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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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The Road to Columbus: The Pan-American Conference Rubber Stamp

The week before the Pan-American Conference would render its final decision on the recognition of a new Mexican government, Villa’s most powerful representatives met with Robert Lansing on October 5. Although Sommerfeld does not appear to have joined Manuel Bonilla, Roque González Garza, and Enrique Llorente, he undoubtedly maintained close contact with the group and helped prepare the meeting. The Secretary heard the delegation’s arguments, their professions of imminent military successes, of being the only guarantors of constitutional order, and their claim of having support from the majority of Mexico’s factions. The Mexican negotiators emerged discouraged. There was nothing they could have said to change the decision of the American president. Pancho Villa himself spoke to reporters on October 8, ominously threatening that recognition of Carranza’s faction “would bring revolution after revolution, and revolution in its worst forms. Existing conditions in Mexico are bad enough, but if Carranza be recognized, those conditions would become tenfold worse…” 

Chief of the Army, Major General Hugh Lenox Scott at his desk.

Chief of the Army, Major General Hugh Lenox Scott at his desk.

If anyone should doubt as to who would be initiating those revolutions, he vowed: “I am here in Juarez, but this􀀃􀂈􀂃􀂔􀀃􀂃􀂕􀀃􀀌􀀃􀂕􀂊􀂃􀂎􀂎􀀃􀂉􀂑􀀃􀂐􀂑􀂔􀂖􀂊 is as far as I shall go north... Here I shall fight and here I shall live..." The conference reconvened on October 9 as expected. Robert Lansing told reporters after a three-hour session at the State Department, “The conference, after careful consideration of the facts,
have [sic] found that the Carranza party is the only party possessing the essentials for recognition as the de facto government of Mexico, and they have so reported to their respective Governments.” The 􀂏􀂇􀂐􀂖U.S. government officially extended an invitation to the "􀀃de facto Government of Mexico, of which General Venustiano Carranza is the Chief Executive,” on October 19, to exchange diplomatic representatives.

American battleships raised the Mexican flag and fired a twenty-one-gun-salute in the harbor of Veracruz. General Scott, clearly disgusted, commented, “The recognition of Carranza had the effect of solidifying the power of the man who had rewarded us with kicks on every occasion… I did what I could to prevent this but was not powerful enough. I had never been put in such a position in my life.” Despite the many claims that Villa was wholly unaware of these developments, the American decision did not surprise the revolutionary chieftain. He knew that realities on the ground, his losses to the Carrancista forces, had precipitated the American decision.

What he had not anticipated, however, were the swift actions with which the Wilson administration now pursued his complete annihilation. The State Department issued an embargo for arms and munitions on October 20 against any faction in Mexico other than the recognized government. Returning to the old days of having to smuggle arms and munitions across the border, Villa suffered another devastating blow. It would not be the last.

General Scott, as well as most Mexicans who had supported the unity government idea, could not understand how the Wilson administration could have reversed its policies from June 2, when President Wilson appealed to all factions to come to the table or else – to October, when Carranza became the de facto president of Mexico. President Wilson “did not reveal his intentions then [when General Scott met him in the end of August] but he recognized Carranza in a few months... I never knew why. I asked officers of the State Department, junior to the secretary [likely Leon Canova], why such a thing had been done and they said they did not know… That information has always made the President’s step even more of a mystery to
me.” President Wilson never explained his motivations, even to his closest associates. Like most mysteries, this one created a host of speculative conspiracy theories but that also would have grave consequences for the United States. What did the Carranza faction concede to the American government to sway the President’s opinion?

It did not take much for a manipulating mind such as Sommerfeld’s to reinforce the suspicion that Wilson’s decision was the result of secret concessions from the First Chief Carranza. Even General Scott suspected that something unseemly must have happened. Typical for Sommerfeld’s modus operandi, he did not leave any overt fingerprints on the campaign that convinced Pancho Villa beyond doubt that such a secret agreement indeed existed. Instead, he used Miguel Díaz Lombardo, Manuel Bonilla, Roque Gonzales Garza, Felipe Ángeles, and others close to Villa to convey the message.

Read Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War or hang on until the next step on the Road to Columbus is revealed.

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The Road to Columbus: The Plan de San Diego

Despite Carranza’s victories on the battlefield in the summer of 1915, the situation in Mexico seemed to deteriorate by the day. Reports from Mexico City filled newspaper columns with tales of starvation, looting, and chaos. The Mexican-American border was on fire, as well. The deteriorating situation at the border stemmed from what became known as the 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.

First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army, Venustiano Carranza

First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army, Venustiano Carranza

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…”

While local sheriffs carefully watched the mood among the Mexican-American population, not much happened as a result of the plan until June 1915. “Bands of outlaws” raided ranches throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley within weeks of President Wilson putting pressure on the Mexican revolutionary factions in his ultimatum of June 2, 1915. Propaganda, spread through agents of the Carranza administration, proclaimed a “Texas Revolution,” an uprising that called for Mexican-Americans freeing themselves from the “shackles of Anglo supremacy.” The first American, an eighteen-year-old farmhand, died from the bullets of a Chicano raider in the end of July. During July and August hundreds of attacks occurred, some of which had nothing to do with the revolución de Texas but undoubtedly, people took advantage of the situation to settle old scores. 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.

Some American newspapers quickly blamed the disturbances on German agitation. These suspicions seem to have pressured Secretary Lansing and possibly also President Woodrow Wilson to find a solution for stabilizing Mexico as quickly as possible. Lansing wrote in his diary, “Germany does not want one faction dominant in Mexico; therefore we must recognize one faction as dominant in Mexico… It comes down to this: our possible relations with Germany must be our first consideration; and all our intercourse with Mexico must be regulated accordingly.” While German archives do not reveal any obvious financing or organizing of the border troubles, there are indications that the Secret War Council, and Heinrich Albert in particular, could have been involved. Maurice Leon, a member of the French embassy in Washington who handled financial and legal affairs for the Allies, suggested to the U.S. State Department two days after Villa’s attack on Columbus, New Mexico in the spring of 1916, “heavy sales of German marks on Wall Street ‘seem to point to the possibility that Villa and his band not only received a part of their proceeds, but also that the great part is to be utilized to induce Mexican ‘leaders’ to oppose by force [U.S.] operations to suppress border outlawry.”

This allegation is partly correct. The head of the Secret War Council™, Heinrich Albert, and the German government, indeed, engaged in heavy trading to prop up the devalued German Mark. However, although not impossible, there is no indication in Albert’s financial records that any of these funds went to Mexico. Historians Harris and Sadler’s research, as well, shows that on the surface the unrest was conceived, organized, and financed through the Carranza administration in Mexico. However, there are links to German agents that have been overlooked. German agents had infiltrated the Carranza administration. While Sommerfeld organized munitions supplies for Villa at the same time that he supported the efforts of the U.S. State Department to wrest important concessions from the revolutionary chieftain, German agent Arnoldo Krumm-Heller toured South Texas on behalf of Carranza (and the German Kaiser) to incite the Mexican-American population into revolt. 

The Pan-American Conference reconvened on September 18, 1915. The decision to recognize Carranza framed the assembly. As a member of the administration, General Scott knew firsthand that President Wilson had adjusted his views despite the “pig-headedness” of the victorious Mexican leader, Carranza. A week before the conference and the day after Villa’s forces lost control over the important railroad hub of Torreón and retreated north, General Scott, alarmed by Villa’s deteriorating negotiation power, rallied the pro-Villa faction. “I told Bonilla and Llorente to get busy now to combat this Carranza propaganda here [that Villa was beaten] and regain the standing for Villa that has been lost… I told [Felix] Sommerfeld the same thing and urged him to do it. …I do not know what we can do further as I have done everything I can think of.”

Scott’s dread was well justified. Two days before the Pan-American delegates reconvened on September 15, the State Department ordered all U.S. consuls out of Mexico. Americans residing in Sonora and Chihuahua received word to get out, as well. British and French officials also scurried to safety on the American side of the border. No one really knew what to expect from Villa once he realized that he had been outfoxed. Although Secretary Lansing had notified the press that Carranza would be recognized, some members of the Pan-American Conference, possibly through the last-minute efforts of Díaz Lombardo, Gonzalez Garza, Bonilla, Llorente, and Sommerfeld, refused to give their agreement. Rather, the group’s announcement on September 18 proclaimed that whichever faction was deemed militarily stronger by the middle of October would be recognized as the de facto government.

Meanwhile, the unrest on the border took on crisis proportions. Carrancista irregulars engaged soldiers of the 12th Cavalry in Brownsville, Texas, on August 3rd, leaving one soldier dead and two wounded. Mexican raiders engaged the 3rd Cavalry and Texas Rangers again in Brownsville on September 6 in a shootout that left two Mexicans dead. U.S. authorities involved in battling the uprising and arresting the organizers behind the revolución de Texas left no stone unturned. Dozens of Mexican-Americans faced arrest and detention. Reprisals by the local Anglo population and the Texas Rangers raised the specter of a race war. As the battle for diplomatic recognition intensified in Washington and New York, so did the war in Texas. By the time the raids ended in October, six Anglos and approximately three hundred Mexicans and Mexican-Americans had died. 

The raids ended as suddenly as they had started. They stopped on October 1, 1915, shortly after the American government announced that it would recognize Carranza’s faction as the legitimate government of Mexico. 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.” Carranza once more resurrected the Plan de San Diego in the summer of 1916, when, indeed, the United States and Mexico marched to the brink of war. And again, this time only partially achieving his objectives, Carranza shut down the unrest.

Read more on the Mexican Front in the Great War.

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The Road to Columbus: And the Winner is... Carranza!

In the summer of 1915, President Wilson's special envoy to Mexico, Paul Fuller and the State Department's head of the Latin-American desk, Leon Canova, with the backing of important American business leaders, as well as other members of the Wilson cabinet, dangled recognition in front of the by-then ever more desperate Pancho Villa. Unsurprisingly, Villa grasped the last straw of his waning power in Mexico and reiterated his long held determination to not ever run for president of Mexico. He announced that he was willing to go into exile if Carranza would do the same. General Scott, the main negotiator because of his close relationship with Villa, described the meetings in August 1915 in his memoirs:

Woodrow Wilson, as depicted by Madame Tussaud's

Woodrow Wilson, as depicted by Madame Tussaud's

A scheme was worked out with Mr. James Garfield, one-time secretary of the interior [sic] in the Roosevelt cabinet, and with Mr. [Nelson] Rhoades of Los Angeles that gave great promise of stabilizing conditions in Mexico, provided our State Department would give its consent. The plan was primarily upon the fact that a member of Madero’s cabinet [Vázquez Tagle, Secretary of Justice], then living quietly in Mexico City with the respect of all parties, had never resigned after the deaths of President Madero and Vice-President Suarez, and the succession made him the de jure president of Mexico. It was proposed that both the Villista and Carrancista factions be brought to agree that he be recognized as the de facto as well as de jure president with a bi-partisan cabinet, half Carrancista and half Villista, and that our State Department immediately stabilize this composite government by recognition and allow it to import arms and munitions of war with which to maintain itself. Villa agreed to this, and it remained to secure the adhesion of one or two men – General Obregón or General Pablo Gonzales. The power of the Carrancistas rested upon those two men… This plan, of course, would leave him [Carranza] out in the cold, where he belonged.

The plan had one serious flaw: Carranza, the de facto main military and political power in Mexico in July 1915, simply refused to have any part of it.  His generals were not willing to risk a confrontation with the revolutionary leader as they finished off the last remnants of Villa’s army. General Scott blamed the State Department, which during the entire month of July “would not say either yes or no” to his request to see Alvaro Obregon and Pablo Gonzales, the two Carrancista generals, behind the First Chief’s back. Scott complained, “I almost had a nervous prostration, feeling like a dog tied up in the back yard, longing for my collar to be taken off.” While the State Department “procrastinated” over a decision on whether or not to risk alienating Venustiano Carranza, the most powerful man in Mexico, by going behind his back, Villa’s military situation went from bad to worse. Simultaneously, closely following the power shift in Mexico and behind the scenes, President Wilson reined in his new Secretary of State, Secretary Lansing. The President thus stopped the effort to artificially create a solution for Mexico other than the one that was organically evolving that summer.

This fundamental shift in American policy towards Mexico happened in the isolation of the Oval Office without any public pronouncements or consultations with anyone within or outside the U.S. government. Secretary Lansing still clearly supported a solution without Carranza in the beginning of JulyHe informed President Wilson as late as August 6, “in the discussions [in the Pan-American Conference] I found that there was unanimous agreement that Carranza was impossible…” The people involved in finding a solution for Mexico, State Department officials, special envoys, Mexican exiles, and the ranking members of the Pan-American Conference meeting in New York in the beginning of August, had no reason to doubt that a unity government for Mexico was the ultimate goal. The New York Times reported on August 2 under the headline “Wilson Peace Plan Ready for Mexico,” that the American president would “recognize some member of the Madero cabinet approved by factions.” The article mentioned in detail the candidate the Villa faction was promoting and people like Scott, Canova, Lane, and Garrison were supporting: Manuel Vázquez Tagle.

Vázquez Tagle had been a member of the Madero administration. Enthusiastically, The New York Times published a full page spread on the former Secretary of Justice under the title, “Vasquez [sic] Tagle, Mexico’s Hope.” The hope was not just Mexico’s but as the article explained, Vázquez Tagle was against confiscation, “a stanch [sic] defender of the law,” “Villa could not for one moment control him,” and, most importantly, he had the “backing of President Wilson.” He could be expected to respect foreign property. The former Secretary of Justice also had never resigned after Huerta’s bloody coup d’état in 1913. While other members of Madero’s cabinet never resigned either, Vázquez Tagle had remained in Mexico and thus was constitutionally next in line for the Mexican presidency.

However, in reality, Wilson had already settled on a Carranza presidency. President Wilson instructed Lansing on August 11 not to insist on the elimination of Carranza in the next meeting of the Pan-American Conference. That was all it took to reverse the entire foreign policy towards Mexico. Only a week after informing President Wilson that Carranza was “impossible,” Robert Lansing suddenly entertained a de facto recognition of the First Chief. This change of heart not only baffled Paul Fuller and General Scott, the latter wondering why the State Department would not move on his proposals, but also all members of the group supporting a solution that included the Villa faction, most notably the Villista negotiators Miguel Díaz  Lombardo, Roque Gonzalez Garza, Felix Sommerfeld, and Manuel Bonilla.

President Wilson’s thoughts in this crucial time are not well documented. Wrought by a bout of depression, he retreated to his summer house in Cornish, New Hampshire with his family from the end of July until the beginning of the Pan-American Conference on August 4, ostensibly to contemplate a solution for the Mexican problem. It appeared to most observers that he sincerely tried to look at all options. He conferred periodically with Robert Lansing; however, he did not disclose his thought process to him. The President clearly arrived at a different conclusion while at Cornish, all the while keeping Robert Lansing and his various envoys in the belief that a unity government for Mexico remained the stated foreign policy goal. As a result of the extraordinary interest the President took in Mexican matters in the summer of 1915, he arrived at the conclusion that a unity government excluding the man who led the strongest faction in the Revolution and who had gained the upper hand against Villa was doomed to fail. By the beginning of the Pan-American Conference on August 4, Wilson had made up his mind to recognize the victorious Carranza as the next president of Mexico. Despite his change of heart, Wilson continued to allow the Pan-American Conference to proceed under the false assumption of finding a unity solution. He also made no effort to stop a multitude of interest groups lobbying his administration. In the end, all of them felt deceived, most notably Pancho Villa and the people that had supported him.

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The Road to Columbus: The Canova Connection

William Jennings Bryan resigned as Secretary of State on June 9, 1915 over his frustration with Wilson’s foreign policy towards Germany, which he believed would eventually drag the United States into the European conflict. Robert Lansing came in his place, the Counselor of the State Department who had advised the President on a stricter course towards Germany. However, Lansing also believed that the continuation of the Mexican Revolution posed a national security risk for the United States. His main adviser on Mexico was Leon Canova, the recently appointed head of the Latin American desk at the State Department.

Leon Canova (4th from left) and Alvaro Obregon (3rd from left) in Mexico City, October 1913

Leon Canova (4th from left) and Alvaro Obregon (3rd from left) in Mexico City, October 1913

Canova belonged to a group of American businessmen and exiled Mexican politicians who believed that in the end only an American military intervention or a faction of Mexicans with the full financial and political support of the United States could end the ongoing civil strife south of the border. This group included such men as the former Mexican Foreign Secretary Manuel Calero, Felix Díaz and Aureliano Blanquet – two of the conspirators who overthrew President Madero in 1913 – and Villa’s main military adviser, as well as the former secretary of war for Carranza, Felipe Ángeles. Manuel Esteva, the Mexican consul in New York under Porfirio Díaz and Victoriano Huerta, who Carranza fired in the fall of 1914, Andrew Meloy, an American railroad investor, and Frederico Stallforth all belonged to this group. Sherburne Hopkins, the powerful lobbyist for Madero, Villa, and Carranza in Washington D.C., and Felix Sommerfeld at least shared the group’s ideas on resolving the Mexican civil war. Leon Canova, with the silent blessing of Robert Lansing, became the group’s spokesman in the State Department.

Leon Canova had received his job because of Pancho Villa. The American special envoy had smuggled the former federal police commander of Mexico City, Eduardo Iturbide, to the United States in his special railcar on Christmas 1914. Pancho Villa saw Canova, and even briefly chatted with him, at the train station in Mexico CityAfter the train left, Villa’s secret service reported to him that Iturbide had been observed with Canova and that he had disappeared. Villa put together what had occurred and, after throwing one of his well-known fits, issued a call for Iturbide’s arrest. A search party finally entered the rail compartment in Chihuahua. Iturbide was gone! He had exited the train just south of Aguascalientes hours before the first attempt to search the compartment, and was making his way up to the American border on foot. Canova had so misled Iturbide’s pursuers by refusing a search, that they lost his trail. The train with the American consul arrived in El Paso on Christmas day 1914, while Iturbide relied on his skills and sheer luck to make it across the border to safety. Villa was furious and declared Canova a persona-non-grata. Not being allowed back to Mexico, he received a promotion to heading the Latin American desk in the State Department. Villa now had a dead enemy in a very powerful position in Washington.

Canova submitted a proposal to Secretary of State Bryan in May 1915, in which he claimed that Villa was ready to lay down his arms. A newly configured faction would be able to absorb his forces and pacify Mexico. Canova claimed to be able to enlist former federal officers (represented by Blanquet, Mondragón, and Angeles), rally the support of the Catholic Church (represented in the group through Felix Díaz and Eduardo Iturbide), receive financial support from the American oil and railroad industry (represented by Andrew Meloy, Charles Douglas, and Sherburne Hopkins), and mount this new opposition force quickly and efficiently. Mexico would be pacified by eliminating both Carranza and Villa.

The plan Canova submitted to Secretary Bryan and a plan Andrew Meloy, the railroad investor from New York pursued are almost identical. After his arrest in England as a German spy, Meloy described his ideas for pacifying Mexico to the American Ambassador Walter Hines Page. Meloy’s statement matched Canova’s plan almost verbatim. The American businessman claimed that through German naval intelligence agents Felix A. Sommerfeld and Frederico Stallforth, he had assurances that Villa would step aside, that he had broad support from different factions in Mexico, members of the old federal army, the Catholic Church, and important American financiers and industrialists. Even the information Meloy gave with respect to Carranza’s refusal to be part of any unity government closely matched the known information about the Pan American conference between July 15 and August 8.

Further linking the Canova plan to Meloy, the arrested businessman perplexed the American ambassador in London by saying repeatedly, “Mr. Charles A. Douglas of Washington, whom he describes as ‘Counselor to the Department of State for Latin American affairs.’” That title belonged to Leon Canova. The embarrassment for Canova to have been involved in a scheme, in which German agents also participated, grew in the months to come. The head of the Bureau of Citizenship in the State Department told Canova in September 1915, “It appears to me that Meloy is engaged in a scheme of considerable proportions to foment a new revolutionary movement in Mexico, with German aid.”

Meloy pursued his plan in good faith with all the Mexican factions throughout the spring of 1915, with the sympathetic knowledge of members of the State Department. The Mexican factions all waited for whatever advantage they could gain from the scheme. Meanwhile, German agents plotted to use Meloy’s idea as a smokescreen for introducing more strife into the border region than already existed. The American businessman traveled three times back and forth to Europe and met with expatriates in his office in New York. Boy-Ed wrote to Heinrich Albert in July, 1915, “I have repeatedly conferred with him [Meloy] and have received the impression that he is an honorable, trustworthy man. If he has a commercial failing, according to my observation, it is this one, that he is entirely too confiding and is easily made the victim of tricky businessmen.” 

A significant piece of the German strategy to create a war between the United States and Mexico fell into place in October of 1915. Woodrow Wilson decided to extend diplomatic recognition to Venustiano Carranza as a result of the declining fortunes of Pancho Villa. The decision was based, in part, on the intent to reduce tensions in Mexico and to strengthen the dominant faction in the civil war. The head of the Latin American desk in the State Department, Villa’s sworn enemy Leon Canova, had much to do with swaying the president to change policy towards Mexico. The American government underestimated the extent of Pancho Villa’s fury in the process, and did not count on the manipulative genius of Felix Sommerfeld to take advantage of this new situation.

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Camino a Columbus: el rastro del dinero y Franklin Olin

La incapacidad de Villa para pagar por las municiones que desesperadamente necesitaba para la División del Norte ocasionó oportunidad para que agentes alemanes pudieran apoyar ambos lados de la guerra civil en México y así extenderla. Sommerfeld, el proveedor principal de armas a Pancho Villa en los EEUU y agente de inteligencia naval alemán, comenzó el primero de abril de 1915 a cumplir un contrato por 420.000 dólares enviando 12 millones de cartuchos de 7mm que había contratado por parte de Villa en febrero de 1915. El general mexicano había proveído paga y señal de 50.000 dólares. Solamente aparece en la cuenta de Lázaro de La Garza, quien llevaba control de todos los fondos de la cadena de provisiones de Villa, el depósito inicial por este pedido. Esto adelanta la pregunta, ¿Quién pagó por el balance de este contrato? Se produjo el pedido entero, se pagó, y se envió a Villa entre abril y agosto de 1915. El precio por mil cartuchos era sorprendentemente bajo a 35 dólares, mientras que la Remington y la Winchester cobraban 50 dólares por el mismo producto, y la Peters Cartridge Company entre 55 y 60 dólares.

El cartucho Mauser ordinario de 7mm de 1915

El cartucho Mauser ordinario de 7mm de 1915

Sommerfeld concluyó otro contrato de armamentos el 14 de mayo de 1915, esta vez por 15 millones de cartuchos al mismo precio que su contrato anterior, 35 dólares por mil, valuado a 525.000 dólares (11 millones de dólares en valor actual). Hay varios aspectos sorprendentes del arreglo de Sommerfeld. Primero, el precio que Sommerfeld sacó por las municiones era, otra vez, por lo menos treinta por ciento menos que el valor de mercado. ¿Cómo se las arregló para sacar tan buena ganga? Segundo, maniobró ocupar la capacidad entera de la fábrica de Franklin W. Olin en Alton, Illinois durante el año 1915 con el segundo pedido. Sommerfeld ahora estaba enganchado por 945.000 dólares (20 millones de dólares en valor actual), mientras que las fortunas de Villa declinaban, y el dinero fíat villista rápidamente perdía valor. Mientras tanto, él manejaba estos enormes contratos como alemán durante un gran tinglado de espionaje. El agente alemán estaba dispuesto a ganarse dos por ciento en comisiones, 18.900 mil dólares si se cumpliesen ambos contratos (400.000 dólares en valor actual).

Pocos días después de haber cerrado el segundo contrato por los 15 millones de cartuchos, el 17 de mayo de 1915, le entregó el contrato a Lázaro De La Garza. De La Garza dispuso la paga y señal de 65.000 dólares, la cual fue a la Western Cartridge Company. El dinero vino del los tíos de Francisco Madero en Nueva York, seguramente ganancias de las ventas de bienes del sector que Villa controlaba en el norte de México, como lingotes, ganado, goma, o algodón. De La Garza también ingresó un deposito “en B[an]co St. Louis” en mayo por 30.000 dólares. Esta cantidad no aparece en la cuenta de Sommerfeld.

El cabeza del Concilio de Guerra Secreto, Heinrich F. Albert, retiró exactamente dicha cantidad de su cuenta en el St. Louis Union Bank. Desde luego, no solamente Albert, sino Sommerfeld también mantuvo cuentas en el St. Louis Union Bank, las cuales estaban unidas. Suponiendo que Sommerfeld pagó por ambos contratos, su cuenta en el St. Louis Union Bank mostraba trámites de más o menos 400.000 dólares, tal como su cuenta en el Mississippi Valley Trust. Solamente 145.000 dólares de los 945.000 dólares en total aparecieron en los registros de De La Garza. El gobierno francés compró a valor de 265.000 dólares. La facción carrancista se quedó con 150.000 dólares de municiones. La Western Cartridge Company devolvió 65.000 dólares. Restantes quedan 385.000 dólares, casi la misma suma de los tramites de la Mississippi Valley Trust de Sommerfeld y lo que el gobierno estadounidense alega haber procedido de Heinrich Albert (381.000 dólares). Los 385.000 dólares también coinciden con los fondos que se cree restaron en varias cuentas de Albert en Milwaukee, Cleveland, St. Louis, y Chicago.

Otra gran pregunta que también se avecina: ¿Por qué Franklin W. Olin le vendería municiones a Sommerfeld a treinta por ciento o más bajo el precio de mercado? Aún si Olin hubiera simpatizado con la causa alemana hasta el punto en que se hubieran negado a producir municiones para la Entente, hubiera podido exigir precio aumentado de las varias facciones mexicanas, inclusive las de Villa. Por cierto, las cuentas de De La Garza muestran pagos a la Peters Cartridge Company por las mismas municiones en mayo de 1915 al precio de 55 dólares por mil. La respuesta a este acertijo podría haberse revelado en la primavera de 1916 cuando, de la nada, y con poca fanfarria, F. W. Olin fundó una fábrica de casquillos de latón ubicada al lado de la Western Cartridge Company en Alton, Illinois.  

La cuenta de Sommerfeld en la Mississippi Valley Trust Company muestra una suma de 381.000 dólares que fluye por ella entre abril y diciembre de 1915

La cuenta de Sommerfeld en la Mississippi Valley Trust Company muestra una suma de 381.000 dólares que fluye por ella entre abril y diciembre de 1915

Olin era hombre de negocios quien creía en la integración vertical. Fundó su negocio en 1892 cuando fundó la Equitable Powder Manufacturing Company. Los detonadores de la empresa sirvieron más que nada a la industria de carbón en el medio este. Amplió la producción para incluir municiones de armas pequeñas en 1898, cambiando el nombre a la Western Cartridge Company. También fundó un empresa que fabricaba blancos ese mismo año para servir mejor sus clientes de rifles para la caza y el deporte. La Western Cartridge Company había logrado forjarse un buen pedazo del mercado de municiones de los EEUU dominado por los grandes fabricantes de armas como la Winchester Rifle Company y la Remington tempranamente entre los trece y diecinueve. La fábrica prosperó desde el estallido de la revolución mexicana en 1910. El éxito resultó del hecho que la Western estaba dispuesta a producir cartuchos Mauser de 7mm que se gastaban en México. A través de Sommerfeld, La Western Cartridge Company les había vendido millones de cajas de municiones a Madero, Carranza, y a Villa en años transcurridos.

Al presidente Olin y a su hijo, John, les gustaba hacer negocio con Sommerfeld. Su influencia a través de los años anteriores había alisado el transporte de envíos cruzando la frontera internacional. Cuando el gobierno estadounidense impuso varios embargos, Sommerfeld llamó a sus amigos en altas posiciones, tales como Lindley Garrison, Secretario de Guerra, o William Jennings Bryan, Secretario de Estado, o Hugh Lenox Scott, General encargado de tropas de frontera y después Jefe de Estado Mayor del Presidente Wilson. Sommerfeld también tenía palabra. Estaba muy bien organizado, comprendía las especificaciones debidamente, tenía contactos de clientes y, lo más importante, siempre pagaba a tiempo.

El negociante sagaz le devoraba la impaciencia cuando Sommerfeld le pidió un presupuesto a Olin por los dos pedidos de municiones más grandes en la historia de la empresa. Un pedido de ese orden le permitiría a Olin instalar su propia moledora de latón para producir los estuches de cartuchos. Sin embargo, ¿de dónde adquirir las imprescindibles prensas para tal fabricación? He aquí donde aparecen Carl Heyden y la Bridgeport Projectile Company.  El Concilio Secreto de Guerra había firmado contratos en la primavera de 1915, dominando la capacidad entera de prensas hidráulicas en los Estados Unidos. ¿De dónde sacó Olin este equipo que le permitió abrir una moledora de latón en la primavera de 1916? La diferencia entre el precio de venta y el precio de mercado sobre veintisiete millones de cartuchos contratados por Sommerfeld salieron a  aproximadamente 405.000 dólares (8.5 millones de dólares en valor actual). Heyden hizo cuenta del precio de prensas hidráulicas que había pedido, la producción de las cuales se realizó: “417.550 dólares por prensas que se realizaron.” ¡Qué tremenda casualidad! Si resulta cierto, el gobierno alemán apoyó los planes de Olin para fundar una moledora de latón con el entendido que éste no produciría para la Entente; por consiguiente, los contratos con Sommerfeld resultaron a un precio bastante menos que el valor de mercado. La nueva fábrica le resultaría beneficiado a Olin. Salió de la guerra con tremenda fuerza financiera. En 1931 compró a la Winchester. Actualmente, la Olin Industries es una de las empresas más grandes en los Estados Unidos, en parte gracias a Franklin Olin y las conexiones de su buen amigo, Félix A. Sommerfeld.

Esta serie de blog trazará los acontecimientos que llevaron al ataque de Villa sobre Columbus, Nuevo México el 9 de marzo de 1916 en etapas semanales. El 12 de marzo, daré un discurso en Columbus para la ocasión de la Conmemoración Centenaria del saqueo y revelaré como le hicieron creer a Villa que atacar a los Estados Unidos sería buena idea. Si se impacienta y prefiere no esperar ocho meses para conocer los hechos tras Columbus, adquiera ahora Félix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War.  

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Lazaro De La Garza and the Great Heist

Lazaro De La Garza ran Pancho Villa's Department of the Hacienda before he moved to New York to handle munitions supplies for the Division of North. Together with Sommerfeld and three uncles of Francisco Madero (Alberto, Alfonso and Ernesto) De La Garza faithfully supplied Villa until the summer of 1915. By then, Villa had lost at Celaya and Leon. Together with Sommerfeld, De La Garza cobbled together a large munitions contract for 15 million cartridges. Then Villa could not pay anymore. Sommerfeld and his German backers decided to sell of the contract to the highest bidders. Some of the deliveries went to Obregon in the fall of 1915. The rest went to France in the winter of 1915 and through 1916. Since German agents could not appear connected to this deal, De La Garza handled the entire administration of the contract. Since neither Villa nor the Germans had tight control over De La Garza, he got sticky fingers. 

pancho Villa

As soon as the French had signed the delivery contract in October 1915, De La Garza sued the Western Cartridge Company for the return of his deposit of $65,000 ($1.37 million in today’s value). Franklin Olin, the head of Western Cartridge, “refunded” the money to him without much hesitation. However, the down payment belonged to the Madero brothers who, in turn, owed that amount to the División Del Norte, then under the leadership of Pancho Villa. De La Garza was unsure what to do with the money. He kept it in his account for three months. Nobody claimed it. He carefully evaluated the ownership of the funds. He paid $5,000 ($105,000 in today’s value) to Sommerfeld at the end of December, the remainder of his commission. By the summer of 1916, the contract had made De La Garza $65,000 deposit money (paid by Villa and the Maderos) and $75,000 commissions ($1.6 million in today’s value) from the French. De La Garza had some minor expenses for legal fees and the administration of the contract. He made somewhere around $140,000 ($3 Million in today’s value) in total through this arrangement.

Immediately after the contract came to its conclusion in the summer of 1916, De La Garza moved himself and his family, including his brother, Vidal, to Los Angeles. There, he bought a $100,000 ($200,000 if one believes the Los Angeles Times) mansion with cash and settled down. His wife, Esther, brought over $93,000 (close to $2 million in today’s value) with her in cash from Torreón. It is likely that this money represented earnings and other cash assets from his investments in Mexico. Most of his property had been expropriated by Carranza, who by the fall of 1915 had full control over Chihuahua and Torreón. As a Villista, De La Garza could expect no mercy and no reimbursement. He officially “retired” from the Revolution when he moved to Los Angeles. Retirement treated De La Garza well: He settled in his mansion in a well-to-do foothills neighborhood and lived lavishly on the interest of his “savings,” a whopping $5 million in today’s money. The revolution had made him an even richer man than he already was in 1911.

It did not take long for Villa and the Madero brothers to catch on to the fact that De La Garza had made off with the deposit. Alberto Madero sued him in Los Angeles in June 1916. The case dragged on until 1918, when it was dismissed. The dismissal was based on a technicality, namely that Pancho Villa was an enemy of the United States (since the attack on Columbus) and, therefore, could not recover any money north of the border. Villa was furious. He sent De La Garza a letter in 1919, asking him to work for him again and that everything would be forgiven. While he did not ask De La Garza to come to Mexico for a meeting, ultimately, that would have been what Villa intended. Then, he could arrest and execute his former treasurer.

However, De La Garza was no dummy. He wrote to his friend, Leon Canova, that he would stay as far away from Villa as he could. His friend agreed. Canova had smuggled Eduardo Iturbide out of Mexico in 1914. Villa had pursued the then-American consul all the way to the American border but could not arrest and execute Iturbide. An irate Villa had publicly vowed to kill Canova if he ever set foot into Mexico again. “I think you are right in regard to General Villa,” Canova mused, “and that your safest line is to keep clear of him… If I could meet Villa at a time when he was in good humor I would not hesitate to do so BUT, I think that if the meeting occurred when he was in one of his rages, he would order me to be shot forthwith. I imagine he would follow the same line of conduct with you. So, in a case of this kind it is best to ‘watch your step.’”

De La Garza was holed up in his mansion, fearing for his life. He had outfoxed el General. When Villa realized that he could not touch De La Garza, he threatened to kidnap twelve Americans that he would trade for the merchant. Neither did the kidnappings happen, nor did Villa get to have his revenge. Villa died in 1923 from an assassin’s bullets in Hidalgo de Parral, Mexico. His brother, Hipólito, kept up the pressure and sued De La Garza into the 1930s. A court in Ciudad Juarez finally convicted De La Garza in 1933 and issued a warrant for his arrest. De La Garza defended himself with all means at his disposal all the way to the Mexican Supreme Court, which overturned the conviction. He cited needs for “personal security” with the Mexican government, which gave him permission to carry a concealed weapon during his journey to the Mexican capital. Undoubtedly, the embattled businessman feared for his life.

While De La Garza succeeded in keeping the stolen money, he paid a hefty, non-material price for his crime. Alberto Madero and Hipólito Villa ruined De La Garza’s reputation with continued lawsuits and negative press coverage. Headlines in Mexico such as “The man who robbed 10 Million Dollars from Pancho Villa” branded the former financial agent a traitor to the revolution. His reputation was forever tainted. Later in life, he tried to re-establish a meaningful business in Mexico, but his effort came to nothing. Not even a network of American politicians and financiers, including President Harding, Vice President and incumbent President Coolidge could help him overcome the reputation of a swindler who had sold out his country. Lázaro De La Garza died in Torreón in August of 1939.

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El camino a Columbus: la concesiones de Villa hacia General Scott

En julio de 1915 Villa se encontró en apuros. Su ejercito había sido derrotado en Celaya y León, su control sobre México se había reducido a Chihuahua y partes de Sonora. Hasta entonces, Villa siempre se había guardado de tocar propiedad americana a favor de mantener buenas relaciones con los EEUU. Sin embargo, en vista de que su fortuna se desvanecía rápidamente y ya que México había sufrido media década de saqueos, confiscaciones, impuestos “especiales”, y destrucción, quedaba poca propiedad mexicana para confiscar. Villa declaró a principios de agosto que estaba dispuesto a imponer un “impuesto” especial a las empresas mineras americanas. 

Villa-Scott meeting

Empresas como la ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Company), la empresa de fundición más grande de México, inmediatamente sonaron la alarma en Washington. Muchas minas ya habían cesado las operaciones y sacaron sus empleados a causa del ambiente caótico en el norte de México mientras que los ejércitos de Carranza seguían forzando a Villa aún más hacia el norte. Villa necesitaba que estas empresas siguieran trabajando para generar ingresos de aduanas de exportación para Chihuahua. Amenazó con confiscar las empresas que se negaran a resumir operaciones. Se aprovechó de varias minas en el sur de Chihuahua y las manejó con sus propios hombres en julio de 1915 para rematar el punto. Aunque estas operaciones forzadas no constituían confiscación legalmente, los trabajadores mineros mandaron los lingotes al jefe pelado en vez de los legítimos propietarios de las minas. El New York Times informó sobre el asunto en el dos de agosto que Villa había confiscado numerosos negocios extranjeros y que había expulsado “un tren lleno de extranjeros.” Los comerciantes de Chihuahua se habían negado a aceptar la moneda Villista sin valor de clientes como forma de pago. Era una medida desesperada e inefectiva de intentar prevenir la inflación y la devaluación de su moneda.

Cuando el Jefe de Estado Mayor del Ejército General Hugh Lenox Scott se entrevistó con Villa a principios de agosto, le planteó que Villa iba a renunciar la posibilidad de que su facción se reconociera como poder legítimo en México de no ser que soltara estas empresas. El secretario Lansing le dio instrucciones a Scott de comunicarle a Villa que —los Estado Unidos jamás reconocería a Carranza. —  Mientras que Scott reclamó después que no le hubo hecho tal declaración a Villa, Sommerfeld, quien como confiado de ambos Villa y Scott estaba indudablemente informado, desde luego lo hizo.  Para la sorpresa de muchos observadores, pero no tan sorprendente dadas las seguranzas del Departamento de Estado de los Estado Unidos, Villa accedió a todas las demandas de Scott. —Entre todo, había más de seis millones de dólares [que Villa les devolvió a las empresas americanas] por las cuales no tenía equivalente para ofrecerle ni promesas que hacerle, y las devolvió porque se lo pedí; ni más ni menos.— Scott si ofreció permitirle a Villa la exportación de ganado (de dudosa propiedad) a los EEUU por dinero en efectivo. Sin embargo, cuando el secretario Lansing le mencionó la propuesta al presidente, éste lo paró. —¿Crees que sea prudente proporcionarle dinero a Villa justo en el momento que aparenta más débil y a punto del derroque?— preguntó el presidente, demostrando claramente que para entonces ya había cambiado de parecer. Francamente, el valor real de lo que Villa le había concedido a Scott era solamente el valor de los ingresos de producción de estas minas y la mercancía confiscada en Chihuahua. Sin embargo, con su dinero fíat devaluado y su terreno de control disminuyendo diariamente, las concesiones de Villa le constituían un mayor sacrificio por su parte. No es sorprendente que la cesión de las propiedades mineras coincidieran con no mandarles más fondos a Félix Sommerfeld y Lázaro De La Garza para pagar las municiones que tenía bajo contrato en los EEUU.

Sommerfeld se dirigió al Concilio Secreto de Guerra para pagar la cuenta… Lea el próximo fascículo del “Camino a Columbus,” explicando cómo fondos alemanes financian los suministros militares de Villa. Esta serie de blog trazará los acontecimientos que le condujeron a Villa al ataque de Columbus, Nuevo México en 9 de marzo de 1916 en etapas semanales. Daré un discurso el 12 de marzo en Columbus con el motivo de la Conmemoración Centenal del saqueo, y revelaré como le hicieron creer a Villa que atacar a los Estados Unidos sería buena idea. Si se impacienta y no desea esperar ocho meses para conocer los hechos tras Columbus, adquiera Félix A. Sommerfeld y el Frente Mexicano en la Gran Guerra hoy. 

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The Road to Columbus: Who was James Manoil?

A Jewish-Rumanian immigrant and German agent, James Manoil, became the front man in the management of the munitions contract for twelve million cartridges with the Western Cartridge Company. Manoil suddenly appeared in May 1915 as the contact for Franklin Olin for Villa's munitions orders. Manoil deposited call-off payments of between 35,000 and 50,000 Dollars (between 700,000 and 1 Million Dollars in today's value) throughout the summer with Sommerfeld's accounts in St. Louis, who then forwarded them to the Western Cartridge Company. 

Who was this mysterious agent? Manoil was twenty-seven years old and worked with his brother Maurice (or Morris according to Census records) in a suite on 60 Wall Street, New York. James Manoil and Company produced a “manophone [phonograph] and other musical instruments.” Likely on a secret mission for Karl Boy-Ed, Manoil travelled to Argentina in January 1915. The trip coincided with the end of the remaining German fleet at the battle of Falkland, as a result of which hundreds of German sailors were stranded in Argentina. Not much more is known about Manoil, other than he did not possess significant wealth.

According to a statement by the Assistant Treasurer of the Guaranty Trust Company of New York, “concerning Mr. James Manoil …we have known him for some time and have extended him accommodation in small amounts on notes …We have never had a statement of his financial affairs, but we are inclined to think his means are moderate.” This man purchased several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of munitions from the Western Cartridge Company in the next weeks. Manoil’s address also happened to be that of the office of the German military attaché, Franz von Papen.

Captain Franz von Papen in New York in 1915

Captain Franz von Papen in New York in 1915

Von Papen’s offices housed the management of the Bridgeport Projectile Company which German secret agents had purchased in the spring through a frontman. The manager behind the scenes was the German naval intelligence agent Carl Heynen, the former HAPAG representative in Mexico, former German consul in Tampico, and right hand of Heinrich Albert. Heynen moved to the U.S. in the spring of 1915 after his assignment to supply the remnants of the German fleet in the Atlantic had ended. The munitions plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut, never produced anything. Heynen's main job was managing the purchase of smokeless powder, hydraulic presses, and other items that would create shortages in the American munitions industry. In addition, the German agent hired skilled workers away from the Remington plant next door. As a result, hourly wages rose dramatically and munitions' cost increased, further hurting the Allies. 

Although the person behind Manoil's endeavor has never been identified, Carl Heynen was von Papen and Albert's ideal go-to person to help with the orders at Western Cartridge Company. Heynen was not only a well-honed manager, he knew Mexico and Mexican culture better than anyone, was an experienced logistics man, and a personal friend of Felix Sommerfeld. It is safe to assume that Manoil’s main purpose in 1915 was to lend his name and business as a cover for the Secret War Council and Carl Heynen in particular.

Authorities missed their greatest chance to uncover the machinations of the German secret service in the United States in the summer of 1915. There is no other conclusion than to call the failure of U.S. authorities to investigate James Manoil one of the greatest intelligence blunders in the World War. The German-Rumanian frontman would have been easy to investigate. There was only one person with that name in the United States. A quick visit to his office on 60 Wall Street would have revealed that this person neither had the funds nor the wherewithal to buy millions of cartridges in the United States. Shadowing the man would have revealed his work for Franz von Papen and the Secret War Council. The link between Villa and von Papen that the MID and B.I. records fully documented would have uncovered Sommerfeld’s responsibilities and would have likely led to his arrest long before the attack on Columbus, New Mexico in March 1916 occurred.

The Military Intelligence Division investigated Manoil in 1918 after he had moved to Mexico. The American military attaché interviewed him, found him to be “very shrewd, intelligent [,] not well educated… of a rather aggressive character.” Investigators never connected Manoil with Sommerfeld, De La Garza, or the German government despite the documentation they had on the fifteen and the twelve million cartridge contracts. Researchers, as well, failed to understand Manoil’s role as a cover for German secret agents. James Manoil and his brother started the very successful Manoil Manufacturing Company in the 1920s which produced toy soldiers, a valued collector's item to this day.

Manoil toy soldiers made in the 1920s and 1930s.

Manoil toy soldiers made in the 1920s and 1930s.

This blog series will trace the events that led to Villa's attack on Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916 in weekly segments. On March 12, I will speak at Columbus for the Centennial Commemoration of the raid and reveal how Villa was made to believe that attacking the United States was a good idea. If you get impatient and do not want to wait for eight months to learn the facts behind Columbus, buy Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War now.



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The "Minister without Portfolio"

On July 24, 1915, a hot New York afternoon, Heinrich F. Albert and George Sylvester Viereck rode the elevated train on 6th Avenue from their lower Manhattan offices to uptown. Two U.S. secret service agents, Frank Burke and W. H. Houghton, shadowed the pair. At the 23rd street station Viereck left the train. Houghton followed the propagandist. Burke stayed on and watched Albert on the way home to his apartment at 105 East 51st.

Heinrich F. Albert, German Commercial Attache in New York in 1915. Briefly German Secretary of Treasury in the Weimar Republic

Heinrich F. Albert, German Commercial Attache in New York in 1915. Briefly German Secretary of Treasury in the Weimar Republic

…a young woman boarded the car and took the vacant seat beside Dr. Albert and began reading a book. To reach his home, Albert had to take another car at 59th str., but when the train reached that point he was reading and was not aware that the train had halted until it was about to proceed again. The stuffed brief case [sic] was between Dr. Albert and the side of the car. When it occurred to him that he must get off, he jumped up and told the guard to wait a minute. As he got to the platform, the young woman called that he had forgotten his brief case [sic]. Burke told the girl the case was his, grabbed it up and headed for the station platform by another exit from the car … Dr. Albert meanwhile was struggling to get back into the car, his passage impeded by a fat woman in the doorway. By this time Burke had reached the platform, looked back and saw that Dr. Albert was visibly agitated. Other passengers on the platform provided Burke with some concealment, but the stairway leading to the street was beyond the excited German. Sparring for time, Burke partially concealed the briefcase under his coat, and leaning against the platform wall, acted as if he were having trouble lighting a cigar. Dr. Albert glanced hastily about the platform, then dashed downstairs to the street below. Burke followed him. Dr. Albert was in an increasingly disturbed frame of mind. He walked out into the street, the better to scan the line of pedestrians. As an open trolley car clanged past, Burke ran out and leaped on its running board. But Dr. Albert had seen him and began pursuit. Burke told the trolley conductor the man pursuing them was deranged, so the car did not stop for him.

What would become known as the briefcase incident uncovered the existence of an obscure secret organization with headquarters in New York City, called the War Council by one of its members. Agent Frank Burke and his colleague had in fact snatched the satchel of its chief, Heinrich F. Albert.

German officials in New York tried desperately to identify the culprits. Never quite establishing that the U.S. Secret Service was behind the theft, German agent and head of security of the German embassy, Paul Koenig, informed Albert that an “independent newspaper writer” named George Calvert had proffered a selection of the papers to the World editor, Timothy Walsh. Calvert, according to Koenig, had links to the Treasury Department. Indeed, Calvert likely was Frank Burke’s cover identity. The German secret service agent listed all the names of journalists involved in handling Albert’s papers and their addresses. Although Koenig did not specifically mention it, one can easily deduct that between August 2 and August 13 German agents scoured New York in attempts to lay their hands on these documents through any means possible. However, all the while they rested safely and protected in the U.S. Treasury Department.

Initially not sure who had taken the briefcase, Albert placed an ad in the New York Evening Telegram on July 27: “Lost on Saturday. On 3:30 Harlem Elevated Train, at 50th St. Station, Brown Leather Bag, Containing Documents. Deliver to G. H. Hoffman, 5 E. 47th St., Against $20 Reward.” Nobody, of course claimed the reward nor returned the briefcase to Albert’s secretary, Georg Hoffmann.

After examining the contents of the briefcase, the American government decided on August 2, 1915 to give them to the New York World. The newspaper notified Albert on August 13, the day of Rintelen’s arrest, that they had his papers in its possession. Desperately trying to thwart the publication, the German embassy sent the sixty-six year-old Second Counselor of the German Embassy in Washington, a member of the royal aristocracy of Prussia, and former member of the German parliament, Hermann Prince von Hatzfeld zu Trachenberg, to speak with Secretary of State Robert Lansing. The unsuspecting German diplomat did not realize that Lansing knew all about the issue since he had arranged for the World to get the documents. The entreaty came to naught. The World ran first page exposés on Albert and the activities of the Secret War Council between August 15 and 18.

Albert’s papers revealed the German ownership of the Bridgeport Projectile Company, the investments in American munitions, market-cornering efforts, investments in newspapers, bribes to American politicians, links of the Deutsche Bank representative, Hugo Schmidt, to the German operation, and payments of the German government to George Sylvester Viereck and the Fatherland. Every day new headlines seemed to top the ones of the day before. A. Bruce Bielaski, Secretary of State Lansing, and President Wilson convened emergency meetings to figure out how to react to the revelations. German Ambassador Count Bernstorff found himself cornered by anxious journalists wherever he went. The articles smothered whatever goodwill the general American public could still muster for Germany after the sinking of the Lusitania. English propaganda wallowed in the revelations that had found their way from Albert’s satchel to the headlines of American dailies.

Editorials both damned and pitied the German efforts. A New York Evening Globe editorial titled, “Insult to the American People,” compared the German support of the American peace movement to an insult “as much as if she [Germany] had deliberately fired at our flag.” The New York Evening Post wrote, “The pro-Germans have a right to carry on a propaganda [sic], to establish legitimate press bureaus and circulate news; the difficulty of it is that they have gone about it so badly… Here the boasted German efficiency has utterly failed. Germans are wonderful as organizers and soldiers, but in the higher realms of psychology and the spirit, Heaven [sic] knows, there are none to compare with them for wrecking their own cause.” Even the Secret War Council’s own, The New York Evening Mail, pondered, “If she [Germany] charged England with having incited the German propaganda in America by subtle intrigues, she would bring a charge against her enemy which, if true, would show what a dangerous and intelligent foe England is.” The Brooklyn Eagle demanded serious consequences: “The documents published by the New York World prefer such a serious indictment against agents of the German government that action should at once be taken in Washington.” 

Albert himself confided to his wife, “The Evening Sun speaks of ‘bovine stupidity’ [with respect to the letters and checkbooks English officials confiscated from von Papen in January 1916]… I for instance do not feel at all insulted at the ‘bovine stupidity’; I am obliged rather to admit frankly that this reproach is not so entirely unjustified, applying not to v. P. [von Papen] alone but myself too. For, no matter how valid excuses you may give for the disappearance of a brief-case [sic] or few carrying letters which get seized, it is the result after all which determines and marks such things as ‘bovine stupidity.’” Albert’s self-flagellation seemed appropriate. The revelation of his papers made virtually the entire portfolio of German secret service activities in the United States public.

Read the whole story of German intrigue in the United States in The Secret War on the United States in 1915, The Mexican Front in the Great War, and soon to become available The Secret War Council.

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The Dark Invader - A Rogue Agent Arrested 100 Years Ago

Felix Sommerfeld worked closely with German Naval Attache Karl Boy-Ed through the fall of 1914 and in the spring of 1915. His regular intelligence reports to the naval attaché attest to Sommerfeld’s job description as a German naval intelligence agent. It is highly unlikely to assume that Sommerfeld acted without approval from Boy-Ed when he took apart the Huerta plot to re-enter Mexico with Pascual Orozco and Manuel Mondragon in June 1915. Franz Rintelen, the self-styled "Dark Invader" (the title of his bestselling book about his time in World War I), sent to the U.S. to cause labor unrest and sabotage allied munitions ships, supported the Huerta plot against the wishes of his superiors in the Secret War Council. 

Franz Rintelen's passport photo from July 1915. The mustache appeared only for the purpose of the photo.

Franz Rintelen's passport photo from July 1915. The mustache appeared only for the purpose of the photo.

When Rintelen inserted himself into Mexican affairs, a much larger and much more effective German clandestine project was under way. Sommerfeld, whom the American government considered an honest broker had personal access to the highest levels of the Departments of Justice, War, and State. His connections to the American business elite greatly exceeded those of Franz Rintelen. As a result he undertook the most ambitious German project of the period: Create a war between the United States and Mexico through the manipulation of U.S. government officials, American businesses, and the only real power in Mexico to cause this war, Pancho Villa. Sommerfeld proposed to create an intervention in Mexico to the German admiralty through Bernhard Dernburg on May 10, 1915. “He [Sommerfeld] is completely sure that an intervention of the United States in Mexico can be provoked… let Mr. Sommerfeld through me [Dernburg] have a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” When Sommerfeld received a clear “yes,” Rintelen stood in the way.

Sommerfeld took him out without hesitation. He leaked Rintelen’s identity to James F. McElhone of the New York Herald on May 17, two weeks after Sommerfeld went to the border, and the week after he conferred with Lindley Garrison, the Secretary of War. McElhone’s boss was Editor-in-chief William Willis, one of Sommerfeld’s closest friends. Willis not only published his reporter’s scoop on the German agent, but also reported Sommerfeld’s information to the Chief of the U.S. Secret Service, William Flynn. The New York Sun carried an article on May 26, mentioning a mysterious German agent named “Hansen” (Rintelen’s alias). Not knowing how he had been identified, Rintelen closed his office and moved in with his business associate Andrew Meloy and Frederico Stallforth at 55 Liberty Street.

Sommerfeld reportedly was a frequent visitor there. According to witnesses, he not only watched Rintelen’s every move, but also “advised” him. Rintelen had presented Sommerfeld a letter of introduction from Peter Bruchhausen. Bruchhausen, a German commercial attaché attached to the legation in Argentina, was Sommerfeld’s intelligence handler in Mexico between 1911 and 1913.

As the American secret service began to close in on Rintelen, the German agent himself participated in his own downfall. Rintelen had contracted the publicity agent, John C. Hammond, for $10,000 to spread propaganda against the Allies as early as the end of April. The effort to show Bernhard Dernburg and the others in the German Press Office how propaganda was done backfired badly. Hammond reported Rintelen’s identity, as well as his activities, to President Wilson’s secretary, Joseph Tumulty. Rintelen also blundered in his social activities. He invited Anne L. Seward, a young and pretty schoolteacher who he knew from Berlin, on several dates in the first week of June. Rintelen spoke of “unlimited funds” at his disposal and made disparaging remarks about the “policy of the United States and the action of the President,” in order to impress her and other dinner guests. The niece of former Secretary of State William Seward found “the actions and general conduct of Captain Rintelen… so suspicious that… she determined to and did write the President upon the subject.” This letter, as well, went to President Wilson’s secretary, Joseph Tumulty. 

Rintelen had become a tremendous liability for the Secret War Council in New York by the time the Huerta affair came to light. British and American agents began to hone in on his location and activities. French police discovered the first German-made “cigar” bombs on the SS Kirk Oswald in Marseilles on May 10. The New York Bomb Squad was hot on the heels of Rintelen’s sabotage team. Likely upon the request of his direct superior, Karl Boy-Ed, the German Admiralty issued an order for Rintelen’s recall on July 2. A huge strike at Bridgeport, financed through Rintelen began on July 15 and aroused further suspicions about this mysterious agent in New York. Heinrich Albert “lost” his briefcase in the New York “El” on July 24, exposing most intelligence operations the Secret War Council was conducting.

The pavement was getting too hot for Rintelen. Without the ability to obtain a new passport, the agent booked a voyage back to Europe on the SS Noordam. He had decided to use the Swiss passport with which he had come to America. Meloy, his wife, and his secretary joined the German agent on his trip. Even then, on the voyage back to Europe, Rintelen could not keep his mouth shut and aroused suspicions from other passengers. British patrols took “The Dark Invader” off the ship during a routine check at Ramsgate on August 13.

Initially able to successfully hide his true identity under questioning, he caved after a few days. The British government interned him as a prisoner of war until 1917, when the American government won his extradition. Frederico Stallforth alluded to the real attitude in the Secret War Council concerning the Huerta-Orozco-Mondragón plot in a report to Heinrich Albert in the middle of August. Celebrating the fact that Meloy had accompanied Rintelen to Europe, Stallforth wrote, “All that which might have been especially suspicious has vanished and we have put out of the way all relating to the Mexican business… Perchance [sic] you will decide… to hold our friend M[eloy] over on some pretext or other so that he will not again make such a furor [referring to the discovery of the Huerta plot] here. You can imagine how well everything is going here since he [Meloy] has been eliminated from this stage [and gone to Europe].”

Half-hearted German efforts to affect a prisoner exchange for Rintelen in 1918 did not work, mainly because a few months after his arrest in England the German government, through Ambassador Count Bernstorff, disavowed him. When Rintelen came back to the U.S. in 1917, the war between Germany and the United States he had so carelessly provoked was in full swing. Since his offenses occurred in the neutrality period, New York courts convicted Rintelen of several felonies and passed sentences aggregating to four years of incarceration for procuring a false passport, conspiracy, firebombing ships, and causing labor unrest. The Huerta plot did not figure into his conviction. There simply was not enough evidence of a German-Mexican conspiracy.

Read the entire story of the German sabotage campaign in The Secret War on the United States in 1915.

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The Road to Columbus: The Money Trail and Franklin Olin

Villa's inability to pay for the desperately needed munitions for the Division of the North created an opening for German agents to support both sides in Mexico's civil war and thus extend it. Sommerfeld, Pancho Villa's chief arms supplier in the U.S. and German naval intelligence agent, began shipping on a $420,000 contract on April 1, 1915 for 12 million 7mm cartridges. This contract was with the Western Cartridge Company in Alton, Illinois. Sommerfeld had made this deal on behalf of Villa in February 1915. The Mexican general had provided a down-payment of $50,000. For this order only the initial deposit appears in the accounts of Lázaro De La Garza, who had financial control of all New York funds of Villa’s supply chain. This leads to the unanswered question, who paid for the balance of this contract? The entire order was produced, paid for, and shipped to Villa between April and August 1915. The price per thousand cartridges was an astonishingly low $35, while Remington and Winchester charged $50 for the same product, and Peters Cartridge Company between $55 and $60.

The standard Mexican 7mm Mauser cartridge of 1915

The standard Mexican 7mm Mauser cartridge of 1915

Sommerfeld closed another arms contract on May 14, 1915, this time for 15 million cartridges at the same price as his earlier contract, $35 per thousand, valued at $525,000 ($11 Million in today’s value). There are several astonishing aspects to Sommerfeld’s deal. First, the price Sommerfeld got for the munitions was, again, at least thirty percent below market value. How did he get such an outstanding deal? Second, he managed to occupy the entire capacity of Franklin W. Olin’s Western Cartridge Company factory in East Alton for the year 1915 with this second order. Sommerfeld was now on the hook for $945,000 ($20 Million in today’s value), as Villa’s fortunes declined, and the Villista fiat money was rapidly losing value. The German agent expected to make 2% commissions, $18,900 if both contracts were fulfilled ($400,000 in today’s value). All the while he managed these huge contracts as a German in the middle of a huge spy scare that had gripped the United States as a result of the German sabotage campaign against U.S. targets. 

Sommerfeld’s account at the Mississippi Valley Trust Company shows a total $381,000 flowing through it from April to December 1915.

Sommerfeld’s account at the Mississippi Valley Trust Company shows a total $381,000 flowing through it from April to December 1915.

Only days after closing on the second contract for the fifteen million cartridges, on May 17, 1915, he signed the contract over to Lázaro De La Garza. De La Garza provided the down-payment of $65,000, which went to the Western Cartridge Company. The money came from Francisco Madero's uncles Alberto, Alfonso and Ernesto in New York, probably profits from sales of goods from the area Villa controlled in Northern Mexico, such as bullion, cattle, rubber, or cotton. De La Garza also logged a deposit “en B[an]co St. Louis” in May for $30,000. This amount does not show up on Sommerfeld’s account.

The head of the Secret War Council, Heinrich F. Albert, withdrew that exact amount in May from his account at the St. Louis Union Bank. Obviously, not just Albert, but also Sommerfeld maintained accounts St. Louis and specifically in the St. Louis Union Bank. This account was connected with Albert's. Assuming that Sommerfeld paid for both contracts, his St. Louis Union Bank account showed transactions of roughly $400,000, similar to another account he maintained at the Mississippi Valley Trust account. Only $145,000 of the total $945,000 appeared in the books of De La Garza. The French government ended up buying $265,000 worth later in 1915. The Carranza faction took $150,000 of the munitions in September. The Western Cartridge Company refunded $65,000. This leaves $385,000, almost the exact sum of Sommerfeld’s Mississippi Valley Trust transactions and what the U.S. government alleged to have come from Heinrich Albert ($381,000). The $385,000 also matches the funds believed to have remained on Albert’s various accounts in Milwaukee, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Chicago.

Another question looms large as well: Why would Franklin W. Olin sell munitions to Sommerfeld thirty percent or more below market value? Even if Olin would have sympathized with the German cause to the point that he refused to produce munitions for the Entente, he still could have commanded a higher price from the various Mexican factions, even Villa’s. Incidentally, De La Garza’s accounts show payments to Peters Cartridge Company for the same type of ammunition in May 1915 priced at $55 per thousand. The answer to this riddle may have revealed itself in the spring of 1916 when, out of the blue, and, without much fanfare, F. W. Olin opened a brass casing factory next to Western Cartridge Company in Alton, Illinois.

Olin was a businessman who believed in vertical integration. He started his business in 1892 when he founded the Equitable Powder Manufacturing Company. The company’s blasting caps served mostly the coal industry in the Midwest. He expanded the production to include small arms ammunition in 1898, changing the name to Western Cartridge Company. He also founded a company that manufactured targets in the same year to better serve his sporting and hunting rifle customers. The Western Cartridge Company had managed to carve out a nice slice of the U.S. munitions market dominated by the large arms manufacturers such as Winchester Rifle Company and Remington by the early teens. Since the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 the company thrived. The success resulted from the fact that Western was willing to produce 7mm Mauser cartridges widely used in Mexico. The Western Cartridge Company had sold millions of cases of ammunition through Sommerfeld to Madero, Carranza, and Villa over the years.

President Franklin Olin and his son, John, liked doing business with Sommerfeld. His clout over the past years had made the transportation of shipments across the international border smooth. When the U.S. government instituted various embargos, Sommerfeld called on his friends in very high places, such as Lindley Garrison, Secretary of War, or William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of State, or Hugh Lenox Scott, the General in charge of border troops and later President Wilson’s Chief of Staff of the Army and received permission to export. Sommerfeld also stood by his word. He was very well organized, understood proper specification, had the customer contacts, and, most importantly, he always paid on time.

The savvy businessman chomped at the bit when Sommerfeld asked Olin to quote on the two largest munitions orders in the company’s history. An order of that size would allow Olin to install his own brass mill to produce the cartridge cups. However, where to get the all-important presses for such a production? Enter Carl Heynen and the Bridgeport Projectile Company. Heynen was a German naval intelligence agent and ran the sham munitions plant for his German superiors. Using the Bridgeport Projectile Company as a front, Heinrich Albert had signed contracts in the spring of 1915, locking up the entire capacity for smokeless powder and for hydraulic presses in the United States. Where did Olin get this equipment that allowed him to open a brass mill in the spring of 1916? The difference between the sales price and market price on twenty seven million cartridges that Sommerfeld contracted amounted to approximately $405,000 ($8.5 million in today’s value). Heynen accounted for the cost of hydraulic presses he had ordered and which were actually produced: “$417,550 for presses which had actually been produced. A striking coincidence! If true, the German government supported Olin’s plans for a brass mill with the understanding that he would not produce for the Entente; hence, the contracts with Sommerfeld at a price far below market value. The new factory would prove to be a boon for Olin. He came out of the war with tremendous financial strength. In 1931 he bought Winchester. Olin Industries is one of the largest corporations in the United States to this day, partly thanks to Franklin Olin and the connections of his good friend, Felix A. Sommerfeld.

This blog series will trace the events that led to Villa's attack on Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916 in weekly segments. On March 12, I will speak at Columbus for the Centennial Commemoration of the raid and reveal how Villa was made to believe that attacking the United States was a good idea. If you get impatient and do not want to wait for eight months to learn the facts behind Columbus, buy Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War now.

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The Road to Columbus: Villa's Concessions to General Scott

In July 1915, Villa found himself in dire straits. His army had been defeated at Celaya and Leon, his control over northern Mexico had shrunk to Chihuahua and parts of Sonora.   

Major General Hugh Lenox Scott and Pancho Villa in El Paso

Major General Hugh Lenox Scott and Pancho Villa in El Paso

Until then Villa had always refrained from touching American property in order to maintain good relations with the U.S. However, as his fortunes declined rapidly and since northern Mexico had endured half a decade of looting, confiscations, “special” taxations, and destruction, there was little Mexican property left to confiscate. Villa announced in the beginning of August that he intended to levy a special “tax” on American mining companies. Companies such as ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Company), the largest smelting operation in Mexico, immediately raised alarm in Washington. Many mines had already ceased operations and pulled out their employees because of the chaotic environment in Northern Mexico as Carranza’s armies pushed Villa ever further north. Villa needed these businesses to operate in order to generate income from export duties for Chihuahua. He threatened companies that did not resume operations with confiscation. He seized several mines in southern Chihuahua and operated them with his own men in July 1915 to make his point. Although these forced operations did not legally constitute confiscation, Villa’s mine operators sent the bullion to their broke chieftain rather than the legitimate owners of the mines. The New York Times reported on August 2 that Villa had confiscated numerous foreign businesses and expelled “an entire trainload of foreigners.” The Chihuahua merchants had refused to take the worthless Villa currency for payment by customers. It was a desperate and ineffectual attempt to curb inflation and the devaluation of his currency.

When the Army Chief-of-Staff General Hugh Lenox Scott met with Villa in the beginning of August, he made the argument that Villa would forfeit his chances to have his faction recognized as the legitimate power in Mexico if he would not release these businesses. Secretary Lansing instructed Scott to tell Villa “the United States would never recognize Carranza.” While Scott later claimed that he did not relay this statement to Villa, Sommerfeld, who as a confidante of both Villa and Scott was undoubtedly informed, certainly did. Much to the surprise of observers, but not so surprising giving the assurances of the U.S. State Department, Villa acceded to all of Scott’s demands. “In all, there was more than six million dollars [Villa returned to American businesses] for which I had no equivalent to offer to Villa or promises to make, and he gave them up because I asked him; no more and no less.” Scott did offer to allow Villa the exportation of cattle (with questionable ownership) to the U.S. for cash. However, when Secretary Lansing mentioned the proposal to the President, he stopped it. “Do you think it wise to put Villa in the way of getting money just at the moment when he is apparently weakest and on the verge of collapse?” the President questioned, clearly showing that he had, by then, already changed his mind. To be fair, the real value of what Villa conceded to Scott was only the value of the production revenue of these mines and the confiscated merchandise in Chihuahua. However, with his fiat money devalued and his area of control shrinking by the day, Villa’s concessions did constitute a major sacrifice on his part. Not surprisingly, Villa’s cession of the mining properties coincided with him not sending any more funds to Felix Sommerfeld and Lazaro De La Garza to pay for the munitions he had under contract in the U.S.

Sommerfeld turned to the Secret War Council to foot the bill... Read the next installment of "the road to Columbus," explaining how German money finances Villa's military supplies. This blog series will trace the events that led to Villa's attack on Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916 in weekly segments. On March 12, I will speak at Columbus for the Centennial Commemoration of the raid and reveal how Villa was made to believe that attacking the United States was a good idea. If you get impatient and do not want to wait for eight months to learn the facts behind Columbus, buy Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War now.

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La versión española de In Plain Sight: Felix A. Sommerfeld, Maestro de Espias

Prólogo

El 6 de junio de 1911 un tren especial entraba lentamente en la estación principal de Ciudad de México. Francisco León De La Barra, el presidente provisional del país, su entero gabinete, el cuerpo diplomático e innumerables dignatarios esperaban en la plataforma para rendir homenaje al hombre que había depuesto al símbolo de una generación de represión y corrupción, el dictador Porfirio Díaz. Mientras la multitud congregada aclamaba, Francisco I. Madero, el Apóstol de la Democracia, y su comitiva de cien seguidores revolucionarios, amigos, políticos, dignatarios, miembros de su familia y comandantes militares descendían de los carros Pullman y serpenteaban su camino a través de la multitud saludando, estrechando manos y contestando palabras de bienvenida. “Las campanas de la catedral y de otras iglesias tañían festejando el jubiloso mensaje. Las sirenas de las fábricas aullaban y los silbatos de locomotoras en varias estaciones se sumaban chillonamente al estruendo. Parecía que los sentimientos contenidos de un pueblo entero habían sido liberados en una gigantesca explosión de emociones.” Junto al líder revolucionario, un hombre de mirada grave, impávida ante el desborde eufórico de la muchedumbre, se abría el camino a través de la masa en busca de su jefe. Félix A. Sommerfeld se preocupaba por la seguridad de Madero. Con una altura de 1,73 metros y 64 kilos de peso, Madero con su menuda contextura estaba expuesto a ser tragado por la muchedumbre que le apretujaba. A medida que el tropel de gente con el caudillo revolucionario en su medio fluía hacia las calles de la ciudad, Sommerfeld calmadamente escudriñaba la multitud en busca de un asomo de peligro. “Una cantidad estimada en cien mil personas vitoreaba delirantemente,” cada cual tratando de lograr lo mejor posible – ya sea al menos un rápido vistazo a su héroe o quizás incluso una posibilidad de tocarlo. Félix Sommerfeld, un veterano de la Guerra de los Bóxers, de treinta y dos años y nacido en Alemania, se esforzaba en su condición de jefe del destacamento encargado de la seguridad de Madero en mantener a su protegido fuera de peligro. Comprensiblemente, no obstante el grandioso recibimiento, Sommerfeld aspiraba a que Madero finalizara el desfile y pasara a la seguridad por los portones del palacio presidencial.

Felix A. Sommerfeld y Francisco I. Madero en 1911

Felix A. Sommerfeld y Francisco I. Madero en 1911

La revolución había comenzado en forma lenta y desapercibida. En uno u otro lugar un asomo de descontento emergía en el horizonte político ya desde 1906, solo para volver a desaparecer en la calma aparente de la férrea dominación de Porfirio Díaz. Sin embargo, en la medida que el dictador envejecía y sus administradores selectos, los científicos, rechazaban el plan para una transición de poder ordenada, mientras una generación de mexicanos de clase media permanecía sin voz política y una verdadera tempestad de desastres naturales y financieros arrojaba al país a una caída precipitosa, la violencia se desencadenó en el otoño de 1910. Para muchos observadores la repentina desaparición del control de Díaz sobre el país fue una sorpresa. Madero emergía como un moderado vocero de una amplia coalición de emprendedores, terratenientes, industriales, los militares, los trabajadores y las masas rurales. Su objetivo era establecer un sistema democrático que extendiera representación política a todos los mexicanos y creara un sistema legal equitativo desde el cual evolucionaría una reforma agraria y la justicia social. En aquellos exaltantes días de mayo de 1911 solo algunos pocos avispados observadores se preguntaban si este tipo de reforma lenta podría satisfacer la aspiración por mejorar la vida de quince millones de mexicanos. Tal como lo demostraría el tiempo, demasiados grupos de intereses distintos habían sido despertados por la revolución de Madero y requeriría otros nueve años y más de un millón de muertos para establecer un nuevo contrato social, del cual los últimos artículos no serían escritos hasta la década de 1940. La revolución que Madero con su marcha victoriosa al centro de la Ciudad de México consideraba como concluida, en realidad recién comenzaba.

Nadie en la muchedumbre o siquiera en el círculo íntimo de confidentes que rodeaban a Madero tenía ni un pálpito del rol que Sommerfeld jugaría en su revolución en la década que se avecinaba. La victoria de Madero sobre el dictador había sido ganada principalmente en el campo de batalla pero también en una suite del Astor Hotel en Nueva York y varios otros lugares de negociación en México y en los Estados Unidos. Deponer al anciano dictador sería solamente una batalla en una larga y extendida guerra. Félix Sommerfeld, no por improvisación sino que por cuidadoso planeamiento, jugaría un papel fundamental en casi todas las batallas de esa guerra. Sin conocimiento de sus superiores, Sommerfeld había trabajado para la inteligencia naval alemana desde al menos 1908. Agentes alemanes habían maniobrado para colocarlo cerca del futuro presidente. Desde esa posición, Sommerfeld logró escalar para convertirse en el activo más importante del servicio de inteligencia alemana en el centro mismo del gobierno mexicano. Trabajando para el presidente Madero, y posiblemente con su tácita aprobación, el reservista alemán actuaba como enlace para el ministro de Alemania en México, contraalmirante Paul von Hintze, y proporcionaba a éste valiosa información de inteligencia sobre México, Europa y los Estados Unidos. Su buen desempeño desde esta posición facilitó definir la política exterior alemana respecto a Madero y su sucesor Huerta. Ningún otro extranjero ejerció mayor influencia y amasó más poder en la revolución mexicana. A partir de su cargo de jefe de seguridad, Sommerfeld asumió el desarrollo y dirección del servicio secreto mexicano. Bajo sus auspicios, la mayor organización de servicio secreto extranjero que alguna vez operara en territorio estadounidense se convirtió en un arma que aterrorizó y diezmó a los enemigos de Madero. Su organización demostró ser tan efectiva que posteriormente el gobierno estadounidense absorbió e integró partes importantes de la misma en el Bureau de Investigaciones.

Sommerfeld no pudo impedir la caída de Madero, el líder revolucionario que tanto idolatraba. El Jefe de Estado Mayor del Ejército de Madero, General Victoriano Huerta, usurpó la presidencia en febrero de 1913 con un sangriento golpe de estado y dispuso el asesinato de Madero. Habiendo escasamente eludido su arresto y un pelotón de fusilamiento, Sommerfeld reactivó la organización de su servicio secreto a lo largo de la frontera entre México y Estados Unidos para sumarse a la batalla contra el presidente usurpador.

La lucha resultante por remover a los sectores reaccionarios del sillón presidencial de México se desarrolló no solamente en los campos de batalla donde Venustiano Carranza, Emiliano Zapata, Álvaro Obregón y Pancho Villa lideraban a miles de mexicanos en la segunda revolución social del siglo. Éxito o derrota dependía de los suministros y financiamiento de estas fuerzas revolucionarias. Con la ayuda de sus relaciones en Alemania y en los Estados Unidos, Sommerfeld se convirtió en la pieza vital en la cadena de suministros revolucionarios. Su organización a lo largo de la frontera contrabandeaba armas y municiones para las tropas en cantidades que nunca antes hubieran sido consideradas posibles, mientras que sus contactos con las más altas autoridades de gobierno en Alemania y Estados Unidos cortaban créditos y suministros a Huerta. En su condición de agente alemán actuando a favor de los revolucionarios mexicanos, sus actividades coincidían con los intereses de los gobiernos de Estados Unidos y Alemania. Para sorpresa de la mayoría, pero no exento de lógica, el gobierno estadounidense cooperó con Sommerfeld y hacía la vista gorda ante las numerosas violaciones flagrantes de las leyes americanas. Sin que necesariamente sea merecedor de reconocimiento como el único causante de la derrota del hombre que había asesinado a Madero, la participación de Sommerfeld en la caída de Huerta fue crucial.

Este libro no está destinado a proporcionar un análisis completo de las causas y del curso de la revolución mexicana. Más bien, las siguientes páginas se limitan a relatar una historia fascinante y olvidada que es solamente un fragmento del total. Si fuera entendido como un tratado de amplia cobertura, el estrecho enfoque de este trabajo representaría una injusticia con el sacrificio y lucha de un pueblo entero contra el yugo de dictadura e injusticia social. Existen muchas grandes obras sobre la Revolución Mexicana, muchas de las cuales aparecen mencionadas como fuentes secundarias en este tratado. Sin embargo, hubo un elemento de intriga extranjera que impactó e influyó en las causas, el curso y el desenlace de la revolución mexicana. Inversiones extranjeras habían preparado en parte el suelo fértil para el descontento social y la privación de derechos políticos frente a lo cual las masas de México planteaban sus aspiraciones. Una vez que Madero hubo desencadenado la guerra civil, las organizaciones y corporaciones internacionales, con el apoyo de sus respectivos gobiernos, claramente se esforzaron por influenciar en los hechos, fortalecer sus posiciones y proteger a sus empleados dependientes y otros activos. A veces los gobiernos extranjeros intentaban atrasar los minuteros del reloj, otras de colocarlos a la hora que deseaban. Félix A. Sommerfeld, desde luego, no era el único agente secreto actuando en México. Sin embargo, bajo cualquier estándar, era el más influyente, el menos comprendido y el más eficiente, cuidadosamente entretejiendo los intereses de México, Alemania y Estados Unidos para sus propósitos. Esta sorprendente habilidad indujo a que estudiosos cuestionaran las verdaderas lealtades de Sommerfeld y acusarlo de ser un doble agente y, aún más, un triple agente. Nada podría ser más engañoso. Este agente alemán negociaba información y favores, no lealtades.

Sommerfeld creó y mantuvo un cuadro de personajes que se le unieron a la lucha a medida que la revolución avanzaba y que finalmente se convirtió en un campo de batalla de la Primera Guerra Mundial. Todos ellos parecían estar en desconocimiento de sus verdaderos amos alemanes. Tal como en los casos de todos los exitosos jefes de espías, Sommerfeld decidía quién jugaba cuál rol en su libreto y señalaba a sus compañeros solamente la parte del libreto que consideraba necesaria. Sherburne G. Hopkins, abogado, cabildero y corredor de bolsa, se convirtió en su principal contacto en Estados Unidos y en su jefe desde 1911 hasta 1914. Por intermedio de Hopkins, Sommerfeld logró acceso al círculo íntimo de la administración del presidente Wilson. El Jefe de Estado Mayor del Ejército de Wilson, General Hugh Lenox Scott, se convirtió en su amigo, el Secretario de Guerra Lindlay Garrison solía tomar el té con Sommerfeld cuando éste visitaba Washington, los senadores William Alden Smith y Albert Bacon Fall lo invitaban al Comité Selecto en Asuntos Mexicanos para atestiguar. Hopkins también le abrió a Sommerfeld las puertas de los círculos financieros de Nueva York. Como abogado y cabildero para el industrial Charles Ranlett Flint y el magnate petrolero Henry Clay Pierce, Hopkins le facilitó a Sommerfeld las llaves para relacionarse con empresarios americanos que aspiraban acercarse a las administraciones de Madero, Carranza y Villa. Ocasionalmente, Sommerfeld incluso actuaba en nombre del presidente Wilson, y el pintoresco grupo de diplomáticos aficionados de la Casa Blanca confiaba en él. Este papel le permitió manejar información crucial que fluía al gobierno de los Estados Unidos, manipulando así la política exterior americana en ventaja propia.

De todos sus compañeros de ruta, Federico Stallforth fue quien por más largo tiempo permaneció cercano a Sommerfeld. Nacido en México de padres alemanes, la vida de Stallforth antes y lo largo de la revolución ilustra en varias maneras la experiencia de hombres de negocios extranjeros y expatriados en México. Como dueño de minas y banquero en su ciudad natal de Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua, tanto él como su familia y sus negocios sufrieron considerablemente. Por el mayor tiempo de la revolución Chihuahua se convirtió como el principal campo de batalla en un escenario de frentes continuamente cambiantes. A pesar de los contactos de Stallforth con el gobierno mexicano (a través de su amigo Sommerfeld) y el gobierno de los Estados Unidos, con Wall Street, como también con la comunidad alemana de comerciantes y diplomáticos, la fortuna e inversiones de Stallforth se esfumaron en el calor abrasador de las batallas revolucionarias mexicanas. En gran medida, sin que esto haya sido su culpa, el ambiente social y económico que precipitó la revolución mexicana lo retuvieron junto con su familia, rehén de la situación. Para la mayoría de los extranjeros esta situación terminaría acabaría con la fortuna familiar. Sin embargo, la carrera de Stallforth recién comenzaba donde otras acababan. En quiebra y desilusionado, Stallforth se unió a Sommerfeld en Nueva York antes de la Gran Guerra y se convirtió en uno de los más importantes agentes alemanes en los Estados Unidos. Como en el caso de Sommerfeld, el papel de Stallforth en la historiografía es en sumo grado indefinido y nebuloso.

El nombre de Sommerfeld aparece en casi todas las obras sobre la revolución mexicana. Los historiadores Harris y Sadler comentaron: “… Sommerfeld solía moverse a través de la revolución mexicana como un fantasma.” Mientras que Harris y Sadler son los únicos investigadores que mencionan a Sommerfeld como jefe de espías, otros historiadores como Friedrich Katz y Michael Meyer le atribuyen un enigmático aunque indefinido papel. Otros investigadores como Jim Tuck lo describen como estafador, aventurero, personaje turbio y agente doble. A fin de esbozar un retrato tridimensional del hombre y de su tiempo, este libro correlaciona las declaraciones de Sommerfeld y Stallforth ante el Departamento de Justicia de los Estados Unidos con colecciones públicas y privadas. Los archivos desclasificados y disponibles a historiadores desde hace años son aquellos del Departamento de Justicia y el BI sobre México y Alemania de 1908 a 1922, de la Comisión Mixta de Reclamaciones, de la División de Inteligencia Militar de la Marina y del Ejército de los Estados Unidos y de extensas colecciones mantenidas en la biblioteca de Archivos Nacionales bajo el título de Documentos Alemanes Capturados. También se encuentran disponibles los escritos personales de Lázaro De La Garza, agente financiero de Pancho Villa, de Silvestre Terrazas, principal estratega de Villa y gobernador de Chihuahua, del General Hugh Lenox Scott, del Presidente Woodrow Wilson, de miembros de su gabinete y del mercenario Emil Holmdahl. No se encontraron hasta ahora escritos personales de Federico Stallforth. Este libro es el resultado de la minuciosa correlación entre fuentes de archivos mexicanos, estadounidenses y alemanes. No se encuentran disponibles los archivos del Servicio Secreto y de Inteligencia Militar alemanes que fueron destruidos por incendio durante ataques aéreos en 1945. Tampoco han sido descubiertos hasta ahora los escritos personales de Félix Sommerfeld.

A pesar del papel central que Sommerfeld desempeñó en el curso de la revolución mexicana y a pesar de las muchas referencias a sus actividades en los registros históricos, el agente alemán exitosamente cubrió sus pasos. Ni sus contemporáneos ni investigadores a lo largo de los últimos cien años han sido capaces de reunir las piezas de una carrera clandestina que hace palidecer las hazañas de James Bond, y las regandolas a un simple juego de niños. Un jefe de espías en la revolución mexicana y un maestro de espías en la Primera Guerra Mundial, tanto para sus contemporáneos como para los investigadores,  Sommerfeld ha permanecido oculto hasta ahora.

¡El libro estará disponible en México este verano! Gracias por su paciencia.

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Im Schatten der Öffentlichkeit: Die Deutsche Version von In Plain Sight ist da!

Prolog des neuen Buches (Vorbestellungen sind ab 1. August möglich):

Am 6. Juni 1911 fuhr ein Sonderzug langsam in den Hauptbahnhof von Mexico City ein. Am Bahnsteig wartete bereits der Interimspräsident Francisco Leon de la Barra mit seinem gesamten Kabinett, dem diplomatischen Korps und unzähligen Würdenträgern darauf, dem Mann die Ehre zu erweisen, der das Symbol einer ganzen Generation der Unterdrückung und Korruption, Diktator Porfirio Diaz, gestürzt hatte. Unter wildem Beifall stiegen der „Apostel der Revolution“ Francisco I. Madero und sein Gefolge aus einhundert Mitrevolutionären, Freunden, Angehörigen, Politikern, Würdenträgern und Militärs aus dem Pullmanwagen und bahnten sich winkend und grüßend einen Weg durch die Menge. „Die Glocken der Kathedrale und neunzig weiterer Kirchen verkündeten die frohe Botschaft. Fabriksirenen heulten auf und das Pfeifen der Lokomotiven in den angrenzenden Bahnhöfen mischte sich schrill in das Getöse. Es war als würden die aufgestauten Gefühle eines ganzen Volkes in einer gewaltigen Explosion der Emotionen freigesetzt.“ An der Seite des obersten Revolutionärs kämpfte ein Mann mit strenger und gefasster Miene, unbeeindruckt vom ekstatischen Moment der Masse seinem Anführer den Weg frei. Felix A. Sommerfeld war besorgt um Maderos Sicherheit. Mit nur einem Meter sechzig Größe und knappen fünfundsechzig Kilo war Madero in Gefahr, von der sich auftürmenden Menge verschluckt zu werden. Als sich dann die Menschenflut um den Revolutionsführer in die Straßen der Hauptstadt ergoss, blieb Sommerfeld stets wachsam auf der Suche nach Anzeichen einer Bedrohung. „Etwa einhundert tausend Menschen jubelten im Freudentaumel“, wobei jeder versuchte, einen kurzen Blick auf den großen Helden zu erhaschen oder wenn möglich sogar die Chance zu bekommen, ihn zu berühren. Felix Sommerfeld, ein zweiunddreißigjähriger Boxerkriegsveteran deutscher Herkunft, hatte als Maderos frisch ernannter Sicherheitschef alle Hände voll zu tun, dessen Unversehrtheit zu gewährleisten. So ist es wenig erstaunlich, dass er sich, ungeachtet dieses prachtvollen Empfangs, nichts mehr wünschte, als dass Madero endlich das Ende der Prozession erreicht und die gut gesicherten Pforten des Präsidentenpalastes passiert.

Felixsommerfeld

Die Revolution hatte still und unbemerkt begonnen. Bis zurück ins Jahr 1906 hatten nur hier und da kurze Strohfeuer des Unmuts den politischen Horizont des Landes für Augenblicke erhellt, die jedoch gleich wieder in der trügerischen Stille unter Porfirio Diaz’ eiserner Hand erstickt wurden. Da der alternde Diktator und sein auserwählter Beraterstab der „Cientificos“ es bis zuletzt verweigerten, die Übergabe der Macht in einem geordneten Rahmen zu planen, brach die Gewalt im Herbst des Jahres 1910 los. Zu dieser Zeit fegte ein regelrechter Sturm aus finanziellen Krisen und Naturkatastrophen über das Land. Zudem gab es eine junge Generation mittelständischer Mexikaner, die keinerlei politisches Gehör fand. Für viele Zeitzeugen kam Diaz’ abrupter Machtverlust überraschend. Madero trat als gemäßigter Vertreter einer breiten Koalition aus Unternehmern, Grundbesitzern, Industriellen, dem Militär, der Arbeiterschaft und der Bauern auf. Sein Ziel war die Errichtung eines demokratischen Systems, in dem jeder Mexikaner politisch vertreten war, sowie eines unabhängigen Rechtssystems, das die Grundlage für Landreformen bilden und eine Entwicklung hin zu sozialer Gerechtigkeit auf den Weg bringen sollte. Dass diese allmählichen Reformen den Durst nach einem besseren Leben von siebzehn Millionen Mexikanern zu stillen vermochten, wurde in den hitzigen Tagen des Mai 1911 nur von wenigen scharfen Beobachtern bezweifelt. Tatsächlich sollte es angesichts der Vielzahl an verschiedensten Interessengruppen, die Madero mobilisiert hatte, noch weitere neun Jahre dauern und über eine Million Leben kosten, bis ein neuer Gesellschaftsvertrag zustande kommen sollte, dessen letzte Paragraphen erst in den 1940er Jahren fertiggestellt wurden. Die Revolution, die Madero während seines Triumphzugs durch Mexico City für abgeschlossen hielt, hatte in Wahrheit erst begonnen.

Niemand in der Menge oder gar im engen Vertrauenskreis um Madero hatte auch nur die leiseste Ahnung davon, welche Rolle Sommerfeld über die kommenden zehn Jahre in ihrer Revolution spielen sollte. Maderos Sieg über den Diktator wurde größtenteils auf dem Schlachtfeld, aber auch in einer Suite des New Yorker Astor Hotels und an weiteren Verhandlungsschauplätzen in Mexiko und den Vereinigten Staaten ausgefochten. Die Absetzung des alten Diktators sollte lediglich eine gewonnene Schlacht in einem lange währenden Krieg darstellen, in dem Felix Sommerfeld nicht zufällig, sondern durch die gezielte Beeinflussung der Geschehnisse eine Schlüsselrolle zukommen sollte. Ohne das Wissen seiner Mitstreiter hatte Sommerfeld spätestens seit 1908 für den deutschen Marinenachrichtendienst gearbeitet, und deutsche Agenten hatten ihn in den Kreis um den zukünftigen Präsidenten eingeschleust. Von dort aus gelang Sommerfeld der Aufstieg zum höchsten Posten, den ein deutscher Spion in der mexikanischen Regierung jemals bekleidete. Während seiner Arbeit für Präsident Madero fungierte der deutsche Heeresreservist, wohl mit dessen stillschweigender Zustimmung, als Verbindungsmann des deutschen Botschafters in Mexiko, Konteradmiral Paul von Hintze, und versorgte diesen mit wertvollen Informationen über Mexiko, Europa und die Vereinigten Staaten. Durch Sommerfelds Einsatz war es Deutschland möglich, seine außenpolitischen Bestrebungen auf Madero und dessen Nachfolger Huerta zu konzentrieren. Kein anderer Ausländer hatte in der Mexikanischen Revolution mehr Einfluss und Macht. Ausgehend von seinem Posten als Sicherheitschef nahm sich Sommerfeld bald der Gründung und Befehligung des Mexikanischen Geheimdienstes an. Unter seiner Schirmherrschaft entwickelte sich die größte ausländische Geheimdienstorganisation, die jemals auf US-amerikanischem Boden operierte, bald zu einer Waffe, die Maderos Feinde terrorisierte und dezimierte. Seine Organisation stellte sich als so effektiv heraus, dass die US-Regierung später große Teile davon in das „Bureau of Investigation“ übernahm.

Sommerfeld konnte den Untergang von Francisco Madero, dem Revolutionsführer, den er so schätzte, nicht verhindern. Der Oberbefehlshaber der Armee, General Victoriano Huerta, riss die Präsidentschaft 1913 an sich und ordnete die Ermordung Maderos in einem blutigen Staatsstreich an. Sommerfeld entkam nur knapp Gefängnis und Erschießungskommando und reaktivierte seine Geheimdienstorganisation entlang der US-amerikanischen Grenze für den Kampf gegen den Putschisten Huerta.

Der folgende Krieg um die Vertreibung des reaktionären Machthabers aus Mexikos Präsidentenpalast wütete nicht nur auf dem Schlachtfeld, wo hundert tausende Mexikaner unter der Führung von Venustiano Carranza, Emiliano Zapata, Alvaro Obregon und Pancho Villa für die zweite soziale Revolution des Jahrhunderts kämpften, die Entscheidung über Sieg oder Niederlage stand und fiel besonders auch mit der Versorgung und Finanzierung der revolutionären Truppen. Sommerfeld wurde dank seiner Beziehungen zu Deutschland und den USA zum Dreh- und Angelpunkt dieser Versorgungskette. In bisher undenkbarem Ausmaß schmuggelte seine Organisation Waffen und Munition und belieferte damit die Rebellen – gleichzeitig führten seine Beziehungen bis in die obersten Kreise der Regierungen Deutschlands und Amerikas dazu, dass Huerta von dieser Seite weder Kredite, noch Waffenlieferungen zuteilwurden. Die Interessen des deutschen Agenten, der an der Seite der mexikanischen Revolutionsbewegung agierte, überschnitten sich mit den Plänen der deutschen und amerikanischen Regierungen. So ist es zwar verwunderlich, aber keineswegs unlogisch, dass die Amerikaner uneingeschränkt mit Sommerfeld kooperierten und dessen zahlreiche offenkundige Übertretungen US-amerikanischen Rechts schweigend billigten. Natürlich kann man Sommerfeld den Sieg über den Mann, der Maderos Tod angeordnet hatte, nicht gänzlich allein zuschreiben, sein Anteil am Sturz Huertas war jedoch maßgeblich.

Dieses Buch setzt sich nicht zum Ziel, eine vollständige Analyse über Hintergründe und Verlauf der Mexikanischen Revolution anzustellen. Vielmehr erzählen die folgenden Seiten eine faszinierende und in Vergessenheit geratene Geschichte, die nur einen Bruchteil des großen Ganzen darstellt. Es existieren zahlreiche große Werke über die Mexikanische Revolution und viele davon wurden auch als Quellen für dieses Buch herangezogen. Erhöbe dieses Buch den Anspruch einer allumfassenden Abhandlung, so täte dessen enger Fokus einem ganzen Volk, das sich gegen die Unterjochung einer Diktatur aufgelehnt hat und für soziale Gerechtigkeit in den Kampf gezogen ist, sicher großes Unrecht. Jedoch zeichnete sich bereits im Vorfeld der Revolution ein gewisses Element außenpolitischer Machenschaften ab, welches einen erheblichen Einfluss auf ihren Verlauf und letztlich ihren Ausgang hatte. Es waren Investitionen aus dem Ausland, die zu sozialer Unzufriedenheit und der politischen Entmündigung des mexikanischen Volkes führten und so zum Teil den Boden bestellten, auf dem die Hoffnungen der breiten Masse zu keimen begannen. Als der Bürgerkrieg durch Madero entfesselt wurde, taten international agierende Banken und Unternehmen, unterstützt durch ihre Regierungen, ganz klar ihr Bestes, um den Lauf der Dinge zu ihrem eigenen Vorteil zu beeinflussen und ihre Mitarbeiter und ihr Kapital zu schützen. Fremde Regierungen versuchten immer wieder, das Rad der mexikanischen Geschichte je nach ihren Bedürfnissen entweder zu beschleunigen, oder aber zurückzudrehen. Felix A. Sommerfeld war sicher nicht der einzige Geheimagent, der in Mexiko tätig war. Welche Maßstäbe man auch anlegt, so war er jedoch mit Sicherheit der einflussreichste und, wenn auch der am wenigsten verstandene, doch der effektivste von ihnen, da er es vermochte, die Interessen Mexikos, Deutschlands und der USA so zu verbinden, dass deren Aktionen letztlich stets seinem eigenen Zweck dienten. Diese beeindruckende Fähigkeit weckte bei zahlreichen Forschern Zweifel an seinen tatsächlichen Beweggründen, und nicht selten wurde er als Doppel- oder sogar Dreifach-Agent bezeichnet. Doch weit gefehlt – dieser deutsche Agent verkaufte Informationen und Gefallen, nicht jedoch seine Integrität.

Sommerfeld scharte eine Gruppe von Mitstreitern um sich, die ihm während der Revolution und auch später zur Seite standen, als Mexiko Schauplatz des Ersten Weltkrieges wurde. Keiner seiner Mitstreiter schien sich jedoch darüber im Klaren zu sein, unter wessen Befehl der Deutsche tatsächlich stand. Wie alle großen Spionagekünstler entschied Sommerfeld darüber, wer in seinem Stück welche Rolle übernehmen sollte und er versorgte seine Akteure immer nur mit den Informationen, die er für notwendig hielt. Der Rechtsanwalt, Lobbyist und politische Strippenzieher Sherburne G. Hopkins wurde zu Sommerfelds Hauptkontakt in den USA und von 1911 bis 1914 sein Vorgesetzter. Durch ihn erlangte Sommerfeld Zugang zu den innersten Kreisen der Regierung um Präsident Wilson. So wurde Wilsons Generalstabschef, General Hugh Lenox Scott, zu Sommerfelds Freund, Kriegsminister Lindley Garrison empfing ihn zum Tee, wann immer er nach Washington kam und die Senatoren William Alden Smith und Albert Bacon Fall luden ihn ein, vor dem Sonderausschuss für Mexiko zu sprechen. Durch Hopkins‘ Einfluss öffnete sich für Sommerfeld auch in New Yorks Finanzkreisen so manche Tür. Als Anwalt und Lobbyist des Industriellen Charles Ranlet Flint und des Öl-Tycoons Henry Clay Pierce platzierte Hopkins Sommerfeld als primäre Anlaufstelle für alle amerikanischen Unternehmer, die mit den Regierungen Madero, Carranza und Villa Kontakt aufnehmen wollten. Von Zeit zu Zeit agierte Sommerfeld sogar im persönlichen Auftrag von Präsident Wilson und der bunten Schar von Amateurdiplomaten, denen man im Weißen Haus vertraute. Die Kontrolle über entscheidende Teile des Informationsflusses, die Sommerfeld dank seiner Stellung zur amerikanischen Regierung ausüben konnte, ermöglichte ihm die gezielte Manipulation der amerikanischen Außenpolitik für seine eigenen Zwecke.

Von allen Menschen, die Sommerfeld in seinem Leben begleiteten, blieb Frederico Stallforth am längsten an seiner Seite. Stallforths Eltern waren Deutsche, er selbst jedoch im Norden Mexikos geboren, und so ist sein Leben vor und während der Revolution für die Situation ausländischer Geschäftsleute und Auswanderer in Mexiko auf vielerlei Art und Weise beispielhaft. Als Minenbesitzer und Bankier in seiner Heimatstadt Hidalgo del Parral in Chihuahua, hatten er und seine Familie besonders schwer unter den Auswirkungen der Revolution zu leiden. Chihuahua war während des größten Teils der Revolution Hauptschauplatz der Auseinandersetzungen an einer sich ständig bewegenden Front, und obwohl Stallforth (durch seinen Freund Sommerfeld) Kontakte zur mexikanischen und amerikanischen Regierung, der Wall Street und zu wirtschaftlichen und diplomatischen Kreisen in Deutschland unterhielt, schmolzen sein Familienvermögen und sein in Mexiko investiertes Kapital unter der glühenden Hitze der Kämpfe dahin. Dies war größtenteils nicht sein eigener Fehler, vielmehr waren er und seine Familie bedingt durch die wirtschaftliche und soziale Situation in der Zeit vor der Revolution wie Geiseln in Mexiko gefangen. Während der Untergang des Familienunternehmens für die meisten Ausländer in Mexiko bereits das Ende bedeutete, fing Stallforths Karriere damit erst an. Mittellos und desillusioniert schloss er sich Sommerfeld in New York an und wurde zu einem der einflussreichsten deutschen Agenten in den Vereinigten Staaten. Wie auch im Fall von Felix A. Sommerfeld ist seine Rolle in der Geschichtsschreibung zu großen Teilen unklar.

Der Name Sommerfeld erscheint in fast jeder Arbeit zur Mexikanischen Revolution. Die Historiker Harris und Sadler bemerkten, dass sich „… Sommerfeld durch die Mexikanische Revolution bewegte wie ein Geist.“ Während Harris und Sadler die einzigen Historiker sind, die Sommerfeld den Titel des „Meisterspions“ zukommen lassen, schreiben ihm andere wie beispielsweise Friedrich Katz und Michael Meyer eine enigmatische und eher unklare Rolle zu. Wieder andere, wie beispielsweise Jim Tuck, bezeichnen ihn als „Hochstapler“, „Abenteurer“, „zwielichte Gestalt“ und „Doppelagent.“ Um letztlich zu einem dreidimensionalen Bild von Sommerfeld und den Zeiten, in denen er agierte, zu gelangen, stellt dieses Buch Sommerfelds und Stallforths Aussagen vor dem US-Justizministerium und Aufzeichnungen aus privaten und öffentlichen Sammlungen gegenüber. Die Akten des Justizministeriums und des FBI zu Mexiko und Deutschland von 1908 bis 1922 sind seit Jahren freigegeben und für Historiker einzusehen, ebenso die Akten der Schadenskommision, des US-Marinegeheimdienstes, der Nachrichtendienstabteilung der U.S. Army und umfangreiche Sammlungen des US-Staatsarchivs unter dem Titel „Captured German Documents“ (i.e. „Beschlagnahmte Deutsche Dokumente“). Zudem sind die persönlichen Aufzeichnungen von Pancho Villas Finanzvertreter Lazaro De La Garza und seines Hauptstrategen und Gouverneurs von Chihuahua, Silvestre Terrazas, von General Hugh Lenox Scott, Präsident Woodrow Wilson und seinem Kabinett, sowie die des Glücksritters Emil Holmdahl einzusehen. Bisher unbekannt sind die persönlichen Aufzeichnungen Frederico Stallforths. Dieses Buch ist das Ergebnis eines detaillierten Vergleichs amerikanischer, mexikanischer und deutscher Archivinformationen. Nicht zugänglich sind die Akten des deutschen Geheimdienstes und des deutschen Militärgeheimdienstes, da diese 1945 den Flammen des Zweiten Weltkriegs zum Opfer fielen. Auch Felix Sommerfelds persönliche Aufzeichnungen sind bisher noch nicht aufgefunden worden.

Trotz der zentralen Rolle, die Sommerfeld in der Mexikanischen Revolution gespielt hat, und obwohl man in den historischen Aufzeichnungen häufig auf Berichte über sein Handeln stößt, verstand es der deutsche Agent, seine Spuren zu verwischen. Weder seine Zeitgenossen, noch die Historiker der letzten hundert Jahre haben es geschafft, den geheimen Werdegang Sommerfelds aufzudecken, der die Heldentaten eines James Bond wie ein Kinderspiel aussehen lässt. Als Meisterspion in der Mexikanischen Revolution und während des ersten Weltkrieges bleibt Sommerfeld für seine Zeitgenossen und auch für Historiker bis heute verborgen im Schatten der Öffentlichkeit.

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Robert Fay: A Terrorist Plot Foiled 100 Years Ago

The secret agent Lieutenant Robert Fay arrived in New York in April 1915 with a mission to sink freight ships on the East Coast of the U.S.  The twenty-four year-old infantry officer had caught the attention of his superiors in February 1915, while serving on the Western Front in France. Fay, who himself had suffered from the lethal rain of American-made artillery munitions, proposed a time bomb design that disabled rudders on munitions ships traveling from the United States to Europe. Fay showed his idea to the battalion commander. Impressed with the details, Fay’s superior alerted the army intelligence office in Berlin who invited and interviewed the young soldier. Not only did Fay have a design that seemed like a good idea, he had also worked at the Submarine Signal Company in Boston before the war and spoke English fluently. His brother-in-law, Walter E. Scholz, eight years older than Fay, still lived in New Jersey. The trained mechanic worked as a draftsman for railroad companies. Rudolf Nadolny of the Army Secret Service, Department IIIB, Political Section, gave Fay a fake Scottish passport under the name of H. A. Kearling and $4,000 ($84,000 in today’s value) for a sabotage mission in the U.S. He was to report directly to Military Attaché Franz von Papen in New York and proceed with his plans. 

Arrest Record of Robert Fay

Arrest Record of Robert Fay

Fay’s idea of a timed explosive sounded promising to von Papen, but it was a complicated design.

A brief description of the contrivance reveals the mechanical ingenuity and practical efficiency of Fay’s bomb A rod attached to the rudder at every swing the rudder gave turned up by one notch the first of the beveled wheels within the bomb After a certain number of revolutions of that wheel it in turn gave one revolution to the next and so on through the series The last wheel was connected with the threaded cap around the upper end of the square bolt and made this cap slowly unscrew until at length the bolt dropped clear of it and yielded to the waiting pressure of the strong steel spring above This pressure drove it downward and brought the sharp points at its lower end down on the caps of the two rifle cartridges fixed below it like the blow of a rifle’s hammer The detonation from the explosion of these cartridges would set off a small charge of impregnated chlorate of potash which in turn would fire the small charge of the more sluggish but stronger dynamite and that in turn would explode the still more sluggish but tremendously more powerful trinitrotoluol.

The resulting explosion, Fay argued, would be strong enough to blow the stern of a ship off and sink it. American investigators, who looked at Fay’s design after his arrest, agreed with the claim.

The German agent established his workshop in his brother-in-law’s garage in Weehawken, New Jersey. Initially, and with the help of Rintelen’s agent, Otto Wolpert, Fay bought one hundred pounds of potassium chlorate. However, he needed more. Through von Papen, Fay met the nephew of a wealthy financier by the name, Max Breitung. Fay asked Breitung for help. The young financier, anxious to prove his worth to the German government, had met the New York factory representative of a German cuckoo clock manufacturer on a transatlantic voyage. They had kept in contact through the German Club in New York. The acquaintance was Dr. Herbert O. Kienzle, a thirty year-old engineer from the town of Scheveningen in the Black Forest area of Germany. Kienzle had been a keen supporter of the Secret War Council’s propaganda efforts. He had written several articles on Dum Dum [hollow point] bullets for the German-owned paper, Fatherland, and New York’s German language daily, New Yorker Staats-Zeitung. His investigative journalism also appeared in large American dailies. The war had ground his clock business to a halt. He made several futile attempts to diversify the product line, getting into lamps, linens, and crafts, but the prospective American customers stayed away from his exclusive store on Park Place. Like Edward Rumely, the managing editor of the German-owned New York Evening Mail, and others that engaged with the Secret War Council’s projects, the engineering PhD had time on his hands and holes in his pocket.

Breitung and Kienzle secured 336 pounds of potassium chlorate for Fay, but it took until June to get it. The source, a German-American chemist, was compromised. The U.S. Secret Service had noticed the movement of these explosive chemicals and sent a mole to Breitung’s supplier. Through Breitung, Fay became acquainted with Kienzle and Daeche, who joined the team in the beginning of May 1915. The four, Fay, Scholz, Kienzle, and Daeche worked feverishly on the bomb design, all the while reporting back to Rintelen on the progress. Kienzle had a small motorboat, which he sold to Fay. Together, the saboteurs toured the New York harbor and checked out the large transatlantic steamers lined up to transport their deadly cargo to Europe. Security did not seem to be an issue, since guards were checking who was coming onto the ships, but not the little boats scurrying around in the harbor.

Back in the garage, the conspirators experimented with the two necessary explosives, potassium chlorate and TNT. Kienzle had a friend who worked in road construction. The clock maker’s friend worked on the grounds of a sanatorium in Butler, New Jersey, where Kienzle had spent some “quiet time” in the past. Builders in 1915 dynamited their way through the countryside in lieu of using heavy earth-moving equipment to prepare a roadbed. The contractor friend had lots of dynamite. When Fay went to Butler to “look that place over,” he met the contractor, a German-American named Englebert Bronckhurst, who supplied him with twenty sticks. Fay built a wooden replica of a ship’s rudder in the backyard of Scholz’ property. Fay and Scholz worked over the course of several weeks on the spring mechanism, the waterproof container for the explosives, the attachment to the rudder, and all other important details that would make the design viable. Kienzle likely did, but never admitted to having looked over the design from a technical standpoint. Since the winding spring mechanism came straight out of clock mechanics, it is hard to imagine that he did not have any input. Sometime in June, sabotage agent Franz Rintelen demanded to see a demonstration of the bomb. The team made four attempts, but the bomb did not work as designed. The container with the potassium chlorate kept getting wet, the firing mechanism still had quirks, and even the dynamite did not have the envisioned result. Rintelen left for Europe in August. The project came to a grinding halt. American investigators, meanwhile, had discovered German-made “cigar” bombs that had damaged dozens of freighters on the way to Europe, and were canvassing the waterfront for any hint as to who was behind it.

Fay’s next moves are not documented in detail. The four saboteurs kept working on the bombs. However, it seems that money was in short supply. According to Fay, von Papen sent him to Kentucky to bomb a manufacturing plant. Fay went to the Midwest in September 1915, and canvassed the factory in question. A female witness in Chicago reported to investigators that Fay “fleeced her out of eleven hundred and fifty dollars, representing himself to be employed by German Secret Service whose draft for salary and expenses had been delayed.” After Fay returned to New York, he asked Kienzle to get him one hundred pounds of TNT for the factory demolition. Kienzle went to his previous source in New York. However, the chemist was now under U.S. Secret Service surveillance and did not have access to TNT. The Secret Service shadow posed as a supplier in a classical sting operation, and offered to provide the dynamite. The agent found out about the other members of the German sabotage cell during the process, and after meeting Fay, had him, Paul Daeche, and Walter Scholz arrested. If you are interested in the entire story of the German sabotage campaign in 1915, check out The Secret War in the United States. Buy it right here or on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and many other fine booksellers. 

 

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A New President for Mexico - Who Will The U.S. Government Approve?

100 years ago the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, contemplated a solution to the Mexican Revolution. On June 2, 1915 he issued an ultimatum to the warring factions of Venustiano Carranza, Francisco Villa, and Emiliano Zapata to come up with a candidate for the Mexican presidency that all could agree to and who would not be one of the rebel chiefs and who had to be a civilian. He, Wilson, would support this candidate in upcoming meetings of the Pan-American Conference. If the factions could not agree to a candidate, the Pan-American Conference were to choose a president for Mexico, which the United States would recognize diplomatically. 

Generals  Felipe Angeles and Antonio I. Villarreal in 1915

Generals  Felipe Angeles and Antonio I. Villarreal in 1915

Serious wrangling and lobbying started almost immediately. Carranza refused to even contemplate a proposal since President Wilson's ultimatum infringed on the sovereignty of Mexico. He also wanted to become president and had the upper hand of Villa militarily. Felix Sommerfeld and Sherburne Hopkins floated a list of names for Pancho Villa's faction. Villa had immediately reaffirmed his long standing commitment of not wanting to become president of Mexico.

On top of the list was Felipe Ángeles, Villa's chief military adviser and a close ally of the murdered President Francisco Madero. Ángeles went to Washington officially with Pancho Villa’s approval but in reality because the two men had fallen out over military strategy and tactics in the wake of the battles of Celaya. The exiled general set out to meet with the Secretary of State Robert Lansing and other members of the Wilson administration in the end of June. President Wilson, General Hugh Lenox Scott, as well as Secretaries Franklin K. Lane and Lindley M. Garrison liked Ángeles and thought him to be a viable presidential candidate. Scott wrote in his memoirs, “Ángeles was the most cultivated and loyal gentleman I have known in the history of Mexico and he was Villa’s candidate for president, as he was mine so far as I had a right to have any.” However, fielding Ángeles as a candidate was a non-starter. New York Herald reporter Alexander Williams aptly defined the probability of an Ángeles administration in Mexico a few months later: “Felipe Ángeles is the enemy politically of every faction in Mexico other [than] that headed by Villa. Every other faction considers him a traitor. None of the important Mexicans would under any conditions affiliate with him.” 

Ángeles had started his career as a federal officer, and then joined the Madero revolution in 1911. After the president’s murder in 1913, the general sided with the Constitutionalists and became Carranza’s Secretary of War. When Villa and Carranza split, Ángeles sided with Villa. As a result, both the reactionary factions who could not forgive him for joining Francisco Madero, and the Constitutionalists, who Ángeles had dealt devastating military defeats, considered the formidable politician, tactician, and intellectual a traitor. Undoubtedly, President Wilson recognized the fact that Ángeles carried too much baggage to be a viable candidate for the Mexican presidency. His relationship with Villa also played into the decision not to support a Ángeles candidacy. Wilson kept these opinions to himself since the Mexican general remained an important source of information for his administration.

Manuel Bonilla had been Secretary of Communication, then Secretary of Development in the De La Barra and Madero administrations respectively, and thus seemed to have the potential to succeed the slain president as a legitimate successor. Bonilla had joined the Constitutionalists after the murder of President Madero in the spring of 1913. After Villa split with Carranza in 1914, he joined the Villista movement. However, precisely because he identified with Villa, there is no evidence that Bonilla had any real support from the Wilson administration.

Pancho Villa sent another heavy-weight in Mexican politics to Washington: Former Secretary of Education Miguel Díaz Lombardo. Díaz Lombardo spent most of the time the Constitutionalists fought to unseat the usurper president Huerta as their ambassador to France. Díaz Lombardo joined the Villista movement as the Minister of Foreign Affairs when he returned in 1914. A towering intellectual of the Mexican Revolution with an aristocratic background, he was a powerful voice in support of the Villista faction.

Roque Gonzalez Garza, one of the most important intellectuals of “Villismo” and one of Villa’s closest advisers, also joined the team. Gonzalez Garza, Díaz Lombardo, Bonilla, and Ángeles pushed for the candidacy of Vázquez Tagle, a non-descript government official they hoped to be able to control, since all four politicians had personal ambitions for the Mexican presidency. Another intellectual leader in the exile community was José Vasconselos. A philosopher, lawyer, and politician, he had served under the Gutiérrez administration as Secretary of Education until the government collapsed under the weight of Carranza’s military successes. In exile, he maintained close ties with Sherburne Hopkins and the American oil industry. These links came to light in June of 1914, when burglars ravaged Hopkins’ offices and gave sensitive files on the relationship between Mexican revolutionaries and American oil barons to the press. Wholly unacceptable to a host of Mexican factions, he, as well, was not a viable unity candidate for the presidency. Sherburne Hopkins, meanwhile, pushed another potential candidate: Emilio Vasquez Gomez, the Interior Secretary in Madero’s cabinet. He wrote to the exiled politician on June 7, “I think you ought to offer your impartial services… For my part I am ready to do anything whatever [sic] that is reasonable and proper.” However, Vasquez Gomez’ role in destabilizing the Madero presidency in an uprising in the spring of 1912 made him unacceptable to a host of Mexican exiles.

In the end, the warring factions of Mexico could not come up with a viable candidate. Despite his ultimatum Wilson abandoned the idea of imposing a president on Mexico. He realized that the civil war would be fueled rather than smothered. Sometime during July and August of 1915, the American president completely reversed his Mexico policy. He decided to support the most powerful faction of Mexico. The decision would have grave consequences for the United States and Mexico. To learn what happened read Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War. Get it right here or at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other book sellers. 

 

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The Secret War on the United States in 1915 - Introduction

Read the introduction to my new book on the German sabotage campaign in the United States in 1915. If you are hooked, which is my expectation, get the e-book on Amazon for $9.99, the paperback from Amazon for $28, or order a hardcover from this shop and receive a 50% discount. This is the story of what really happened, not some journalistic half history haphazardly put together to get a movie deal. 

The Secret War on the United States in 1915

Despite President Wilson’s declaration of neutrality at the onset of the Great War, the United States became the main supplier of arms, munitions, military and civilian goods for the enemies of Germany and her allies in early 1915. The lure of profits from munitions sales on a grand scale trumped any efforts by the German Empire to resume non-contraband trade with the United States. Germany’s representatives in New York and Washington D.C. deserve blame for this development. From the onset of the war, they missed ample opportunities to counter British propaganda and use the anger of American business leaders, farmers, and merchants over the British sea blockade to exert political pressure. Their ineffective use of American surrogates to oppose the tightening English blockade, and the inability to coalesce American support into promoting trade in cotton, dyes, food, and fertilizer, all helped push American foreign policy away from true neutrality. The biggest fear of the German government, namely unleashing the unbridled power of the American economy in support of the enemy, thus became a painful reality in 1915. 

The frustration in Germany with this development, disregarding the fact that German officials had a lot to do with it, brought a group of hardliners from within the German military and civilian government to the fore. The belief was that a determined war effort against the United States and England would bring the war to a quicker conclusion. Based on intelligence that German military attaché in New York, Franz von Papen, his predecessor Hans-Wolfgang Herwarth von Bittenfeld, and other German intelligence assets had gathered in 1913 and 1914, the hardliners firmly believed that the American military would never play any significant role in the European conflict. Viewed from a military standpoint, they deemed an armed conflict with the U.S. inconsequential. Rather, an American declaration of war might be helpful in bringing moderate ‘politicians’ to support an uncompromising war effort. The flow of supplies and materiel from the U.S. to European battlefields in support of the Entente had a devastating effect on Germany’s war effort. An accommodating diplomatic approach, which the Foreign Office preferred, in their estimation, did not have the power to disturb these Entente supply lines. 

This group of hardliners consisted of influential members of the navy chain of command starting with Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz at the very top and reaching to submarine force commander Hermann Bauer and the German naval attaché in the United States, Karl Boy-Ed. The German General Staff including its secret service, Political Section IIIB under Rudolph Nadolny, also supported a hardline strategy. HAPAG Director Albert Ballin, who longed for a quick end to the conflict to get his massive merchant marine fleet back afloat, supported a tougher approach towards the United States, as well. Interior Secretary Clemens von Delbrück, who worked and agreed with Ballin, joined the group. Delbrück was the direct superior of Germany’s commercial agent in the U.S., Heinrich F. Albert. 

Albert had come to the United States as a German purchasing agent without diplomatic status in August 1914. He not only coordinated the German efforts of blockade running and trade, but also commanded the entire financial structure of the German empire in the United States. Albert was in charge of a secret organization in New York City. Publicly, this Secret War Council managed German propaganda, supported the German-American community, sold German war bonds, and engaged in legal trade. However, the darker mission of this council consisted of organizing clandestine activities in the U.S. during the neutrality period of 1914 to 1917.2 Albert approved and financed the German intelligence cells across the U.S. The leading members of the Secret War Council included the German officials in New York, Franz von Papen (military attaché), Karl Boy-Ed (naval attaché), Bernhard Dernburg (propaganda chief), Karl Alexander Fuehr (propaganda), and Heinrich Albert as chief (commercial agent and financial controller). 

Acting consul general in New York Erich Hossenfelder was not a member of this group of hardliners. Hossenfelder belonged to the more accommodating faction that did not condone the U.S. supply of Germany’s enemies, but feared dire consequences of a U.S. entry headed this faction, which included most officials in the Imperial Foreign Office, in particular the ambassador to the U.S., Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff. This moderate group supported a military strategy subordinate to diplomacy and political considerations, and sought to keep the United States out of the European war. German war strategy shifted significantly in the spring of 1915 and, consequently, reinforced hardliner attitudes. Britain had destroyed the German naval battle group of Admiral Spee in the Falklands in November 1914. Except for small excursions, the German High Seas Fleet remained moored in German ports. Germany’s naval raiders had either been destroyed or saved themselves by agreeing to internment in neutral harbors. The German navy, for all intent and purpose, had been neutralized in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The army also reeled from its failure to swiftly take France. The German forces dug in on the western front and consolidated the gains made in Belgium and eastern France. The momentum now shifted to the east and the Russian front. The German army made important gains in the spring of 1915, as it collapsed the Russian lines and steam-rolled into the strategically important south. The static war on the western front, where material and supply would determine the eventual outcome of the war, moved the United States into strategic focus. 

Albert, Dernburg, Boy-Ed, and von Papen’s efforts from August up to the end of 1914 had had virtually no impact on the German war effort. The German team organized attacks on transportation installations in Canada, supplied remnants of the German Navy from U.S. ports, bought arms and munitions, which they sent to neutral countries or in support of separatist and nationalist movements in India, Ireland, and China. Except for Naval Attaché Karl Boy-Ed, the German team in the U.S. lacked sufficient funds, and added to the amateurish impression of German operations and propaganda in the U.S.

Other than a lack of funding, the main reason for the ineffectiveness of the German team was that the Secret War Council lacked a strategic plan underlying the various efforts. All of that changed in the beginning of 1915. The recognition, albeit late in the game, that the American theatre of war indeed impacted the European fronts, triggered the formulation of a new strategy towards the United States. The German officials in New York had worked hard on achieving this kind of recognition as a prerequisite for realistic financing of their efforts. Since the beginning of the war, the Secret War Council in New York had peppered Berlin with a barrage of facts, demands, ideas, requests, and suggestions in the hope of funding for its mission. 

The German clandestine war against industrial and government targets in the United States in 1915 has spawned countless books in the years since. While the World War still raged in Europe, journalists, retired investigators, and other real or imagined eyewitnesses told the story of outrageous German acts of war against a neutral United States. Sensationalist tales of virtually unlimited funding, armies of German conspirators, and devastating damages to American factories, ships and logistics installations intermingled with a few fact based reports. Several examples were accounts of Captain Thomas J. Tunney, the chief of the New York Bomb Squad, as well as John Price Jones and Paul Merrick Hollister, two of the most notable investigative journalists in New York. After the war, several of the actors in this tragic tale of asymmetric warfare, all with their own agendas to build or correct a lasting legacy, put to paper their memories of a story that has yet to find definitive treatment. 

The historiography of the German sabotage campaign of 1915 in the United States is wrought with inaccuracies, half-truths, and remnants of misinformation the Allies has disseminated as part of their wartime propaganda campaign in the U.S. Standard works, such as Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmermann Telegram, written in the 1960s, could not yet take advantage of the various archives available to researchers today and consequently missed crucial sources. Subsequent events in the German war on America, such as the explosions of the Black Tom Island in the New York harbor in July of 1916, and of the Canadian Car and Foundry factory in Kingsland, New Jersey, in January 1917, have led scholars to make assumptions about earlier, less documented German acts of war. Even recent studies and journalistic accounts contain serious errors because their authors allowed flawed assumptions, the uncritical use of misleading personal accounts, and superficially researched facts to co-mingle with British war propaganda and hearsay. This book has the purpose of setting the record straight using diplomatic, military, financial, and investigative files from German and American archival sources.

The German secret war against the United States in 1915, and its discovery and publication, combined with the disastrous sinking of the Lusitania in May of that year, prepared the American public to finally accept joining the Entente powers against Germany in 1917. German war planners, members of the Admiralty, the General Staff, and political hardliners in the German government underestimated or purposely ignored the risks and cost of a large-scale clandestine campaign in the United States. In hindsight, the decision to execute a secret war in the nominally neutral United States in 1915 was a colossal blunder. This is the story of a group of German agents in the United States who executed this mission.

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Dr. Hugo Schweitzer and the Great Phenol Plot

Dr. Hugo Schweitzer

Dr. Hugo Schweitzer

Dr. Hugo Schweitzer headed the U.S. subsidiary of Bayer Corporation. He had come to the United States in the 1890s as a chemist, climbed the corporate ladder and became one of the top CEOs in the American economy. He also remained on retainer by the German army. Schweitzer was an industrial spy - and a tremendous asset to the German Secret War Council in World War I. Schweitzer had impressed the head of the Secret War Council, Heinrich Albert, through his integrity, absolute loyalty to the German cause and intellectual capability. The German pharmaceutical executive theorized early in the war in an article titled, “Chemists’ War” that the chemical industry was the key to defeating Germany’s enemies. His ideas turned out to have prophetic value, considering the role of chemical and biological weapons used later in the war. After founding the German Publication Society, raising significant contributions from the German- American community, and working with Albert and Dernburg on propaganda projects, Schweitzer wanted to do more. He inundated  Albert’s office with a barrage of suggestions in the spring of 1915, as the German agents in New York embarked on finding strategic raw materials that could disrupt the American production of explosives, arms, and ammunition. The business executive and formidable chemist identified a chemical hardly known for its strategic value: phenol, also known as carbolic acid. This chemical compound, which is derived from crude oil, is used in many industrial products, mainly all kinds of polycarbonates and polymers, as well as detergents, and pharmaceuticals such as Aspirin. However, carbolic acid also was a key ingredient in the production of TNT. The price of carbolic acid increased as the American munitions industry boomed. Shortages of this crucial ingredient in Aspirin haunted Bayer’s Rensselaer, New York factory that produced this wonder drug.

Dr. Schweitzer immediately saw a tremendous opportunity to procure the necessary phenol for the Bayer Chemical Company while, at the same time, removing its availability for the explosives industry. He proposed to Albert and his team in April 1915 to build a factory that processed benzene into phenol and picric acid. This factory would have cost an estimated $100,000, and would have cornered the entire high explosives market. Not ready to invest in a second factory, the idea remained on the back burner while the team explored other options to limit the supply of strategic chemicals. After a barrage of suggestions and market data on the chemical industry, Schweitzer received orders to corner the high
explosives market through purchases of picric acid, a key ingredient of TNT, in June 1915.

Despite serious efforts using Stallforth and various straw men, and despite offering contracts above market price, Schweitzer could not get a contract with the American picric acid manufacturers. While his idea for a German-owned factory wound its way through the Secret War Council’s decision-making process, another formidable American inventor and entrepreneur chomped at the bit. Suffering from shortages of carbolic acid for his own ventures, Thomas Edison decided to build his own phenol refining plant in Silver Lake, New Jersey. Edison had no designs on participating in the booming war industry. Rather, the inventor of the phonograph urgently needed phenol for his booming vinyl record production company. Naturally, Edison’s plans quickly circulated in the chemical industry and reached the ears of Dr. Schweitzer. The Bayer executive immediately entered into  negotiations with Edison to secure excess production for his Aspirin production and prevent phenol from reaching explosives manufacturers. 

Albert agreed to finance the purchase of Edison’s entire annual excess output. Bayer Aspirin, a much-needed product in the domestic U.S. market, became the ideal cover for the project. After the Interior Department gave the green light for the investment, Schweitzer secured 1.2 million pounds of phenol at the end of June, virtually locking down the available U.S. capacities for the entire year. Without phenol, there would be no picric acid. Albert spent $1.3 million ($27.3 million in today’s value) on the contract. Schweitzer and Albert created a web of dummy companies to obscure the underlying mechanics of the operation. Edison’s phenol went to the Chemical Exchange Association, a post office box brokerage firm in New York. The actual deliveries went to the Heyden Chemical Works in Garfield, New Jersey, a subsidiary of the Chemische Fabrik von Heyden in Radebeul, Germany. As was the case with most German industrial producers, the Heyden concern in Germany had been requisitioned for the war and Albert Ballin. Phenol and derivative products went from Garfield directly to Bayer. Dr. Schweitzer sold off what Bayer did not need to other end-uses not considered detrimental to the German war effort. 

The action severely affected the U.S. markets. The price for toluene and picric acid, as well as for all related high explosives, skyrocketed as a result of the German actions. So successful and profitable was the project that Dr. Schweitzer “gave a lavish private dinner at New York’s swanky Hotel Astor in honor of Heinrich Albert. It was a happy evening because behind all the backslapping, champagne and cigars lay the knowledge that Schweitzer had pulled off a remarkable coup… Schweitzer now controlled one of the few available sources of phenol in America and was set to make a fortune.” 

The success of the German team in acting unrecognized behind the scenes of the American munitions industry was not long lived. It was Albert himself who accidentally broke the seal of silence in the end. He had his briefcase snatched on July 24, 1915. The phenol purchases suddenly graced the first pages of American dailies. Albert, teasingly called “minister without portfolio” in the press, offered to resign and return to Germany as a result, but was turned down flatly. Interestingly, nothing about the clandestine projects was illegal, which prompted the publication rather than legal action in the first place. Edison eventually cancelled the deliveries to Heyden and Bayer under pressure. While Albert used his lawyer, Norvin Lindheim, to enforce the signed and legal contracts, the war was rapidly entering a new, more violent stage on the American continent. Despite the setback, the Bridgeport project and the “Great Phenol Plot” remained the most successful German secret missions of the first war year. Heinrich Albert praised Dr. Schweitzer’s success in a letter later in the war:

The breadth of highmindedness [sic] with which you at that time immediately entered into the plan has borne fruit as follows: One and a half million pounds of carbolic acid have been kept from the Allies. Out of this one and a half million pounds of carbolic acid four and one-half [sic] million pounds of picric acid can be produced. This tremendous quantity of explosives stuffs has been withheld from the Allies by your contract. In order to give one an idea of this enormous quantity the following figures are of interest: Four million five hundred thousand pounds equals [sic] 2,250 tons of explosives. A railroad freight car is loaded with 20 tons of explosives. The 2,250 tons would therefore fill 112 railway cars. A freight train with explosives consist [sic] chiefly of 40 freight cars, so that the 4,500,000 pounds of explosives would fill three railroad trains with 40 cars each. Now one should picture to himself what a military coup would be accomplished by an army leader if he should succeed in destroying three railroad trains of 40 cars, containing four and a half
million pounds of explosives.

German Military Attache in the U.S., Franz Von Papen, proudly filed a report on May 18, 1915 to the Imperial War Ministry announcing, 

All reports received here – from the English press as well as from the negotiations of the Allies with munitions-makers [sic] here – show that there is a great shortage of ammunition in
Russia, and that the needs of the English with their apparently enormous expenditure of ammunition during the last weeks, are nowhere near being met.

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The Arm of Obregon

In April 1915, Villa had suffered his hitherto most devastating defeats in the two battles at Celaya. In another engagement in the first week of June, at the battle of León, Obregón again won decisively against Villa’s Division of the North. Observers noted admiringly that Obregón had studied German techniques in the battles raging in France. The German influence in the Mexican general’s techniques came into the open through a Hearst reporter embedded with the Carranzistas. He handed a report from Captain Juan Rosales, a Carranzista living in El Paso, to the Bureau of Investigations: 

General Obregón had his arm shot off early in the fifth, and then Krum [sic] Heller took charge. He had five German officers with him. None of them went into the field, but as every Mexican officer had been instructed by Obregón to obey Heller, he and his Germans sat in a little tent away from the firing line and made maps. On several occasions they rode out to hills and looked at everything through their field glasses. Then they would return to their tent. I was attached to Col. Heller’s staff. Late that night Col. Heller sent for every Carranzista officer. Some of them regarded them as foolish and threatened to disobey, but Heller again produced an order signed by General Obregón commanding every Carranzista officer to obey him (Heller) [.] That settled the matter and the fight soon began. It did not last long. Villa was whipped and then retreated. Heller gave more instructions and our army advanced. Villas [sic] was whipped again and retreated. Heller again followed him and whipped him again. This was the end if Villa’s army.
Obregon after the Battle of Leon in 1915

Obregon after the Battle of Leon in 1915

Villa went on to fight another day. However, after a series of devastating defeats at the hand of Obregon and with the help of the American government, Villa disbanded the Division of the North in December 1915 and headed into the Sierra Madres. Villa died at the hands of assassins in 1923, likely under orders from then President Obregon.  Obregon himself was assassinated in 1928. However, his arm lived on as a relic of the Mexican Revolution until 1989. The New York Times reported on the cremation of the infamous arm:

After nearly 75 years, one of the most grisly relics of the Mexican Revolution has finally been laid to rest. But the interment of what remained of the right arm of General Alvaro Obregon is not likely to erase the talismanic qualities Mexicans have long associated with both the limb and the man. Obregon, a hero of the Mexican Revolution who went on to become a president feared and admired for his ruthlessness, lost the arm at the elbow during a battle on June 3, 1915. For the last 54 years, the limb had been on display in a jar of formaldehyde at a large pink and black marble monument here, surrounded by inscriptions praising the general as a ‘military genius’ and a ‘paladin of the institutions’ that prevail in Mexico today.
The rest of Obregon’s body was buried in his home state of Sonora after he was assassinated on July 17, 1928, shortly after being elected to a second term of office that many historians believe he intended to use to establish a dictatorship. In recent years, alarm over the advancing decay of the limb has given rise to a debate on whether to make his body whole again by removing the arm from its pedestal just beneath a giant statue of the general.
’It’s really depressing to see it, and something needs to be done,’ Abel Cervantes, a former director of the Alvaro Obregon Civic Association, said this summer.
The novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez suggested that ‘they should just replace it with another arm,’ implying that the limb’s mystical aura and historical symbolism mattered more than its physical preservation.
The whole matter originally was to have been settled this summer, with a ceremonial cremation of the arm on the anniversary of Obregon’s assassination attended by troops and government luminaries. But those plans were canceled after some of the general’s descendants objected...In his memoirs, the general wrote that the pain he suffered when the grenade exploded near him as he directed his troops ‘was so prolonged and agonizing’ that ‘I pulled a pistol from my belt and fired into my left temple hoping to consummate the job that the shrapnel had not finished.’
As legend has it, an adjutant wrested the pistol from his intact left hand, and the general’s date with destiny was postponed for 13 years. The arm was preserved during that time by the doctor who amputated it.

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