The Archaeologist was a Spy: Sylvanus G. Morley and the Office of Naval Intelligence
Jamie Bisher is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy with a master’s degree from the University of Maryland. He works with airspace management and maritime surveillance programs at Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems. His first book White Terror: Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian, will be published by Taylor & Francis (UK) this year.
In April 1917, after a two-year terror campaign in which saboteurs had killed scores of American civilians in factories and on the high seas, President Woodrow Wilson reluctantly declared war on the Central Powers and very soon had to tack.le the burning issue of whether the enemy could position U-boats-the superweapons of the era-to strike the American homeland. The critical question was: could Germany establish secret bases in Mexico and Central America that would enable forays against the Tampico oilfields (which produced 60% of the Royal Navy’s oil), the Panama Canal, American shipping lanes or even US coastal communities? The question was fueled by unsubstantiated intelligence from multiple sources dating back to 1916 indicating that such bases already existed or were in the works.
Fortunately, the prewar Office of Naval Intelligence included a few thinkers who anticipated this strategic question and decided to pursue the answer in spite of obstruction from Josephus Daniels, the pacifist, landlubber politico that Wilson had rewarded with the title of Secretary of the Navy. The peacetime ONI had become a professional bachvater manned by a skeleton crew that was surely outnumbered by German intelligence officers and agents in North America. The depth of Naval Intelligence in the very shadow of the United States was so shallow that it could not even answer the question of whether or not a German unterseekreuzer might be making port calls in the Gulf of Mexico.
So, the arduous chore of digging up the answer fell to a handful of patriotic archaeologists, anthropologists and naturalists, an unlikely gaggle of eggheads who volunteered to ON i just before the US entered the World War. Most spoke Spanish, had enough field experience in the wilds of Central America to know the risks, and understood that their mission added another possible cause of death-murder by German agent-to an already lengthy menu of unpleasant tropical fates: bandits, rebels, drunken soldiers, wild rivers, landslides, deadly critters, festering sores, mysterious fevers, food poisoning, etc. A few volunteers would botch their missions and quietly resume their scientific careers. Others performed brilliantly.
Sylvanus G. “Vay Morley ( 1883-1948), a bespectacled, 34-year old scholar of Mayan history, organized and led the most successful team. Morley approached ONI in March 1917, took his navy physical on the 271h of that month, was commissioned an ensign on April 7, designated Agent No. 53, issued codebooks and a keyword, assigned mail drops in New York and Boston, outfitted by Abercrombie and Fitch, and was on his way to Belize April 22. His core team included a young illustrator, John Held, Jr., Dr. Herbert J. Spinden of New York’s American Museum of Natural History and Dr. Samuel K. Lothrop of Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Of the latter, only Spinden was commissioned before Josephus Daniels ordered a halt to reserve commissions; in a fit of bureaucratic myopia, the Secretary deemed it better to bar commissions to all volunteers rather than risk their issuance to undeserving and well-connected individuals. However, an ensign’s bars would have been a minimal acknowledgement of the contributions and sacrifices that Held and Lothrop were to make.
These gentlemen accepted responsibility for a huge strategic area where lush tropical beauty and genteel culture masked a treacherous atmosphere of recurring biblical pestilence and byzantine politics dominated by paranoid caudillos and oligarchs Revolutionary Mexico practiced a pro-German neutrality, Guate-mala’s iron-fisted dictatorship embraced pro-Allied policy to spite Mexico, rival El Salvador asserted an anti-American policy in direct proportion to US-Guatemalan want, an anemic Nicaragua had been bled dry by extortionate New York creditors with political connections in Washington, and British Honduras was, of course, solidly behind the war effort but her citizens were more concerned with Mexican aggression against their Mayan brethren in the Yucatan. When Honduras severed relations with Germany in May 191 7, Vay Morley pulled a small American flag from his luggage and, to the accompaniment of a military band, raised it alongside the Honduran colors over a baffled crowd and a foundation of soldiers wearing dirty cotton shirts and pantaloons, straw hats, and sandals and armed with machetes and flails. The archaeologist-spy noted that ” .. .the European War is more remote-less comprehended -than the life of the ancient races I am studying.”
Morley’s archaeological survey enabled him to reconnoiter from Campeche, Mexico to Bluefields, Nicaragua on the Caribbean side, and from Ayutla, Guatemala to the Gulf of Fonseca on the Pacific side, scrutinizing nearly two thousand miles of coastline of particular interest that could have harbored German activity. He reported on every suspect river, bay and lagoon, noting the varying depths, commerce, shipping, settlements and resident foreigners. After enduring just a few months of “ticks, mosquitoes, fleas, sand flies, saddle-sores, seasickness,” scrapes with pompous bigwigs, and brushes with accidental death, Morley and company could dispel most rumors of secret German lairs, and by June 1918 they could conclusively declare that the ONI Section A-7, Yucatan and Central America, harbored no U-boats or enemy bases. Meanwhile, Morley built a well-placed network of reliable agents and informants, identified several German and Austro-Hungarian expatriates suspected of belligerent activities, reported extensively-in the thousands of pages-on local political and economic situations, and built goodwill by befriending presidents, generals, peasants, scholars, mariners and a cornucopia of others.
The authors, Charles H. Harris, III and Louis R. Sadler, are both historians at New Mexico State University with many previous works about the history of the American southwest and military history south of the border. This book is the product of extensive, groundbreaking research, masterful collation, and expertise, truly “superb scholarship” as one reviewer put it.
Although one reviewer asserts that “many archaeologists will be made uneasy by the authors’ lack of concern over the ethical issues raised by Morley’s espionage,11 Harris and Sadler even address the modern anguish of liberal and left wing academics who assert that Morley’s duplicity endangers his professional descendants. The accusing reviewer, Archaeology magazine’s David H. Price, appears unaware that the dangers and difficulties facing archaeologists overseas also face foreign aid workers, field engineers, missionaries, tourists and, indeed, all foreigners, who, in the eyes of counterintelligence services everywhere, are all suspects. This same ethical issue arose in 1919, when prominent anthropologist Franz Boas exposed some of the archaeologist-spies and even wrote about it in a letter to the editor of the magazine The Nation. Alas, Boas’ outspoken pro-German sentiments were well known, and his self-righteous attempt to denigrate Morley and company boomeranged into Boas’ public humiliation and professional ruin.
Harris and Sadler also provide a number of fact-filled appendices for scholars of Latin American and intelligence history. The Archaeologist was a Spy is the rare example of an excellent read that brings to light an untold tale of selfless heroes and a great reference book that fills a gaping hole in a piecemeal historiography. And finally, the findings of Morley, Harris and Sadler dispel the myths in submarine history of the Kaiser’s secret U-boat bases in Mexico and Central America.