OPERATION SNOW: HOW A SOVIET MOLE IN FDR’S WHITE HOUSE TRIGGERED PEARL HARBOR
By John Koster
Regnery, $19.34, 350 pages
John Koster is not the first author to lay the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor largely at the feet of Soviet agents. He has, however, connected major pieces of that Soviet activity within the United States in significant detail.
Mr. Koster, a serious author of history and U.S. Army veteran, has written a volume shining new light on the Soviet plot — specifically as it involved Harry Dexter White.
In “Operation Snow: How a Soviet Mole in FDR’s White House Triggered Pearl Harbor,” the author follows the twists and turns of White’s perfidy as a top official in FDR’s Treasury Department. Not the least of the New Dealers who relied heavily on White’s judgment was his boss, Secretary Henry Morgenthau, as well as others in President Roosevelt’s Cabinet.
Mr. Koster writes that White pulled off “one of the most devastating acts of treason in American history.”
If one were to produce a movie spy thriller based on this real-life espionage case, the opening scene in April 1941 would show a cautious Vitaly Pavlov inching his way toward a payphone in Washington. The “second-in-command” in the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) looks around to be certain he was not being followed.
He nervously drops coins in the phone and reaches White at his desk. White speaks softly to avoid being overheard. At first, the Treasury official tries to blow off Pavlov, who cites a third party’s code name that White recognizes. He proposes the two meet soon.
“I have a pretty busy schedule,” White says. Assured the proposed rendezvous was super-important, they meet at a certain time at the Old Ebbitt Grill, a longtime restaurant (still today) near the White House.
One may wonder why they did not pick a more remote, cheap joint to discuss undercover business. But for White, the proximity to his workplace was a convenience issue. Not for the first time was treason plotted within “plain sight.”
It was there, after guarded conversation mixed with some note passing that White agreed to provoke a war between the United States and Japan.
“Operation Snow” mentions a host of issues leading to Dec. 7, 1941. At the top of the list was oil. Japan didn’t produce any. The only question was whether to attack the Soviet Union for its oil or to attack an area in “the West” for the same goal. The first inclination of the Imperial Japanese government was to attack the Soviets. Japanese-Soviet relations were historically strained anyway.
Though it is not clear that White knew the Japanese would ultimately bomb Pearl Harbor, his focus was to spare the Soviets from attack from “the Land of the Rising Sun.” This he would do by actively influencing the Roosevelt administration against reaching a rapprochement with the Japanese. This book does not record whether White experienced the slightest angst as 2,402 American bodies piled up on that “day of infamy.” But he had lost sleep (literally) when he thought FDR was leaning the “wrong” way.
Once the Hitler-Stalin pact abruptly ended, there was but one area of concern that induced Japan to remain in the tripartite pact with Germany and Italy: its mistrust of communism and its long-standing feud with the USSR, dating back to the Soviet predecessor, czarist Russia (with whom the Japanese had fought a war). Moreover, Japan had rejected Nazi Germany’s vicious attitude toward world Jewry.
Mr. Koster prints large portions of August 1948 testimony by Harry Dexter White before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The former Treasury official knew he had failed to exonerate himself in his committee appearance, and he ended his life three days later in a disguised suicide. The still-raw emotions over the dead at Pearl Harbor possibly meant disgrace and prison, or worse. The prospect apparently was too much.
Though White is rightly featured as a key player in this plot, he did have help that could have been (but is not) even briefly mentioned in this book: Owen Lattimore at the Office of War Information, Lauchlin Currie at the White House and the Sorge spy ring in Tokyo.
Richard Sorge has been labeled as one of the most effective Soviet agents in history, whose undercover work had penetrated the Japanese government. Sorge was a wounded World War I German who posed in Japan as a German journalist loyal to the Nazis. In reality, he was a hard-boiled Soviet agent, member of and loyal to Moscow’s military intelligence directorate. Just before his arrest, he had told Josef Stalin that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor. Let not these omissions dissuade you from reading “Operation Snow,” a worthy addition to the still unfolding histories of World War II.
Wes Vernon is a Washington-based writer whose broadcast career included 25 years with CBS Radio. His column appears regularly at RenewAmerica.com.