Power  /  Book Review

How American Intelligence Was Born in the Trenches of World War I

The Great War forced the US to create a modern spying and analysis apparatus.

As a former analyst himself, Stout believes that we can’t fully grasp the ways that many of today’s intelligence practices are executed without understanding their beginnings. Therefore, his book is as important for intelligence professionals as for historians. In fact, anyone intrigued by the conduct of U.S. international security policies will find The Foundation of American Intelligence to be eye-opening.

A third of Stout’s book examines America’s approach to intelligence before the nation declared war in April 1917. What existed before then was the Office of Naval Intelligence (established in 1882) and the War Department’s Division of Military Information (established in 1885) which were largely limited to dispatching uniformed attachés to U.S. embassies abroad. But much was changing in America’s runup to joining the fight against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria).

Major General John J. Pershing’s 1916-1917 Punitive Expedition into Mexico, for example, contained many of the practices that he would use on the Western Front when commanding the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France. In Mexico, “Black Jack,” as he was nicknamed, deployed spies, electronic intercepts (i.e., tapped telegraph lines), input from different government agencies, and aerial reconnaissance to track the guerilla leader Pancho Villa. He also employed assassins, Stout writes. In July 1916, a cavalryman on Pershing’s staff, Captain W. C. Reed, provided poison to four shadowy operatives who weren’t part of the Army. One morning they managed to lace Villa’s coffee with the deadly substance, but the wily commander didn’t drink enough of it to slow him down, according to the Stout.

Once in Europe, with a force that grew to 1.9 million men, Pershing’s AEF routinized such practices as aerial reconnaissance and tapping telegraph lines. From Britain's secret services, the AEF also learned that intelligence should be a discreet and specialized function of war strategy and tactics. Quick learners, the Americans established their own schools in France for covert operations, as at Tours. AEF headquarters also began dispatching U.S. operatives, usually of French or German background, behind the lines—independent of their British tutors.

Pershing called his novel capabilities a “secret service force.” Previously, spies had largely been used merely to observe the deployments of enemy military forces or their logistical infrastructure. Now the emphasis was put on extracting secrets from enemy bureaucracies, picking up rumors and assessing enemy morale.

Their covers would be familiar to operatives today: U.S. “consular, commercial, scientific, and others” stationed or traveling within Germany and the occupied regions of France.

Policymakers in the Wilson administration came to realize that this was a line of work that required some highly unusual people.