through the years. And in this book we get a glimpse of the U.S. before the war, a country struggling to keep from becoming a military superpower.

Do you want to know why the reluctant President Wilson finally brought the country to war? Read this book. Do you want to know why the Japanese attacked Perl Harbor? Look here for some hints. Want to know some of the reasons the country went mad and rounded up American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps during World War II? Look here.

Great history books like this one go behind the simple, easy answers, but offer more satisfaction. When I read Tuchman, and I recommend all of her work, I feel as if I’m able to more firmly understand how the world came to be where it is today, and, perhaps, how it might work things out (if we’re not all still on the endless March of Folly).

Read Tuchman’s book. All of her books. You might even enjoy and benefit from Dark Invasion. But please, pick up a good history book and see if you can begin to grasp a bit more about the world.


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