I have everything I ever wished for, and Germany doesn’t appeal to me a bit.
—Bill Sebold, in a letter to FBI special agent Jim Ellsworth, August 9, 1946
In the early afternoon of December 11, 1941, Berlin time, Adolf Hitler mounted the rostrum in the Reichstag and delivered an eighty-eight-minute address that cataloged the sins of President Franklin Roosevelt (an “unsophisticated warmonger” who was “mentally unsound”) and praised the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of four days earlier “as an act of deliverance” that “all of us, the German people and, I believe, all other decent people around the world as well,” regard with “deep appreciation.” The Führer took note of “the insulting attacks and rude statements by this so-called president against me personally,” making particular mention of FDR’s barb that he was a “gangster.” “This term did not originate in Europe, where such characters are uncommon, but in America,” he said to the delight of the deputies, assorted Nazi dignitaries, and honored Japanese guests. But the loudest cheers came when Hitler made clear that the purpose of his speech was to declare war on the United States, his voice suddenly drowned out by raucous applause that escalated into a standing ovation.
Late in the evening on the following day, Brooklyn time, a jury of nine men and three women filed into a packed courtroom in the old federal building on Washington Street. At a few minutes before midnight, the jury’s foreman, Edward A. Logan, stood before the hushed assemblage and read guilty verdicts against the fourteen out of thirty-three Nazi spies who hadn’t already confessed to their membership in what was known as the Duquesne Spy Ring, still to this day the largest espionage case in American history. The proceeding was unmarred by any disruption. “The defendants took the verdicts stoically, for the most part,” wrote the Times. Judge Mortimer W. Byers then thanked Logan and his fellow jurors for their service. “It will readily appear,” he said, “that you have rendered a very substantial contribution to the welfare of the country which you and I hold very dear.” And so they had.
This, the first US victory of World War II, would’ve been impossible without one man whose contribution to the war effort has never been recognized, William G. Sebold. In a culture that has come to celebrate even the most tangential representation of the Greatest Generation, his identity has remained mysterious, his picture never published. By 1951, Sebold had
“lapsed into an obscurity which has been protected ever since by the FBI,” according to a magazine that used a pseudonym to describe him. “All we know is that somewhere in the U.S. today is a tall, gaunt, middle-aged man to whom each native-born American can well doff his hat in love and respect,” neglecting to mention that the non-native-born citizen owed him a debt of gratitude, too. When Sebold died in February 1970, no obituary or death notice appeared in the newspapers. A pivotal figure in America’s confrontation with Nazism had been forgotten.
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In the years before the formal commencement of hostilities, Hitler’s agents were active in New York. They were a collection of ideologues, opportunists, dupes, adventurers, thugs, sophisticates, poseurs, patriots, seductresses, lackeys, and sympathizers. Most (but not all) were German immigrants who would come to be associated in the public mind (not always unfairly) with a single neighborhood of upper Manhattan, the home base of a nationwide movement of uniform-wearing Nazis whose rallies and marches were a constant source of media fascination. Dwelling within this community of the like-minded were a handful of individuals with the genuine talent to provide meaningful assistance to the German war machine. Few today realize that a Bavarian-born immigrant living in Queens, Hermann W. Lang, succeeded in stealing the plans for America’s greatest prewar secret, a precious instrument of mythic reputation designed to turn modern airplanes into bomb-dropping systems of unprecedented accuracy, a brazen act of thievery that represents the most significant intelligence coup of the Third Reich.
The spies of the thirties were initially able to conduct their work without worry of detection because the US government, focused on remedying economic misery in a period of rigid isolationism, hadn’t assigned any agency to root them out. The story among the Soviet agents was that you could walk down Broadway wearing a sign identifying yourself as a spy and still not get caught. It took a botched investigation into a portion of the Nazi network in New York by an unprepared FBI to convince President Roosevelt that J. Edgar Hoover should be empowered to become the nation’s first modern spymaster. Already a national celebrity for directing his “G-men” in a tommy-gun-assisted crusade against the John Dillingers and Pretty Boy Floyds of the early Depression, Hoover was given the authority to launch covert investigations against
“those who reflect in their
pernicious activities the desires of enemy modes of thought and action,” as he said in a speech on October 24, 1939, less than two months after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland marked the beginning of the war in Europe.
But Hoover’s FBI couldn’t rectify the failure to capture the most destructive Nazi agents in New York—and prove that it had the ability to construct a counterespionage operation of sufficient expertise—without Bill Sebold, a naturalized American of German birth who was both guileless and headstrong. In early 1939, he made the mistake of leaving Manhattan and returning to his mother’s home in the Reich just as Hitler was stepping up his march to war. Through “a strange set of circumstances,” as a US diplomat put it, Sebold was coerced into the German espionage service and sent to the United States, accepting the assignment
“knowing that he would never go through with it, but knowing that he had to do something in order to get out of Germany alive,” said the FBI. Upon his arrival in New York, he agreed to become the first double agent in Bureau history, the central figure in a pioneering undercover operation that steadily grew in size and sophistication, its expansion enabled by the Germans’ willingness to allow him to reach into an ever-widening circle of Hitler’s underground.
Under the guidance of the bespectacled special agent assigned to be his handler, Sebold proved to be a gifted improviser and tireless worker possessed of the fortitude to overcome his anxieties and face down some of the most ominous characters in the city. Since neutrality laws and political opposition prevented the Roosevelt administration from providing even limited military assistance to the Allied cause in Western Europe, the case represented our most consequential fight against Fascist aggression during the pivotal years of 1940 and 1941. The double agent, the
skilled FBI men brought in from across the country to work with him, and even Hoover himself were among those honored few Americans who actually did something to stop Hitler at a time when national figures such as Charles Lindbergh were arguing for rapprochement. The thirty-three convictions ensured that the enemy could not call upon a small army of embedded loyalists once America joined the war and mobilized its full strength against the Axis. In February 1945, when the death of Nazi Germany was all but guaranteed, the New York Times said the
“elimination of this organization, which had extensive ramifications, placed a decisive check on German espionage operations, from which it has found it difficult to recover.” The Manhattan Project to create our greatest wartime secret, the atomic bomb, would be infiltrated by Soviet spies not Nazi ones.
Sebold became a particularly American kind of hero. He was an immigrant with a less-than-perfect grasp of English who stood in opposition to malignant beliefs from back home that were infecting his ethnic community. He was a brave man forced to endure the charge that he was a traitor to his own people because he regarded his oath of allegiance to the United States, taken when he became a citizen in 1936, as
“a sacred thing,” in his description. When one of the accused spies called him a “son of a bitch” in a voice loud enough to be heard throughout the Brooklyn courtroom, an assistant prosecutor approached the bench and confided to the judge,
“This Sebold is the kind of a man that throws that kind of thing off like a duck throws water off.” Judge Byers agreed. “Of course he has shown that he has taken his courage right in his hands in this whole thing,” he said out of the hearing of the jury, press, and spectators. “Probably it is nothing new to him to hear people say those things, speak of him that way, but of course it is very distressing from
the standpoint of decorum that that should be observed in the courtroom.”
“As you know,” FBI assistant director D. M. Ladd told Hoover in a memo on December 17, 1945, “Sebold gave us the most outstanding case in the Bureau’s history.”