The circumstances of Russian election meddling in 2016 that brought Donald J. Trump into the White House with less than 100,000 votes tipping the electoral college show remarkable similarities to the “neutral” period of the United States 100 years ago.
When World War I started on August 1, 1914, the United States and Germany had a harmonious relationship. Trade between the countries had been increasing since the turn of the century. German chemical giants such as Bayer had invested in US production facilities. German lenses, chemicals, dye, and machines permeated American supply chains, American wood, copper, silver, and tungsten, fertilizers, as well as finished goods such as singer sewing machines filled the merchant marine steamers on their way back to Europe. Huge immigration from Germany to the United States between the 1860s and early 1900s solidly established German culture in the US, singing and drinking clubs, German language papers, German style beer were established in every major town.
When Germany invaded Belgium in September 1914 and committed well popularized atrocities, exaggerated in the pro-British press in the US, the relationship quickly soured. The German government received reports from its intelligence organization, the Secret War Council® in New York, that it was quickly losing the propaganda competition against Britain. Moreover, the British sea blockade and censorship of all transatlantic communication caused the United States to become an important supplier of war materiel to the Allies. Germany decided to counteract these developments. The actions that followed almost read like a playbook for Russian infiltration of the American political and economic life before and since 2016.
In 1914, the United States, despite declaring neutrality in the European war decided to allow J.P. Morgan to provide huge loans to the Allies and thus supply Germany’s enemies with American weapons, munitions and other war materiel. This decision against German interests led to serious repercussions. The situation today, the international relationship between the Russian Federation and the United States, is not much different. When the Soviet Union ended its grip on Eastern Europe in 1989, the understanding was that NATO would either incorporate Russia and expand into the former Soviet republics or leave the former Soviet zone of influence alone. While Russia went through significant economic and political upheaval in the 1990s, this understanding was broken. In 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined the organization, amid much debate within the organization and Russian opposition. Ten years later seven more Central and Eastern European countries joined NATO: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Albania, Croatia and Slovenia. The most recent member state to join NATO was Montenegro in 2017. All this happened on the borders of the Russian Federation. When Ukraine and Georgia decided to apply for NATO and EU membership, Russia went to war. Not only militarily. Russian agents infiltrated western political parties, started psychological operations, and devastating cyber-attacks. The war between Moscow and the West has been in full swing since 2009.
Germany’s infiltration and attacks on the United States in 1914 and 1915 centered on three items: Propaganda, disrupting the production of war materials, and infiltration of the political system. German agents started a press office that funneled German-friendly articles to newspaper editors. In today’s world such a strategy would attempt to influence outlets such as FOX News, Breitbart and InfoWars. However, German agents not only influenced the opposition press. Articles and interviews appeared in pro-British (or at least not pro-German) papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post. Initially very successful was the disruption of America’s war industry. German agents managed to buy up all available smokeless powder for one year. They also bought all available hydraulic presses needed for the production of cartridges. Other agents bought and shipped munitions to Mexico and India to take them off the market for the Allies. While there is no indication that Russia is sabotaging the US economy, the introduction of psychological warfare is more palpable. In 1914 and 1915, German agents first sabotaged British shipments of war materials by organizing labor strikes and smuggling incendiary bombs into the holds of steamers. The labor strikes in the rust belt grew to such a fervor in the summer of 1915 that the Wilson administration had to get involved in mediation. Thank German funding of these strikes when you enjoy today’s 40 hour work week. Germans did not stop there. Agents infiltrated and financed the peace movement that favored a complete arms embargo for all combatants. German agents used people like William J. Bryan (secretary of state) as well as union leaders, senators, and local politicians to push their agenda. While suspicions existed, the detailed facts of the Secret war Council®’s work remained a mystery for 100 years.
Without question, the arrest of Mariia Butina shows the existence of Russian agents infiltrating political realms of the United States. Just like the German agent Felix A. Sommerfeld openly living in New York, openly associating with officials of the Wilson administration, even being asked on occasion to intercede in Mexico on its behalf, Butina operated in plain sight (the name of my first book on Felix Sommerfeld). Sommerfeld boasted to have tea with the American Secretary of War when passing through Washington. He passed information to the Secretary of the Interior, knew the head of the Bureau of Investigations (precursor of the FBI), and helped the American Chief of the Army, Hugh L. Scott, negotiate with Pancho Villa.
Photos exist with Butina interacting with leaders of the NRA, a former presidential candidate, and select republican operatives. If the parallels to World War I should give guidance, Russia’s psy-ops team includes agents in the Christian Right movement, White Supremacist groups, and influential people in the political public discourse. One of the most significant German agents in World War I was the chemist Walter T. Scheele and his former boss, the CEO of Bayer Corporation, Hugo Schweitzer. Both moved to the United States in the 1890s and remained on the payroll of Germany’s military as sleeper agents until activation in August 1914. Scheele became Germany’s bombmaker. His brilliant inventions of incendiary bombs sank or destroyed more than 75 freighters, blew up the New York harbor, uncountable factories and logistics installations. Moreover, his activities caused a mass panic in 1915 which bolstered powerful voices supporting the implementation of an arms embargo against Europe.
Today, we are witnessing the results of a successful psychological operation that likely is at the heart of only 40% of Republicans seeing any value in NATO membership, broad support for economic penalties against the EU, and a general hostility to immigration. All these developments are in line with Russian goals of disrupting the global international order, weakening the American political system, and negatively affecting bilateral relations of the United States with allies and economic partners. If World War I can be a guide, there will be years of investigations into the mechanics of the infiltration of a hostile foreign power into the American political and economic system. However, history also tells us that vigilance is key to protecting the American way of life. Agents such as Butina or Felix Sommerfeld are just the few operating in plain sight, the tip of a likely very significant iceberg. Read my award winning World War I trilogy, the Secret War Council, the Secret War on the United States in 1915, and Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War. You will be amazed how these books relate to today!