The Ambassador's Troops: U.S. Military Attachés and Military Intelligence, 1885-1920

By Votaw, John F. | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Ambassador's Troops: U.S. Military Attachés and Military Intelligence, 1885-1920


Votaw, John F., Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


PRIOR TO THE WAR WITH Spain in 1898, officers of the U.S. Army were members of a parochial and slowly modernizing professional group. Recent scholarship has challenged the long-held opinion that the officer corps was severely isolated from civilian society during the late nineteenth century, as suggested by Samuel Huntington and others.1 A small group of American officers serving as military attaches in the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century experienced the internationalism that other sectors of American society had made routine.2 As Graham Cosmas has written, "the basic agenda for Army reform was set well before the outbreak of war with Spain."3 The military attaches were part of that reform impulse. At their foreign posts, the American officers responded to the needs of the resident U.S. minister or ambassador but also worked according to task lists provided by the Military Information Division (MID) of the War Department. Specifically, they developed contacts with military officers of their respective host nations and other military and naval attaches of nations posted to that same host country. Normally, the senior attache, regardless of nationality, functioned in the capacity of coordinator in both official group and social situations. This international, cosmopolitan outlook was absorbed by American officers and carried back to their units and subsequent staff assignments in the United States. The work of the American attaches did not produce much direct transfer of information from foreign military establishments to the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, but it did create an awareness of how other military systems dealt with problems and issues confronting the American military. In a reciprocal way, officers of foreign nations were posted as attaches in Washington, D.C., so the same cross-cultural dissemination of ideas and practices occurred there as well. This is not to discount the obvious intelligence-gathering function of the military attache when he was serving abroad.4

John Greenwood, in his study of military observers in the Russo-Japanese War, concludes that not much of importance happened within the American military establishment as a result of the observers' reports to the MID and the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) of the Navy Department. He was certainly correct that no important policy or doctrinal issue was implemented or changed as a result of what had been learned by American observers in Manchuria.5 However, the American observers and military attaches who witnessed in Manchuria the new technology of war-machine guns, rapid-firing field artillery pieces, functional logistics, and tactical intelligence operations-did convey that information back to the MID and the ONI. Some of the information found its way into technical bulletins and pamphlets; other information was shared within the bureaus of government. What has not been proven to date is whether any such activity had a direct bearing on improved technology or operational procedures in the American army or navy. The water had been poured in the trough, but the horses may not have drunk any of it.

Beginnings

An inward-looking nation for the first seventy-five years of its existence, the United States had no pressing need for military information from abroad. Aside from identifying textbooks needed at the U.S. Military Academy and an occasional study of foreign fortifications, American contacts with other military systems were infrequent and in response to specific requests.6

After the Civil War, it was common for American officers to seek opportunities outside the normal routine of life within the service or garrison. Some sought adventure overseas with foreign armies, but most regular officers either stuck it out or resigned in favor of civil life. For those who were not fighting Indians, there were opportunities for education, both civil and professional.7 In the late 1880s the military services, other agencies of the federal government, and business corporations were adding intelligence bureaus to their organizations. …

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