The Hidden History of the Espionage Act


On July 24, 1915, the World War was raging in Europe and the belligerents were vying for the sympathy of the neutral United States. In Lower Manhattan, on a Sixth Avenue elevated train, Secret Service agents were tailing George Sylvester Viereck, a German propagandist and a mysterious companion of his—who was, unbeknown to the agents, Heinrich F. Albert, an attaché in the German Embassy. When Viereck got off at 23rd Street, one agent followed him; Albert continued on to 50th Street, where he suddenly looked up from his newspaper, noticed he had reached his stop, and hurried off the car, leaving behind a brown briefcase that the second agent promptly seized. A chase ensued, but the purloined bag ultimately made it to Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, who shared it with President Woodrow Wilson. The documents that Wilson and McAdoo beheld detailed a sweeping secret campaign, linked to high-ranking German officials, of espionage, sabotage, and propaganda. There were plans to take over American newspapers, bankroll films, send hired lecturers on the Chautauqua circuit, and create pseudo-indigenous movements to agitate on behalf of pro-German policies. More disturbing were schemes to provoke strikes in armaments factories; to corner the supply of liquid chlorine, an ingredient in poison gas, in order to keep it from Allied hands; even to acquire the Wright Brothers’ Aeroplane Company and use its patents on Germany’s behalf.

more from David Greenberg at Slate here.