The Intelligence War in Latin America, 1914 – 1922

This one came from LibraryThing, and there was no way I was going to pass up a review copy of a book about World War One and espionage.

Review: The Intelligence War in Latin America, 1914 – 1922, Jamie Bisher, 2016.intelligence-war-in-latin-america

Not an easy read, but this dense book is rewarding and necessary for any student of World War One and espionage history.

The only books, according to Bisher, that even partially cover this subject are Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmerman Telegram and Friedrich Katz’s The Secret War in Mexico.

Bisher’s story covers events from Canada to Tierra del Fuego and the Caribbean. It is, as he notes, unfortunately dependent mostly on American intelligence records. His requests, in writing and in person, for access to Latin American intelligence records were met with silence or derision. German, British, and Japanese (yes, Japan plays a significant role in this book) records were destroyed in the Second World War or were purged for space and financial reasons.

Bisher begins his story way back in 1867 with Aureliano Blanquet delivering the coup de grace in the execution of Emperor Ferdinand Maximillian – the uncle of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The young Blanquet went on to be a major player in Mexican politics in 1913 with the death of President Francisco Madero.

On the eve of World War One, Blanquet headed off into exile with Mexican dictator Huerta aboard the German warship Dresden, a ship that will play a prominent part in the early part of the book.

Latin America, especially South America, had many European immigrants when the war broke out. They were in technical positions and advisors to various projects like building railroads and setting up radio stations. When war broke out, chummy communities of European expatriates fragmented. Many tried to return to their native countries, a goal frustrated to varying degrees by the British blockade, German U-boats, and neutral nations interning the ships of belligerent nations.

German intelligence had several goals in Latin America: secure radio facilities to communicate with the Germany Navy and Germany itself, avoid the economic sanctions of the British blacklist, propagandize to keep Latin America countries hostile or, at least, neutral to the Allied powers, and sabotage.

In the early part of the war, it had other responsibilities too: put together a German Southwest Africa relief expedition, supply the German East Asiatic Squadron, and, when that force met its end in the December 1914 Battle of the Falklands, keeping its sole survivor, the Dresden, supplied and hidden until it was scuttled in March 1915.

Sabotage operations were extensive throughout the war, particularly in America. While the Black Tom explosion is still remembered, there were other incidents that killed far more Americans, and German sabotage included biological warfare (mostly infecting horses with anthrax in the U.S. and Argentina). The largest U.S. warship ever to disappear, the USS Cyclops, may have been sunk by German sabotage (thus, providing fodder for a Clive Cussler novel and Bermuda Triangle theorists)

Many Latin American sailors died on ships sunk by U-boats or sabotage. Those deaths, including one ambassador, didn’t endear the Germans to Latin Americans nor did one diplomat impoliticly stating that Argentinians were “under a thin veneer, Indians”.

Generally causing dissension, be it supporting Indian Hindu dissidents in America, or support for various groups in the Mexican Revolution, which went from 1910 to 1920 and resulted in the death of about a million Mexicans, was another major goal though most Latin American countries, with varying degrees of sincerity, declared war eventually on the Central Powers.

In response to the Mexican Revolution, German sabotage, and WWI, the U.S. created the beginnings of its modern intelligence services. The Texas Rangers played an intelligence role too. Operating somewhat like the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department’s innocuous sounding Office of the Counselor, consolidated intelligence from the army, navy and the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, the old name of the FBI.

Bisher’s reason for extending the book to 1922 is that many of the intelligence agents, corrupt officials, and their networks continued beyond the war. The U.S. Army applied lessons learned in infiltrating Haitian rebel groups during the U.S. occupation of that country from 1915 to 1935. U.S. military intelligence officers went on to monitor the 1920 Guatemalan Revolution.

During the final months of the war, German agents in the Americas were having increasing trouble moving people, information, and money between Germany and their bases of operation. Many stayed in place because the Armistice made their pay even more precarious. Many were also not keen on serving a new German government they thought tainted by Bolshevism.

They also got a new paymaster – Japan.

One of the more startling parts of this book is Japanese intelligence operations in Latin America during the war. The infamous Plan of San Diego, a series of raids into America in 1915 and 1916 which resulted in the deaths of 21 Americans, (and poisoned race relations for decades in Texas), included Japanese agents and advisors to the Carranza government which secretly sponsored the raids. (Though stories of Japanese agents snorkeling across the Rio Grande are unproved.)

Japan’s participation was sincere in both the Asian (taking Tsing-Tao with the British) and European theaters (which saw Japanese aviators and the Japanese navy sending ships to the Mediterranean). But, in the closing months of the war, Japanese intelligence began co-operating with Germany in South America. After the war, many experienced German agents, short of money and often stranded from their homeland, turned to them for pay.

Japan was interested in extending its influence in South America to counter American influence in the Pacific. It co-operated with Chile and Germany in operations to de-stabilize Peru. Among other goals, Chile hoped to better secure its position at upcoming treaty negotiations. They hoped their seizure from Peru of the nitrate rich lands of Tacna and Arica would be formally recognized internationally.

Japan began to build up an intelligence network in the Americas, and there seems to be a lot of evidence – if no smoking Zimmerman Telegram-style document – that Japan and Spain (it had, after all, not been that long since the Spanish-American War) approached Mexico in 1920 with a plan for the latter to invade America.

This record of Japanese intrigue, the post-war blindness of American intelligence as budgets were cut and agents retired, and a 1933 Japanese novel probably contributed to America’s decision to intern thousands of Japanese-Americans in World War Two.

America’s ally in two world wars, Britain, also intrigued against America in 1921. Weighed down with war debts and resentful at how the wartime embargo had realigned Latin America trade from England to America, England contemplated seizing Cuba and the Panama Canal. Chile seems to have been involved with this too.

Those interested in Latin American history will be interested in behind the scenes Japanese involvement with the post-war Latin League, an attempt to create a Hispano-Americanismo that rejected American dominated Pan-Americanism. They will also be interested in an alternate version (murder) regarding the death of Francisco Cárdenas, assassin of Mexican President Madero.

Bisher’s book is full of colorful characters and talented espionage amateurs, several who were just starting out in their intelligence career. One of the more satisfying parts of the book is the epilogue which extends the stories of all the people we’ve met beyond 1922.

On the American side, we get Zach Cobb, frustrated politician who became Collector of Customs in El Paso, Texas and, starting in 1914, a very competent runner of trans-border intelligence operations and operating the first American version of what we now call an intelligence “fusion center”; John Peter Duhn, a naval officer accomplished at both intelligence and counter-intelligence with cover so good he was apprehended twice by alert American security officials; and Charles Albert Waite, a native of Sundance, Wyoming, who had a variety of jobs culminating in a salesman of stationary and with a surprising knack for coordinating American propaganda in Latin America. And, of course, J. Edgar Hoover got his start in the war years

On the German side, we see the beginnings of Wilhelm Canaris’ fabled career. He was in the crew of the Dresden. He escaped his Chilean internment, travelled across South America and made his way to Spain. After establishing several spy rings in Europe, he became a U-Boat captain. In the Nazi regime, he ran the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence – until he wound up naked and dead in a concentration camp. Fitz Duquesne was a colorful spy and saboteur who first came to American intelligence’s attention by boasting of being one of their agents. He was a German agent operating in the Americas during both world wars and arrested by the American government in both. The first time, though, was only for an insurance scam.

German-American Kurt Jahnke started out the war as a private detective with a sideline in shipping dead Chinese home and, perhaps, opium smuggling. He became one of the linchpins of German intelligence throughout the Americas. But it was the start of career that involved so many operations in so many parts of the world, that “sorting fiction from fact in Jahnke’s wild biography still poses a challenge to intelligence historians”.

The most memorable “Latin” (his past is murky, but he was very likely Italian) is Mario Divizia de Monteforte. Assassin, thief, and, in Guatemala, “architect of the modern death squad”, his legacy is peculiar. His son Mario Monteforte Toledo became a vigorous champion of Guatemalan democracy, and Monteforte the elder may have been the inspiration for the protagonist in Miguel Angel Asurias’ El Señor Presidente.

This book is rich in history, and I’ve only touched on a bit of those riches.

Bisher’s occasionally repeats himself. Normally, since I read my non-fiction books cover to cover, I don’t like that, but, frankly, here it helped to be reminded of events already covered. And, maybe, some of the stories aren’t strictly on topic – though, most of the time, they do have a connection to intelligence agents and operations, but they were still interesting.

The book is 440 pages long with 60 pages being bibliography and appendices. The index is 26 pages long. My only complaint is I would have liked a map of Central and South America and a timeline of the Mexican Revolution would have been nice. Bisher has gone some way to correctly the latter problem with a website of ancillary material going back to the Spanish conquest of Latin America.



More reviews of World War One histories and espionage history exist on this blog.

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