Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Despite inspiring a veritable library of books, Franklin D. Roosevelt remains arguably the most elusive of American presidents, a man who seemed to take pride even in deceiving himself. Chief speechwriter Robert Sherwood lamented, “I could never really understand what was going on in Roosevelt’s heavily forested interior.” Cabinet officer Harold Ickes complained to FDR that “you won’t talk frankly even with people who are loyal to you.”
In “Roosevelt’s Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage,” Joseph Persico cites these characteristics to argue: “Few leaders have been better suited by nature and temperament for the anomalies of secret warfare than FDR.” At face value, Mr. Persico’s thesis is sound. People who know the spy business will cheerfully concede that a good intelligence operative could easily pursue a career as a con man.
Oddly, however, Mr. Persico’s study of FDR’s oversight of American intelligence operations during World War II proves the opposite of his stated thesis. FDR’s manipulation and deceit were employed chiefly in the bureaucratic wars between competing American agencies. His greatest failure, implied though unstated by Mr. Persico, was that he lacked the political courage to create a coordinated intelligence service and halt the incessant bickering between the three major competing entities military intelligence, the FBI, and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the latter a wartime creation.
When war loomed, Roosevelt did realize that the nation needed more in the way of intelligence. The Army had less than 70 intelligence officers to cover the entire world, and the head of naval intelligence said that a “real undercover foreign intelligence service … does not exist.” FDR’s cautious answer was creation of what became the OSS, largely at the urging of William Donovan, a World War I hero turned corporate lawyer. Gen. Donovan’s ambition was to run a coordinated intelligence service that would draw upon all sources of information.
Such did not happen, and Mr. Persico rightly assigns some of the blame to Gen. Donovan himself. OSS’ problems began with defeats by two masters of bureaucratic infighting. Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered his Pacific theater off-limits to OSS. J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, muscled OSS out of Latin America. But a more formidable opponent was Gen. George Veazey Strong, the chief of Army intelligence, a cavalryman who embodied the traditional military’s disdain for “special operations” and who considered OSS to be a “bunch of socially connected amateurs.”
Among other things, Gen. Strong did not trust OSS to keep secrets, and Mr. Persico relates a story that suggests his fears were justified. In the spring of 1942, Gen. Donovan had a wide-ranging talk with a Polish diplomat in Washington named Count Mohl. The United States, he said, trusted the Soviet Union to hold out against the Germans until American arms production tilted the war in the Allies’ favor. Hence there would be no invasion of Europe that summer, as was widely rumored; instead, the Americans and British “would spread reports of ostensibly planned large scale operations in order to mislead Germany.”
The information promptly went to Berlin, where a report found in foreign ministry files after the war traced the indiscretion to Gen. Donovan. Luckily for him, none of his many enemies “ever knew during the war of this loose-tongued blunder.”
Gen. Donovan besieged FDR with memos, a dozen or more a day. One related a scheme mindful of the CIA’s 1960s plot to de-beard Fidel Castro: Introduce female hormones into Adolf Hitler’s diet, “raising his voice, swelling his breasts, and causing his mustache to fall out.” Mr. Persico laments that the “half-baked quality of many of Donovan’s ideas and the distracting turf battles” with defense officials and the FBI, among others, obscured solid accomplishments such as the Swiss-based operation run by Allen Dulles, who would become director of central intelligence in the 1960s. (Mr. Persico, for the record, is not an OSS-basher. He is also the author of “Piercing the Reich,” about the penetration of Nazi Germany by OSS agents.)
Mr. Persico’s book is sprightly written and well-sourced, and even though some of the ground he covers is well-trod, he provides an entertaining read. I offer only one serious quibble. Mr. Persico repeats the hoary and long discredited statement attributed to Secretary of State Henry Stimson when he shut down the department’s code-breaking operation in 1929: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Stimson might have entertained such a thought but he never said it.
What contribution did intelligence make to the ultimate victory? The most important intelligence coup was the use of Magic intercepts to defeat the Japanese fleet at Midway, the pivotal victory in the Pacific war. Nonetheless, as Mr. Persico concludes, “In the end, wars are not won by spies pilfering documents or math professors cracking codes. They are won by forces engaged in bloodletting …”

Joseph C. Goulden is finishing his book, “Lawyers, Inc.,” on the modern legal profession.

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