Credentials of the First Chief Special Agent of the State Department, Joseph M. Nye

Each month, the National Museum of American Diplomacy highlights special artifacts from the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service. This month, we are showcasing an old and special artifact in our collection: the credentials of the first-ever Chief Special Agent of the State Department, Joseph M. “Bill” Nye.

What is the Diplomatic Security Service?

The Diplomatic Security Service is in charge of federal law enforcement and security of the U.S. Department of State. Diplomatic Security Special Agents protect U.S. national security interests in countries around the world.

Today, the Diplomatic Security Service has more than 2,500 special agents, security engineering officers, security technical specialists, and diplomatic couriers working and traveling worldwide.

Founding the “Secret Service” of the State Department

The Diplomatic Security Service traces its origins to World War I when, on April 4, 1916, U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing formally established the Department of State’s first security office.

During World War I, the United States was increasingly the target of aggressive espionage, sabotage, and passport and visa fraud. By December 1914, reports reached President Woodrow Wilson that the German ambassador to the United States approved the forgery and theft of U.S. passports so that German combatants could travel in and out of war zones via neutral countries.

To address this issue, in late 1915, Secretary of State Robert Lansing recommended creating a State Department-led international law-enforcement task force to investigate ongoing German espionage and passport fraud.

Secretary of State Robert Lansing
U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing, 1916. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The First Chief Special Agent, Joseph M. “Bill” Nye

In 1916, the State Department established the Office of the Chief Special Agent – a dedicated group of professionals committed to diplomatic security. In early 1917, Congress granted the State Department the legal authority to hire its own federal agents. Later in the year, Secretary of State Lansing appointed former Secret Service agent Joseph M. “Bill” Nye as Special Assistant to the Secretary, with the title of Chief Special Agent. 

joseph m. bill nye
The first Chief Special Agent of the U.S. Department of State Joseph M. “Bill” Nye, 1917. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While in the Secret Service, Nye had served on the protection details of Presidents Taft and Wilson. His new duties included personally protecting the German ambassador until he departed the United States in April following the U.S. declaration of war.

Nye also began hiring additional Special Agents, recruited mainly from among postal inspectors. The new Special Agents that Nye hired provided a protective detail for Secretary Lansing and made secure travel arrangements.

These Special Agent credentials, pictured below, were issued to the U.S. Department of State’s first Chief Special Agent, Joseph M. Nye, in 1920. In the photo, you can see that these credentials were signed by the U.S. Secretary of State at that time, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby.

Joseph Nye Credentials
Chief Special Agent Joseph M. Nye’s credentials, 1917. Gift of Ann D. and Henry B. Merritt Family.

Joseph M. Nye’s Legacy

In May 1920, with Lansing’s departure from the State Department, Chief Special Agent Nye resigned as Chief Special Agent to accept an executive security position with Guaranty Trust Co., a New York bank. Nye had been well-liked by the foreign royalty and diplomats he had escorted (he apparently kept a higher profile than later special agents, occasionally being mentioned in newspapers; a Washington memoir in 1920 called Nye “the famous Secret Service man who travels with royalty”).

Incoming Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby wrote that he learned of Nye’s departure with “almost a feeling of dismay.” The legacy of Joseph Nye lives on in today’s Diplomatic Security Service. 


Joseph Nye’s Special Agent Credentials

Issued to Joseph M. Nye, March 26, 1920. The first Chief Special Agent for the State Department was Joseph Nye, a former Secret Service agent. Nye had a distinguished tenure and stepped down in May 1920. The State Department's Office of Security later became the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.