World War I and the Origins of U.S. Military Intelligence

World War I and the Origins of U.S. Military Intelligence
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World War I and the Origins of U.S. Military Intelligence; James L. Gilbert; Rowman & Littlefield, London, 2015.

Near the beginning of the Revolutionary War, George Washington purportedly said, “The necessity of procuring good intelligence is apparent and need not be further urged.” Even in the 18th Century the importance of intelligence collection and analysis was understood. Today commanders often take for granted the fact that they will have robust intelligence assets and organizations to inform their decision making process, supporting them in ways Washington never could have envisioned. But as James L. Gilbert points out in his book, World War I and the Origins of U.S. Military Intelligence this was not always the case. George Washington who is often credited as the United States first great spymaster ran several spy rings during the revolutionary war including the famous Culper Ring.  The Culper Ring is credited, among other things with providing Washington early warning of British activity and helping identify a British spy working with Benedict Arnold. Washington’s intelligence collection abilities were so good that an unnamed British Intelligence Officer is often quoted as saying, ““Washington did not really outfight the British. He simply out-spied us.” It would take the U.S. Army almost 150 years to comply with George Washington’s urging and create a permanent Intelligence apparatus.

As James Gilbert describes, the origins of U.S. Military Intelligence is the story of the efforts of two men, Dennis E. Nolan and Ralph Van Deman. Nolan, an aspiring teacher and decorated veteran of the Spanish-American War, caught the eye of General John J. Pershing while serving as his adjutant. That contact with Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, would lead to his selection as the first Intelligence Officer (G-2) on an American General Staff in the field.

Van Deman, a Harvard graduate, was attending school at Fort Leavenworth when he met the future head of the Military Intelligence Division, Colonel Arthur Wagner. Colonel Wagner convinced Van Deman of the importance of intelligence. This would lead him to establish the Military Information Division of the Philippines, the first field intelligence organization on the islands.

During the war both men would rise to leadership roles supporting two different missions within the Military Intelligence Division (MID). Van Deman would take charge of MID operations within the United States. A thankless job, Van Deman would be responsible for, among other things, all counterintelligence operations within the U.S. Nolan on the other hand, would deploy to France, becoming General Pershing’s G-2 responsible for all intelligence operations of the American Expeditionary Forces. Nolan would go on to build what people think of today when they refer to tactical Military Intelligence, while Van Deman’s efforts back in the United States, led to him being called the father of Military Intelligence.


In Gilbert’s descriptions of the fledgling Army intelligence organization, many parallels can be drawn between today’s intelligence operations and those of 100 years ago. Two disciplines in particular stand out in their similarities across the bridge of history. Both Signals Intelligence and Imagery Intelligence can draw a direct line between the programs of then to now.


Today when you think of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), the shiny cubed buildings of the National Security Agency or the revelations of Edward Snowden may come to mind. But a hundred years ago SIGINT was in its nascent stages. Gilbert describes the almost accidental birth of SIGINT and cryptology linking them to the efforts of one person, Herbert O. Yardley. According to Gilbert, the Army had two other very strong cryptologists, Major Joseph Mauborgne and Captain Parker Hitt, who had built their own cipher devices; either of which could have “greatly aided in securing US combat communications.”  In another parallel to today, the Army personnel system mismanaged the talents of Mauborgne and Hit.  Both were assigned to other duties, Mauborgne to the Philippines to run the Corregidor Signal Corps Radio Station and Hitt was selected by General Pershing to be a member of his staff, keeping them out of the cryptology business and preventing those cryptosystems from being used.

This mismanagement left an opening for Yardley, who while working as a clerk and telegrapher at the State Department before the war, taught himself how U.S. codes worked. He later wrote a paper that would result in the State Department’s changing its entire code system. When World War I began, Yardley decided to take his skill as a cryptographer to the Army. Ralph Van Deman recognized his talent and put him in-charge of the American Cryptographic Bureau.

Yardley’s reputation as a puzzle solver moved swiftly throughout the government and he began to get requests for support in solving the seemingly unsolvable. Mr. Gilbert describes one such case, as a member of the Justice Department wanted to know if strange holes in a pigeon’s wings were the work of enemy agents attempting to slip messages through undetected. It turned out to be the work of lice.

In August 1918, Yardley deployed to Europe to assist with Allied Cryptographic bureaus. Upon his arrival, he found the Allies less than willing to work with him, a frustration that would dog him throughout the war.  Later in life Yardley would be named head of The Black Chamber a forerunner to the National Security Agency.  The Black Chamber was successful in breaking several diplomatic codes.  When it was shut down in 1929 Yardley wrote a book about the organization called “The American Black Chamber”.  As a result of the secrets revealed in his book congress passed the first laws protecting code and cypher secrets.  


The cover of the book used for this review is adorned with bi-wing pilot decked out in a soft helmet and goggles holding a large box. This photo represents some of the first usages of aerial photography, or Imagery Intelligence (IMINT). Today the access needed to be successful in this discipline of intelligence is taken for granted. Satellites and Unmanned Aircraft can provide an unblinking eye on the battlefield with no risk of loss of life by those controlling the collection.

This was not the case in World War I. To get the same images that we take for granted today someone had to fly over enemy territory, oftentimes unarmed aircraft, low enough and slow enough to get a decent picture. Flying low and slow, however, also meant they were perfect targets for anti-aircraft guns. Other methods included putting a person and camera in a balloon that was even easier targets for enemy aircraft.

The ratio of risk to reward for these missions was far from ideal. The technology of the day made the images collected from these missions only marginally effective. The requirement for the camera to be held steady caused many pictures to come back blurred. In most cases, more information was gleaned from debriefing the pilots on what they saw as they flew over the battlefield.


Gilbert ends his discussion on the origins of army military intelligence by attempting to link what was started in World War I to what would come with World War II. The unfortunate answer was that there were not many direct links. He describes that, as with the end of many wars, senior leaders failed to incorporate lessons learned. Military intelligence would atrophy from lack of use. Experienced intelligence soldiers were moved to other areas. Dennis Nolan attempted to prevent this loss of talent by creating the Military Intelligence Officers Reserve Corps, but Gilbert explains it turned into a place “where veterans gathered occasionally to maintain social connections and swap war stories.”

There were a few successful linkages between the two wars. For instance, the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence on the Army General Staff would become a permanent position. Additionally, Herbert Yardley would continue to put cryptography at the forefront of intelligence operations by breaking Japanese codes, but unfortunately SIGINT would be transferred to the Signal Corps where it would take 15 years to get back on track.

Imagery Intelligence is the one area that truly took off during the interwar period. Advances in both aircraft and camera technology would significantly increase the capabilities of the discipline. Aircraft conducting the missions would transition from slow moving bi-planes to fast, nimble, specially equipped fighter aircraft which were less vulnerable to being shot down.  The camera systems would be greatly improved as well going from a plate film that required the camera to be still for several seconds to one that could take multiple frames in the same time period. The images from these cameras would become clearer and provide more valuable information than ever before.

In the end James Gilbert provides a fine accounting of the frustrating beginnings of Army Military Intelligence. His descriptions provide the reader a good look at the successes and failures of an organization just beginning to come into its own. Gilbert does focus his research on the higher echelons, which while appropriate for the scope of the book, does leave the reader wondering what life was like at the battalion and regiment S-2 levels. This makes Shipley Thomas’s S-2 in Action a great companion read. Thomas’s book, which was published just prior to World War II, describes life as a untrained battalion level S-2 during World War I. Reading the two together ties the tactical and strategic level understanding of how the Army Intelligence discipline came into existence.

James King is a U.S. Army officer currently serving as an Executive Officer for a Military Intelligence Battalion. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Sociology from the University of Washington and a Master’s degree in Strategic Intelligence from American Military University. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Government, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.

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