Post Civil War to
World War I
During the period immediately following our Civil War, the United States Navy found itself in a state of disarray and woefully incapable of protecting the nation. Along with ships and men, the ravages of conflict destroyed naval strength and readiness, leaving few seaworthy ships when peace finally arrived.
Yet fueled by the indomitable American spirit and spurred with challenge, there arose a class of naval officer who recognized the need for rebuilding a United States Navy that had come to be ignored in the postwar period by government and citizen alike.
The change that came was wholly owed to a recognition amongst the officer class that emerging technological and educational advances had to be adopted if the service was ever to fulfill its duty to the nation. It was precisely during this time and for those reasons that our nation's first organized agency devoted entirely to intelligence collection and associated activities was founded.
Years before, the U.S. Navy had come to recognize the importance of capitalizing on intelligence to counter enemy plans and movements during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812; however, those efforts were best characterized as disorganized and fragmented to such a degree as to be ineffectual.
On 23 March 1892, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) was created with the signing of General Order 292 by William H. Hunt, Secretary of the Navy, and became the first U.S. Government agency devoted solely to the systematic collection of information regarding foreign military affairs.
Originally subordinate to the Bureau of Navigation, ONI would routinely acquire information from military attaches posted abroad or naval officers making cruises to foreign ports, where numerous collection opportunities were presented to command staff personnel. Whether it was charting foreign passages, rivers or other bodies of water, touring overseas fortifications and building yards or conducting other naval related activities as necessary, naval personnel busied themselves collecting information for ONI regarding the strengths and weaknesses of any alien power that could someday pose a threat to U.S. national security interests.2
ONI quickly gained an enviable reputation and for three decades was considered by U.S. government officials to be the most authoritative and reliable source of information regarding foreign military affairs. Even so, a great deal of information collected by this organization, especially that dealing with European shipbuilding advances and associated industrial improvements, would never be put to substantive use.
In fact, volumes of valuable data frequently lay totally wasted and squirreled away in various navy bureaus because ONI lacked the capability in its infancy to render. In-depth analysis that would have insured the material was more thoroughly understood and better used. ONI's shortcomings were recognized as especially critical when it was finally realized that the United States, with a fleet of wooden sailing ships, was quickly shrinking to inferiority in the face of European navies producing iron hulled men-of-war with rifled guns and metal turrets.3
General Order No. 292
During its early days, ONI was officially tasked by the Department of the Navy to collect specifically categorized information deemed essential to the U.S. defense. To fulfill this duty, the Secretary of the Navy mandated that naval officers who could objectively and skillfully collect and report matters of interest to the Navy be chosen for service with ONI in Washington, D.C., posted to any one of several naval attach� positions at U.S. foreign legations, or appointed as special aides to senior military personnel posted abroad. Generally all would restrict their collection to information that was publicly available and could be acquired through overt means like open source publications, from foreign officers with whom the naval attach� or aide might associate and through contacts with knowledgeable political or industrial figures.
Initially, the military and naval attach� system formally established by passage of Congressional Law on 22 September 1888, allowed for the posting that following year of five officers to Berlin, Paris, London, Vienna and St. Petersburg.
Within five years this rudimentary intelligence network expanded modestly and attach� personnel came to be posted in Rome, Brussels, Madrid, Tokyo and Mexico City. For years, the number of naval officers assigned such duties remained limited and at a fixed level or, in some cases, attaches would only be posted to a foreign nation in times of international tension or strife.
It became the primary responsibility of naval attaches to visit naval bases, shipyards, industrial sites and any other commercial or government facilities associated with building, supporting or directing foreign commercial and military maritime efforts. Though officially instructed to perform their duty in an open manner, our former attaches sometimes found it necessary to employ covert measures and the use of "secret agents" to gather information that would be unavailable by any other means.
Even as it was successful in certain regards, the attach� system was probably no more than moderately effective due to a continual lack of funding and because the posts were difficult to fill with line officers, who generally did not regard such duty as prestigious or career enhancing.4
Initially, ONI was more concerned with collecting information regarding the characteristics and weaponry of foreign vessels than with tactics, movements, dispositions or the intentions of those navies. However, by 1915, when it became one of nine subdivisions organized into the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, ONI would assume responsibility given it by the Navy "General plan" to develop and gather all manner of information on the Navy's possible adversaries.
The plan allowed for certain collection to be done by covert means and by 1916 the first undercover operation, termed Branch Office, had commenced activity in New York City under the control of ONI. Staffed by naval reservists on active duty or civilian volunteers working without pay, the Branch Office garnered some impressive successes in the field of counterespionage while protecting U.S. persons and properties from subversion and sabotage in the wake of growing world conflict.
Simultaneous to these endeavors, a separate organization called the Aides for Information was developing and employing personnel who were locally assigned to the staffs of fifteen Naval District Commandants.
Individuals affiliated with this effort routinely searched passengers on incoming vessels, provided security at docks, warehouses and factories, investigated subversive activity and executed other necessary duties during this extraordinary period to protect the Navy and country from possible foreign inspired subversion. With Branch Offices centrally controlled from Washington, while aides were supervised by their respective districts it was inevitable that confusion, conflict and duplication arose to such an extent that all investigative activities came to be consolidated under the District Aides.
The War Years
ONI operations became quite skilled at a variety of investigative techniques like surveillance and wiretapping and at one point it was actively involved in some 15,000 subversive investigations each week. The identification and neutralization of subversive elements became especially important to ONI after being assigned responsibility for protecting those war plants executing U.S. Navy contracts. ONI field agents routinely checked those plants for physical security, indications of labor unrest that would affect production, loyalty of factory workers and managers and the identification and elimination of anyone who could pose a threat to that company's vital work for the U.S. Navy.
There is no question that ONI did materially contribute to our nation's security and war-making capacity during this trying time although there was a certain amount of attendant frustration. In its enthusiasm to seek out individuals posing a possible threat to national security, ONI could be blame for periodically engaging in "witch hunts" or using questionable methods that would later be judged an affront to justice. Intolerance for different tactics or the needs of other government agencies led ONI into repeated conflicts with Army Intelligence and the U.S. Justice Department. Eventually, Rear Admiral Leigh V. Palmer, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation was forced to comment in August 1918, "...ONI might be pursuing suspects a bit too enthusiastically."
The Director of ONI at that time was further warned, apparently in the interest of fairness, " to permit people accused of misdeeds to explain their actions before Naval Intelligence recommended dismissal, arrest or internment."5
During the First World War, ONI assigned four times the personnel and resources to domestic security work, as it did on foreign collection, after deciding that protecting the home front was its most important mission.
Yet in all fairness, it should be recalled that ONI traditionally considered its primary responsibility to be the collection, evaluation and dissemination of foreign intelligence that was of interest to the U.S. Navy. With our nation's declaration of war and involvement in armed hostilities, ONI was quickly forced to adopt many new responsibilities, like domestic security, without the luxury of extensive planning or very much forethought. Considering the seriousness of the time and overall circumstances, it is not entirely surprising that ONI would be chastised for being a bit too over zealous as it attempted to executive its duties in what was thought to be the most effective manner.
As had traditionally been the case, the bulk of all foreign intelligence collection continued to be performed by those naval attaches posted to U.S. diplomatic establishments in foreign countries. During the war years, naval attaches were forced to rely on the use of agent networks to insure the development of necessary and ever-increasing amounts of information. Emphasis was placed on the development of covert capabilities and the establishment of a global spy network that enlisted a string of agents throughout Latin American and the Far East.
The Lean Years
The end of World War I brought a general demobilization and the country's desire to rapidly return to normalcy. With the Armistice signed and our country at peace, few could give reason to the need for maintaining other than a modest military.
Though not completely expendable, ONI with a war machine to support, came to be ignored in large part by the Department of the Navy which cut funding for personnel or operations and pared the organization back in all aspects to its barest minimum. Several years would elapse until 1926 when a limited effort was undertaken to establish groups of volunteer reserve intelligence officers whose goal became the gathering of information on individuals and activities that could pose a threat to U.S. naval security.
The intent was to create a cadre of personnel who could be called upon to render service in time of national emergency and by the beginning of 1927, some such groups had been created and started to operate in a manner that would be refined during the ensuing several years. Yet the mood of our nation was slow to change and it remained the strongest wish of many citizens that we continue to isolate ourselves from problems and entangling involvement with other nations.
Naturally, few could see the need to collect foreign intelligence and during these years such assignments continued to be regarded as especially undesirable by the regular Army and Navy officers given such responsibilities.
Though ONI by 1934 remained a small and neglected organization with only twenty-four officers and a clerical staff of eighteen, attitudes were slowly beginning to change in certain quarters of government where it was considered necessary to begin collecting more earnestly, information relating to the naval strength, war making capabilities and national intentions of certain foreign powers.
The chief source of this information
continued to be the naval attach� system which had
generally proven itself to be competent and capable in
By the fall of 1940, a selective call-up of intelligence reservists for investigative and counterintelligence duties began, and following our entry into World War II, the Navy's investigative arm was manned almost entirely by reserve officer personnel.
For some time before the spring of 1914,
events along the southern border of the United States had
plainly foreshadowed an unfavorable turn in American
relations with Mexico. President William H. Taft,
therefore, on 21 February 1913, directed the movement of
an Army division to the Galveston-Texas City area in
order to be prepared to meet any eventuality. Because the
War Department General Staff had already gained
considerable experience from the similar but poorly
planned and executed venture of some two years earlier,
this troop concentration was accomplished in a
comparatively smooth manner. The anticipated crisis,
though, came to an unexpected head on the Gulf Coast
rater than along the border, with the Mexican authorities
at Tampico seizing a United States navy launch and
holding its crews and passengers as prisoners. While
these personnel were soon released, apologies and amends
in strict compliance with the demands of the commander of
the Atlantic Squadron were not forthcoming, so the entire
Atlantic Fleet was moved into a position of readiness off
Vera Cruz. A small naval force was also put ashore within
that city to prevent the landing of an arms shipment
destined for Mexican Army use. Military skirmishes
promptly occurred and there was consequent loss of life
on both sides.
Even though these significant military operations were taking place far to the south, the unsatisfactory military intelligence situation in Washington showed little real improvement. Only one bright spot had appeared on the horizon, with General Wood approving an order which stated that all units operating along the Mexican border would detail carefully selected officers to act, in addition to their other duties, as intelligence officers for collecting "such information as is possible from refugees and other sources, without leaving the limits of the United States."7 The main obstacle continuing to stand in the way of any fruitful results from a program of this nature, however, was the fact that the War Department still lacked a staff agency capable of properly processing information derived therefrom. Besides, the officers involved could hardly be expected to put forth much of an effort as long as they were being called upon to perform their intelligence tasks in addition to their normal troop duties.
An event of enormous future portent from the military intelligence standpoint occurred on 18 July 1914, when Congress authorized the formation of an Aviation Section within the Army Signal Corps.8 While airplanes had previously been utilized on an experimental basis for reconnaissance during maneuvers near New York City in 1912 and an aviation school was already functioning at College Park, Maryland, this legislative enactment served measurably to stimulate further air development throughout the United States Army.9 It would thus not be long before the eyes of military commanders could be extended over undreamed of distances in seeking information about the enemy and terrain but this same improved capability would also generate a number of complex problems dealing with command, communications and logistics, so as to alter completely the entire existing military intelligence system.
Congress was at this time still appropriating separate funds each year for "Army War College Expenses" and "Contingencies, Military Information Section, General Staff Corps."10 With the departmental military intelligence agency forming an integral part of the War College Division of the General Staff, this outmoded fiscal arrangement naturally provoked a large number of upsetting administrative difficulties. Wanting to respect Congressional wishes in the matter but also desiring to insure that the War College officials would have full control of both funds, it was decided to alter the departmental organization by splitting the War College Division up into a "Military Information Section" and an "Army War College Section." From this, it might be reasonable to assume that all the work performed by the Division, except that which was connected with operating the War College itself, would now bear directly upon military information activities. Such was not the case, however, because the so-called Military Information Section of the War College Division in May 1915 actually consisted of ten different standing committees, designated as follows:
According to a statement made by the
Chief of the War College Division when this two-section
was first adopted, the primary function of the new
Military Information Section would be "to do current
General Staff work."12 It
thus becomes readily apparent that the departmental
military intelligence agency had finally reached the end
of its disastrous journey down the road toward total
extinction. The remnants of the original agency were now
effectively buried within the Military Information and
When World War I suddenly broke out in Europe during the summer of 1914, the War Department found itself right in the midst of a determined campaign, launched earlier by General Wood himself, to reduce the number of Army officers serving on detached service.14 This drive had been occasioned mainly by a severe shortage of officers that kept reappearing whenever important maneuvers were planned, since there was no adequate provision in the existing tables of organization to compensate for an ever-growing number of officer positions requiring duty away from troops. It carried very serious implications from the standpoint of military intelligence operations because all the military attaches and observers, as well as the officers attending foreign schools, came under this detached service classification. Even as late as February 1914, the Chief of the War College Division had forwarded to his superiors a most amazing official opinion to the effect that he considered American military attaches unnecessary in Spain, Italy, Austria and Belgium; Switzerland warranted a retired officer only; Russian remained doubtful; and the Balkan States and Turkey were merely of temporary importance.
This last item was apparently in
reference to the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. An effort had
been made in December 1912 to introduce a large group of
American officers into the combat area, including a four-officer
cavalry board headed by Brig. Gen. Edward J. McClernaud,
to function as official military observers on the Balkan
Allies side against the Turks. When the Bulgarian
government refused to permit the presence of these
observers, the cavalry board return to the United States.
During a subsequent campaign, however, two of the other
officers did manage to gain permission to visit "certain
points of interest" in Serbia and were then able to
secure a considerable amount of valuable military
Counterintelligence Officer of the American Expeditonary
This threatening intelligence personnel
situation commenced to clear up right after the start of
the war in Europe because the departmental authorities
promptly realized the tremendous importance of obtaining
as much information as possible about the combat
operations in order to keep the United States fully
abreast of all the latest military developments. The
matter actually came to an immediate head during the
opening days of the hostilities, when the American
Military Attaches in Paris and Vienna, both requested
permission to take to the field with their respective
host armies and function in the capacity of military
observers. This memorandum wisely concluded that it would
be much better for the American military attaches in
Europe to remain at their regular posts and execute
intelligence tasks within the capital cities, while other
officers, especially selected due to their technical
ability and physical stamina, were detailed to act as
observers in the field.17
Pershing leading the
With this expanded military observer program resulting in a sizeable expenditure of extremely scarce War Department funds, Congress was soon persuaded to increase by $15,000 the appropriation under "Contingencies, Military Information Section, General Staff" for that particular purpose during FY 1916.
Apparently all went well with these several American military observer groups except the one which was initially formed in France. In that country, despite repeated complaints on the part of the officers directly concerned, the French authorities consistently refused to permit non-Allied personnel to accompany their armies in the field and thereby accomplish any worthwhile military observations. When this frustrating restriction was continued, the entire American group in France signed a "round robin" letter dated 19 July 1916 and addressed to the Chief of the War College Division, asking that they be granted the status of a Military Mission. They would then not only be able to operate independently of the United States Military Attach� in Paris but also acquire additional prestige for dealing with the recalcitrant French authorities.18 While this move was strongly opposed by Lt. Col. Spencer Cosby, the American Military Attach�, it duly received official approval and the necessary inter-government negotiations were completed in November 1916.19 No real improvement seems to have come from the change, though, because as late as 29 December 1916, the Chief of the American Military Mission in France was still complaining that the privileges being offered to his personnel by the French Army for observing under field conditions were "practically the same as those extended to small unimportant countries, such as, for example, Ecuador and Siam.20
Mexican border incidents were now again
on the rise. These disturbances reached a critical peak
early in March 1916, when the Mexican bandit leader
Pancho Villa crossed the international boundary and
launched an attack against Columbus, New Mexico, killing
both US soldiers and civilians. With the revolutionary
Mexican Government under Provisional President Carranza
having thus proved itself incapable of protecting
American lives and property along the border, it was
decided to organize a Punitive Expedition under Brig. Gen.
John J. Pershing, for the specific purpose of entering
Mexico and capturing Villa.21
This turned out to be an
As an experienced cavalry officer, General Pershing was fully aware of the direct relationship that must always exist between adequate reconnaissance and the security of a military command. He further recognized that the ultimate success or failure of his isolated expedition into Mexico would hinge largely upon an ability to secure timely and dependable information about the forces opposing him, as well as the terrain over which he would have to operate. Since he had previously held military intelligence and general staff duty assignments, he also realized the necessity for keeping the War Department properly informed on his current military situation. He thus took prompt steps to appoint as his intelligence officer Maj. (later Brig. Gen.) James A. Ryan, 13th Cavalry, an officer he considered well-qualified for directing an efficient field intelligence organization and one who was already proficient in the Spanish language.23 Similarly, carefully chosen military intelligence personnel from both the War Department and the Southern Department were ordered to serve at his expedition headquarters. The net result of all this intelligence appreciation was that frequent and copious information reports were sent back to the War Department, mostly in the forms of telegrams. Although an officer of the War College Division had been detailed to read these reports, this was apparently the only positive action taken in connection with them. As a matter of fact, it remains very doubtful that the bulk of them ever found their way into the War College files.24
General Pershing was given tactical control of the First Squadron, Aviation Section, Signal Corps, stationed at San Antonio, Texas, to assist him in solving his difficult reconnaissance problems and to utilize as a supplementary means of communications.25 Because of the low power of the eight available airplanes, however, in contrast to the high altitude and long distance required for flights over Mexican territory, this service did not prove to be of "material benefit" for either of these purposes.26 On the other hand, his intelligence organization seems to have made full and excellent use of native agents hired to provide the command with needed information concerning both the Villistas and Carranzistas.27 Approximately 20 Apache Scouts were also engaged in performing local reconnaissance and tracking missions.28
While these historic events were taking place in Europe and Mexico, the unsatisfactory situation with reference to the submerged status of the departmental military intelligence agency continued to remain essentially unchanged. On the other hand, military information was still flowing into Washington from a steadily increasing number of established collection sources throughout the field. Most of this material sooner or later did find its way to the Military Information Committee of the War College Division, but the problem of properly processing it had admittedly become more than its limited membership could manage. Since the Committee was also unable to give any due consideration to the matter of publishing military information for use by the Army at large, this important phase of the intelligence effort was likewise being noticeably neglected.29
Recognizing that this failure to disseminate available military information to the Army was a major deficiency, the departmental officials attempted early in 1916 to take one remedial step which had some rather embarrassing repercussions. Acting upon a suggestion from the Chief of the War College Division himself, arrangements were made with the Commandant of the Command and Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to have certain intelligence reports, forwarded to that institution for the purpose of preparing intelligence publications for appropriate Army distribution. The first publication issued under this new system, however, brought forth a strong note of protest from the British government because the information upon which it was based had been given to the American Military Attach� in London only after securing his solemn promise to maintain an utmost secrecy in the matter. Hence, this promising experimental program was abruptly cancelled.30
The dangerous state of affairs, relative to the manner in which the War Department was failing to fulfill its military intelligence responsibilities, during this period of ever-worsening international relations, was not permitted to go unchallenged by the few experienced intelligence officers remaining assigned to the War College Division.
As a matter of fact, they kept forwarding strenuous complaints on the subject to the Chief of Staff at regular intervals. One of the most comprehensive and forceful presentations along such lines was prepared by Maj. (later Maj. Gen.) Ralph H. Van Deman of the General Staff Corps, who had been an early member of the original Military Information Division, and had later played a key role in connection with Army intelligence operations in the Far East. As a true intelligence zealot he became gravely perturbed when, following his arrival in May 1915 for duty within the War College Division, he observed how the War Department was neglecting to execute its basic military intelligence mission. During March 1916, he drew up a detailed summary of historical facts bearing upon the problem and concluded therefrom that the reestablishment of a separate Military Information Section without further delay was plainly indicated. This study was then not only promptly approved by Brig. Gen. H.H. Macomb, Chief of the War College Division, but also forwarded to the Chief of Staff with an added comment that he personally believed the time had now come to effect a sweeping reorganization of the entire General Staff structure on a totally new basis.31
Although no immediate improvement resulted from these particular War College Division recommendations, the Chief of Staff soon did authorize one important action, long advocated by the military intelligence officials, which was deliberately aimed at achieving a better coordination of effort for collection activities in the field. A general order was thus published, on 25 April 1916, directing as follows:
This general order did initiate several progressive steps in the direction of improving intelligence collection practices for the United States Army but it also represented a distinct compromise with reference to the key question of what direct command authority, if any, the departmental military intelligence agency should exercise over intelligence personnel operating in the field. Even though it included a statement that the department intelligence offices would function as "branches" of the War College Division, the strict application of this particular provision of the original statement remained clear, however, with the intelligence officials in Washington recalling the completely dependent status of the previous Havana and Manila Branch Offices, and wanting to form an Army-wide military intelligence system along parallel lines.
During 1915, when the Nation was simultaneously faced with the threat of further trouble in Mexico and the growing possibility of becoming directly involved in the European War, the matter of military reform again came under active consideration.32 Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison had already instructed the War College Division of the General Staff to prepare a broad study covering the entire field of America military policy. This study, which was finished in 1915, then led to a thorough airing of that politically explosive subject in Congress.33
With these Congressional discussions still in pro-gress, Garrison chose to resign in order to register a sharp protest over President Wilson's refusal to accept his proposal for the establishment of a Federal Reserve force which could favorably supplement an enlarged Regular Army and improved National Guard.34 This personal sacrifice on the part of a notably courageous Secretary of War served to dramatize the issue of military reform and helped materially to insure Congressional passage of a new and comprehensive National Defense Act in June 1916. The Act not only called for the creation of an Army of the United States to consist of a Regular Army, Volunteer Army, Officer's Reserve Corps, Enlisted Reserve Corps, National Guard while in the service of the United States, and other land forces authorized by law, but also permitted an increase in the strength of the Regular Army up to a total of 175,000 by means of annual increments extending over the next five years.
Meanwhile, on 9 March 1916, Newton D. Baker was appointed the new Secretary of War. Although possessed of a strong pacifist background and, like Secretary Elihu Root, without any previous experience in military matters, Baker was destined to be regarded as one of the truly great American Secretaries of War. This seems all the more noteworthy because, during a lengthy term of office, from 9 March 1916 to 4 March 1921, his extraordinary talents were constantly taxed to the utmost by the terrific demands of World War I and its complicated aftermath. When he first assumed office, for example, he was immediately faced with the tremendous task of revitalizing a newly-created Army of the United States under legislative authority granted to him by an untried National Defense Act that had been optimistically designed to mature over a lengthy period of five years. Actually, of course, it was to be less than one year before the war clouds descended upon the country in full force.
The National Defense Act of 1916 did represent a forward advance of major proportions for providing the War Department with badly needed legislative assistance in solving some of its more important national defense problems but it also included several unfavorable stipulations which were pointedly aimed at the Army General Staff. Unfortunately, these same stipulations could only serve to handicap the proper execution of the Act itself. One of them, for example, specified that not more than half of the officers detailed to the General Staff Corps "could be at any time station or assigned to or employed upon any duty in or near the District of Columbia." Although the Act also granted an increase of 18 officers for the General Staff Corps, this expansion was scheduled to come in annual increments extending over a five-year period.