Reviewed by Michael R. Hall (Georgia Southern University - Armstrong Campus)
Published on H-War (July, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Jamie Bisher’s purpose in writing the book is “to bring to light and make sense of the intelligence war in Latin America during World War I.” To accomplish this massive undertaking, over the course of a decade the author made numerous visits to the US National Archives and examined hundreds of documents, which he has meticulously listed in chronological order in the bibliography. Bisher, a freelance writer who has worked in logistics at Northrup-Grumman in Maryland since 1999, adds “new stories, faces, and dimensions” to the study of Great War intelligence (p. 1). The reader is introduced to such intelligence actors as Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, Zach Cobb, Carl zur Helle, Frederick Jebsen, James Harrison Oliver, and Roger Welles. Although the book devotes the most coverage to events involving Mexico and intelligence agents and officers from Germany and the United States, it reveals that “the intelligence war truly made the conflict a world war, touching lives in the Andes, Amazon, and Atacama, far beyond any belligerents’ borders, vessels or missions” (p. 2).
Unfortunately, the book reads more like a disorganized encyclopedia than an analytical case study. In an attempt to follow an overly strict chronological approach—each of the book’s seven chapters is assigned one year—the author engages in frequent repetition of events as well as the abrupt cessation of small case studies midway through the discussion. For example, rather than finding the discussion of the Zimmermann Telegram in one place, the reader is forced to cull the information from various chapters. As a result, the chapters have no discernible thesis topic. In addition, the book lacks a clear introduction and conclusion.
Another problem that plagues the study is the author’s reliance on mono-archival research. To obtain a clear and more nuanced understanding of foreign relations, most thesis directors and academic publishers demand multi-archival research. Bisher acknowledges that his book “suffers from a reluctant over-reliance on U.S. records.” He goes on to say that he visited archives in Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico “in search of intelligence documents and received only incredulous looks and sympathetic chuckles.” Although cognizant of the availability of relevant documents in archives in Chile, Japan, and the United Kingdom, he excuses his failure to investigate those archives by stating that he lacks the “time, money, and the appropriate linguistic skills” to carry out the project (p. 2). Graduate students in history are routinely forced to modify their thesis topics when confronted with archival access issues. Notwithstanding the wealth of information obtained from the documents located in the US National Archives, the author’s listing of them chronologically, rather than thematically or spatially, in the bibliography renders them less useful to students and scholars attempting to use the book as a reference source.
The third major problem is the lack of a discernible analytical framework. Unlike such scholars as John Lewis Gaddis in On Grand Strategy (2018), Bisher fails to contextualize historical events. Ignoring the impact of US imperialist activities, such as the Mexican-American War and the frequent US Marine invasions during the first three decades of the twentieth century, Bisher is surprised by what he perceives as “the treachery of U.S. friends” (p. 1). Lacking any Mexican government documents, the assertion that Venustiano Carranza’s control over the Plan of San Diego, viewed by some as a plot to separate the American Southwest from the United States, was “apparent” is dubious (p. 58). At times, the author displays a lack of understanding of US-Mexican foreign relations. For example, his assertion that “the spirit of cooperation between Mexicans and Americans that had marked President Francisco Madero’s short tenure in 1911 and 1912 ended sharply with Huerta’s takeover” is problematic (p. 52). US Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson disliked Madero and supported Victoriano Huerta’s takeover.
Although Bisher’s passion for history is obvious, his lack of academic training in historical research and writing methods is equally apparent. As a study of the US intelligence war in Latin America, specifically Mexico, during World War I, the book is an interesting and valuable, if at times disjointed, presentation of events. The Intelligence War in Latin America, 1914-1922, however, falls short of being the definitive study of the topic heralded in the book’s title.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Michael R. Hall. Review of Bisher, Jamie, The Intelligence War in Latin America, 1914-1922.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|