Friday, September 23, 2011

The Secret War Against Hitler

The following was posted at The Book Den in April 2007 but a chance remark at a "When Swing Was King" presentation yesterday reminded me of the column. I think it remains as solid and relevant a book recommendation today as then. So, here is an excerpt of that column.

Claire and I had been watching re-runs on PBS of the popular British TV reality show "Spy" and we got a big kick out of it. Indeed, it was a kick forceful enough to land me in the Northwest branch of the Omaha Public library where I checked out several non-fiction titles dealing with modern espionage. Those included Denis Collins' Spying: The Secret History of History written with the resources of Washington, D.C.’s new International Spy Museum and Espionage: The Greatest Spy Operations of the 20th Century by Ernest Volkman. But, by far, the most engaging and satisfying work I picked up was Bill Casey’s intriguing history,  The Secret War Against Hitler, a detailed description of the Allied espionage efforts directed against Germany during World War II.

The Secret War Against Hitler made for riveting, inspiring and sometimes maddening reading – maddening because it showed what dire effects upon military strategy can be wreaked by politicians (and sometimes by misled, egoistic and headstrong military leaders themselves).

Indeed, Casey points out several instances of how the success of Allied military efforts against the Nazi war machine was dramatically mitigated because of poor intelligence at the beginning of the war due to governments being so ill-prepared, and then later by grossly selfish motives by such men as Stalin and de Gaulle, and devastating mistakes made by blundering bureaucrats, political leaders, and even the military elite. Therefore, what could have been achieved by the inspiring bravery and skill of our fighting men was severely limited by tragic decisions at the top, making World War II longer and more terrible than was necessary. In addition, the post-war political and cultural scene could have been tremendously more just and safe and connected to the motivations that compelled our soldiers and sailors in the first place.

So, as captivating as Casey’s information is, The Secret War Against Hitler will not always be easy, enjoyable reading.

But infuriating as some of the events in the book can make you, be assured that The Secret War Against Hitler is throughout an excellent and important read. Within its pages you’ll learn about the critical roles played by code-breakers, double agents, an indispensably powerful "paper army," and many superbly deceptive strategies developed by the Allied intelligence corps.

You’ll also see how close the contest was at several junctures, how FDR’s insistence on Germany’s “unconditional surrender” was such a disaster, how Hitler catastrophically misread Allied intentions, how small party and even individual heroism (as in the sabotage success against the Nazi’s atomic bomb hopes) helped save Europe, and much more.

Bill Casey, as many of you will remember, was the director of the CIA under President Ronald Reagan. But Casey’s introduction to intelligence service was in the OSS back in 1943 when he started as a senior clerk in Washington. He ended the war, however, as one of the key leaders in American military intelligence. His work brought this treasured note from the OSS' famous founder, "Wild Bill" Donovan:

It has been the policy of the OSS never to hesitate to assign major responsibility to young men who have what it takes. This policy has been, in my opinion, one of our primary sources of strength. I have been vindicated by the outstanding performances of many, but by none more than your own. You took up one of the heaviest loads which any of us had to carry at a time when the going was roughest, and you delivered brilliantly, forcefully and in good time.

Signed: William J. Donovan, Major-General

The Secret War Against Hitler is truly an outstanding book and written by one of the 20th Century's most interesting and accomplished American patriots. I recommend it (even to eclectic readers of my ilk) without reserve.

(Note too that The Secret War Against Hitler is available in audio form as well.)