The Story of Secret Service

Title:                      The Story of Secret Service

Author:                  Richard Wilmer Rowan

Rowan, Richard Wilmer (1937). The Story of Secret Service. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran

LCCN:    37004141

JX5121 .R645



  • London: Miles, 1938. New York: Hawthorn, 1967. Secret Service: Thirty-Three Centuries of Espionage. London: Kimber, 1969

Date Updated:  August 29, 2016

“Rowan’s 1937 classic of 732 pages sold well as a Literary Guild of America book and though the book soon went out of print, it had an afterlife. A British edition was published, as well as editions in French and other European languages. There may also have been a Japanese edition. The author later claimed on the public speaking circuit in New York that Japanese Intelligence used The Story of Secret Service to instruct their spies. A revised, expanded edition[1], which carried espionage history up to 1964 but deleted some early history, was published in 1967 and included a laudatory preface from former Director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles. See Douglas L. Wheeler, “Fiftieth Anniversary of Richard Wilmer Rowan’s The Story of Secret Service,” in Foreign Intelligence Literary Scene. A Bimonthly Newsletter/Book Review (National Intelligence Study Center, Nov-Dec 1987; 6, 6, pp. 1-5. A collection of Rowan’s papers is in the Milne Special Collections and Archives, Dimond Library, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH.”[2]

A CIA review[3]:

The best comprehensive history of espionage and its practitioners from Bible days to the end of World War I. Often sketchy and sometimes overdramatized, the treatment is generally sound and at its best illuminated by perceptive reflections on the ways of human kind.

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[4]

A great work of scholarship, probably the best history of the subject in English at the time of its appearance, and one that should still be used as a lead-in for the study of intelligence history. Allen Dulles in the foreword to the 1967 edition said it was “the best single account of intelligence down to the time he wrote it in 1937 and it remains so today.” [1980]

Despite the book’s value, the style and Rowan’s tendency to moralize may be trying at times. A number of faults can now be detected more clearly and errors identified. About a third of the work was devoted to World War I, and the selection of cases and allocation of attention to this war were not the best. As an example, pages are devoted to a German espionage school of no real or historical consequence while the famous British Admiral Hall is mentioned only once. The American Revolution receives only as much space as Mata Hari. Rowan is uncritical of many American Civil War spy stories, and there are now questions about the truth of the earlier accounts of the escapades of the Chevalier d’Eon, to whom he devotes a chapter. There is a strange duality in his attitude toward spies for a scholar of the subject that is exemplified best in his description of Thomas Beach (Henri le Caron). There is a tendency to exaggerate the impact or effect of an agent, such as the German Wassmuss in Persia in World War I, and to make premature judgments (“T. E. Lawrence’s fame is as secure as it is well deserved”). He misses the significance of the Soviet intelligence and security apparatus up to that time, the Cheka of Dzerzhinsky getting only 2 paragraphs in 670 pages of text. Minor errors of fact are expected in a work of this scope and size. Compared to the monumental results achieved, however, all the foregoing flaws are small.

Rowan delved into the literature of espionage and into works of history to retell many of the important events of secret service. He points out that the Bolshevik Trust operation of the 1920s had its predecessor over a hundred years earlier in France when the French service used the ploy against the French royalists and the British. We learn of the Mongol use of agents to spread false information, Napoleon’s use of deception, the identity of Captain Mansfield Cumming as “C” of the British secret service; we are reminded of the work of John Thurloe and not allowed to forget the name of Dr. John Wallis, the great cryptanalyst. There are some select quotes, such as “Cardinal Richelieu never permitted his fidelity to the church to retard his genius for being a Frenchman.” Rowan identifies James Rivington, the famous New York bookseller and Tory, as one of General Washington’s spies. Although an index is sorely missed in this 1937 edition, there are valuable notes on each chapter that often contain facts and perceptive observations not in the main text. The 1967 edition was updated by Robert G. Deindorfer after Rowan’s death in 1964. This edition eliminated a few chapters of the original, combined some segments (such as chapters on World War I censors), revised others, and added sixteen more to cover World War II and the postwar period. The reader is advised to stick to the 1937 edition, for the later one adds little of value, contains errors, and makes a questionable choice of material. It comes nowhere near to giving the flavor or being truly illustrative of the later war, although some cases (e.g., those of Sorge and Christine Granville and the story of Magic) are fairly well presented.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[5]

Richard Rowan’s authoritative and exhaustive history of espionage published as The Story of Secret Service (cited above) was, according to Allen Dulles’ remarks in the foreword of the 1967 edition, “the best single account of intelligence services down to the time he wrote it in 1937, and remains so today.” In a monumental, scholarly study of eighty-eight chapters, Rowan traced the early amateur and hireling informers of the Roman Empire through the development of more modern espionage organizations up to 1937. Before his death in 1964, Rowan chose Robert G. Deindorfer, a successful author on intelligence (editor of The Spies: Great True Stories of Espionage. New York: Fawcett, 1969, OCLC 7521364) to collaborate on an enlarged and revised edition of the 1937 classic. In the 1967 edition Deindorfer, with the help of Rowan’s widow Ruth, has brought the history of intelligence activities and organizations up through World War Il and the postwar period, emphasizing the sophistication of present-day [as of 1975] espionage systems, in an accurate and objective account of ninety-four chapters.

[1] Rowan, Richard Wilmer (1967) with Robert G. Deindorfer. Secret Service: Thirty-Three Centuries of Espionage. New York, Hawthorn Books [LCCN: 66015344]

[2] Wheeler, Douglas L. (2015). “The Literature of Intelligence: ‘Another Kind of Need to Know’”, in Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 1, Winter 2014-15, p. 68, n. 10)

[3] CIA Web site

[4] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 394-396

[5] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., pp. 141-142

e: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 394-396


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