The Secret Service
: Winning A Cause World War Stories
The United States did not declare war till nearly three years after the
war had begun in Europe. During most of that time the situation was
this: Germany, to win at all, must win at once. The longer the Allies
could stave Germany off, the more time they would have to collect arms
and armies, powder, food, and ships, and the more certain they would be
of winning in the end. Therefore they sent to America, which was rich
and had many factories, for tremendous quantities of every sort of war
provisions. Of course it was necessary for Germany to prevent the
Allies from getting these supplies. It was in the effort to do this
that the German spy system became so widespread in the United States.
The German government had always kept in direct touch with a number of
Germans in America, and in indirect touch with a great many more. So
when Germany needed help in America, she called on the German-Americans
to hinder in every way possible the sending of aid to Great Britain and
France. The United States could not allow any one to blow up American
factories and railroads and start strikes among American workmen.
Consequently the United States Secret Service and its fellow agencies
set to work, and the great fight was on.
The opponents, the German Intelligence Office and the American Secret
Service, were not so unevenly matched as one might imagine. What
advantage the Germans lost by being in the enemy's country they made up
by being prepared far in advance, and by knowing just what they wanted
to do. And there is always an advantage on the side of the hunted
animal. Let us see briefly just what each organization was like.
The German service in its heyday was a fearful and wonderful thing.
Little by little, as spies were shadowed, captured, and their papers
examined, the whole far-reaching tangle was revealed. One can tell
only a little here about this tangle--for to tell it all would take
more books than one.
In the German system there were five or six names to be remembered.
Count von Bernstorff, the German Ambassador and chief plotter; Dr.
Heinrich Albert, his assistant and treasurer; Franz von Rintelen,
reported to be a near relative to the Kaiser; Captain Franz von Papen,
the military attache; and his partner, Captain Boy-Ed, the naval
attache. From this group at the top, the lines spread down, through
business men, doctors, editors, clerks, butlers, and every rank and
class in America. Big Bill Flynn, for many years the clever chief of
the Secret Service, said that he thought there were 250,000 men and
women in this country who were working for Germany. Sad to say, not
all of them were German by birth; a few, the most dangerous, were
native Americans, although they were Germans at heart. Everywhere, in
the most unexpected places, these German agents were found, always
busily carrying out their orders with regular German blindness, and
never questioning or knowing anything about the hideous acts of their
superiors. The German machine was, in short, like a huge wheel, with
the brains at the hub.
The United States fought this contemptible creation with several
weapons. The Secret Service was of course the most active; but it was
very greatly helped by the Department of Justice, the Naval
Intelligence, and the Military Intelligence, as well as by the police
departments in the various cities. In fact, one of the greatest
troubles at times was that too many agencies would be working on the
same case. They stepped on each other's heels.
All these branches grew in size during the war, but especially the
Naval and Military Intelligence offices. As early as January, 1916,
patriotic citizens were quietly serving their government, all unknown
even to their own friends, and were collecting pieces of information
and hints here and there that, in the end, were of great value. If the
Germans had spies in every nook and cranny of our nation, so did
we--business men, secretaries, cooks, doctors, and laborers. The
Secret Service was everywhere. Again and again, when some devoted
German was busily doing his duty to his Fatherland, an American Secret
Service agent would lay a hand on his shoulder and show him a ticket to
a prison camp. And then, so curious is the German way of thinking,
nine times out of ten the German, intensely surprised and very cross at
being caught in the act, would insist that he was doing nothing, and
that he had a perfect right to do it!
Now watch the two forces at war. The German machine was working
quietly along, now and then blowing up a factory and now and then being
caught red-handed. It had already suffered a severe loss, for Captain
von Papen, the military attache, had been discovered in his work by the
British and had been deported. When he reached Germany, by the way, he
was given the Order of the Red Eagle by the Kaiser, who doubtless
recognized in the bungling plotter a fellow spirit. Thanks to the
information gained from von Papen's papers, the United States had a
very good idea of what the other Germans in America were doing and
began to make arrests.
Every afternoon at about five o'clock Dr. Albert, the ambassador's
assistant, would leave his office at 45 Broadway, New York, and take
the elevated railroad uptown to his luxurious rooms in the German Club.
He always carried with him a brown leather dispatch case. The Secret
Service men, who had been keeping an eye on him, determined to get that
case, because they knew from the way the doctor always held on to it,
that it must contain something important. A wise member of the Service
was chosen to make the coup.
He watched the German closely for many days, and saw that the doctor
took a train just at five o'clock every day; that, on the train, he
read his evening paper very intently (possibly to see which one of his
friends had been arrested last); and that he always walked through the
same streets from the railroad to his club. Finally one day the agent
decided that he was ready to try for that little brown case.
That evening a quiet, well-mannered gentleman, not noticeable in any
particular way, took the seat next to Dr. Albert on the train. The
doctor spread out his paper with true German disregard for the persons
on each side of him, and began to read. Always he held the flat brown
case clutched against his side. The train passed several stations and
still the doctor hugged his case. Although the car was packed with
people, the American carefully avoided crushing against the spy, for
fear of alarming him. More stations were left behind, and the doctor
had nearly finished his paper. The Secret Service man was getting
worried; would he fail? And there were the papers, so close to him.
Then the train stopped at the next to the last station. At the same
minute Dr. Albert completed his reading, and for the fraction of a
moment raised his arm to fold the sheets. With lightning quickness the
agent slid the dispatch case away from the doctor's side and stood up.
Two or three people jostled him, and he staggered against the doctor.
Then he lunged for the door. The doctor finished folding his paper and
felt for his case. It was gone. He jumped to his feet and glared
around him wildly.
Conductor! he shouted, My case! It is gone!
The gates of the car clanged shut and the train started slowly. Down
the stairs to the street went the American, quietly and confidently,
with the brown leather case under his arm. On the train, Dr. Albert,
white of face, was bitterly calling on his German Gott to find his case
The next day, and the next, and for many days thereafter, a few modest
lines of advertising appeared in New York papers, saying that a brown
leather case had been lost on an elevated train and that a small reward
would be paid for its return. The advertisement stated that the case
was of no value to anyone but the owner. The poor doctor did not dare
call attention to his loss by sounding too loud an alarm, for he knew
what was in the bag.
Of no value to anyone but the owner! Not to ninety-nine people out
of a hundred, perhaps; but the hundredth man had the case, and he and
his chief knew what to make of it.
On a windy morning in April, 1916, two American secret agents, dressed,
as always, in civilian clothes, were walking down Wall Street toward
number 60. From information obtained through the capture of several
spies, they knew that in an office at 60 Wall Street a big, polite
German, Wolf von Igel, was running an advertising agency that was not
an advertising agency. They knew further that Wolf was one of the
chief plotters, and that he kept many of the most important German
plans locked in a big burglar-proof safe, on which was painted the
Imperial German seal. Lastly, and this explains why the two agents
were walking to his office at exactly that hour, they knew that some
especially important plans would be in the safe and that another
dangerous spy would be talking to von Igel. This piece of knowledge
had come through one of the many underground ways which so puzzled the
Germans. It may have been a tip from some American agent who was
secretly working with the Germans to spy on them.
The Americans pushed open the door, hurried right past the clerk in the
outer office, and entered the inner room. Von Igel, who was bending
over a packet of papers, looked up.
I'll trouble you for those papers, von Igel, said one of the
Americans, stepping up to him.
The startled German shoved him back, leaped to the safe door, and
slammed it shut. But before he had time to give the knob a twirl, the
Secret Service men were upon him. In rushed the clerk, and for a few
minutes the four men wrestled and struggled madly all around the little
room. But the Americans were powerful, and they had help at hand.
They threw the Germans down and sat on them to rest, while the
frightened Germans protested.
You have no right to do this, panted von Igel. This is the property
of the Imperial German Government, and cannot be broken into this way!
That'll be all right, answered one American. You see it has been
The papers, seventy pounds of them, were packed up and taken
away,--with the Germans. As the men were leaving the office, they met
the other spy, who was just arriving. It did not take much persuasion
to make him go along too.
The German Ambassador, von Bernstorff, raised a frightful uproar over
this, and claimed that the papers were his. This was a sad mistake on
his part, because, when the letters were opened and the plans read, he
was asked to remember that he had said they were his. There was enough
proof in that seventy pounds to convince even a German. Among other
things there came to light their conspiracies to undermine the
citizenship of other countries. But now all this was made worse than
useless, for its discovery not only laid bare the plot, but also told
the names of all the men who were taking part in it. It was the
biggest victory scored by either side, and the credit for it goes to
our regular Secret Service.
Three of the heads of the German beast in America had now been cut off.
There remained only von Bernstorff. He lasted nine months longer than
the others. The government has not yet told the world all the details
of the ambassador's last great defeat, but some were as follows--
Germany now knew that if she were to win at all, it must be
immediately. So she decided to carry on her ruthless submarine
warfare, and sink all the ships she could, no matter to whom they
belonged. She realized that it would make America declare war on her,
and in order to offset her coming in, she hit upon the idea of having
Mexico attack her on the South, and if possible, Japan on the West.
She did not stop to think (she had no time for that) that Japan was one
of the Allies, and of course would not make war against her. Perhaps
she believed Japan would not remain faithful to the Allies.
So the Foreign Office in Berlin wrote to von Bernstorff in Washington,
and he in turn was to write to Mexico. The success of the whole scheme
depended on secrecy. The arrangements must be made without the United
States knowing anything about it. Once again a heavy responsibility
was thrown upon our Secret Service. How did they carry it?
We have already seen that the Service had its agents in the most
unsuspected places. One of the most unsuspected of them all must have
gotten to work, for within a week the Service knew that something
unusually mysterious was going on inside the German Embassy. Patiently
the resourceful agents worked and worked, bit by bit, until at
last--they won. They secured the most necessary document of the whole
case, the one which Germany was most anxious to keep secret. When it
was made public, it caused the greatest sensation of years. Here it
Berlin, January 19, 1917.
(To von Eckhardt, the German Minister in Mexico.)
On the first of February we intend to begin submarine warfare
unrestricted. In spite of this it is our intention to endeavor to keep
neutral the United States of America.
If this attempt is not successful, we propose an alliance on the
following basis with Mexico: that we shall make war together and
together make peace. We shall give general financial support, and it
is understood that Mexico is to recover the lost territory in New
Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. The details are left to you for settlement.
You are instructed to inform the President of Mexico of the above in
greatest confidence, as soon as it is certain that there will be an
outbreak of war with the United States, and suggest that the President
of Mexico on his own initiative should communicate with Japan,
suggesting adherence to this plan. At the same time offer to mediate
between Germany and Japan.
Please call to the attention of the President of Mexico that the
employment of ruthless submarine warfare now promises to compel England
to make peace in a few months.
Alfred Zimmermann was the German Foreign Minister.
The German defense to this piece of absolute proof was what we have
since learned to expect from Germans;--
We were not doing it. And anyway, it was not unfriendly, and we had a
perfect right to do it.
The once great German machine was now without its leaders, and all it
could do was to carry on a number of small local agitations, with no
directing intelligence. A very few months after the publication of the
Zimmermann letter, the United States itself went into the war. Then
the constant struggle between detectives and enemy-aliens became even
more serious. A new problem faced the Secret Service and its
co-workers. That was to keep the German spies over here from sending
to Germany information that would be of value to her in a military way.
No knowledge of the movements of troops, of fleets, or of supplies must
be allowed to leave America. At all costs the war plans must be kept
The spies tried to send information to Germany by many different ways,
such as by cable to Denmark, Switzerland, or any other neutral European
nation, and then by telegraph into Germany; or by telegraph to Mexico,
and then by wireless to Germany; or by wireless to a neutral ship on
the ocean, which would relay to Germany by her wireless. The first and
most important thing for the spy in every case was to get his message
out of this country.
To prevent this, the United States established censorships. There were
telegraph censors, watching the wires into Mexico; there were postal
censors, examining the mails; but the most interesting was the cable
censor, who had to keep all the cables free from enemy use. Although
cable censorship was done by the Navy Department, its work very often
overlapped that of the Secret Service. Here is a typical example of
how these two worked together, not correct in details but accurately
showing the method followed in a great many cases:--
In June, 1917, some of General Pershing's first troops sailed from New
York, in number about 15,000 men, in 13 transports. On that very day a
Spanish firm in the city filed a cable to Spain, saying:--
Quote 13 millers at 15 per cent.
The censor's suspicious mind, always on the alert for something
unusual, saw that this message could easily be a code, which would mean
to the man receiving it, Sailed, 13 transports with 15,000 troops.
It was too probable to be an accident, thought the censor, and he
decided to watch Mendez & Co. A few days later two more transports
sailed, and Mendez filed three more cables, each containing the number
2, with other figures. The censor promptly put the detectives on the
The merciless grasp of the Secret Service, which always gets its man,
then settled about Mendez. The Spaniard could make no move, day or
night, that was not immediately known to the Service.
In the dead of an autumn night, two agents opened the door of Mendez'
office with a master key, and searched his desk. One man ran over all
the papers, reading them rapidly in a low voice, while his companion,
an expert stenographer, took down the words with lightning speed. This
done, they placed a dictagraph in the inner office, working quickly and
well. With a final glance around, they left, having completed the work
in a remarkably short time.
The next day Mendez' telephone was tapped. Then his secretary left,
and the new one he hired was a Secret Service agent. The Spaniard
never guessed it, for the secretary brought the most trustworthy
references. Every time Mendez held a meeting of his group of German
agents and talked of how to send information to Germany, the secretary
heard all they said, and at once reported it to his chief. Every time
Mendez telephoned, a Secret Service agent listened to what he said.
Every time he had a conference in his office, if the secretary by
chance was not there, the dictagraph made a record of the conversation,
and the Service knew about it.
Naturally such careful watching won in the end. Mendez, who had caught
the German habit of believing that no one was so clever as himself, did
not dream of the net that was being woven around him, and went on
filing his cable messages which, of course, were not sent. All the
information obtained by the Secret Service was sifted, arranged, and
confirmed, and Mendez was arrested. With his departure, his whole
following was helpless, and settled back to swear at the United States
for its tyranny. The patient Secret Service had scored again.
So it went. For every German spy or would-be spy in America, there was
an agent of the Secret Service, equally resourceful, and more likely to
succeed, because, no matter how clumsy his adversary seemed, he never
made the mistake of underrating him. Stupid Yankees, von Papen had
called us, while he went about his plotting with child-like faith in
his skill at hiding. Stupid Germans, the Secret Service might have
retorted, as it skillfully uncovered all his plotting and sent him back
to his Kaiser, where his stupidity was more appreciated.
But it took many months of patient, unceasing work, and far the
greatest part of it was dull, hard, steady grind. Rarely was there any
excitement for the industrious government agents, and more rarely was
there any glory, for the work had to be kept secret. Trailing,
watching, studying, thinking, always putting two and two together and
often finding that they made five instead of four; through day and
night, through sun and storm, the officers whose duty it was to catch
the spy before he could harm America worked steadily on.
That is why America won at home just as she won abroad. Had not the
silent army in the United States fought so unceasingly and so
skillfully, the army in France would have been paralyzed. When you
think of the Great Victory, remember those quiet, unknown men and women
at home who did so much to help win it, and give full credit to the
ROGER WILLIAM RIIS.