Living Legacy of WWI: Counterterrorism Strategies in the War's Aftermath, with Mary Barton
May 29, 2018
REED BONADONNA: My name is Reed Bonadonna. I'm a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. We are working on "The Living Legacy of the First World War" project. Nine scholars are investigating different aspects of the First World War, the American experience in particular, and I'm talking to one of those scholars today.
It is the 23rd of April. It is a little past 9:00 in the morning on a very nice, warming up, kind of sunny day in New York City, and I will now have the speaker Mary Barton introduce herself and say anything she would like by way of self-introduction at this point.
MARY BARTON: Good morning. Thank you, Reed.
I'm a contract historian with the Office of the Secretary of Defense Historical Office, and the views expressed today during our conversation are my own and do not necessarily represent those of the Historical Office or the Department of Defense. My project for Carnegie is based upon my dissertation research, which I completed while pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia.
REED BONADONNA: I will mention—full disclosure—that this is the second time that Mary and I have had this interview. The first one had to be shelved because of technical difficulties. Still, I am looking forward to getting an update. The original interview that had to be discarded was a good two months ago, I would say. There are probably some additional insights, things we didn't get to in the first interview.
However, I am going to start pretty much where I started the first interview with just a couple of introductory questions. To begin, a fairly standard question I've been using—and I will mention we've been doing these interviews with all nine Fellows, and at this point we've completed all of them but one—by asking Mary how she got started on her World War I project. I know the origins of it were actually with her Doctoral dissertation, but I'm sort of interested in how she got interested in that as well, so how the interest in the idea of terrorism and counterterrorism and its origins in the First World War first occurred to her and how she developed an interest in that subject.
MARY BARTON: Thank you for the question. Actually during my third year of undergraduate study I was abroad for the entirety of the year at Oxford University, and while there I wrote basically a thesis using primary sources from the UK National Archives. For that study I was looking at the role of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) with Yugoslav resistance groups during World War II. This SOE was the group that Churchill had told to "set Europe ablaze." We would see SOE as a predecessor to modern counterterrorism and special operations.
As part of my thesis project, I read Anthony Eden's memoir Facing the Dictators. Eden was a British Conservative politician. He was a foreign secretary and prime minister. He is famous for two things: first, for resigning because of appeasement before the start of World War II; and second, he was prime minister during the Suez Crisis, which is seen as a catastrophic end to British presence in the Middle East and signaling the rise of the United States and Soviet Union as the dominant powers during the Cold War.
Less well known are Eden's mentions in his memoirs of an international conference organized by the League of Nations to combat terrorism in the 1930s. Always in the back of my head I was interested in what was the League of Nations—which was the intergovernmental body set up after World War I to maintain peace—doing combating terrorism this early on? My associations with terrorism had mostly been from 9/11 forward and with our current orientation toward global jihadism.
The idea stayed in the back of my mind, and then when I started graduate school in August 2011 I decided to start with the beginning of modern counterterrorism and terrorism. Most scholars date that to the anarchist terrorists, actually. So I started there. In the 1880s and 1890s there is a spate of anarchist assassinations moving from Russia forward. What that gives rise to is a response among Western governments with nations in Europe gravitating toward international cooperation and shared information because their borders are so porous. They want to synchronize their response. In the United Kingdom you have a shift toward policing and intelligence, particularly through the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police, which was formed first to disrupt Irish nationalist bombings and then shifts and focuses on anarchist attacks.
In the United States, because you have this idea that anarchist terrorism is a revolutionary doctrine coming from Europe, there is a turn toward immigration legislation. After President William McKinley is assassinated by an anarchist in 1901 the United States enacts exclusionary immigration legislation in 1903 which prohibits anarchists from coming into the country and allows for their deportation.
These legacies are there, and then you have World War I, which in many ways starts because of a terrorist attack with the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Then my dissertation gets into the continuities and changes of terrorism and counterterrorism for what is known as the "interwar years," the time period between World War I and World War II.
My Doctoral program was five years, with a one-year post-doc at Dartmouth College's Dickey Center, which allowed me to conduct archival research at the National Archives in the United Kingdom, the British Library, the League of Nations Library, which is in the UN compound in Geneva, the French Foreign Ministry Archives, and in the United States at a number of small repositories and at our National Archives here in Washington, DC.
REED BONADONNA: I'd actually like to hear a little more about your research on a personal level. I would be particularly interested in hearing about recent research you've been doing on the research project. But going back, too, to your Doctoral dissertation, I wonder were there any "Eureka!" moments in there or surprises or discoveries that were unexpected. Did you encounter any obstacles and have to do down any false paths before you found your way and were able to find the mother lode for the kind of information that you were looking for?
MARY BARTON: I think what surprised me a lot—and I hadn't seen this before—was a secret intelligence relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. This comes out of World War I because the British begin working directly with the U.S. federal government. Previously, the British, their Home Office and India Office, had run limited, sporadic investigations of Irish and Indian diaspora communities in the United States. But then during the war, with fears of German espionage and subversion, they attempted to bring the United States into the war on the side of the Allies. Through an MI6 officer, William Wiseman, they are able to create liaison relationships with the Department of State and also with Woodrow Wilson's personal confidant Colonel House.
That sets a foundation that continues during the 1920s in particular, but it's based out of the U.S. embassy in London. What is so neat about this is how similar somewhat the security apparatuses are, so whether you're talking about security services in the United Kingdom and or in the Department of State, they're very elite, with similar social backgrounds and education experiences, and a shared belief that the Soviet Union and Communist International posed a threat to both nations' national security in the 1920s. It is a pretty unknown story, I think. Going through the documents here at the National Archives for the State Department, when the U.S. London embassy officials would write about information they were getting from the British, they would always refer to British intelligence and police officers as "our friends."
In some ways, even before the militarization of the Cold War, you have allies being set and an intellectual framework for understanding the threat and this idea that the Soviet Union through the Communist International was willing to engage in regime change through sponsoring groups that use terrorist tactics, both in the colonies, which is the British concern, and also in Europe, particularly in the Baltics and in countries neighboring Soviet Russia.
REED BONADONNA: This is kind of the origin of the "special relationship," as it has been called, this interwar period that goes on for decades.
MARY BARTON: With intelligence, yes. It also stands in contrast to the general deterioration of relations between the United States and the United Kingdom. What is often forgotten is that they were very much adversaries during the interwar years. They were competing with the naval buildup, they were economic rivals. Among the general public, many people in the United States were very critical of imperialism and supportive of nationalist movements against the British Empire.
REED BONADONNA: In your research, I'm curious whether any of the personalities, the ones you've mentioned—Eden, Churchill, others—stand out in your mind as particularly compelling, effective, or maybe just eccentric. What characters stand out in this narrative, if any, so far?
MARY BARTON: I think as I go back to rewrite parts of this project I will make it more character-centric. With my job I've been actually doing a lot of research on contemporary counterterrorism and reading books by journalists, and what certainly makes their work so effective is their ability to bring out the personal story.
But in my dissertation I was more interested in larger structural changes, like understanding what motivated terrorist groups after World War I. I was looking at ideologies and I was looking at the proliferation of small arms because of the war, and then thinking about how governments combat that through international law and specifically with a number of arms-trafficking treaties.
As I mentioned, in the late 1930s there is the League of Nations conference to combat terrorism, which leads to two treaties, one to create an international criminal court and a second to suppress terrorism broadly as well as innovations in policing and intelligence sharing.
REED BONADONNA: In the first interview we talked a little bit about a definition of terrorism. Was there a serviceable one? I'm not sure where we left that.
One of the questions that occurs to me when I'm reading over your research proposal and some other things on terrorism is that there seems to be disagreement and debate about what kind of a thing terrorism is, and not just defining it but finding the proper genre. Maybe there are several. Maybe the answer is, "Well, it's a tactic and an ideology." It occurs to me that for some people at least it's a lifestyle and a matter of psychology, of personal fulfillment, atavism, a number of things.
Do any of these ways of looking at terrorism strike you as particularly fruitful, either for the scholar or perhaps for the person who is trying to understand terrorism as a phenomenon and combat it? Maybe for some of this we could go back to the origins of terrorism, because it appears to have had a historical beginning, relatively recent, at least being described as such. What gives birth to it in the first place, and does a knowledge of that feed into our understanding of what kind of a thing terrorism is and how one understands it?
MARY BARTON: I think the definition question is always so important. It is the number-one question that people ask because it carries such historical and moral weight, and the power it now has for governments when they label a group "terrorist," what that entails in terms of policing or a militarized response.
Terrorism is generally understood to be a tactic. I think it is important to understand it as a tactic. It is symbolic. You are usually choosing symbols—
REED BONADONNA: As targets.
MARY BARTON: —that resonate with the larger public because it is also a form of communication. Terrorist groups and lone wolf actors carry out their attacks for a political end.
The first modern terrorist organizations are generally attributed to social revolutionaries in tsarist Russia in the late 19th century. Revolutionaries in Russia referred to themselves as terrorists, arguing that political murder of state officials was justified against a repressive regime. That idea actually has never dissipated, I don't think, amongst any iterations of terrorist movements.
Colonial governments labeled revolutionary nationalists as terrorists as a way to discredit the organizations. As the term "terrorist" took on a more pejorative meaning, revolutionaries used a new vocabulary to describe themselves: "freedom fighters." The political scientist David Rapoport has pointed out that it was Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun, who first used the term "freedom fighter" to describe his group's struggle against British rule in Mandatory Palestine. Begin argued that the British government was a terrorist state. Subsequent anti-colonial and national groups used the same logic to justify the use of violence, particularly assassinations of government officials and bombings of state buildings, against imperial governments.
The colonial and imperial legacy of terrorism has made it difficult to define the term in international law. After the Second World War, many representatives in the United Nations from former colonial territories opposed labeling groups as terrorists if they used violence in the struggle for self-determination. Starting in the 1960s, the United Nations began outlawing components of terrorism, such as hijacking or hostage-taking, in international treaties. Since the 1990s, however, terrorism scholars, such as Walter Laqueur, have been asking whether we are witnessing a "new" form of terrorism, marked by religious inflections and high rates of civilian casualties.
My research has led me to question when and how Western governments come to view terrorism as a dangerous "-ism" in the service of threatening transnational movements. In the 1920s and 1930s, Western security services feared international communism and its ability to inspire subversion from within and external aggression from without. In the present, terrorism is most strongly associated with global jihadism and those groups advocating terrorist tactics, such as al-Qaeda or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
It is important to look at terrorism from a historical perspective, to understand where the term came from and to not see it as being tied to any one group for any specific cause, because left-wing groups have used terrorist tactics; right-wing groups have used terrorist tactics; different religious extremists have used terrorist tactics.
REED BONADONNA: I can see that. One of the other questions that I think we discussed last time is the possibility that people who are combating terrorism today might be able to learn something from studying the terrorist groups of the past and also other people who have engaged in counterterrorist activities.
I'll go back a little bit to the question of understanding the terrorist. In combating terrorism, what works? Terrorism seems to have certain appeals to some people, and in combating terrorism is there a way that has worked or could work to undermine those appeals, to make the recourse to terrorism less appealing?
You could compare it to warfare maybe. After a while, if you're a warrior, your solution to problems is war, and that is your sort of default. That's how you want to proceed.
If you're a terrorist, even though it's not an ideology, I understand, but there is probably a tendency to say, "A terrorist solution to this would be preferred because after all I'm a terrorist, and that's what terrorists do." Is there a way of trying to cut that connection that works?
MARY BARTON: I think in terms of lessons learned from the past, terrorism is a low-intensity type of warfare, so it is used by groups against a stronger enemy. Whether you're talking about terrorist groups or lone wolf actors, they're employing the technologies at hand.
For the anarchists it was bombs and explosives because of the invention of dynamite. The mass production of weapons during the First World War provided militants with access to small arms during the 1920s and 1930s. In the contemporary period, airplanes have been turned into missiles and cars and trucks into large bombs, while groups have used rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against helicopters and tanks. Most recently, ISIS members have employed commercial drones against coalition forces in Iraq.
Successful terrorist organizations have also publicized their cause and inspired emulators. The anarchists, for example, were prolific writers and theorists and also produced how-to guides for building bombs. Governments then and now have struggled to defeat a doctrine of terrorism—meaning its underlying ideology or intellectual justification—and to prevent technical manuals from spreading amongst militants. When thinking about recruitment and radicalization, it is also clear that prisons have played a crucial role in introducing individuals to militant terrorist organizations (along with religious and secular ideologies) and increasing their willingness to use violence.
REED BONADONNA: How does that radicalization take place? Even though I understand the weapons are available and they are what they have, there is still a choice involved: I can resort to terrorist tactics in this case, or I can eschew them, obviously.
MARY BARTON: That is a big question sometimes about how do you effect change. In democratic governments, citizens ideally trust their political institutions and work through the system and machinery of government to create change.
Groups have often turned to terrorism when no political institutions for change exist or the system has been discredited. Among left-wing groups, for example, there was a split in the late 19th century about whether to challenge the system gradually through such things as trade unions, or to use terrorist attacks, referred to as "propaganda by deed," to inspire revolutionary uprisings and rapid change.
In the past and present, individuals and groups have turned to violence if they felt that democratic processes to elicit reform were not available.
Both non-state actors and state sponsors of terror have justified terrorist operations in the name of ideologies, and/or a specific worldview, and for geopolitical strategies and goals. Identifying the causal factors inciting violence is essential for combating and undermining the appeal of any group seeking to recruit and radicalize.
REED BONADONNA: Is there a way to do that? If you can encapsulate that worldview that you were talking about and just summarize your bumper sticker for a counter-narrative, is there something that has occurred to you in your research that this is something that could be effective?
MARY BARTON: Traditional counter-terrorism responses have involved the military, police, and legal profession. Contemporary practitioners in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe have shifted toward countering violent extremism (CVE) in recent years. CVE is considered a more "whole of government" approach, bringing in civil society, community advocates, religious leaders, and mental health professionals. CVE is explicitly interested in establishing a counter-narrative by employing social media platforms to challenge terrorist and militant propaganda.
REED BONADONNA: I could be wrong about this. I've heard other people make this assertion, but it seems that the United States has not created as many homegrown terrorists within our own population as, let's say, some European countries, who seem to have a bigger problem with a radicalized element of people living in their country, residents of their countries. Am I right about that? If so, are we just lucky at this point? Is it a question of numbers? Does culture have anything to do with it? How does that play with you?
MARY BARTON: I think in Europe, from my understanding, a lot of it is about immigration and assimilation, particularly among young people who are second-generation from former colonies but also because of the wars and chaos in the Middle East and Africa where people have emigrated to Europe. They have had difficulty integrating into the system. Part of that is how do you find jobs, how do you feel connected and allegiant to the government? Part of that alienation, as far as I understand it, has helped fuel the turn toward a type of community that jihadists are trying to say exists and create, and that has spurred some of the recruitment of foreign fighters who went to Syria and Iraq.
I think in the United States there may be some of that. There were Americans who also went to Iraq and Syria and joined Islamic State. That is also the big question of what is effective in counterterrorism: Is it a law enforcement issue? Is it a national security issue? Is it an intelligence issue?
I think the integration question is, how do you ensure that individuals feel that they are part of your system? That has long been the power and appeal of the United States. Citizenship is based upon a belief and loyalty to political institutions rather than on cultural and/or ethnic nationalisms.
REED BONADONNA: Nice. It is interesting that you are working now as a historian for the Defense Department and you have a Doctorate in history as well. Your dissertation certainly seems to me to have potential to be a book once you get past finishing this fellowship.
I am curious to know what you think the way forward is for you after the Carnegie Council fellowship: Do you see yourself staying with the Defense Department? Are you going to do more historical work? Are you going to write that book and maybe become an expert on terrorism and its historical aspects? What does the future hold in light of this project and the other work you're doing?
MARY BARTON: I'm very grateful for this fellowship because it's allowing me to really think through my dissertation and to write a book manuscript. My current position is such a privilege and an amazing opportunity to grow and learn as a historian every day. In the future, I will be working on a project that is about the history of the Department of Defense and counterterrorism, so that will allow me to learn a lot more from the 1970s, moving forward.
I think it will be a topic that I continue to work on and learn about, and I will hopefully contribute as a scholar to a broader understanding about counterterrorism and terrorism.
REED BONADONNA: I do hope in your history of defense secretaries you do some work on my personal hero George C. Marshall, who was defense secretary for only about a year I think before he retired. He accomplished some important things in office, and I have always thought of him as a great American, if there is one.
Maybe we can start getting to the finish line. Questions I haven't asked, things that are interesting to you now about your project that maybe we haven't touched on that you would like to address now, questions to ask yourself.
MARY BARTON: This is a heavy topic to write about because—
REED BONADONNA: Yes. Not fun.
MARY BARTON: As a scholar studying the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I have the distance to be clinical in my examination of past terrorism and counterterrorism. As a contract historian working for the Department of Defense, the issue is more immediate and I am humbled and privileged to work with military and civilian members who have dedicated their lives to protecting the United States. I have learned an incredible amount from my academic professors, my dissertation research, and my jobs. I hope and believe that the diversity of perspectives will help me to be a better historian of counterterrorism.
My scholarship addresses the question of why people for political or for religious reasons are willing to take up arms for an idea. That has always in some ways fascinated me. Although I have learned much from the secondary literature, it is really the primary research which is incredibly fascinating and fun because you're going to all of these different archives around the world. You're there and you're reading different notes written by various historical actors and you start to see the story come together and the way that these different fragments eventually build up into a narrative, an idea, and story that really matters.
In this case the British Empire was the lead anti-terrorism government in the 1920s and 1930s. The big focus was on arms control. You can see how important that was in their initiatives to stop arms smuggling out of Germany and attempts to board ships. It is really an incredible process to help bring to light a history that is not well known.
REED BONADONNA: Did you actually visit these international archives or have you mostly visited them virtually or gained access in that way?
MARY BARTON: Oh, no. All of my fourth year of graduate school, 2015 and 2016, I was abroad. I was in London, Geneva, Paris, and DC for archival trips, and then I also went out to the Hoover Institution in California. So no, I needed to travel to view the documents, which were not available online.
That is an experience in itself to be able to travel to these different countries and experience the culture and just to be there. My junior year of undergrad when I was studying abroad, I also had a chance to go to the former Yugoslavia and travel around there. I went to the bridge where the Archduke was assassinated, sparking the First World War. The travel aspect has always been part of the allure of being a historian for me.
REED BONADONNA: That's great. Did you have a favorite city or archive or staff at one of these places that you really enjoyed your interaction with, your visit?
MARY BARTON: You really cannot beat the League of Nations Archive because it's in the UN compound, so it's in one of these old, beautiful buildings. Out of the window you can see Lake Geneva. That is an incredible place to be working.
REED BONADONNA: I've been to Lucerne in Switzerland for a military exercise. There is a beautiful lake there, too, but never Geneva. Maybe someday.
Mary, we're getting to the end here. Any last words, words to go forward with? Maybe one, what's next? Do you have an immediate task in mind right now that is involved with the project?
MARY BARTON: I am finishing up an article about UK-U.S. intelligence sharing about the Communist International, and then I'm moving on, I think, to write another short piece about the orientation of U.S. counterterrorism toward foreign left-wing groups starting with the anarchists, which reached its height during the Red Scare of 1919-1920.
During the Red Scare, there are a number of bombings against government and industrial targets followed by the massive Wall Street bombing of September 1920, which in terms of casualties and persons wounded was the most destructive and deadliest terrorist attack in the United States until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. I am looking at the use of immigration law to deter foreign ideologies and terrorist threats.
Let me finish by saying thank you very much to the Carnegie Council for this opportunity.
REED BONADONNA: I think we're at the finish line here. I will just say that Billy Pickett and I—Billy is the program assistant—are here for the duration. You are one of the Fellows, and the plan is that you'll be traveling to The Hague in September for the peace conference. I think everybody is looking forward to that. But in the meantime, if we can be of any assistance, let us know. We're not going anywhere, and we are here to help.
Maybe I'll say good morning than at this point, and we'll declare the interview officially done.
I'm glad we had a chance to do this again, actually. There was interesting stuff that didn't come out in the first interview. Have a great day, and we'll be in touch.
MARY BARTON: Okay. Thank you very much, Reed, and thank you to everyone there.