Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Treacherous Passage: Germany's Secret Plot
Reviewed by Charles H. Bogart

Treacherous Passage: 
Germany's Secret Plot against the United States in Mexico During World War I

by Bill Mills
University of Nebraska Press, 2016

The author has written an excellent book casting light on one segment of the troubling relationship the United States has often had with Mexico. As the year 1917 dawned, most Americans would have overwhelmingly predicted that if the United States went to war that year it would be with Mexico, not Germany. Within the pages of this book Bill Mills fleshes out the story of United States, German, and Mexican relations in 1917—first brought to the attention of the general population in Barbara W. Tuchman's 1958 book The Zimmermann Telegram.

The heart of Bill Mill's book concerns itself with intrigue undertaken by various German nationalists trapped in Mexico to outfit two ships for employment as warships to support attacks on American coastal shipping. The story of the endeavor of these German nationalists to purchase and outfit these two ships is a story of how a series of unconnected random acts can have unexpected outcomes. The prime example of this was how the Mexican warship Morelos went from the pride of the Mexican Navy to sunken warship to a candidate as a German raider. Even more brazen was the plan to convert the motorized schooner Alexander Agassiz into a commerce raider to prey upon the American fishing fleet operating off Southern California.

Suspected German Agents Captured Aboard Alexander Agassiz by U.S. Navy 

Central to the story is how various German nationalist and opportunist Mexicans formed a business alliance to circumnavigate United States wartime probations on the selling and shipping of certain goods to German-controlled companies in Mexico. Part of this alliance later broke off to become an active anti-American force proposing to indirectly and directly attack the United States. As part of this activity a 1,000-man German Army Reservists camp was established at El Claro in Sonora. The plan called for these men to be trained as officers and NCOs and then used as a leadership cadre directing a 45,000-strong Mexican rank and file army that would seize Texas. The invading German/Mexican army would be reinforced within Texas by disgruntled African Americans, locals of Mexican descent, and anti-capitalist agitators. If in hindsight the proposed outcome of this invasion plan seems naive, foolhardy, and divorced from reality, one still never knows how such a failed attack would have impacted American war aims.

A sub-story the author presents in Treacherous Passage concerns the proposed arrival in late 1917 of five German submarines off the west coast of California. These boats were to sail from Germany through the Straits of Magellan to a rendezvous with supply ships purchased by Germans in Mexico. Unfortunately, the author provides no information from German naval archives listing what U-boats were to make the voyage or if there were any boats with this range of operation.

Mixed in with the above story is the tale of American counter-espionage activities against Germany both in Mexico and the United States. As one reads the story of the German anti-American activities in Mexico one is amazed at how amateurishly the Germans conducted their operations. The whole story presented within this book to my mind reads more like an act of deliberate German misinformation to feed to U.S. agents for the purpose of tying down U.S. naval and military forces along the Mexican border and the coast of California, than the operations of a true espionage outfit.

The author provides a fascinating look at German/Mexican/American relationships during the period 1914–1917. I would be interested in hearing from others if they believe that proposed 1917 German operations against the United States from Mexico were real or were part of an elaborate deception plan to tie down the U.S. Army on the Mexican border.

Note: This review is being presented concurrently in The Journal of Military Past published by the Council on American Military Past. 

Charles H. Bogart

1 comment:

  1. Good review. Great line about reading like misinformation.

    Sounds like a nice complement to recent work on German WWI schemes in the Middle East.