- The Washington Times - Friday, January 15, 2010

By David C. Engerman
Oxford University Press, $34.95, 459 pages

By Patrick K. O’Donnell
Da Capo Press, $26, 459 pages


During a background briefing for journalists in 1967, Richard Helms, the director of central intelligence, termed the Soviet intelligence system “excellent.”

“They know how to recruit agents, ferret out, buy or steal information. They are very good at this,” he said. But their analytical system was “no good.” So far as the CIA could determine, nowhere in Moscow was “there a bunch of guys with no axe to grind sitting down in a back room,” deciding what the raw intelligence meant.

Helms’ implication was that the CIA was light years ahead of the KGB in terms of putting intelligence to practical use. That this was true was due in large part to the postwar melding of a cadre of scholars, spies, soldiers and philanthropists into a massive undertaking known as “Soviet studies.”

Participants learned not only the Soviet language, but also immersed themselves in the society, culture, history and literature of the adversary. Such an effort was sorely needed: In 1948, a very frosty period of the Cold War, the new CIA employed only 38 Soviet analysts, only 12 of whom spoke any Russian; their college majors ranged from engineering to library science.

“Know Your Enemy” is the story of what David Engerman, a Brandeis University professor, calls a “U. S. intellectual mobilization against Soviet communism.” With heavy government funding, much of it quietly through the CIA, universities launched a myriad of programs designed to let policymakers understand what shaped USSR conduct - Harvard’s Russian Research Center (RRC), for instance, Michigan’s Survey Research Center and Columbia’s Russian Center.

Much of the work was done under the rubric of “social science research,” and indeed some projects produced workable sociology. But few participants had any illusions that the CIA’s interest was to foster research into Tolstoy’s works. Indeed, when academic researchers were dispatched to interview Soviets held in displaced-person camps in Germany, their questionnaires were drafted in large part by the CIA and military intelligence.

Mr. Engerman does not venture an estimate as to how many persons participated in Soviet studies programs, as teachers or students, but recognizable names are sprinkled through his book, from Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter, to Condoleezza Rice and Richard Pipes.

He quotes Indiana historian Robert Byres as remarking in 1964, at the high tide of funding, “never since the Renaissance has research been so lavishly financed as it has in the United States since the Second World War.” And given that much of the work product was published, nongovernment students of the USSR also benefited greatly.

The Soviet studies experience demonstrated that intelligence and academia can work hand in glove, to the benefit of both camps.

• • •

Of the countless books I’ve read about bravery in espionage and war, few moved me as much did Patrick K. O’Donnell’s “They Dared Return.” Not even a B-grade Hollywood writer could contrive such a story: Five Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany join the Office of Strategic Services and voluntarily return to the beastly land from which they had been expelled.

Their mission is to scout the heavily fortified area of Austria’s “Alpine Redoubt,” where Hitler reputedly intended to make his last stand as the war wound down. The mission - Operation Greentop - was led by a streetwise sergeant named Fred Mayer, born in Freiburg in 1921, whose father had won an Iron Cross for bravery. The father clung to the notion that his service would exempt the family from the persecution being waged against other Jews. The mother demurred, “We are Jews, and we are leaving.”

Mr. Mayer volunteered for the army the day after Pearl Harbor, at age 20, and then for the OSS, his background slotting him for assignment to the German Operational Group, tasked to “penetrate enemy lines and strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.” No one had to be told of the consequences of capture: Hitler had ordered that any commandos or spies captured, whether in uniform or not, were to be summarily executed.

Mr. O’Donnell painstakingly details the OSS tradecraft that prepared the men for their mission. To test whether Mr. Mayer could pass as a German officer, they fitted him with a uniform and put him into a POW camp. For three tense days, he passed muster - and importantly, he discovered that one of the prisoners, Lt. Franz Weber, detested the Hitler regime. Weber accepted an OSS offer to join the infiltration team.

Then the adventure began in earnest. The five parachuted into the snow-covered Austrian mountains, Mr. Mayer posing as an Alpine Corps lieutenant, the others as Dutch collaborators. Mr. Mayer found himself drinking at an officers-only table in a tavern, in a group that included an engineer who had returned from Berlin, where he directed improvements in Hitler’s bunker.

“In his drunken tirade, the Austrian engineer incredulously spouted out technical details regarding the thickness of the bunker’s wall, its depth, and its exact location in the heart of Berlin.” This tidbit, and much other intelligence, was radioed to OSS handlers.

Mr. O’Donnell tells much of the story through the words of Mr. Mayer and surviving members of the group. As an added treat, he reproduces the team’s original mission reports and prisoner of war debriefings, all housed in National Archives II in College Park, Md. (Mr. O’Donnell has proved himself a wizard at finding untold stories in the archives. Another earlier book, “The Brenner Assignment,” told of OSS missions into Yugoslavia.)

Mr. Mayer, remarkably, is still spry at age 89; he chops wood daily and helps in a Meals on Wheels program in his community on the Virginia-West Virginia border. He is an incredibly brave man, and a first-rate read.

Joseph C. Goulden is finishing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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