The great Lincoln scholar, Richard N. Current, defined history as “a narrative.” That—he said—”is its beauty.” Patrick K. O’Donnell’s “first substantial ‘agent-level’ history of OSS” attempts to tell “The Unknown Story” of America’s covert soldiers during World War II. His riveting, action-packed narrative is largely based on declassified OSS documents—many “only recently . . . declassified”— and more than 300 interviews with veterans from the secret war against Hitler. According to O’Donnell, “many” of these aging survivors “told me their stories for the first time, breaking vows of silence and revealing secrets held for nearly 60 years.” Those “stories” (“carefully cross-checked with supporting documentation,” yet lacking in adequate historical context) prove—according to the author—that despite a difficult relationship with British intelligence and opposition from the U. S. military and its intelligence bodies, the OSS was instrumental in the defeat of the Axis powers. O’Donnell concludes that the “OSS may have made its greatest contribution, not to winning World War II, but to winning the Cold War” because it “put an end to the shibboleths of ‘gentlemanly’ intelligence that had reigned in the United States” for most of its history . Its democratic values notwithstanding, the U. S. “had to fight fire with fire and turn totalitarian weapons against the totalitarians.”
While it is true that America’s intelligence services have historically been “inferior” to those in Britain and in Europe, the author seems to have forgotten that America’s isolationism and the presence of the Royal Navy in the Atlantic made unnecessary a permanent, centralized intelligence service. Furthermore, pre-World War II U. S. presidents—beginning with Washington—did employ ruthless secret agents during times of war and peace to further American interests via covert means.
Certainly the evidence demonstrates that the OSS made valuable contributions to the successful invasions of North Africa, Normandy (especially Operation Sussex), and southern France. The OSS’s Bern station chief, Allen Dulles, nego-tiated the surrender of German forces in northern Italy just before the end of the war. While these and other examples O’Donnell provides support his contention that the “OSS shortened the war . . . and saved the lives of thousands of Allied combat soldiers,” he exaggerates and misrepresents some of the OSS’s achievements (e.g. the Special Liaison Units’ [SLUs] handling of ULTRA intelligence) and its role in defeating Nazi Germany.
While little of O’Donnell’s “Unknown Story” is actually new to historians familiar with the OSS archival collections and the seminal works on the organization, his oral history-based, operations-focused, “agent-level” account largely succeeds in bringing to life the daring exploits and heroism of those “shadow warriors” who “played a key role in the Allied victory.”
The talented German historian, Christof Mauch’s recent contribution to OSS historiography—based on declassified OSS records and new interviews with OSS veterans—constitutes the most authoritative single volume on the subject. In his comprehensive, scholarly, and exhaustively-documented analysis of America’s first centralized intelligence agency, Mauch brilliantly integrates both the research/analytical as well as operational histories of the OSS.
One of Mauch’s many convincing arguments correctly emphasizes how FDR’s fear of a Nazi “fifth column” “played a central role in establishing the secret intelligence service in 1941.” Hardly the law-abiding liberal icon of civil liberties, Roosevelt set up a secret intelligence service in the White House run by the journalist John Franklin Carter and employed Hitler’s former foreign press secretary, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl as one of his personal agents. Mauch’s treatment of the ideological struggles within the OSS, Donovan’s recruitment of Communists, the Nazi Alpine redoubt hoax, and OSS contacts with elite anti-Nazi elements make for fascinating reading.
Contrary to O’Donnell, Mauch gives much less credit to the OSS for defeating Hitler. While Operation Sunrise was a success and the overall efforts of the OSS shortened the war by several weeks, its contributions, he argued, “had hardly any impact on the outcome of the Second World War.” In fact, much of the OSS’s successes were derived from its non-lethal operational activities (e. g. the very productive Research and Analysis division and the Morale Operations Branch that exploited weaknesses in German society).
While O’Donnell’s narrative over-emphasizes the OSS’s contributions to the Allied victory—Mauch’s analysis to the contrary—both authors exaggerate America’s historical, “innate aversion to spying” and credit the OSS with laying the foundation for its successor—the CIA—to employ the tactics of America’s totalitarian adversaries—especially during the Cold War. And while they correctly describe U. S. intelligence on the eve of World War II as grossly inadequate and unprepared, they demonstrate a lack of understanding as to why that was so. Overall, both of these excellent volumes contribute significantly to our understanding of the “shadow war” against Hitler and testify to the dramatic growth in intelligence studies during the past generation.
Dr. Rorin M. Platt, Book Review Editor for American Diplomacy and member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, is an Associate Professor of History at Campbell University. He is the author of two books and a number of articles and book reviews, including Virginia in Foregin Affairs, 1933-1941. His current research project, Cavaliers in Cloak: Virginians in the Secret War, 1941-1945, is a history of Virginians who served in America’s World War II intelligence services.