The First Hero of World War II and How the FBI Outwitted and Destroyed a Nazi Spy Ring
By Peter Duffy Scribner. 338 pp. $28
This is the story of a German-born American citizen named Wilhelm Gottlieb Sebold, who was recruited by Adolf Hitler’s regime to spy on the United States in the early days of World War II and who became, according to Peter Duffy, “the first counterspy in FBI history.” (The term “double agent” was not yet in use.)
To the Germans, Sebold seemed a likely candidate for the job — he had served in the German army in World War I — but he had become a U.S. citizen in 1929 and took his oath seriously. “I had nothing to do with Hitler anymore,” he said later. “I was an American citizen.” He was in Germany visiting his mother when the Nazis recruited him, and he played along for fear they would not let him leave. But as soon as he had gone through spy training and returned to the United States, he notified the State Department and was soon identifying other German spies and feeding the Nazis erroneous information.
There were in fact a slew of German Americans, many of them U.S. citizens, providing information to Germany before the United States entered the war in 1941, and there was no federal agency responsible for rooting them out, or even a foreign intelligence service. Predictably, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI muscled in to take over domestic security. The G-men set Sebold up with an office in New York and secretly filmed his meetings with many German spies. Eventually, 14 of them were found guilty in a highly public trial that Hoover milked for all it was worth.
Duffy also asserts that Sebold was “the first participant in an early version of the witness protection program,” though after the war he and his wife moved to California and lived there under their own names. There is no question that Sebold acted out of loyalty to his new country, nor that his service, as Time magazine said in February 1945, “placed a decisive check on German espionage operations from which it has found it difficult to recover.”
“Double Agent” is worth reading, but the author spends too much time on other aspects of the war, detracting from the story he set out to tell.