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A Modern Secret War Council?

Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador had meetings with top officials of the Trump Administration before the U.S. elections last November. What did the officials talk about with the ambassador? Is it standard procedure for political campaigns to engage with foreign government representatives?

Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff

Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff

Lessons could be learned from the Secret War Council's activities during World War I in the United States. The German government through its ambassador Count Bernstorff wanted to learn about attitudes of American politicians with respect to Germany, the German U-boat war, the peace movement, and the like. One of Bernstorff's goals was to find opposition to the Wilson administration which in effect could counteract American trade policies clearly favoring Germany's enemies. Wilson allowed American banks to extend huge loans to England and France through J.P. Morgan. One of the people who Bernstorff courted was Wilson's Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who strongly opposed these loans. He feared they would eventually pull the U.S. into the war, which indeed happened in 1917. Bernstorff also had close contacts with leaders of the labor movement, which were divided about arms and munitions sales to Germany's enemies. German-American lawmakers in Congress as well as senators and representatives with large German-American constituencies were on Bernstorff's short list for influence. So, are contacts between foreign governments, even if they are hostile, to American lawmakers normal? With respect to exchange of views and social interaction yes.

However, the German war strategy in the United States did not only involve the well-known and well-liked ambassador Bernstorff. Immediately at the onset of the war in August and September 1914, the German government sent a group of agents to New York to run the pro-German propaganda campaign, raise funds for cornering strategic industries, such as smokeless power (for munitions manufacturing), and chemicals needed for explosives. The German military ordered these German agents in 1915 to conduct sabotage operations against American factories, ships that transported munitions to the Allies, and logistics installations. This sabotage campaign caused tremendous damage to U.S. industries and Allied customers. German agents produced labor strikes in the rust belt so large, that only the implementation of a 40-hour work week quelled them. German agents also caused widespread violence along the Mexican-American border, culminating in Pancho Villa's attack on Columbus, New Mexico in March 1916. By the summer of 1916, literally the entire U.S. army and reserves were in Mexico or at the border to provide security and capture the Mexicans who had attacked the U.S.

What is important about these clandestine operations is that the German ambassador was widely suspected to have been in charge. He was not. In fact, he strongly opposed the sabotage campaign and other acts of war Germany was committing. We know today, that the German government used the Secret War Council in New York to run these missions. The ambassador knew about some of the operations but purposely tried to maintain plausible deniability.

Using the German example from World War I, it is likely that in the case of Russian election interference in 2016 Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, is not the person to look for. It is not likely that Russia used its ambassador for any more than information gathering, mingling with the political players of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. Just like Bernstorff in 1915 and 16, Kislyak operates under the diplomatic mantra of plausible denial. The real agents are here in the United States but run under a different command and control structure. When Obama expelled a group of 35 agents and confiscated two Russian properties, he likely took out the modern Secret War Council. It is this group of agents, who conducted the election interference, hacking operations, and other yet unknown operations to throw the American political system into chaos. Any contact between them and members of the Trump campaign would be a completely different issue. Should these agents have found ways to synchronize leaks and misinformation with efforts of the Trump campaign to defeat the Clinton campaign, the Espionage Act of 1917, specifically instituted to combat German clandestine agents, would apply to anyone involved, including members of the Trump campaign.

Since the World War I example is especially fitting because German operations happened in a country officially at peace with the United States, the history of German clandestine operations in the United States between 1914 and 1916 might be especially instructive.

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The Lessons of History for Understanding the America of 2017

Yesterday, February 14, 2017 was a bad day for the government of the Russian Federation. One of their highest placed assets in the U.S. government was removed from leading the National Security Council after weeks of pressure from intelligence agencies and the Justice Department to do so. General Michael Flynn did not lie to the Vice President. He was told to lie to the Vice President. General Flynn did not keep contact with the Russian government, he was told to do so. No person in his position would travel to Russia in December 2016, a month after the election of Donald J. Trump under suspicious circumstances, without the approval of the president-elect.

Felix A. Sommerfeld (left) next to Francisco I. Madero. Also Allie Martin and Chris Haggerty, both journalists.

Felix A. Sommerfeld (left) next to Francisco I. Madero. Also Allie Martin and Chris Haggerty, both journalists.

Flynn and Trump’s links to the Russian government have been the topic of many reports in the press during the presidential election campaign. The exposure of Paul Manafort as a close associate of the Russian backed Ukrainian president, who was expelled, forced Trump to let go of his campaign manager on August 20, 1016. Manafort is still under investigation in the Ukraine for receiving illegal payments. His role in the deposed government and the subsequent invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces and the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula is yet to be fully exposed. His and Secretary of State Tillerson’s ties to Russian oil interests are in the open, but not many people seem to care.

There are likely more Russian agents placed deep within the Trump administration. Their access to classified materials as well as their influence on pro-Russian policies of the administration is known only to U.S. intelligence agencies. Whether these agencies will reveal what they know is a matter of security for them. Indications of their caution are the withholding of classified information from Trump and his advisors, as well as carefully placed leaks to lead Congress and the Press in the direction of treasonous activity of the new administration.

In 2012, I wrote a biography of the German naval intelligence agent Felix A. Sommerfeld. There are many parallels of how this man ended up the right-hand man of the Mexican President to people like Flynn, Manafort, maybe others like Bannon and Miller who suddenly appeared in powerful positions next to the American president. Like Russia, the German government in 1910 did not know that Francisco Madero, an opponent of President Porfirio Diaz, would be able to capture the reins of power in Mexico. As a result, Germany placed agents like Sommerfeld with all leaders of the resistance, in case they should gain the upper hand in the upheavals. But Madero won, and Sommerfeld became his trusted advisor and head of the Mexican Secret Service. All access to the international press came through Sommerfeld. Not unlike Flynn, Sommerfeld controlled much of the information reaching the Mexican president. In Sommerfeld’s case, he tried to keep detractors of Madero’s regime away from the new leader. Flynn seemed to have filtered information to influence Trump’s opinions on Russia.

In 1913, President Madero died in a coup d’état that members of the old regime engineered with the support of a rogue American ambassador. Sommerfeld quickly moved to join the resistance against the putchists, again placing himself at the heart of the Mexican Revolution. Other German agents under Sommerfeld’s leadership monitored, even militarily supported several revolutionary factions, most notably those of Venustiano Carranza and Emiliano Zapata. Sommerfeld covered Pancho Villa and became his chief weapons buyer in the U.S. During World War I, when it became clear that the U.S. government had taken sides against Germany in 1915, Sommerfeld used his connections and executed the German War Department’s order to create a war between Mexico and the United States. I am not trying to tell the entire story of Sommerfeld and the German Secret Service in America during World War I. You can read that in my four books on the topic (www.felixsommerfeld.com).

The purpose here is to point out that well-placed intelligence agents of a hostile foreign government often appear in plain sight (the title of my first book on Sommerfeld). In hindsight, it appears almost unbelievable that they were not exposed. More shocking is the realization how much damage these people can do while active. Sommerfeld succeeded in the entire U.S. military and reserve save for one division protecting Washington D.C. fighting in Mexico or protecting the Mexican-American border in the summer of 1916. That was precisely the plan of the German government: Keep the U.S. military distracted and from entering the conflict against Germany in Europe.

The damage people like Flynn and Manafort have already caused to the international standing of the United States can only be estimated. At this point, only one month after the Trump administration took power in Washington, NATO is seriously evaluating ditching the United States and mounting a European defense force, Russia is firmly entrenched in Crimea and has reignited its military operations against Ukraine. The forces that fought on the side of the United States in Iraq and Syria (Syrian free army, Peshmerga, and several others) have been sold out to the murderous regimes of President Assad of Syria and Erdogan of Turkey. Russia has thus stabilized its foothold in this strategic region, while the U.S. has been expelled. In the future, receiving support from hitherto friendly Arab states will be next to impossible. Bellicose statements from the Trump administration allow the suspicion that the U.S. government is planning to challenge Iran to the point that it can be attacked. Just like destroying Iraq increased the regional power of Iran, starting a war with Iran will empower Syria as a Russian backed actor.

In the Far East, the United States has cancelled the TTP agreement, a strategic economic alliance against the expanding influence of China. While not perfect, it has been replaced with … nothing. The U.S. has ceded its influence in the entire region to China without gaining anything. Weakening American influence in Asia, Europe and the Middle East has created power vacuums to be filled by Russia and China.

Germany dispatched Sommerfeld and a few others to gain intelligence. It did not realize that an agent like Sommerfeld one day could be in a position to influence, even direct events in the North American region. It might well be the case that seemingly fringe elements in American politics like Manafort, Bannon, Flynn, Miller and others have been influenced, maybe even compelled with rewards of some kind to gather around a fringe candidate who might never win a presidential election, but had the power to seriously destabilize the U.S. political system. Spreading fake news, paying members of the press to report only one side all have been tactics of the German government in the U.S. in World War I. The Secret War Council®, Germany’s command center in New York, paid off journalists, even bought a newspaper, while subverting the peace and labor movements. The Wilson administration did not change course or fell, but it certainly had its hands full.

In 2016, similar efforts destroyed the Clinton campaign and propelled Trump into the White House. Russia now has intelligence assets placed deep and high within the U.S. executive branch of the government. Exposure has become a vital national security requirement, in the face of foreign influence designed to prevent it, in the face of corrupt domestic forces in Congress and elsewhere, in the face of people who can simply not grasp the severity of what is happening in this country. This has happened before. In 1917, the U.S. passed the Espionage Act to counter German clandestine attacks on this country. Thousands were caught, interned, and expelled. Our great grandfathers fought in World War I to make the world Safe for Democracy. Will we wait until we all must fight to protect this country?  

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Alternative Facts, Fake News, or Targeted Propaganda?

During World War I, the German naval intelligence agent Felix A. Sommerfeld helped the fledgling German effort to counter a very successful British propaganda campaign. Eventually, the United States joined the war effort on the side of the British, not solely but certainly to a large degree as the result of the British success to divide the United States population, create a huge spy panic in 1915 and 1916, and create the sense of an emergency that only a military cooperation against Germany could resolve. Still today, historians are grappling with and often failing to differentiate facts from fake news and propaganda. When I researched my book, one of these facts that appears in virtually all histories on the time, is that the German sabotage agent Franz Rintelen spearheaded an effort to install the former dictator Victoriano Huerta back in Mexico. For that end, the German government supposedly made millions of dollars available. These, according to Barbara Tuchman, Friedrich Katz, Michael Meyer and others, came from Germany via Havana to New York. When I discovered the financial records of the German embassy and the entire North American spy organization, I was perplexed to find, that not only did this money exist, the German government actually supported a different plan for Mexico, one in which Huerta had no place. German agents indeed helped the U.S. authorities to dismantle the conspiracy and get the Mexican agitator arrested. Those were the facts.

The German propaganda chief in the United States 1914-1915

The German propaganda chief in the United States 1914-1915

Where then did Tuchman and others receive their information? I looked at Tuchman’s sources and found a reference to a New York Times article. The first words of the article said: “Tomorrow the Providence Journal will report…” The facts that followed came from John Rathom, a British agent in charge of British propaganda in the United States and the editor-in-chief of the British owned Providence Journal. Maybe Ms. Tuchman did not know who Rathom was, maybe she ignored the first sentence of the article. Katz referenced Tuchman, Meyer referenced Katz and on it goes with a fake news item remaining in the public realm for 100 years. The use of propaganda of a foreign government in the United States to move the political environment towards its end, seems to be happening today. It might be well worth and enlightening to study what happened 100 years ago in this country. After all, the U.S. support of the Allies and the eventual entry into World War I had a far-reaching impact on U.S. and world history.

Sommerfeld identified four rules that govern successful propaganda:

Felix A. Sommerfeld, 1911

Felix A. Sommerfeld, 1911

1) Limit access to information and control the message for each targeted channel.

2) Preempt an attack, line up the important players beforehand and win the argument.

3) Mold the message in such a way that the target audience understands it.

4) Control the message with surrogates who are beyond reproach.

 The first act of war in August 1914 by the British was the cutting of the German trans-Atlantic cables and installation of censors for all transatlantic information flow. This brilliant move made it impossible for the German government to communicate with its embassy and consulates in the United States. All news from German or pro-German or neutral sources had to come through Great Britain, where censors eliminated anything that did not fit the propaganda goals of the British government.

German-Americans constituted the largest minority in the United States, although this group was not at all as cohesive as English propaganda made it out to be. German communities included those united the Lutheran church, the German-American Roman Catholic community, the Amish and the Mennonites, both of whom had anti-war leanings. Poor laborers, farmers, and craftsmen had to worry more about their daily bread than joining a confrontation with the pro-British American movement. Many immigrants from the lower classes in Germany had changed their names and integrated fully into their communities as Americans. German merchants and traders, especially in the west and southwest, often were integrated in a way that there was no palpable difference from the rest of society.

These groups could not take sides for fear of losing their customer base. Thus, the raw numbers of Americans who identified their background as German, paint a superficial and wholly inaccurate picture. The 1910 census reflects that 8.2 million persons named Germany as their land of origin, of whom 2.5 million had been born in Germany. In addition to the German communities, other minorities courted by German propaganda also had the potential of being perceived as disloyal to the United States: The Jewish community, in general, wanted Germany to win against Russia since Jewish citizens there had few rights and were persecuted. The Irish and Indian communities sought independence from England and, as a result, were generally supportive of Germany.

The British propaganda effectively stoked the fears that these huge minorities would rise against their country of residence. The American public swayed into doubting German-American loyalty over the course of the first year of the war. The German government understood clearly that the reality was different, but failed to assert the facts. Even before the war started, Ambassador Bernstorff had “[] informed the Wilhelmstrasse that the majority of German-Americans were lost for the German cause as far as direct engagement was concerned.”

The British systematically disseminated messages among American papers through genuine journalists as surrogates, acknowledging the other side’s argument to give the impression of impartiality. Their intelligence services provided sensational news immediately when –  sometimes even before – events occurred. The British operation combined restricting and controlling access to the news, and backed their reporting with thorough intelligence work. English propagandists exploited the realization that the American hunger for facts and sensation trumped any German efforts, even without a highly anglophile American press, public, and government.

Walter Nicolai, the head of the German Military Intelligence Service in World War I commented in his 1923 memoirs, that there was no intelligence link with the propaganda effort. “The ‘Press Service,’ which has often been, and still is, in Germany confused with the ‘Intelligence Service,’ first devolved on the General Staff after the outbreak of the War, because no government department had made any preparations for its establishment. The Imperial Government had not comprehended that without such a service even military operations were impossible [] Unlike her opponents, Germany had not at her command a political, economic, and military service of information concocted in co-ordinated fashion by the Government. She did not [] take any advantage of political conditions in enemy countries or influence the neutrals by means of propaganda []

Heinrich Albert seconded the spy chief’s analysis. He spoke to the same issue as Walter Nicolai, head of German military intelligence, noting in his diary in the winter of 1914-15: “The English have systematically worked long before the war, and especially in the first few weeks when German news was not available here, in order to malign us, and to paint a fake picture of us. We neglected both to gain sufficient influence, and to win the entire American people; the only means [for us to counter the English propaganda would have been] English printed news papers [sic], which would give the readers, and impregnate them without their knowing or noticing it, German ideas. A great neglect, that we do not own one, just now when the newspapers play such a big part...

The media 100 years ago were newspapers and magazines. If it was hard then to fight targeted foreign propaganda, one can only surmise what a vast Internet, social media, television, and film can achieve for a skilled propaganda person. If you want to learn more about propaganda, sabotage, undue influence in politics during the years leading up to the American entry into World War I, check out my books, The Secret War on the United States, and The Secret War Council.

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Deja Vu? Terrorism in 1915 and Now

It started innocently. A factory fire in New Jersey at an anti-submarine steel cable manufacturer. Then another at a Dupont powder plant. Dozens more in the next twelve months. Rumors about German sympathizers possibly sabotaging munitions orders for the Allies. Mysterious fires on ships carrying war materials to England and France. A labor strike in Connecticut.

German sabotage agent and agent provocateur Franz Rintelen

German sabotage agent and agent provocateur Franz Rintelen

Newspaper headlines in the spring of 1915 brimmed with ever new suspicions of what was going on. British propaganda fanned the flames of suspicion. Investigators tapped the phones of German officials in the US. Yet the results of the investigations were meager. Were the incidents terrorism? Lone wolfs or state sponsored? While the American public went into panic mode in the summer of 1915, sabotage agents continued their deadly work, most undetected. The war in Europe had spilled onto the shores of the United States. It took decades to prove that Germany was behind it. 100 years later, we finally have records that identify foreign misinformation campaigns and clarify the questions of who, what, when, why, and how.

2016 is not much unlike those trying days 100 years ago. A stabbing here, a pipe bomb there. Suspicions of all people of Mid-eastern descent, immigrant, resident, and citizen. The wars in the Middle East have spilled onto our domestic soil. Now, just like then, the United States is ill equipped to deal with terrorism in the homeland. We have a hard time identifying the potential perpetrators, we have to balance requirements of order with the individual freedoms granted in our founding documents. An insecure public is prone to foreign propaganda that fans the flames of suspicion, racism, and anti-foreign sentiment. British and German propaganda was then disseminated through the mass media of the day, newspapers like the Providence Journal (owned by the British) or The New York Evening Mail (owned by the Germans). Hundreds of editorial boards across the nation received bribes, misinformation, and planted stories to support the efforts. Does that sound familiar? 

In my book, The Secret War on the United States in 1915, I have laid out the facts of a clandestine terrorism campaign that Germany organized, financed, and executed in 1915. Much of what I analyzed shows eery parallels to today, especially after we have now learned that agents of ISIS are operating in this country and are creating havoc. Who is behind this? Are there command and control structures of terrorists in this country? In 1915, US officials hopelessly underestimated the extent of the German operation on American soil. Today, investigators are struggling and the government tries to calm a nervous public. However, lone wolfs are rare and the explanation most often is the result of a dead-end investigation. If you read my book, you will understand the tell-tale sign of a multi-faceted, foreign terror campaign being unleashed on this country as we speak. No need to panic! But a need to learn from the past.     

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Blood and Guts: How George S. Patton Earned his Nickname

Pershing’s aide-de-camp, Lieutenant George S. Patton, with a few soldiers and Emil Holmdahl as the scout, diverted from a shopping trip and surrounded the home of Julio Cardenas, a most wanted member of Villa’s Dorados, on May 14. The surprised Cardenas, who just happened to be there with two of his companions, made a stand but died in a hail of American bullets. Trying to get away from the Americans Cardenas charged across a wall with his horse. Both Patton and Holmdahl fired and hit the Mexican revolutionary. Holmdahl walked up to the insured Cardenas and dispatched him at close range.

George S. Patton

George S. Patton

Patton ordered the bodies of the three Mexicans strapped to the hoods of their Dodge touring cars, earning him the nickname “blood and guts.” Excited newsmen in the Namiquipa camp, about sixty miles to the north, celebrated the young army lieutenant as a hero. Patton, never shy when it came to publicity, showed off two notches on the butt of his revolver, marking the Mexican rebels he personally shot in close combat. Patton, likely at the insistence of Holmdahl or General Pershing, had to correct the record of what really had happened at the San Miguel Ranch on May 14, a version quite different from the exaggerated newspapers reports:

 

Headquarters U.S. Troops

Somewhere in Mexico

May 20th, 1916

To Whom It May Concern;

 

            This is to certify that Mr [sic] H. L. Holmdahl, was the Government Scout with the U.S. troops under my command in an engagement with Villa Bandits, at San Miguel Ranch, Chihuahua, Mexico, on May 14th.

            I have highly recommended Scout Holmdahl, for his coolness, courage and efficiency while under fire, he personally killed General Julio Cardenes [sic], and Colonel Gildardo Lopez, in a pistol dual [sic]. At that time Holmdahl fought in the open, without cover of any kind, shot with great accuracy and deliberation his action being that of a man at target practice.

            I also wish to recommend him to any brother officer, who may wish a man who is thoroughly familiar with Mexico and its people or in any position of trust, as he is most reliable, and a Good Soldier.

 

(sgd) Geo. Patton.

1st Lieut 10th, U.S. Cavalry.

A.D. C. General Pershing.

Emil Holmdahl

Emil Holmdahl

Despite official commendations from both General Pershing and Lieutenant George Patton, something led to Holmdahl being fired in July 1916. Maybe his sudden discharge was not completely surprising, if indeed Holmdahl coerced Lieutenant Patton to pen this embarrassing “to whom it may concern” letter. Pershing testified in a memorandum in 1917 that “the information furnished by Mr. Holmdahl [as a scout in the Punitive Expedition] was mostly of vague and indefinite character and that his services as a scout were of no particular value; that Holmdahl was a very difficult man to manage on account of his desire to fight the Mexicans all the time and to open fire on them without regard for the consequences…” Instead of bravery, Holmdahl’s shootout, which netted Cardenas, earned him a discharge for recklessness.

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One Woman Against the U.S. Cavalry: Elisa Griensen

Villa's raid on Columbus triggered an immediate military response. March 10, 1916, the day after the attack, President Wilson decided to mount a punitive expedition  to "pursue and disperse" the Villista rebels. Just as Villa had imagined, the inevitable clash between Carranza forces and American army troops happened within one month of the American intervention.

Elisa Griensen Zambrano of Parral

Elisa Griensen Zambrano of Parral

On April 12, 1916, the day after the last known contact between Villa and the American pursuers, Major Frank Tompkins, the officer who had so courageously hunted the raiders in the immediate aftermath of the Columbus attack, led a column of 140 men to the outskirts of Hidalgo del Parral. All intelligence assessments pointed to Villa having headed here. The Villista stronghold and hometown of Frederico Stallforth, over five hundred miles from the border, marked the farthest point south the Punitive Expedition would reach. The city of Parral was in the far Southwest corner of the state of Chihuahua. Tompkins proceeded with a small detachment to the guardhouse when he arrived at the outskirts of the proud mining town. There, he asked to see the Carrancista commander. General Ismael Lozano as well as the Presidente of Parral, José de la Luz Herrera, obliged and invited the American delegation into the prestigious city hall. Major Herrera was the father of Maclovio and Luis Herrera, two of Villa’s fiercest commanders who had recently switched sides and now supported Carranza. The Mexicans notified Tompkins that they wanted the American troops to leave town immediately. Tompkins brashly demanded supplies for his troops, which General Lozano arranged. However, while the men met in the city hall, “a huge mob led by a beautiful young woman named Elisa Griensen [from a prominent Parral family with Austrian background] had gathered. ‘Viva Villa! Viva Mexico!’ they shouted.

As the troops started out of town, other women leaned out of their second-floor windows and dumped their slop jars and spittoons onto the soldiers. Tompkins was infuriated and dropped behind to keep an eye on the crowd. One compactly built man, with a neat Vandyke beard and mounted on a very fine Mexican pony, seemed to be exhorting the mob to violence… Tompkins thought the man looked German and made up his mind to shoot this ‘bird’ first if violence did erupt.”

Major Frank Tompkins of the U.S. Army

Major Frank Tompkins of the U.S. Army

As the Carrancista jefe de armas tried to ferry the American soldiers out of town, shots rang out. Despite the Carrancista troops shooting into the crowd and trying to protect the Americans, Tompkins immediately deployed his squadron on two hills overseeing the road into Parral, as well as in a railroad embankment. General Lozano “begged Tompkins to retreat at once. But Tompkins would not be budged: ‘After we get our food and forage,’ he responded.” A shootout between the Carrancistas and the Americans ensued. Tompkins had to withdraw and fight a rear guard action for five miles. In the end, the American cavalry detachment had lost two soldiers and suffered six wounded. Among the Carrancista casualties were forty deaths, with an unknown number of wounded and killed civilians in Parral. .

General Pershing, upon learning of the firefight, decided to reinforce the American forces around Parral with more cavalry, a field artillery regiment, and two infantry regiments. Hundreds of American troops converged on the town. Tompkins, whose action had precipitated the escalation of the conflict and, against orders, had provoked the clash with Carranza’s forces, wrote in his memoirs, “We now felt as though our force was strong enough to conquer Mexico, and we were hoping the order to ‘go’ would soon come.” However, the order did not come. Under pressure as a result of stretched supply lines and the threat of more clashes with local Carranzista forces, General Pershing ordered U.S. forces to withdraw in the middle of April. Pershing mused in his memoirs, “the German Consul at Parral was instrumental in inciting the people.” While Frederico Stallforth’s brother never hinted at his involvement, Alberto Stallforth was the German consular agent (Parral did not have a consulate) and could very well have been behind the angry mob in Parral. As a result of the clash, Pershing changed his strategy from flying columns pursuing Villistas in the region to organizing regional camps that conducted patrols and prevented the use of the covered territory as a base of operations for Villa.

After the shootout at Parral, Venustiano Carranza issued another stern demand to President Wilson that the Americans leave Mexico. The Wilson administration responded, and asked for a meeting between Secretary of War Obregón and Generals Funston and Scott in Ciudad Juarez. The military commanders met on April 30. Obregón reiterated the unconditional demand of Venustiano Carranza for the Americans to withdraw. The meetings ended quickly because, according to Army Chief of Staff Scott, “General Funston allowed his real sentiments to be expressed so brusquely that he lost his influence in those conferences, and he thought it best for him not to attend anymore.” Scott’s decision to choose General Pershing over Frederick Funston for the sake of diplomacy seemed to have been the correct one. Scott succeeded, during subsequent private meetings on May 1 and 2, in getting Obregón to back down somewhat.

 

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"I Wished We Would Have Been Behind the Attack"

Although diplomatic rumblings continued between Mexico and the United States after the beginning of the American incursion, the Carranza administration grudgingly accepted the facts on the ground and did not risk an open confrontation with the U.S. forces. This development caught the German government by surprise. All indications had been that Carranza would resist the Punitive Expedition. Through Arnold Krumm-Heller, Minister von Eckardt’s agent next to Carranza, and the diplomat’s own understanding of the disposition of the Mexican government towards the U.S., Carranza was supposed to militarily oppose the American forces. The immediate reaction of Carranza threatening war in case of U.S. forces crossing the border allows the supposition that, at least, the First Chief had contemplated resistance. However, promises of German arms and ammunition support were no match for the prospect of fighting the United States army along a border of twelve hundred miles.

German Ambassador to the United States Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff in 1916

German Ambassador to the United States Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff in 1916

Rumors of impending hostilities between the United States and Mexico ran rampant in Washington, which Ambassador Count Bernstorff dutifully related to his superiors in Berlin. Despite the pressure from political opponents to mount a full military intervention, cabinet members, and Wall Street, even the customs agent, Zach Lamar Cobb, the Wilson administration had no interest in risking a quagmire of all Mexican factions uniting against a common enemy. To Wilson’s relief, Carranza blinked first, mainly because he had decided on an alternate tactic to open confrontation. The First Chief knew when brinkmanship had to give way to acquiescence after the earlier Plan de San Diego raids in the summer and fall of 1915. He backed down from direct confrontation, but carefully monitored the progress of the American forces, limiting the supply lines by forbidding the use of Mexican railways. Carranza caged the Americans into a narrow north-south corridor between the Casas Grandes and Santa Maria rivers of Chihuahua while hunting down Villa with his own forces. Simultaneously, he re-activated the Plan de San Diego to pressure the American forces to leave.

The German government in Berlin anxiously followed the situation in Mexico. The German ambassador in Washington, Count Bernstorff, accurately reported on the reciprocal agreement for hot pursuit that Carranza and Wilson had tentatively concluded, but added his impression that Wilson welcomed the Columbus attack for political reasons. “If some anti-German newspapers are claiming, we [the German government] had bribed Villa [to conduct the attack], one could with the same justification claim that the [American] president had bribed him [Villa].” The German ambassador reported at the end of March that the public sentiment, as well as “the most influential circles” of the country expected a full-scale intervention. Count Bernstorff noted, “If the president is able to continue to operate the same way, the country will slowly but surely slide into intervention without any domestic resistance. That,” continued Count Bernstorff, “would in my own, humble opinion, secure the re-election of Mr. Wilson.” 

Despite the ambassador’s factual reporting, his cynical opinion of President Wilson’s motivation confirmed the hope of most German government officials that a war between Mexico and the United States was becoming inevitable. Count Bernstorff added in his next report that rumors of Carranza troops defecting and joining Villa were false but that “Mexicans are observing the American incursion with quite some suspicion.” The ambassador added an important fact: Almost the entire regular army of the United States is now in Mexico or congregating along the border.” Count Montgelas commented on Bernstorff’s statement that accusations of Germany’s involvement in the Columbus attack were “ridiculous” with the penciled remark “regrettably [i. e. “I wished we would have been behind the attack.”].”

 

 

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Pancho Villa's Raid on Columbus, New Mexico: Centennial Commemoration

The little hamlet of Columbus, New Mexico, thirty odd miles from Deming and three miles from the Mexican village of Palomas buzzled yesterday with reenactors, celebrities, historians, military history buffs, TV, newspaper and film crews. Over 2,000 people from all walks of life came to commemorate a momentous event that happened just over 100 years ago. A group of one hundred Villista reenactors on horseback met at the border with reenactors of the U.S. Cavalry and rode into Columbus to throngs of cheering spectators. The granddaughter of General George S. Patton, who received his first combat experience in the Punitive Expedition as a second lieutenant and aide to General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing, greeted the crowds. Helen Patton read a letter from Sandra Pershing before the sang "America the Beautiful" and paid respect during the Mexican national anthem. A great great grandson of Pancho Villa in a show of friendship and peace between the United States and Mexico, shook hands and hugged. Mayor Philip Skinner and U.S. representative Steve Pearce posed with Pancho Villa (the reenactor), Helen Patton, Francisco Antonio Villa Alcazar for pictures, briefly joined by Francisco I. Madero (a spitting image of the real president of Mexico).

Pancho Villa, flanked by his lieutenants riding into Columbus. To the right of Villa. President Francisco I. Madero.

Pancho Villa, flanked by his lieutenants riding into Columbus. To the right of Villa. President Francisco I. Madero.

On March 9, 1916, at around 4:00 am (we know that because the clock at the train station permanently froze at 4:11 am as a result of a bullet lodged in its works), close of 500 Villista raiders rampaged the city, shot panicked residents who ran for cover, ransacked the bank, local hardware store and looted the grocery shop. The local camp Columbus with three hundred soldiers of the 13th cavalry regiment as well awoke to the whizzing bullets of the Mexican raiders. Luckily for the soldiers, the Villistas mistook the stables for sleeping barracks. After initial chaos, the cavalry quickly set up a defensive line with machine guns. The attackers set the commercial district of the town on fire. After a ninety minute fire fight the soldiers repelled the raiders. Still, eight soldiers and nine civilians, among them the owner of the Commercial Hotel and several guests as well as the grocer, died. The raiders lost close to one hundred in the attack and subsequent retreat with American cavalry in hot pursuit.

Helen Patton in the company of U.S. army reenactors driving a 1917 Dodge parades by the cheering crowd 

Helen Patton in the company of U.S. army reenactors driving a 1917 Dodge parades by the cheering crowd 

The raid on Columbus triggered a massive military response from the United States. Within days thousands of troops, eventually topping 10,000, assembled in the little desert town and entered Mexico under the command of John J. Pershing in pursuit of Villa and his troops. Pancho Villa remained an illusive target over the next nine months, despite being wounded and many of his lieutenants captured or killed. Yet, the Punitive Expedition marked a turning point not only in relations with Mexico (as Villa had intended), but also in the First World War. By July 1916, virtually the entire U.S. army and reserve descended upon Mexico and the border region (as German secret agents had intended). Despite the public and many historians judging the Punitive Expedition a colossal failure, American soldiers had received nine months of combat experience or at least training, the army was well equipped, and newest technology such as trucks, motorcycles, and airplanes had catapulted the U.S. military into the mechanized age.

From left U.S. Representative Steve Pearce, Pancho Villa, Francisco Antonio Villa Alcazar, and Mayor of Columbus Philip Skinner

From left U.S. Representative Steve Pearce, Pancho Villa, Francisco Antonio Villa Alcazar, and Mayor of Columbus Philip Skinner

Columbus, New Mexico, and the events of the year 1916 shaped the world as we know it. Despite German agents supporting Villa's conviction that the U.S. intended to trample on Mexico's  sovereignty in an unholy alliance with President Carranza, the plan to create a war between Mexico and the United States badly backfired. When American troops finally entered the European battlefields under the command of John J. Pershing in 1918 on the side of the Allies,  the German military did not last but another nine months before it capitulated. The outcome of the World War was by no means predetermined, as many historians have argued. In a separate peace with Russia after the October Revolution, the German Empire threw its entire military on the western front. Had there not been fresh, well-equipped, and trained U.S. soldiers to stop the advances, who knows what the outcome of the world conflagration would have been. 

The Great Great Grandson of Pancho Villa shaking hands with the Granddaughter of General George S. Patton

The Great Great Grandson of Pancho Villa shaking hands with the Granddaughter of General George S. Patton

It was here, in little Columbus, New Mexico, in March 100 years ago, that the fate of the German military efforts in the First Wold War was sealed. 

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The end of the road to Columbus: Villa Attacks!

Two detachments of Villistas, amounting to an estimated 485 men under the command of Candelario Cervantes and the infamous Pablo López, simultaneously attacked the cavalry camp and the town at 4:11 am on March 9, 1916. Villa himself likely stayed behind in Mexico with a small reserve. The raiders stormed into town shooting up the bank, and set fire to the Commercial Hotel, where they executed its manager W. T. Ritchie, as well as several overnight guests. The raiders proceeded to loot the town and fired indiscriminately at homes, where unsuspecting residents were sleeping. A detachment of Villistas sought to find and murder Sam Ravel. The owner of a local hardware store located in the same building as the hotel had allegedly cheated Villa sometime in the past. They looted the store. Ravel lived to see another day because he was out of town that night. However, insurance refused to cover his losses of $10,000 [$210,000 in today’s value], a heavy blow for the businessman. Simultaneously, the raiders attacked Camp Furlong.

This cartoon was in the papers of the German spymaster Heinrich F. Albert. It shows the glee with which Germany viewed the unfolding events in Mexico.

This cartoon was in the papers of the German spymaster Heinrich F. Albert. It shows the glee with which Germany viewed the unfolding events in Mexico.

Luckily for the surprised cavalry soldiers, the raiders mistook the stables for the barracks and shot horses instead of men. The American soldiers mounted a counter-attack within a short time, forcing the Villistas into retreat. Twenty-three Villistas died during intense fightingThe raiding party withdrew into Mexico by 7:30 in the morning. Major Frank Tompkins chased the Villistas across the border with a squadron of fifty men and pursued them for five miles on Mexican territory. The Americans inflicted serious casualties on the rear guard of Villa’s forces. There are no exact numbers of losses on the Villista side, but Major Tompkins reported seventy-five killed. The 13th Cavalry lost one man and two horses. Tompkins himself had to abandon his horse and “was shot through the hat.”  Short of ammunition, without supplies for the horses, and to “get something to eat,” he returned to Columbus later that day.

Images from the $5,000 reward wanted poster

Images from the $5,000 reward wanted poster

The town was in shambles. Nine civilians and eight U.S. soldiers had died. Another nine soldiers had been injured; one of them succumbed to his wounds later. The authorities apprehended thirty raiders. George Seese and his companion who had stayed in the Commercial Hotel made it out alive but sufficiently shaken. Seese, who believed that he might have caused this mess, and who had a warrant pending for his arrest for polygamy, fled to Canada. He finally gave interviews to American investigators when he turned up in New York a few months later. He had nothing to add other than he really believed he could have taken Villa to President Wilson. No one asked him about Sommerfeld.

March 9 was the first day on the job for Secretary of War Newton K. Baker in Washington. He immediately ordered his predecessor, Hugh Lenox Scott, to mount a punitive campaign. General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing would be in charge. The mission was to pursue “the Mexican band which attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico, and the troops there on the morning of the ninth instant.” Much to the glee of the Secret War Council, the so-called Punitive Expedition would tie up a significant majority of the American military at the Mexican border and inside Mexico for the next nine months. It seemed virtually assured at the time that it would be only a matter of time when Carranza’s forces would clash with American troops. A war between the United States and Mexico was expected in all quarters of the German and American governments when the situation became aggravated as a result of clashes with the U.S. military in May and June, 1916. The new American Secretary of War immediately ordered to look into expanding and equipping the military, forced to do what his predecessor could not implement and over which he resigned. The Columbus affair was a dream-come-true for the German military.

Countless books and articles since the attack speculated as to Villa’s motivations, his finances, and his backers. The revolutionary himself never commented on his attack. Why did he choose Columbus, New Mexico, a relatively unimportant town with little to loot and lots of military presence? The theories focused on Sam Ravel and Villa’s attack as an act of revenge. However, killing a merchant did not require a major military attack. There were plenty of Villista agents who could have meted out the punishment. Another school of thought was that Villa indeed wanted to cross into the U.S. to justify himself. The theory argues that when the plan fell apart, Villa lost control over his forces. Hugh Lenox Scott promoted this idea. However, Villa was no fool. He would have been arrested immediately for the murders of Americans in the preceding months. Many theories vaguely reference German agents as being behind Villa’s attack. A German physician from El Paso, Dr. Lyman B. Rauschbaum, had been close to Villa in 1915 and 1916. There is no evidence that he did anything other than stay close to Villa.

Suspicions also surrounded Felix Sommerfeld. It took some prodding from the editor of the Providence Journal and Carrancista representatives to get the B.I. to investigate Sommerfeld’s whereabouts. Special Agent J. W. Allen asked the Military Intelligence Division on March 14, 1916, to “inform the secret service and get them to shadow him and secure his effects for incriminating evidence.” The Carranza representatives in the U.S. tried their best to pin suspicions on Sommerfeld. Carranza consul Beltrán in San Antonio told B.I. agent Beckham “… Sam Dreben, Sheldon Hotel, El Paso, and Felix Sommerfeld, New York City, were go-betweens for German interests and Francisco Villa.” According to the Carranza consulate in New York City, “Sommerfeld had told her [a woman without further description] in New York about 15 days ago that there would be intervention in a few days… Sommerfeld knew in advance about the Villa attack.” Bureau of Investigations Chief Bielaski took the Carrancista information seriously. He wired William Offley in New York City on March 14, “Legal representative Carranza Government wires Felix Sommerfeld assisting Villa and suggest he be shadowed and effects examined for incriminating evidence. Please give Summerfield [sic] activities immediate attention and make best possible effort to see what he is doing.” Interestingly, despite Chief Bielaski asking New York agents to locate Sommerfeld, they did not actually contact him in the Hotel Astor until May 5, 1916.

He may not have been there. The only evidence that Sommerfeld actually was in New York during the raid is a letter on Hotel Astor stationary he wrote to General Scott on March 10, 1916, in which he unequivocally condemned Villa’s attack. His actual whereabouts before and after the raid remain questionable. B.I. agents had interviewed the lawyer and Carranza lobbyist Sherburne Hopkins in Washington D.C. on February 28. He told the B.I. agents that the Catholic Church was financing an uprising against Carranza. He suggested for them to speak with Sommerfeld, who was “stopping at the Waldorf Hotel…” Sommerfeld had his office and regular living quarters in the Hotel Astor. Was he hiding from the prying eyes of those who knew where he regularly stayed? B.I. agents tried to locate Sommerfeld in New York at the end of April, but could not find him. Instead, agents along the Mexican border in April reported Sommerfeld to be “in Los Angeles under an assumed name and evidently in disguise… on the street in Los Angeles dressed somewhat roughly.” B.I. Agent Barnes in El Paso also reported him “here under assumed name,” and asked “is he wanted…?”He was not. Most likely, Sommerfeld did go to the border before the raid to help supply Villa with munitions and to canvas the situation for the German secret service. Plenty of B.I. reports point to Sommerfeld remaining Villa’s arms and munitions buyer with evidence of his purchases from merchants in Los Angeles, Boston, and New York abounding in the months before and after the attack on Columbus. Using a disguise and fake names, at the very least, demonstrated apprehension on the part of the German agent. Many historians have tried to find a definite link between Columbus and the German agent over the years, but Sommerfeld was much too skilled to leave a smoking gun behind.

The main theories of the motivation behind the raid all revolve around the fact that the Wilson administration had recognized Carranza and precipitated the violent reaction of Villa. Major Tompkins, the courageous cavalry officer who went after the raiders into Mexico, wrote a book about his experiences in which he also espoused this theory. He seconded most of the interventionist supporters in the Senate who blamed Wilson’s Mexico policy for the raid. All three theses, loot, vengeance, and German intrigue, contain what will ultimately prove to be a part of the historical truth. However, no one has yet fully explored the hard facts, the “how” in each of these theories. Villa certainly could have looked to Columbus as a source for loot, but there is no evidence or confirmation of this thesis. Vengeance against the American government proved itself a motivation, given Villa’s speeches, the letter to Zapata, and his actions in the prior months. The articles historian Katz wrote about the role of Leon Canova are the best argued and supported analyses on the topic.

The elephant in the room was the German strategy to tie American forces down at the Mexican border, and the German interest in the American military having to use arms and munitions for itself rather than selling them to Europe. German agents, before and after the attack, had played a significant role in precipitating and supporting the border conflagration. The challenge of this theory is to prove who did what and how. Sommerfeld’s mission to cause a war with Mexico and his role in helping convince Villa of an imminent danger to Mexico are well documented. The key to understanding the trigger of how German influence caused Villa to commence his attack lays within the background of the Enrile mission to Germany. Villa was outraged about the recognition of Carranza, he was even more mad at the Americans having actively participated in his downfall at Agua Prieta, maybe he had a grudge at Sam Ravel or, more likely the local bank that would not allow him to retrieve his deposits, but the trigger, the reason why he attacked on March 9 was the need to show Germany in this first battle of a new fight for supremacy in Mexico, that he was willing to act. For that he would receive German financial support, and remove Carranza from power.

I hope you enjoyed this series of blogs that traced the attack on Columbus as it was unfolding 100 years ago. I would appreciate very much, if you bought the book that contains this story in much greater detail and many other stories equally as fascinating as this. After all, Felix A. Sommerfeld was a spy who made James Bond look like an amateur. Please buy Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War on Amazon or right here as hardcover, paperback or e-book. And, of course, if you are in the neighborhood, hear me speak on Saturday right here in Columbus or next week in Albuquerque. For more information on these events, go to www.facebook.com/secretwarcouncil and look at the event calendar.

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On The Road to Columbus: "So we attacked American soil"

German ambassador to the United States, Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, a keen observer of the American political landscape, reported on a speech by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman William J. Stone, a Democrat from Missouri in February 1016. The Wilson advocate retorted to the Republican accusations of presidential weakness, that it was the best proof of the “human” strength of President Wilson by refusing to take the country to war over the massacre at Santa Isabel despite the fact that his personal interest, namely re-election, would be better served by intervention. Stone proposed to give Carranza one last chance to create order and concluded that no intervention would take place “unless there were further developments to force it.”

Pablo Lopez, the commander at the Santa Isabel massacre and at the Columbus raid, was caught by Carrancista forces and executed later in 1916.

Pablo Lopez, the commander at the Santa Isabel massacre and at the Columbus raid, was caught by Carrancista forces and executed later in 1916.

The “further developments” did not take long to materialize. Two Americans, a prospector and a ranch-hand, turned up murdered near Santa Isabel three days after the massacre. A group of Villistas crossed the international border at Hachita, New Mexico, on January 18, about sixty miles northwest of Columbus. They raided a ranch and engaged a detachment of the 7th Cavalry Brigade. Also on the 18th, Villista raiders attacked a camp of the Alvarado Mining Company near Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua, and “killed the Chinese cook, wounded the [American] watchman and looted the company store.” The raids and the subsequent mass exodus of foreigners from Chihuahua all but stopped the important mining business in the region. Carranza’s government immediately felt the pinch from lost tax revenue and export duties. Desperately trying to impress the American public (and the U.S. government) with rigorous action, Carrancista commanders “eagerly” executed dozens of Villistas. While Carrancista officials claimed that these executions dealt with men guilty of the Santa Isabel murders, most had nothing to do with them. Repeated false reports of the arrest of Pancho Villa and Pablo López incurred the mockery of El Paso dailies, citing the inefficiency of Carranza’s pursuit of the rebels.   

Despite, or maybe because of the desperate attempts of the Carranza administration to prove its control over the border region, Villa retreated from public view, the headlines in the U.S., and the border during the month of February. Villa’s disappearance from center stage presented a welcome break for the Wilson administration. It was already dealing with the threat of a renewed German submarine campaign, scheduled to start on March 1, 1916, and trying to regain its balance after the vicious attacks from the right, the left, and the press. However, those who thought that the guerrilla commander had given up his quest for revenge would soon be disappointed. Villa had sent a letter to Emiliano Zapata asking him to join forces against the United States on January 8th 1916, two days before the massacre at Santa Isabel. Villa wanted to provoke a military intervention. Pablo López encapsulated Villa’s rational. The executioner of Santa Isabel told a reporter on May 25, 1916, in an interview shortly before being executed,

Don Pancho was convinced that the gringoes [sic] were too cowardly to fight us, or to try and win our country by force of arms. He said they would keep pitting one faction against another until we were all killed off, and our exhausted country would fall like a ripe pear into their eager hands… Don Pancho also told us that Carranza was selling our northern states to the gringoes [sic] to get money to keep himself in power. He said he wanted to make some attempt to get intervention from the gringoes [sic] before they were ready, and while we still had time to become a united nation… The Santa Ysabel affair partly satisfied my master’s desire for revenge, but it did not succeed in satisfying his other wishes. So we marched on Columbus – we invaded American soil.
— Pablo Lopez shortly before his execution in 1916

 

News of Villa approaching the border with a force of between five hundred and six hundred men, and the supposition that the revolutionary chieftain had finally decided to seek refuge in the United States, preceded the fateful night between March 8 and 9. The El Paso Herald reported on March 8, “With three American cattlemen presumably held as prisoner, Francisco Villa, the outlawed Mexican insurgent, was reported today with between 200 and 700 men at a point on the Boca Grande river in Chihuahua, 15 miles west of Columbus and 27 miles south of the border.” The three men had the bad luck of crossing Villa’s path as his raiding party prepared to attack the United States. They did not survive the encounter. The next day, an American military unit found their bodies hanged and burnt.

Despite the reports that Villa was at the border with a sizable armed force, and despite the obvious fact that he did not appear to have changed his attitude towards the United States, rumors persisted that the Mexican rebel commander wanted to cross into the United States. The commander of the Columbus garrison, Colonel Herbert J. Slocum, who had given the information of Villa’s whereabouts to the El Paso paper, seemed confident that Villa did not represent any danger. American intelligence, save for two agents, got it wrong. George Carothers, formally President Wilson’s special envoy to Pancho Villa, cabled to the Secretary of State on March 3, 1916, “I anticipate renewed Villa activity in the near future.” Zach Lamar Cobb, the tireless customs collector of El Paso and State Department intelligence officer, sent multiple telegrams to his superiors in Washington detailing Villa’s whereabouts: He reported on March 3, “Villa left Pecheco Point, near Madera with three hundred men headed towards Columbus, New Mexico…” Cobb believed that Villa “intends to cross to United States and hopes to proceed to Washington.” He still cautioned as to Villa’s intentions.

The rumor of Villa personally seeking to absolve himself for the Santa Isabel murders in Washington was the result of communications between an AP reporter, George Seese, and Villa. Seese had advance knowledge of Villa’s coming to Columbus and was supposed to accompany the revolutionary chieftain to Washington D.C. On February 28 he wrote a letter to his editor in Los Angeles: “I have reached Villa with proposition to come to United States secretly [and] go with me to see President Wilson… whether the president sees him or not we will have five or six days of fine exclusive stuff, and I have motion picture friend who would foot the bills for all expenses for the right to make pictures. …My plan is to meet Villa somewhere near Columbus, run him up past Almagordo, N. M., to avoid eyes that might know him, board a train and scoot for Kansas City, thence via Chicago to Washington… ” Seese’s boss immediately responded, “Do not at all approve plan…” Seese wrote another message from El Paso on March 4, “The Villa matter was dropped like a hot stove as soon as I received your message. I went after the proposition because I thought that having Villa in the United States would relieve the Mexican situation of one of its problems, afford the United States [sic] officials some satisfaction and give us a dandy story… Villa may come across the line any time now. By the time you get this he may already have crossed. I hope to put over a beat when he does, but the Associated Press is not and shall not be committed to anything.”

Seese did travel to Columbus on March 8 with an aide. It was never discovered who interceded with Villa on his behalf. While no archival smoking gun has turned up yet, Felix Sommerfeld did have all the right credentials to play the intermediary. He had worked for AP News and personally knew its general manager, Melville E. Stone, very well. Sommerfeld also had a close relationship with Fred B. Warren, the general manager of Goldwyn Film Company. Warren, who lived in the Hotel Astor (just as Sommerfeld and Albert), would have been the person to promise funding of the project. Albert, at the time, heavily invested in German propaganda films and his own film company. Finally, Sommerfeld was, albeit “unofficially” since October 1915, the loyal Villa representative in the United States. Sommerfeld told investigators in 1918 that he himself tried to get Villa to explain himself. “The only time I got in communication with Villa [after the recognition of Carranza] was the killing of the Americans at Santa Isabel [sic]. General Scott happened to be here in New York… I sent a long telegram, which I showed to General Scott, and sent it down to El Paso… The murder of seventeen Americans is an atrocious crime. People believe you have had something to do with it. In order to prove it, you will have to get the man who did the killing and show that no foreigner’s life has been, or will be, threatened by you.”

Of course, Sommerfeld knew exactly what Villa was up to. He had stoked the rumors of a secret pact between the U.S. and Carranza, had even convinced General Hugh L. Scott of its existence. Villa was about to, in his own mind, save Mexico from the takeover of his beloved country by the Yankee imperialists...  

Read the rest of the story in the next blog on the 9th of March. If you can't wait that long, buy Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War!

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The Road to Columbus: The Santa Isabel Massacre

Today 100 years ago, about six miles south of Santa Isabel, Chihuahua, a derailment in a curve leading through Box Cañon blocked the passage of a following train on the way to Cusihuriachic, a mining town in the south of Chihuahua. Villa commander Colonel Pablo López, a loyal Yaqui Indian officer of Villa’s famed Dorados, with an estimated seventy Villista troops quickly surrounded the second train. The train carried among its passengers seventeen American employees of the Cusihuriachic Mining Company, one Canadian, and a British citizen. The conductor described in an affidavit what happened: 

A telling cartoon which Heinrich F. Albert kept in his files. See his handwritten notation.

A telling cartoon which Heinrich F. Albert kept in his files. See his handwritten notation.

"The train arrived at Santa Ysabel at 1:15 P. M. Arriving at Kilometer 68, eight kilometers beyond Santa Ysabel, we encountered a train, engine No. 57, off the track. When I got off to see what had happened the shooting started. Afterward General [sic] Reyna came up and placed us under guard, searching us and also searching the car. All the money on the passengers and in the car was taken. After this had taken place we left, the Americans having been killed. Some of the foreigners were first shot on the train, and a number, including one Mexican [M. B. Romero, an American citizen of Mexican heritage from New Mexico, the Cusi Mining Company auditor], who were wounded in the car, were later taken off and murdered. Some of them jumped off the train and ran toward the river. These included [Charles R.] Watson [the general manager of the Cusi Mining Company]. They were followed and fired upon.” 

Thomas B. Holmes, the only American who survived the massacre, described the crime in especially graphic detail:

“Watson, after getting off, ran toward the river, Machatton [actually Richard P. McHatton of El Paso] and I followed. Machatton [sic] fell. I do not know whether he was killed then or stripped. Watson kept running, and they were still shooting at him when I turned and ran down grade, where I fell in some brush, probably 100 feet from the rear of the train. I lay there perfectly quiet and looked around and could see the Mexicans shooting in the direction in which Watson was running. I saw that they were not shooting at me, and, thinking they believed me already dead, I took a chance and crawled into some thicker bushes until I reached the bank of the stream [the Ysabel river]. I then made my way to a point probably 100 yards from the train. There I lay under the bank for half an hour and heard shoots by ones, twos [sic], and threes. I did not hear any sort of groans or yells or cries from our Americans…"

The bodies that arrived at Chihuahua City on the following day showed single bullet wounds to the forehead, except for the corpse of supervisor Charles Watson whose entire head had been blown off. A funeral train delivered the victims’ bodies to El Paso on January 13th. American mining companies immediately evacuated hundreds of their employees from the Northern Mexican mining centers of Madera, Cusihuriachic, and Parral. Settlements of Mormons in Chihuahua with mostly American expatriates refused to heed the call of evacuation and requested Carrancista troops for protection instead. 

The reaction to this massacre was predictable: Pablo López, who the Mexican passengers on the train had clearly identified as the leader of the raiding party, immediately became the obsession of outraged El Pasoans who wanted to hunt him down in Mexico and bring him to justice. El Paso police arrested Miguel Díaz Lombardo, the Villa Secretary of Foreign Affairs, who still professed loyalty to his chief, for “vagrancy” and expelled him from the city. Díaz Lombardo complied and went to Los Angeles. Tensions between Mexican and Anglo residents of El Paso ran so high that an altercation between two American soldiers and several Mexicans on Broadway in downtown El Paso caused a mob of eight hundred to one thousand men to challenge the police and U.S. cavalry detachments. Barely able to contain the angry crowd, Carrancista soldiers from the Ciudad Juarez garrison prepared to cross the international line in order to help their Mexican brethren in El Paso. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. General Pershing ordered all U.S. troops to return to Fort Bliss. The local sheriff arrested nineteen men while clearing the streets. The city government of El Paso cancelled a mass meeting planned for the next day, January 14th, as a result of the explosive mood on the street.

The El Paso Herald and other papers in cities along the border, as well as the entire Hearst press, clamored for action and decried the ineffectiveness of the Carranza administration in finding the perpetrators of the massacre. Conservative voices long opposed to President Wilson’s Mexico policy, such as former president Theodore Roosevelt, former ambassador to Mexico Henry Lane Wilson, Senators Fall, Borah, Poindexter, Gallinger, Works, and Lewis, joined in the interventionist chorus. German Ambassador Count Bernstorff reported to his superiors in Berlin, “It is significant to note about the debates [in the U. S. Senate] that none of the speeches excluded the possibility of military intervention.” Count Bernstorff also noted the potentially devastating political impact of this latest Mexican outrage on Wilson’s reelection campaign in 1916. “The Republicans all agreed [despite diverse opinions on what to do] in the condemnation of the policy of ‘watchful waiting…’” Despite the intense political and public pressure, Woodrow Wilson quickly announced that there would be no military intervention as a result of the slayings. A few weeks later, in Cleveland, Wilson explained, “The world is on fire and there is tinder everywhere. The sparks are liable to drop everywhere, and somewhere there may be material which we cannot prevent from bursting into flame. The whole influence of passion is abroad [sic] in the world, and it is not strange that men see red in such circumstances.”

Having disagreed with the president on military preparedness over the course of 1915, Secretary of War Lindley Garrison as well as Assistant Secretary of War Breckenridge offered their resignations on February 10th 1916. Both had been firmly on the side of military preparedness, seeking to strengthen the army and navy. They also openly favored American military intervention in Mexico. The shakeup at the War Department dealt a heavy blow to the administration. General Hugh Lenox Scott became the acting Secretary of War the next day. Count Bernstorff, a keen observer of the American political landscape, reported on a speech by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman William J. Stone, a Democrat from Missouri. The Wilson advocate retorted to the Republican accusations of presidential weakness, that it was the best proof of the “human” strength of President Wilson by refusing to take the country to war despite the fact that his personal interest, namely re-election, would be better served by intervention. Stone proposed to give Carranza one last chance to create order and concluded that no intervention would take place “unless there were further developments to force it.”

The “further developments” did not take long to materialize. Two Americans, a prospector and a ranch-hand, turned up murdered near Santa Isabel three days after the massacre. A group of Villistas crossed the international border at Hachita, New Mexico, on January 18th, about sixty miles northwest of Columbus. They raided a ranch and engaged a detachment of the 7th Cavalry Brigade. Also on the 18th, Villista raiders attacked a camp of the Alvarado Mining Company near Hidalgo de Parral, Chihuahua, and “killed the Chinese cook, wounded the [American] watchman and looted the company store.” The raids and the subsequent mass exodus of foreigners from Chihuahua all but stopped the important mining business in the region. Carranza’s government immediately felt the pinch from lost tax revenue and export duties. Desperately trying to impress the American public (and the U.S. government) with rigorous action, Carrancista commanders “eagerly” executed dozens of Villistas. While Carrancista officials claimed that these executions dealt with men guilty of the Santa Isabel murders, most had nothing to do with them. Repeated false reports of the arrest of Pancho Villa and Pablo López incurred the mockery of El Paso dailies, citing the inefficiency of Carranza’s pursuit of the rebels.   

Despite, or maybe because of the desperate attempts of the Carranza administration to prove its control over the border region, Villa retreated from public view, the headlines in the U.S., and the border during the month of February. Villa’s disappearance from center stage presented a welcome break for the Wilson administration. It was already dealing with the threat of a renewed German submarine campaign, scheduled to start on March 1st, 1916, and trying to regain its balance after the vicious attacks from the right, the left, and the press. However, those who thought that the guerilla commander had given up his quest for revenge would soon be disappointed. Villa had sent a letter to Emiliano Zapata asking him to join forces against the United States on January 8th 1916, two days before the massacre at Santa Ysabel. Villa wanted to provoke a military intervention. Pablo López encapsulated Villa’s rational. The executioner of Santa Isabel told a reporter on May 25th 1916, in an interview shortly before being executed,

"Don Pancho was convinced that the gringoes [sic] were too cowardly to fight us, or to try and win our country by force of arms. He said they would keep pitting one faction against another until we were all killed off, and our exhausted country would fall like a ripe pear into their eager hands… Don Pancho also told us that Carranza was selling our northern states to the gringoes [sic] to get money to keep himself in power. He said he wanted to make some attempt to get intervention from the gringoes [sic] before they were ready, and while we still had time to become a united nation… The Santa Ysabel affair partly satisfied my master’s desire for revenge, but it did not succeed in satisfying his other wishes. So we marched on Columbus – we invaded American soil." 

Pablo Lopez body after his execution in Chihuahua in May 1916

Pablo Lopez body after his execution in Chihuahua in May 1916

López’s recollection of Villa’s strategy that led to a seemingly quixotic attack on the United States is fascinating on several levels. As Felix Sommerfeld had primed Villa’s closest confidantes with “first-hand” witness information that Carranza had sold Mexico out to the United States, Villa had concluded that it was not a question of whether, but when, the United States would invade Mexico and take control of the land and resources Carranza had ceded for recognition. Rather than waiting for war, he decided to keep the element of surprise, while at the same time rallying Mexican popular support behind his efforts to save the fatherland.

Read the full account of how German agents tried to use the turmoil in Mexico to their ends in Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War.

 

 

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The Road to Columbus: The Enrile Mission to Berlin

A colorful revolutionary operator, Gonzalo C. Enrile, appeared in New York for meetings with Franz von Papen, Felix Sommerfeld and Felix Díaz in December 1915.

A colonel in the Mexican federal army before the revolution, Enrile had joined in the diplomatic service, stationed in Costa Rica and in Clifton, Arizona as Mexican consul. When the revolution formed, Enrile first supported the anti-reelection party of General Reyes. Under the first revolutionary administration of Francisco León De La Barra, Enrile went to Brussels as the Mexican consul. He joined Pascual Orozco as his treasurer in 1912, when the latter challenged the presidency of Francisco Madero. He was the key money connection between Orozco, the extremely wealthy Terrazas family, and the Díaz exile community in the United States which, to a large degree, financed Orozco’s uprising.

Felix Diaz, conspirator against President Madero, and supported by the Catholic Church during the Revolution.

Felix Diaz, conspirator against President Madero, and supported by the Catholic Church during the Revolution.

Enrile arrived in New York from Havana around December 19th. It is difficult to determine exactly who sent him. There was a large exile community in Cuba at the time. Pancho Villa’s wife and brother, Hipólito, settled there after the collapse of the Division of the North in mid-December 1915. Felix Díaz, who had operated out of Havana before he moved to New York, also had a large contingent of supporters there. In addition, at the time former president of Mexico Francisco León De La Barra lived at the Hotel Astor in New York, so did Felix Sommerfeld and Heinrich Albert. Enrile himself claimed to German authorities that he represented the factions of De La Barra, Felix Díaz, Zapata, and Villa.

Although historians have dismissed his claims as ludicrous, these factions all had a common enemy in Carranza, and a common conviction that the First Chief had sold out Mexico to the United States. Both Villa and Zapata expected a military showdown with the United States within a short time. B.I. agents along the border who interviewed a Villista commander in April 1916 confirmed the development, “With the death of Orozco [in the summer of 1915] and Huerta [in January 1916] there has been a fusion of parties recognizing as leader Felix Díaz who, it is said, put himself in accord with Zapata… To invade American territory, to murder American citizens, burn American cities and cause all the possible depredations in American territory in order to bring a conflict with this nation [U.S.].”

The U.S. government had hired one of Villa’s secretaries, Dario Silva, in the fall of 1915. Silva reported to the Bureau of Investigations under deep cover, using the codename, “Avlis,” and thoroughly documented the fact that the Catholic Church (who supported Felix Díaz, as well) “offered Villa three hundred thousand dollars for protection about September, 1915, and that they would continue to support him if he would take the side of the church.” It seems that money did indeed flow, as B.I. Agent Blanford reported from Los Angeles on March 22nd 1916. The B.I. had discovered a retired U.S. army captain in Monrovia, California who held $55,000 ($1.1 million in today’s value) for Villa. The source of the money remained obscure with the captain making the unrealistic claim that Villa had brought him the money personally.

There was also the suspicion that the German government was financing Villa in his attempt to engage the U.S. in a war. A special agent of the B.I. in Pittsburg sent a letter to B.I. Chief A. Bruce Bielaski on April 12th 1916, with the information from a Wall Street investor that Hans Tauscher had told him about a payment of $320,000 to Villa. This roughly matched the suspected financial support from the Catholic Church. Was the “Catholic Church” a cover and conduit for the German government? Was this the same money? 

Enrile, equipped with $1,000 in travel money from Felix Díaz, returned to Havana before shipping out to Europe. He likely conferred with members of the exile community there, which in the meantime, also included Hipólito Villa. Enrile traveled with the Mexico City lawyer Humberto Yslas to Spain on January 20th. Coincidentally, rumors abounded in New York and Havana that Villa had reached some sort of agreement with Felix Díaz.

George Carothers, the State Department envoy detailed to Villa until the Carranza recognition in October, wrote on March 3rd 1916, one week before the Columbus attack, “From very reliable source am informed that Villa has complete understanding with Felix Díaz, this understanding was reached last December [coinciding with Enrile’s conferences in New York] and my information comes from person who saw letter from Villa to Díaz accepting condition. I anticipate renewed Villa activity in very near future.” It seems plausible that Sommerfeld was Carothers’ “reliable” source and had indeed brought about the understanding between Díaz and Villa. Carothers’ ominous expectation of “Villa activity in very near future” reflected the general mindset among people familiar with developments in Mexico.

The Enrile delegation went to Santander, Spain. Enrile met with the German ambassador, Maximilian Prince Ratibor, showed him a letter of introduction from Franz von Papen, and asked for permission to continue to Germany. Historians have taken Ambassador Ratibor’s cool reception as an indication that Enrile’s mission had no import. However, as members of the Secret War Council in New York could attest to, the Imperial Foreign Service was diametrically opposed to provoking an American entry into the war. Felix Díaz agents had approached Ambassador Count Bernstorff with similar proposals in July 1915. According to the ambassador, “the group gathered around Felix Díaz is putting itself at our disposal should there be a war between the United States and Germany [as a result of the Lusitania sinking]… This issue is clearly highly sensitive, and I therefore told the man that a war between the United States and Germany appears out of the question to me.” Despite his misgivings, he sent the Mexican envoy to von Papen. This establishes a clear relationship between von Papen and the Díaz faction in line with the Enrile mission as early as the summer of 1915, when the Sommerfeld-Dernburg proposal had been adopted as military strategy. Opposing the Foreign Service, the German military did not fear an American provocation as long as distractions, domestic or along the Mexican border, could be created. Thus, it is not surprising that Ambassadors Ratibor and Bernstorff, as well as their superiors in Berlin, stymied the Mexicans’ efforts. After some back and forth, von Papen’s letter of introduction and possible confirmation by the military attaché that Enrile was legitimate, the Mexican delegation finally continued on to Berlin via Switzerland.

The proposal Enrile submitted on behalf of the “National Party” of Mexico “whose Vice-president I am” completely matched the information of American Bureau of Investigations agents who had interviewed a Villa commander earlier:

"The main proposal which I want to submit to the imperial government are the following: 

Mexico needs weapons and munitions in order to defeat the reign of terror of the Carranza administration, as well as enough capital to recreate the old federal army. In addition the country needs the support of a large power such as Germany to resist the United States. In return we offer:

1)                Installation of Mexican policies completely supportive of German policy, which is aimed against the interests of the United States.

2)                Granting of concessions to Germany of railroads, petroleum, mines, and commerce.

3)                Expulsion of American capital from the country through legal measures [i.e. expropriation].

4)                Creation of an army strong enough to attack the United States in a for Germany and Mexico favorable moment.

5)                Support of a separatist movement that already exists in several southern states of the United States: namely Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and the south of upper [U.S.] California.

6)                Creation and support of a political race revolution in Cuba, Puertorico [sic], and Haiti.

7)                Financial guarantees to Germany for weapons and munition in a for Germany agreeable form. The total sum, partly in cash, partly in weapons, munitions, and other war materials needed for an invasion of the United States amounts to 300 Million marks.

… any questions to be directed at Captain von Papen…" 

Enrile laid out the rational for using Mexico to prevent the United States from entering the battlefields of Europe in another, more elaborate memorandum submitted to Count Montgelas of the Foreign Office (received there on May 15th 1916). The first paragraphs recounted the likelihood of an eventual war between Germany and the United States as a result of the lopsided neutrality policy to the detriment of the Central Powers. Mexico was herself involved in a

"… heroic and only because of her financial weakness desperate fight against the assaults of North America… A continuation of the conflict between Mexico and the United States [since the attack on Columbus] seem inevitable; Germany will be able to preserve the peace with the United States so long as the latter is fully occupied with the Mexican differences. Thus it could be achieved that:

a)                The United States will be weakened enough, to become ineffectual for further [military] excursions.

b)                The current manufacturing of weapons and munitions will end as a result of the United States requiring the same for herself [note the exact same argument in the Dernburg-Sommerfeld proposal from May 1915, proposing to create an American military intervention].

c)                Mexico can save her existence as a result of the thus received support to defend herself.

Should it come to a war between the United States anyway, the support of a Mexican army easily expanding to 200,000 men could help bring the defeat of the United States on American soil along a 2,000 kilometer long border…

Signed Gonzalo C. Enrile, Colonel."

Considering the rationale of the Enrile memorandum, Villa did not just attack the United States in a quixotic, one-time effort. The alienated Mexican exile community, with Villa leading the effort, believed that a military intervention into the United States would create a boon of German support. Enrile’s proposal shows that, in his desperation, Villa clearly had aligned himself with factions of the old elite, especially that of Felix Díaz. Thus, Enrile’s claims of representing diverse factions such as Villa, Zapata, Díaz, and De La Barra, which hosts of analyses ridiculed, was true. The suspected existence of a secret agreement between Carranza and the Wilson administration, whether in writing or not, promoted the existential fear among Mexican exiles and Villa that only a confrontation with the United States could either sever the friendly relations of the U.S. with Carranza, or rally the majority of Mexicans behind a defender of the homeland in the persons of Pancho Villa or Felix Díaz.

The timing of the document, namely that it had clearly been drafted and agreed upon before Santa Ysabel and Columbus, is crucial. Thus, Villa’s attack on Columbus on March 9, 1916, was the beginning salvo of a much larger campaign that he was to undertake with the agreement and support of the other factions opposed to Carranza. Indeed, Villista incursions into the United States, small shoot-outs, and wholesale raids occurred several times between January and June 1916.

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ISIS Terrorism in the United States: Lesson from History?

On June 2, 1915 President Wilson issued an ultimatum to the revolutionary factions of war-torn Mexico. In so many words it stated: Get it together or we will do it for you. At the time there were two factions vying for supreme power in Mexico: Pancho Villa leading the Division of the North, at one time the largest armed force in Mexico, and the Constitutionalists with Venustiano Carranza as head and Alvaro Obregón as his most powerful commander. In the summer of 1915 it looked as if Carranza was winning and he hoped to be recognized as the de-facto president of Mexico. Wilson's proclamation put Carranza under pressure. What if the American president chose to support the other faction, a realistic scenario? 

The public face of the Plan de San Diego, Luis de la Rosa

The public face of the Plan de San Diego, Luis de la Rosa

The signers of the Plan de San Diego

The signers of the Plan de San Diego

In addition to a flurry of lobbying activity from both Mexican factions to win President Wilson's favor, “bands of outlaws” raided ranches throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley. As it turned out nearly one hundred years later (read The Plan de San Diego by Charles Harris and Louis Sadler), agents of the Carranza administration spread vicious propaganda, proclaiming a “Texas Revolution,” and called for an uprising of Mexican-Americans along the border to free themselves from the “shackles of Anglo supremacy.” 

The propaganda stemmed from the so-called Plan de San Diego, issued in the town of San Diego, Texas in January 1915. The Plan called for an uprising of the Mexican-American populations in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and California against the “Yankee tyranny.” Among other stipulations, the manifesto included passages that alarmed American officials who first saw a copy of the plan in the end of January 1915. Objective number 5 read: “It is strictly forbidden to hold prisoners … they shall be shot immediately without any pretext.” Number 6: “Every foreigner [i.e. any non-Chicano in the states to be liberated from the Yankee tyranny] who shall be found armed and cannot prove his right to carry arms, shall be summarily executed …” Number 7: “Every North American [sic] over sixteen years of age shall be put to death …” The first white American, an eighteen-year-old farmhand, died from the bullets of a Chicano raider in the end of July 1915. During July and August hundreds of attacks occurred.

Some of these attacks had nothing to do with the Revolución de Texas. Undoubtedly, people took advantage of the situation to live out their long-held bigoted views of their Mexican-American neighbors. The Texas Rangers and local police forces started raiding homes, arresting scores of Mexican and Mexican-Americans, all but a tiny fraction of mostly innocent residents of Texas. Stories of severe beatings and murder surrounded the roundup. The exact number of people the Texas Rangers murdered in those months is still disputed to this day. Young Mexican-Americans suddenly subscribed to the revolutionary ideology, joined the raiders, and armed themselves in the face of increasing violence from local law enforcement and non-Hispanic Texans. Violence rose in a spiral of attacks, murder, and harassment. Despite being short of personnel and hesitant to get involved, the U.S. army reluctantly reinforced the overwhelmed Texas Rangers and local law enforcement authorities in September. Raiders not only robbed banks, shops, and ranches but also blew up railroad bridges and cut telegraph lines. The Mexican Revolution finally seemed to be spilling over into U.S. territory in a deadly and disturbing way.

Texas Rangers with killed Mexican raiders. 

Texas Rangers with killed Mexican raiders. 

In the first days of October 1915, President Wilson finally announced his decision for Mexico: Pancho Villa, who had been decisively defeated on the battlefields of Mexico, was out. Venustiano Carranza now was the recognized "de-facto" president of Mexico. A strict arms embargo cut Villa's forces off over night. Carranzista troops moved through U.S. territory with permission to break the last resistance of Villa in Sonora with unexpected reinforcements. Within days of Carranza's recognition, and to the complete surprise of the United States, the raids in Texas stopped. General Funston reported to his superiors in Washington on October 13 that “it had been ten days since the last hostile shot had been fired.”

Historians Harris and Sadler concluded in their analysis of the uprising, “once Carranza withdrew his support, the insurrection in Texas collapsed like a punctured balloon… Viewing Mexican-Americans as a useful fifth column, Carranza skillfully played on their hopes and fears as a means of exerting pressure on the United States. When his [Carranza’s] policies shifted [and those of the United States], they were cynically abandoned… The Plan left a legacy of racial tension in south Texas that has endured to the present.”

So how does this relate to the ISIS terror? In 2003 the United States inserted itself into the balance of power in the Middle East, occupied Iraq, and deposed President Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. Within months U.S. officials fired the entire Iraqi army and banned Sunni Iraqis from holding office in the new government, controlled by Shi'a Iraqis. Heavily armed, highly trained, and without a political or economic chance, Iraqi Sunnis mounted a resistance campaign against the U.S. military and the Shi'a government in Bagdad. U.S. forces, in a bloody and costly campaign, drove the resistance from most of the country into neighboring Syria, where it reconstituted as what we know today as ISIS. 

Venustiano Carranza

Venustiano Carranza

In an even more indiscriminate campaign that involves air strikes from drones, several air forces, the West and Russia are now trying to dislodge ISIS from Syria and Iraq. So far, tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian civilians have died, millions are displaced, Europe gripped by a refugee crisis not seen since World War II. ISIS is recruiting among a desperate population. Violence has spread from the Middle East to Africa, Asia, Western Europe, and the United States. The high number of civilian deaths and destroyed property is breeding recruits for ISIS by the day among Muslim youths worldwide. 

Western countries are now being infiltrated by ISIS agents that not only have the task to commit terrorist acts but also to recruit among Muslim communities. The more brutality and indiscriminate law enforcement we exert on Muslim communities in our country, the more willing recruits ISIS will gain. Especially here in the United States, bomb-making materials can be ordered by mail, machine guns and military ordinance can be bought at Walmart. Why would anyone assume that communities that are scared and discriminated against in this country will not arm themselves, even if just for self-defense? That does not excuse violence but helps explain it. The San Bernardino shooter married an ISIS agent provocateur. He was an easy prey. Maybe he was discriminated against, harassed as a Muslim, bullied by his co-workers, maybe he was just very ignorant or scared. Carranza's agents along the Mexican-American border successfully preyed on a civilian population that was harassed, discriminated against, and scared. 

Donald Trump: Proposes to bomb the ****** out of ISIS, close mosques, allow profiling of middle eastern residents...

Donald Trump: Proposes to bomb the ****** out of ISIS, close mosques, allow profiling of middle eastern residents...

The only solution for an end to this terrorist violence lies in the lessons we could learn from 100 years ago: Iraqi Sunnis need their country back, maybe not all of Iraq, but the areas they traditionally lived in, including the oil revenue. Young Sunni Iraqis need a viable future. Now they are without a social, political or economic chance, no jobs, no welfare, and no public education. Just like the Carranza government, former Iraqi military leaders utilize ISIS ideology in order to force the West to give them this country and will cancel their support for ISIS as soon as they succeed, whether through war or negotiation. Not before. ISIS agents will disappear from the western countries overnight and the Muslim communities’ relationship with the rest of western populations will start to heal. The deeper the wounds, the longer the healing process will take, as historians Harris and Sadler aptly noted. It is all of our responsibility to prevent bigots and ideologues from spurting their ill-informed propaganda, which does nothing but hurt fellow citizens, desperate refugees, and members of a religion where fate is the driving force of human behavior. Most importantly, hate-speech plays right into the hands of ISIS recruiters.   

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Men of the Secret War Council: Bernhard Dernburg

Bernhard Dernburg had given up his illustrious banking career to become Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs in 1907. The heavyset, full-bearded figure, with clear blue eyes, attentive, with a friendly disposition, portrayed raw power, intelligence, and decisiveness. Wildly successful as an innovative and daring reorganizer, the German banker had risen to stardom in German political and financial circles, en par with “Albert Ballin, Walther Rathenau, Max Warburg, Carl Fürstenberg, and Maximilian Harden.” The German Emperor had chosen this powerful Jewish banker specifically for the colonial secretary assignment because “[] his distinguishing characteristic [was] Rücksichtslosigkeit, cold-blooded, unrelenting disregard for anything but his objective.”

Former Imperials Secretary of the Colonies and the highest ranking German official in the United States in 1915, Dr. Bernhard Dernburg.

Former Imperials Secretary of the Colonies and the highest ranking German official in the United States in 1915, Dr. Bernhard Dernburg.

Dernburg was looking for a new job in the summer of 1914. His political enemies, the legions of kowtowing Prussian bureaucrats the secretary had steamrolled throughout his career, had finally succeeded in having him fired from his cabinet post in 1910. It took the Emperor four years to find a suitable mission for his old friend who had used the forced break for extensive travels to Asia and touring on the lecture circuit.

The beginning of the Great War provided the opportunity. The former imperial secretary, the “Captain without a ship,” was to arrange for a large loan to the tune of $150 million in the United States and organize the sale of German war bonds on the American market. The proceeds were projected to finance the expected cost of purchases of American goods Germany needed in the war years. Nominally, Dernburg represented the German Red Cross in the United States, a designation causing great consternation when the American public found out that their donations financed the war effort instead of helping battlefield casualties. As a banker, Dernburg had been overseas on numerous occasions, and even spent his banking apprenticeship at Ladenburg, Thalmann and Co. in New York. He had also cultivated important contacts on Wall Street in his years as a banker, Colonial Secretary, and financier. He spoke excellent English. The imperial German government considered Dernburg an expert regarding the United States with the chutzpah to get things done. Unfortunately, much to the chagrin of Ambassador Count Bernstorff, diplomacy turned out not to be one of Dernburg’s strong points.

His first task was to raise a war loan for Germany in the United States, which he could not achieve in the face of a failing war effort in the fall of 1914. Dernburg then took over propaganda for Germany in the United States. Somewhat more successful, he gave interviews, wrote editorials and bombarded editors with prepared editorials. One of the targeted editors commented: “Our mail is dernburged until the postman can scarcely stagger up the front stoop with it. They are systematic those Germans. If you doubt it, send them your postoffice [sic] address.”  The sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 sank any chance of winning the hearts and minds of the American public. After a speech in Cleveland, defending the German atrocity which killed 129 Americans, Dernburg went back to Germany before the U.S. government would evict him.

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Men of the Secret War Council: Heinrich F. Albert

The designated head of the Secret War Council and the person officially assigned to purchase essential supplies in America arrived from Copenhagen on August 26th. The neutral Scandinavian America Line steamer SS Oskar II tied up at its New York pier two days after Count Bernstorff and Dernburg set foot on North American soil. Born on the 12th of February 1874 in Magdeburg, Germany, Heinrich Friedrich Albert came from a well-to-do household. His father, Friedrich, owned a private bank. Albert studied law after graduating high school with a baccalaureate. He passed his bar exam in 1901. His career took him through various jobs as a legal assistant in the Department of Interior. He rose through the ranks as an administrator specialized on economic questions, especially the role of cartels in the German economy. He married Ida Hausen in 1905 with whom he had three children. Although often called Dr. Albert, he probably never pursued any doctoral studies.

Heinrich F. Albert after World War I

Heinrich F. Albert after World War I

Albert received the rank and title of Geheimer Oberregierungsrat (Privy Chancellor) in 1911. Albert’s responsibilities reflected his preoccupation with details and bureaucratic process but he also had managerial qualities. His talent for details, combined with fluency in English, secured him a managerial role in setting up Germany’s exhibitions in the St. Louis and Brussels world fairs in 1904 and 1910, respectively. His responsibilities for the German exhibits brought the young lawyer in contact with officials from many realms of the Prussian economic and political power structure. Most notably, Albert worked directly under Clemens von Delbrück, who became Secretary of the Interior and Vice-Chancellor in 1909. Their working relationship was close enough that the Secretary actually expressed to Albert’s wife in 1915 that he “missed him.” Albert Ballin, the director of HAPAG also noticed Heinrich Albert and took a liking to this uncomplicated, meticulous, hardworking, yet decisive and results-oriented manager. Ballin invited Albert on a relaxing cruise through the Mediterranean in 1911, fully paid for by HAPAG.

The courtship worked. Albert signed on with HAPAG on April 1st 1914,. HAPAG director Arndt von Holtzendorff appointed the German lawyer to become the private assistant to Director Dr. Otto Ecker for an annual salary of six thousand German Marks (approximately $30,140 in today’s value before the war with deteriorating value thereafter). Ecker was slated to join HAPAG directors Albert Polis and Dr. Karl Buenz in New York that year. The contract ran for two years with the option of being extended. Albert had become a protégé of HAPAG director Albert Ballin.

No records have survived confirming the suspicion that between 1904 and 1914 Albert also worked undercover as a spy for Germany. However, it is very likely that certain members of the team including the German administrator who assembled the St. Louis exhibits in 1904 had been German agents entrusted with gathering and reporting intelligence. Albert seemed to transition seamlessly from a successful government career, in which he rose to privy counselor, to moving into the private sector with HAPAG, and then back to working for the German government in the United States. Despite the lack of archival evidence (which is not unusual with respect to intelligence officers), Albert’s career indicates that his true occupation was indeed in the intelligence sector. The various career moves were nothing but cover jobs for various intelligence missions. Certainly, one of the main responsibilities of his war assignment in New York was to establish command and control over secret service activities in the United States. Despite the British propaganda ridiculing German agents’ skills in the U.S. during the war, which several scholars picked up unchallenged, it is unlikely that the German government would have entrusted this important function in New York to an amateur without any previous experience.

 

Albert did not fit the stereotypical, overbearing, and brusque Prussian militarist, the likes of Franz von Papen, whom the American papers took greatest pleasure in mocking during the war. He also differed significantly from the suave, aristocratic, and arrogantly cultured version of the Prussian diplomat, the likes of Count Bernstorff and Prince Hatzfeld. The New York Sun reporter John Price Jones described the privy councilor in his 1917 book on the German Secret Service in America:  

He was a tall, slender man, wonderfully supple-looking in spite of the conventional frock coat and the dignified dress of a European business man [sic]. His clear, blue eyes, his smooth face, thoughtful and refined, his blonde hair, and his regular features suggested a man of thirty-eight, or even younger, though you would look for a middle-aged or older man as selected for a position requiring so many nice decisions. When you entered his room – and few persons gained admission – he would rise and bow low and most courteously. He spoke in a soft, melodious voice, was deliberate in the choice of his words and encouraged conversation rather than made it.

While he sketched Albert so aptly the reporter missed one important feature that characterized many a spymaster: He was also non-descript. No one noticed Albert. He was of average build, his dress fit the surroundings, his looks were average, and nothing about this man caused anyone but another secret agent to take note of him. One other characteristic would have endeared him to his nemesis at the Bureau of Investigation, Chief A. Bruce Bielaski: Frugality. When he returned to Germany and accounted for his expenditures and activities in the United States, he credited the Central Purchasing Agency “the difference of $1,177.86 […] with reservation of a later decision as to whether this surplus from the funds of the daily allowances belongs to me personally.” He had not used a sizable portion of his $20 daily expense allowance.

Read more in The Secret War Council: The German Fight Against the Entente in 1914

 

 

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Men of the Secret War Council: Karl Boy-Ed

Journalists and historians have portrayed Naval Commander Karl Boy-Ed as the alter ego of Franz von Papen – arrogant, militaristic, ruthless, unintelligent, and dishonest. Certainly, his work in the United States put the naval attaché into situations in which, by definition of his duties as chief of naval intelligence for the Western Hemisphere, he violated American laws and the diplomatic code of conduct. He followed orders of the Admiralty without regard to personal consequences for himself or his agents. His memoirs about the time in Washington indignantly titled Verschwörer? (Conspirator?) do not reveal an inkling of regret over his activities in the war or feeling for the victims of his schemes. Scores of his co-conspirators and supporters lost their reputations, livelihoods, and freedom. Boy-Ed simply moved on under the cloak of diplomatic immunity. However, to judge him solely through the eyes of the eventual victors would not do justice to this otherwise complex and sophisticated man, who grew up in a uniquely intellectual family, who liked to read and write, and who could not compensate the stresses of his wartime assignment.

Karl Boy-Ed, Naval Attache in the United States 1913 to 1915

Karl Boy-Ed, Naval Attache in the United States 1913 to 1915

Karl Boy-Ed saw the first light of day on September 14th 1872 in Lübeck, on the German Baltic seacoast as the oldest of three children. Karl’s father, Karl Johann Boy, was a merchant in town. Ida Ed, Karl’s mother was the daughter of the German parliamentarian, publisher, and newspaper editor Christoph Marquard Ed. Carl Johann Boy and his wife Ida Ed separated in 1878, and Ida subsequently moved to Berlin with her son. There she worked as a journalist and began writing novels. Ida’s estranged husband forced her and Karl to move back to Lübeck in 1880. She continued her career as a writer and published an amazing volume of seventy novels and essays. She supported the early career of Thomas Mann and corresponded regularly with his brother Heinrich, also a well-known literary figure. A major influence in the art and music scene in Lübeck, Ida supported the early careers of conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Hermann Abendroth. As a little boy, the future naval officer met and interacted with the frequent literary and musical visitors in the Boy-Ed household.

Karl joined the German navy at the age of nineteen. Rising through the ranks to become lieutenant commander, he served on dozens of naval assignments. He witnessed the American occupation of the Philippines in 1898.  Shortly before the Boxer war, Kaiser Wilhelm’s brother, Prince Heinrich von Preussen, sent the navy lieutenant on a secret mission to assess the “value of the Chinese navy.” Boy-Ed considered his report a major accomplishment as a writer. In view of the hostilities that broke out with China a year later, Boy-Ed’s “research” certainly was timely. Boy-Ed served on the staff of Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz between 1906 and 1909 and took over the Nachrichtenabteilung N (office of naval intelligence) from Paul von Hintze during this period.  After three years in Berlin, Boy-Ed served as first officer on the SMS Deutschland and commander of the naval tender, Hela. By then promoted to lieutenant commander, he sailed on the SMS Preussen in 1911, the flagship of the second squadron.

His navy career took Boy-Ed to the United States as naval attaché responsible for the United States and Mexico in the beginning of 1912. He traveled to Jamaica, the Panama Canal Zone, and Mexico before he took over his assigned post in Washington D.C. in 1913. Well-read and intellectual, yet funny, smart, and cosmopolitan, he enjoyed a great deal of popularity and respect among American naval officials before the war.

The single Boy-Ed began dating the daughter of an Episcopal Bishop from Pennsylvania, Virginia Mackay Smith in 1914. The couple married in Germany in 1921.

Despite appearances, not all was well with the German navy officer. Boy-Ed suffered from phagomania, a constant desire to eat. The disorder required tremendous self-discipline in social circumstances. Another, more severe disorder he suffered was insomnia. Boy-Ed could not get a good night’s sleep. On the one hand the handicap increased his productivity dramatically, but on the other it wore on his health. The stresses of his New York assignment and, possibly, an unexpressed sense of regret for the consequences of his actions, took a heavy toll on him physically and mentally. He admitted in an autobiographic sketch that, as a result of his wartime assignment, his nerves suffered a permanent “crack.”

Naval Attaché Boy-Ed started clandestine operations immediately at the outbreak of the war.

Read more in The Secret War on the United States in 1915.

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Men of the Secret War Council: Franz von Papen

The Prussian Junker cut quite a dashing figure. Tall, handsome, and thin, the officer made a splash in New York’s social scene. When von Papen was assigned to become Military Attache in the United States and Mexico during World War I, his wife remained in Germany,

Franz von Papen around 1914

Franz von Papen around 1914

Franz von Papen remains a highly controversial figure to this day, despised by some as a ruthless war criminal, considered a man of limited intelligence by others, and a statesman by few. The son of Friedrich von Papen zu Koeningen and Anna Laura von Steffens grew up on a large estate in Werl in the province of Westphalia. Keeping with tradition among noble families, the first son inherited the estate, the second joined the military. At the tender age of twelve, the Papens sent their son to several boarding military academies. After graduation from Gymnasium, the young aristocrat joined the Düsseldorf Cavalry School as a lieutenant in the elite 5th Uhlan Regiment. An expert horseman, the cavalry sent him to the Hanover Cavalry Riding School in 1902 through which he represented the German army in international competitions.

Von Papen acquired a good knowledge of the English language during this time period, since he spent considerable time competing in Great Britain. He married Martha von Boch-Gelbau in 1905 with whom he fathered five children. Professionally, the ambitious young cavalry officer advanced his career when the army admitted him to the General Staff School in Berlin in 1908. The now thirty-four year-old Papen completed his training in March of 1913, and briefly joined the Great General Staff of the Army as a captain. The army assigned the staff officer to the embassies of Mexico and Washington as military attaché in December of that year. He arrived in the United States in the spring of 1914. Subsequently, he spent several months in Mexico and witnessed the American occupation of Veracruz in April 1914. World War I broke out while von Papen was still in Mexico. In order to take charge of his wartime assignment he rushed back to Washington in the beginning of August.

A progress report dated March 17th 1915 proves that von Papen did become active immediately after the sabotage order arrived in the United States...

Read more in The Secret War on the United States in 1915

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Sommerfeld Arrested

Felix Sommerfeld, the future spymaster of Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa, and the German government, came to the United States the first time in February 1898 as an eighteen year-old. Felix’s destination was his brother Hermann’s residence on 27th Street in Brooklyn, New York. Hans Zimmermann, who would reenter Sommerfeld’s life in a very embarrassing way in 1915, was Hermann’s landlord and managed the apartments. Sommerfeld claimed in the immigration documents that he was “born in the USA,” maybe to circumvent immigration issues. He also listed his occupation as “Electrician.”

The New York Times front page, October 28, 1915

The New York Times front page, October 28, 1915

 Two months after his arrival, on April 25, the Spanish-American war broke out. Within a week of the declaration of war, rather than pursuing his family’s plans to get an education, Sommerfeld joined the 12th Infantry Regiment in New York as a private in Company K on May 2, 1898. As he signed up, without any apparent reason other than maybe higher pay, he lied about his age, claiming to the recruiter that he was twenty-two rather than eighteen years old. Another enthusiastic youngster from Iowa lied about his age in order to qualify and enlisted in 1898. Just like Sommerfeld, fifteen-year-old Emil Holmdahl followed the call of President McKinley for 125,000 volunteers. Both signed up for two years’ service. Holmdahl later became a famous soldier-of-fortune in the Mexican Revolution and one of Sommerfeld’s daring rebel rousers on the U.S.-Mexican border. While Holmdahl shipped to the Philippines, Sommerfeld received basic training in Lexington, Kentucky. In the middle of September 1898, the German adventurer changed his mind and took leave. Rather than returning to his unit, the now nineteen year-old German deserted and returned to his bother Hermann in New York. On October 1, 1898 the army listed him AWOL. He later claimed to have received a letter from his mother notifying him that father Isidor had taken ill.

Lacking the funds to pay for his fare back to Germany, Sommerfeld stole $275 from his brother’s landlord, paid for the steamer to Antwerp and came home. Why he stole that much is unknown. The ticket to Germany cost less than $50. He possibly had to bribe someone to issue a passport to him since he was listed as a deserter. Felix’ relationship with his oldest brother was injured after the 1898 trip. It is likely that Hermann had a hard time forgiving his brother for “borrowing” $275 from his landlord, a good portion of the man’s annual income. Hermann died on the August 13, 1901, on a ship sailing to New York of unknown causes. Sommerfeld did not return to America until 1902 thus never having the chance to reconcile with his older brother.

In October 1915, by a fluke, it all came out. The swindled apartment manager saw Sommerfeld’s name in a newspaper report in connection with his deposition to the Grand Jury, which had indicted Franz Rintelen, the notorious German sabotage agent. Hans Zimmermann had waited a full eighteen years to get his revenge. Based on his tip, the police arrested Sommerfeld in the Hotel Astor on the warrant issued in 1898 and hauled him off to jail. The newspapers in New York covered the arrest in embarrassing detail since the German was quite a well-known figure in town in 1915. After posting bail, it took a crack lawyer a few months to have the charge dismissed for lack of evidence.

In the eyes of Sommerfeld the old warrant was a Bureau of Investigation plot. Sommerfeld’s Uncle Ed Rosenbaum commented on the episode and told federal agents in 1916: “Felix Sommerfeld was arrested in New York City on an old charge for the purpose of detaining him while they went through his room and searched for his private papers…they were not smart enough for Felix.” Sensing what was most likely the real reason for Sommerfeld’s arrest, the German Naval Attaché Boy-Ed even tried to get the German embassy to exert pressure on Zimmermann. “Since the possibility exists that …Zimmermann made his accusations against Sommerfeld with best intentions (because he also erroneously thought that Sommerfeld was an enemy of the German cause), I would like to inquire with the Imperial General Consul whether this private Zimmermann could not be approached tentatively and inconspicuously to suppress this disruptive and for the German reputation unfavorable affair.”

The German Consul, who had a less than cordial relationship with the Naval Attaché responded, “[S]ince your Excellency declare that German interests are touched by this case, I assume that over there [the Naval Department] more is known about Sommerfeld… I therefore subserviently suggest informing me in detail about the facts of the case.” Of course, the Naval Attaché had no intention to brief the Consul or, for that matter, anyone in the Foreign Department on Sommerfeld’s status as a German spy. Whether he informed the Consul or not, Sommerfeld had been “outed” in New York’s media. To quiet things down and limit the damage, Sommerfeld paid Zimmermann off first with $1,000, then $500 then another $500 ($42,000 in today’s value). Not only did these “gifts” cost him seven times of what he stole, Zimmermann now proceeded to milk Sommerfeld for what he was worth. After all, by this time Sommerfeld was undeniably rich, lived in a suite in the Hotel Astor, and as a German in the midst of spy panic, he was a ripe target for blackmail. There is no record of how much Zimmermann knew about Sommerfeld’s work for the German government. Sommerfeld had no choice but to keep Zimmermann quiet. He helped his former landlord move to a comfortable house on Long Island, gave him furniture, and a stipend of $75 ($1,575 in today’s value) per month. When he tried to stop payment in 1917, Zimmermann and at least one co-conspirator sent blackmail letters to Sommerfeld threatening with reopening the case of theft and getting it into the papers. While it already was a huge embarrassment for Sommerfeld to be in the papers in 1915, it obviously was the last thing he needed after America’s declaration of war against Germany in 1917 to face another arrest or any publicity on the matter.

Read more about the incredible life of Felix A. Sommerfeld in In Plain Sight, Felix A. Sommerfeld, Spymaster in Mexico and Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War.

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The Road to Columbus: A Secret Pact Between Carranza and Wilson?

Agua Prieta had been a setup. The U.S. government had done everything in its power, short of engaging its own military, in an unprecedented move to make sure Villa would be defeated. According the special U.S. envoy George C. Carothers, who had been with Villa for the past years, the Mexican general appeared now “irresponsible and dangerous. He was subject to violent fits of temper and was capable of any extreme.”

Leon Canova, Head of the Latin American Desk in the State Department

Leon Canova, Head of the Latin American Desk in the State Department

Villa issued a damning proclamation against Carranza on November 9, 1915, with the gist that he had sold out the revolution and his country to the United States. Villa had become convinced that a secret pact between Carranza and the Wilson administration had precipitated his demise. He charged that Carranza had agreed to eight concessions: 1. Amnesty for all political prisoners; 2. U.S. rights over Magdalena Bay, Tehuantepec, and an oil zone for 99 years; 3. Mexico’s Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Finance ministries would be filled with candidates supported by Washington; 4. All paper money issued by the revolution would be consolidated; 5. All just claims by foreigners for damages caused by the revolution would be paid and all confiscated property returned; 6. The Mexican National Railways would be controlled by the governing board in New York until the debts to this board were repaid; 7. The United States through Wall Street bankers, would grant a $500 million loan; 8. Pablo Gonzalez would be named provisional president and would call for elections within six months. Historian Friedrich Katz, the premier scholar on the topic of Pancho Villa, researched the existence of this secret agreement thoroughly. He found evidence that Carranza agreed to examine U.S. claims for damages and that Speyer and Company had offered to support a new Mexican government with $500 million. The historian still concluded, “There is no evidence that Carranza ever signed such a pact.”

However, there was much more evidence than historian Katz and others cited bolstering the judgment that most of these eight points were indeed part of a secret understanding, even if it was never formally put to paper. Pancho Villa did have ample reason to believe that this agreement existed. John R. Silliman, the U.S. consul in Saltillo, approached the revolutionary chieftain in December of 1914, and offered recognition of his government for “the use of lower [sic] California [by the American navy], Magdalena Bay [as a naval station], and the Tampico oil fields.” Villa declined. The American lawyer, James M. Keedy, approached Villa with a message from Leon Canova, the head of the Mexican desk in the State Department in September 1915, after Villa had conceded to General Scott whatever the State Department required to recognize his faction. Canova demanded the power to name Villa’s cabinet in case of recognition. As it turned out, Keedy was a German secret service agent, whom Sommerfeld likely had dispatched. Sommerfeld, whose mission was to create an American military intervention, thus maintained his distance from the plans of a conspiratorial faction within the State Department, while remaining intricately involved.

General Scott’s papers are incomplete insofar as to the total list of demands as a prerequisite to recognition he presented to Villa in August. It could well have contained items such as the use of Magdalena Bay and American control over the Mexican railways. Undoubtedly, there were more attempts to wrest territorial and financial concessions from Villa as he grew more desperate in the fall of 1915. Villa cited such attempts to his confidantes, for example to the Chihuahuan Secretary of State, Silvestre Terrazas. However, Villa had clearly rejected any such proposals. Given the knowledge of the State Department’s desires for territorial and financial concessions one cannot blame Villa and his supporters, including General Scott, for wondering what Carranza had offered that got him such prompt recognition. Roque Gonzales Garza, one of Villa’s closest advisers and negotiator in Washington and New York, wrote to his Mexican chief on October 29, “… you have always been miserably deceived… I do not entirely know what has been decided concretely, but I am convinced that something very dark has been agreed on; for I have no other explanation for the sudden change in U.S. policy against our group and in favor of Carranza.”

The New York Times reported that the new Board of Directors of the National Railways of Mexico had been elected on the day after Gonzales Garza wrote to Villa that there must have been foul play. Wrangling over control of the railroads had driven American support away from Porfirio Díaz to Francisco Madero, and now to Venustiano Carranza. It was stacked with favorites of Charles Flint and Henry Clay Pierce. Alberto Pani remained the head of the board. He had been installed through Sherburne Hopkins for Henry Clay Pierce in 1914. Carranza clearly was cooperating in this for the U.S. critical industry and point six of Villa’s charges. Carranza released some political prisoners and immediately started to return confiscated properties. He allowed that American financiers stacked the National Railways’ Board in their favor. The First Chief also immediately began eliminating all fiat money and issued a new currency in the spring of 1916. Fascinatingly, although maybe just a fluke, the El Paso Herald printed right below the article reporting on the new Board of Directors for the Mexican railways that Carranza had not signed any secret agreement: “Denies That U.S. Imposed Any Condition on Carranza.” He might not have signed anything concrete. However, his actions subsequent to the U.S. recognition in October tell a story much in line with Villa’s accusations. Whether formally committed to paper or through informal channels, Villa had ample reasons to believe that Carranza had offered concessions to the United States that put Mexican sovereignty into question, especially if advisers close to him including Felix Sommerfeld told him so.

The avalanche of reports in the American press of Villa’s rage against the United States and President Wilson, in particular, precipitated the last known letter from Felix Sommerfeld to Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison in defense of Pancho Villa. Sommerfeld wrote on November 12, 1915, “I am enclosing a clipping from today’s N.Y. American with an alleged interview of one of the Hearst reporters [John W. Roberts] with General Villa… I do wish to protest most emphatically against these intentionally and willfully false statements created in the mind of an irresponsible reporter who might have received instructions from headquarters to write such stuff in order to conform with [sic] the political tendency of the paper.” Roberts had written under the heading “Whiskers Tie Mexico’s Fate, Writes Villa… Tell Mr. Wilson that he is not a democrat. Tell him I say he prefers whiskers [i.e. Venustiano Carranza] to valor, egotism to personal honor, shamelessness to the welfare of the Mexican people.”

Read the whole story of German involvement in Mexico in World War I in Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War.

 

 

 

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The Road to Columbus: Villa's Sonora Campaign

Pancho Villa, in a desperate effort to change status quo of the superiority of Carranza’s military in Mexico, prepared a new campaign into Sonora in the end of September. He believed that occupying the two most important states along the Mexican-American border, Chihuahua and Sonora, would tilt the decision of the American government to his favor. Throughout the revolution, whoever occupied Chihuahua and Sonora could not be easily dislodged. The American border, even under an arms embargo, provided ample possibilities for smuggling of arms, munitions, and supplies. If the U.S. government’s intention was pacification of Mexico, Villa’s control over the all-important border crossings and customs stations could not be ignored. Sonora also harbored far more resources to sustain a large army since it had not been fought over as intensively as Chihuahua.

Pancho Villa and Rodolfo Fierro

Pancho Villa and Rodolfo Fierro

The northwestern state contained fewer than three thousand Carrancista troops when Villa made his decision. The Villista governor, Maytorena, held most of the state with his forces made up of fierce Yaqui Indian fighters. Twelve thousand strong, a far cry from the proud army of forty thousand men of just a few months earlier, Villa’s Division of the North split forces. Approximately ten thousand soldiers set out across the Sierra Madre Occidental in the middle of October with only a few hundred left behind to defend positions in Chihuahua. Villa’s demoralized and spent army units wound their way through the valleys and passes of an extremely hostile environment without having the benefit of rail transportation through the mountains. In order to save food and increase speed the army left their soldaderas, who typically provided food, medical care, and logistical support, behind. Villa also could not take the cattle herds, which in the past had provided milk and food. Ox carts and donkey trains carried artillery and supplies through the unforgiving terrain.

The executioner, Rodolfo Fierro, himself one of the most brutal of Villa’s henchmen and a member of his inner-most circle, died on October 14, 1915 on the way across the Sierra Madre. He fell off his horse and drowned in a sinkhole with his soldiers idly standing by, watching the demise of their hated commander. Fierro had personally killed thousands of prisoners of war.

Villa’s first target was Agua Prieta, the Sonoran hamlet across Douglas, Arizona, a city of 20,000 souls with important smelters serving the mining industry. While Villa’s main force crossed the Sierra Madres, Villista General Urbalejo with a force of seven hundred took the border hamlet of Naco, Sonora. Another Villista detachment under General Beltrán took the copper city of Cananea. Beltrán and Urbalejo continued to march east, chasing the dislodged Carrancista troops commanded by Plutarco Elías Calles to the Agua Prieta garrison. The Villista forces in western Sonora combined with Villa’s main body of troops at the outskirts of Agua Prieta on October 30. Sommerfeld’s employee and head of the Villa munitions supply organization in El Paso, Sam Dreben, arrived in Douglas on the same day. He told State Department envoy George C. Carothers, “There was considerable ammunition being smuggled in the vicinity of El Paso.” These munitions seem to have come from stocks of the failed Huerta insurgency that Dreben now shipped to Villa, but that failed to reach him in time. 

The tide had really turned against Villa. However, Dreben’s presence in Douglas, and the continued efforts to supply Villa with munitions, underlines the fact that Felix Sommerfeld remained one of the few supporters the Mexican revolutionary chief had left. Sommerfeld claimed to American authorities in 1918 that he had ceased all relations with Villa after Carranza had been recognized. That was a lie. He supported Villa throughout 1915 and 1916 to the detriment of the United States.

While Villa’s progress in the north seemed on schedule, Carrancista units under General Manuel M. Diéguez took the important port city of Guaymas in southern Sonora on October 13. Reinforcing his army from the sea, he marched north with twelve thousand troops. Hermosillo, the state capital in the center of Sonora, fell on October 20. The remaining Villista forces retreated northward, blocking the railroad for their Carrancista pursuers. The Carrancista forces dug in at Agua Prieta and, constructed long trenches. Machine gun emplacements and barbed wire secured the perimeter of the town. The mayor of Douglas desperately tried to get the U.S. army to prevent the impending battle on the American side of the border, fearing for the safety of his residents. Brigadier General Thomas F. Davis commanded the U.S. army forces securing the border. Davis had “three regiments of infantry, a regiment of field artillery, and several troops of cavalry” in a force of roughly six thousand men at his disposal.

Villa surveyed the battlefield. His scouts had estimated the opposing force to be somewhere between twelve hundred and three thousand. Despite the heavy defenses, minefields, barbed wire, and entrenchments, the Mexican general decided on a “softening” with artillery, then a frontal night attack with cavalry. He had used this strategy many times before. However, General Calles had learned his lesson. He was inspired by the European war, where trench warfare, minefields, and electrically charged barbed wire secured perimeters that were covered with machine gun emplacements and defended battle lines even against an overwhelming force. Villa only knew one way to attack, usually without even retaining reserves. 

The Villista attack turned into a rout. The main charge around midnight failed to overrun the Carrancista trenches. Villa originally claimed, and stubbornly maintained, that U.S. forces provided the battlefield illumination. While the claim is still in debate, the power to run the lights as well as the electrification of the perimeter barbed wire, which claimed a few of his soldiers’ lives, most definitely came from the American side. The result was disastrous for Villa as the frontal cavalry attack ran up against the deadly machine gun positions. Villa ordered a total of five assaults on the enemy defenses and was repelled every time. Virtually no one managed to breach the trenches. Though Villa knew that there were more soldiers on the Carrancista side than he had originally expected, he did not adjust his strategy. General Calles had more than 7,500 men at his disposal, which he effectively brought to bear on Villa’s attacking force to the latter’s detriment. Also surprising for Villa was how well his opponents were armed. Calles had twenty-two cannon and sixty-five machine guns, a deadly long- and medium-range defense covering the entire depth of the battlefield. Train cars loaded with ammunition to re-supply the defenders waited on the American side of the border with U.S. soldiers providing security. Bodies, hundreds of dead, and even more wounded without the famous hospital train to care for them, littered the battlefield. He had failed, not only because of the formidable preparations and fortifications of the Agua Prieta garrison, but also because he had fought without a discernible strategy: No utilization of the element of surprise, no attack plan utilizing even the faintest hint of creativity, and the inexcusable lack of logistical support. It is questionable if under these circumstances an opposing force of three thousand or even less, which would have been the defending force without American aid, would not have been able to hold the town. Dislodging a well dug-in force, backed to the American border as a supply base, was virtually impossible, as General Maytorena had experienced in Naco ten months earlier.

Some historians and contemporary news reports have made much of the claim that Villa learned of the large reinforcements of the garrison only after the battle. As a matter of fact, on October 23, the U.S. government had allowed 4,500 reinforcements for Agua Prieta to travel via railroad through American territory. According to Hearst reporter John W. Roberts, Villa was completely unaware and surprised. “He saw me [on the American side of the border fence] and walked up quickly. ‘My God, Roberts, what happened?’… I told him in as few words possible [and] explained the situation. Villa said nothing… Just then, General [Frederick] Funston… rode up with a number of officers. I told Villa who he was. Villa merely stared. Funston dismounted and came forward. ‘Is this General Villa?’ he asked me, I nodded and introduced the two chiefs. Each stood in their own country and they shook hands over the barbed-wire fence.” John W. Roberts was a reporter prone to exaggeration. Villa had expelled him “as an obnoxious individual” from his territory because he published an interview that he had never given. The same seemed to be the case here. American newspapers reported on the transfer of Mexican soldiers through U.S. territory to Agua Prieta on October 25. The Villista governor of Sonora, Carlos Randall, officially launched a protest with the American State Department on October 30. That same day, Villa met up with the Yaqui contingents under General Urbalejo, who would have known all about this issue. According to historian Carl Cole who interviewed veterans of the battle, Villa had learned of the reinforcements for Agua Prieta that came via U.S. railroads two days before the battle. He simply failed to make adequate adjustments to his attack plan. It is also unlikely that it took an American reporter to introduce Villa to General Funston. If the general had wanted to see Villa, a U.S. army liaison officer would have contacted Villa’s staff or the other way around, as Funston indeed claimed.

Despite the disastrous attack strategy that cost Villa the last chance to re-kindle his military prowess in northern Mexico, the fact remained that the United States had actively intervened in the revolution. The Bureau of Investigations agent Steve Pinckney reported on November 2, “There is much ammunition in Douglas for General Calles, all of it being guarded by the local [U.S.] military authorities… The local railroad officials, express companies, and officers are working in harmony with the US authorities.” The U.S. Treasury Department reported to the Department of State on the day before the battle, October 30, 1915, “Collectors at Laredo, Texas and Nogales, Arizona instructed to facilitate movement of 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition for Carranza government to Agua Prieta.” Villa not only suffered from the arms embargo that gave Carranza advantage, but U.S. customs in El Paso also stopped all cattle imports from Chihuahua to the U.S. for “examination of brands.” Zach Lamar Cobb, the U.S. customs collector in El Paso, added coal to his list of items to be held up at the border.

Cobb was determined to do what he could to aid in the demise of the División Del Norte, despite serious threats from Villa’s people in the U.S. and instructions from Secretary McAdoo to refrain from his activities. Cobb, despite his official employment in the Treasury Department, was an agent of the State Department’s Intelligence Service. As such, he clearly executed the wishes of Robert Lansing, destroying what were the last remaining avenues for Villa to supply himself, and raise cash for munitions. Pancho Villa’s reaction to the aid his opponents had received from the U.S. government was remarkably measured on the surface. Known for violent outbursts of rage and emotionally charged decisions, the embattled Mexican general now weighed his options carefully. Villa initially talked openly about attacking the American side of the border. In response, General Funston moved his forces away from the border the day after the battle should Villa decide on shelling the town with his artillery. However, facing a combined American and Carrancista force of close to 14,000 troops, Villa only vented his anger but refrained from committing his remaining troops to a suicide mission. Instead, he took four Americans hostage and threatened to execute them. He released them a few days later. Villa retreated to Naco, Sonora, on November 4th, where his troops received a reprieve from the fight. His troops raided and pillaged Cananea on the way. The full weight of Carranza’s recognition as the de facto Mexican president seemed to finally sink in while resting at Naco. Agua Prieta had been a setup. The U.S. government had done everything in its power, short of engaging its own military, in an unprecedented move to make sure Villa would be defeated. According the special U.S. envoy George C. Carothers, who had been with Villa for the past years, the Mexican general appeared now “irresponsible and dangerous. He was subject to violent fits of temper and was capable of any extreme.”

After resting his troops in Naco and re-supplying, Villa decided to march on Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora. He attacked the defending force under General Diéguez head-on with close to six thousand troops. The once invincible general had to order retreat on November 22, again without the element of surprise, and with a force still reeling from the disastrous defeat at Agua Prieta. This time, the Yaqui Indian contingents defected to Carranza rather than volunteering as cannon fodder for the hapless Villa. In disarray, the Villistas made for the U.S. border city of Nogales. However, the American government had again allowed Carrancista troops to move through U.S. territory.  Closing the border to prevent the Villa garrison from supplying itself, Nogales fell without much of a fight on November 25. Villa retreated into the Sierra Madre, however, not before engaging the 10th Cavalry and the 12th U.S. Infantry with sniper-fire, killing one U.S. soldier and wounding two. Bands of infuriated Villista cavalry rode up and down the border fence in Nogales challenging the U.S. military to come across for a fight. U.S. troops picked off several Mexican attackers but did not enter Mexican territory. Unable to fault himself for the tragic losses on the battlefield, Villa vented his frustration on the rural populations of Sonora. He personally commanded and participated in a horrible massacre, killing over sixty villagers in San Pedro de las Cuevas. The revolutionary chieftain crossed the mountains back into Chihuahua with less than a third of his original army to defend his last stronghold against the advancing armies of General Alvaro Obregón.

Read the rest of the story in Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War.

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