Break the Code!

Break the Code!
Edith Wilson: First Ladies' Lives

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: Two class periods


   The story of codes and code breakers is a fascinating chapter in World War II.  However, codes have been used since earliest times.  Edith Wilson was taught the codes of World War I by her husband Woodrow.  And the story of the cracking of the code used in the Zimmerman telegram and its aftermath is one of the major intelligence events of World War I.


   The purpose of this lesson is to introduce students to the Zimmerman Telegram and to acquaint them with the role of codes in the early 20th century.  This lesson can also be used in conjunction with a later one on the Navaho code breakers.   

Materials Required:

Map of the United States; state boundaries may be drawn in and the states labeled as well Access to the Internet Access to print reference materials


1.  Divide the class into 4 groups.  Assign a topic to each group.  The group's task is to investigate and connect it with the others and contribute to a timeline of the event.  Below are the topics. 
  • American neutrality (events from 1914 – Jan. 1917 that challenged our neutral stance). 
  • Context of the Zimmerman Telegram—procedures of how the British received it and how they shared with the United States; why was sharing such an issue?
  • Contents of the actual telegram—what did it propose?  What did the text in code actually look like?  This group should create a map to illustrate the terms.
  • America’s response

2.  When the research is complete, students should share their information with one another and engage in a discussion of the importance of codes in general, and in this coded document in particular.


Extending the Lesson:

Students may wish to create their own code and challenge others to crack it.  The teacher may wish for students to write up their findings in newspaper “front page” format.

Sources & Resources:

  • The Zimmerman Telegram by Barbara Tuchman


This lesson was developed by Bette Brooks, Kent State University.