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R.W. Johnson

  • Roosevelt’s Secret War: FDR and World War Two Espionage by Joseph Persico
    Random House, 656 pp, £24.50, October 2001, ISBN 0 375 50246 7

‘You are one of the most difficult men to work with that I have ever known,’ Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, once told FDR. ‘Because I get too hard at times?’ Roosevelt asked. ‘No,’ Ickes replied, ‘because you won’t talk frankly, even with people who are loyal to you.’ Joseph Persico, whose admiration for FDR, like that of many Americans, is close to hero-worship, treats FDR’s endless deceptions and tricks with indulgence. John Steinbeck, whom FDR once persuaded to do some spying for him in Mexico, came to the conclusion that he liked mystery, subterfuge and indirect tactics for their own sake. But maybe, like many privileged people, he didn’t see why the world shouldn’t be arranged to suit his designs. His mother was worse: when her sister got stranded in Europe in 1939 she simply couldn’t understand why Franklin would not send a battleship to pick up his aunt.

Serving as Woodrow Wilson’s youthful Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913-19, FDR immediately saw the possibilities Intelligence offered and packed the Office of Naval Intelligence with his Ivy League chums. But the Americans were mere beginners in the world of spies, as FDR well knew, and in July 1918 he went to Britain and spent two hours at the feet of the boss of Naval Intelligence, Sir Reginald Hall, the man who created the legendary Room 40, the codebreaking section which cracked the Zimmerman telegram, and much besides. FDR left awestruck, but by the end of the war he had created a US intelligence network that stretched right round the world. Also on that trip he met his Naval opposite number, Churchill, whom he heartily disliked (‘He acted like a stinker, lording it all over us’); but, to his great chagrin, he was not invited to Buckingham Palace, an omission that left him with an enduring ambition to hobnob with British aristocrats and royalty.

Britain was outrageously lucky with FDR. Nothing would have been easier for a President with his social predilections, a strong anti-Communist commitment, and under huge domestic pressure to stay out of the war, than to decide to go along with Fascism in the way that many of his social peers in Europe had done. But FDR had early on developed an uncommon, and uncommonly perceptive, dislike of Fascism. The more Joe Kennedy, his Ambassador to Britain, bombarded him with despatches telling him that Britain was finished and Hitler the man of the future, the more FDR wanted to get rid of Kennedy. The minute Chamberlain took Churchill into government, FDR went behind Chamberlain’s back to establish a private correspondence with Churchill, happy to forget his earlier resentment in his eagerness to make a friend of Britain’s leading anti-Nazi.

The man who, above all others, had earned the admiration of the Anglo-American upper classes was the great Lone Eagle, Charles Lindbergh. Most US politicians were eager to be associated with him and flocked to his side, but FDR couldn’t forgive the fact that Lindbergh was so seemingly unbothered by Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia and its treatment of the Jews that he accepted a decoration from Goering. FDR’s class didn’t have much to do with Jews, but he strongly disliked anti-semitism. Worried by his own ill-health and the weaker instincts of his Cabinet, he hastened to tell them: ‘If I should die tomorrow, I want you to know this. I am absolutely convinced that Lindbergh is a Nazi.’ When Lindbergh – a colonel in the Army Air Corps – became the hero of the America First movement, FDR made it publicly known that he regarded him as a traitor and would never call him to active duty. Lindbergh melodramatically resigned his commission – which FDR was happy to accept. It was the same when Errol Flynn came to offer his services: he only asked that FDR put him into US Army uniform and send him to Ireland as a spy. FDR might have been tempted, especially since Flynn was a friend of his son. But he also knew – from Franklin Jr – that Flynn was wildly anti-semitic and had connections among Nazi sympathisers. Flynn never wore a uniform except in front of the camera.

The American journalist Fulton Oursler came to see the President on a mission from the Duke of Windsor, then Governor of the Bahamas. To Oursler’s horror, the Duke had told him that ‘it would be a tragic thing for the world if Hitler were overthrown. Hitler is a great man, the right and logical leader of the German people.’ The Duke’s plan was for FDR to broker peace in Europe; the Duke would support him, precipitating a revolution in Britain and forcing a settlement with Germany. Oursler had worried that he might annoy FDR by criticising the Duke, but FDR’s feelings were even stronger than his: ‘His whole body shook with rage as he talked of Little Windsor, who he thought had quite probably aided Nazi Intelligence in Paris.’ The only reason the Windsors had ended up in the Bahamas, he told Oursler, was that it was close to Miami – ‘so they could go over and mingle with the nightclub crowds they so enjoy.’

FDR never lost his exaggerated respect for British Intelligence. He allowed seven different intelligence organisations to compete with one another – that way no one agency could in theory predominate – but ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services, which eventually became the CIA, was the one on which Roosevelt depended and it was routinely accused of being pretty much in the pocket of Bill Stephenson, the head of British Intelligence in North America – from whom Donovan was said to get many of his best ideas. FDR’s regard for Stephenson was such that this did the OSS little harm. The British had drawn American attention to the fact that the Ambassadors of the Great Powers in the Western hemisphere had to send all their secret correspondence via Bermuda or Trinidad – both British colonies. The British invited the Americans to join them in rummaging through the supposedly inviolable diplomatic bags, producing an intelligence bonanza as despatches to and from Japan, Germany, the Soviet Union etc were opened and read.

When Churchill and FDR met again – Churchill working hard to overcome the disastrous first impression he had made – they agreed to a free exchange of intelligence, but Churchill told his aides to ration the Ultra decrypts as Britain was way ahead in the codebreaking game. Britain even manufactured bogus evidence of Nazi intrigue in Latin America in the hope of luring the US into the war, and suppressed the Ultra decrypts which showed that, since June 1941, U-boat commanders were under standing orders not to attack American ships. FDR brushed aside warnings that the British were manipulating him: he was thirsting for a fight with Hitler, and only too happy to be given a pretext.

Once America was in the war, Churchill realised he had to make the exchange more equal, but FDR was keener on cloak and dagger work than he was on cryptanalysis, and for years paid little attention to Magic, the American decryption of the Japanese Purple code. As early as February 1941 the Americans had handed over a machine for decrypting Purple to the British, but the British were careful never to give the Americans an Enigma machine with which to decrypt Ultra. Instead Churchill told FDR that some time ago Britain had broken some of the US diplomatic codes. Naturally, he said, he had given orders for this sort of thing to stop now that they were allies. The truth was that London had known everything the State Department was up to for more than twenty years.

Spain posed an interesting and vexatious problem. Because it was of critical importance to know how far Franco would assist Germany in North Africa and elsewhere. British agents broke into the Spanish Embassy in Washington and stole the keys to their ciphers, enabling Bletchley Park to crack the Spanish codes. But the Spaniards changed the keys every month, which meant that the British break-ins happened every month until the McKellar Act was passed in 1942, dramatically increasing the penalty for foreigners caught doing such things. The British now had no option but to confess to Donovan (knowing they would get nowhere with the FBI’s Edgar Hoover, Donovan’s worst enemy), and ask him to help. So the OSS took over the burglary roster: but on its fourth break-in Hoover snapped the trap shut and had the OSS burglars arrested – domestic spying was the FBI’s job. A furious Donovan set his men to spy on Hoover’s homosexual relationship with his deputy, Clyde Tolson.

FDR mostly laughed off these quarrels between subordinates, but there were occasions when he intervened quite brutally. After Pearl Harbor he received reports from all his major intelligence sources indicating that Japanese residents on the West Coast presented no credible threat. Unperturbed, he forced through the internment of 114,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent – only, it would seem, in order to placate public opinion. Similarly, when eight German spies were caught in mid-1942 – their leader had decided to turn himself in and betray his comrades – FDR talked of exhibiting them around the country in lion cages. His Attorney General, Francis Biddle, argued that no act of espionage or sabotage had actually been committed: but FDR wanted them dead. Biddle warned that a civilian court could not pronounce such a sentence: FDR sent them before a military tribunal. Six of the eight went to the electric chair. FDR also arrested 11,000 German-Americans, and had 2800 Latin Americans of German descent rounded up in their own countries and handed over to the US. He used them to bargain with Germany for Americans stranded in Europe. Many of the Latin American Germans – Rosenthals, Goldmanns, Rosenbaums, Isenbergs, Steins – were in effect being handed over by FDR to the gauleiters of Belsen and Buchenwald.

Despite FDR’s fixation with Intelligence, security within his Administration was appalling. Only Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State, was supposed to see America’s most precious resource, the Magic decrypts, but Hull shared them with at least six subordinates, who went on to share them with others, which meant that multiple copies were slopping around Washington: in May 1941 the Nazis warned Tokyo that their codes were being broken. Had Tokyo not insisted – absurdly – that its codes were unbreakable, this would have cost the Allies dear. Henry Wallace, the Vice-President, was an even greater liability, happily confiding his plans for world peace – and his disparaging view of FDR – to a Russian spiritualist, from whom they no doubt quickly made their way to others. Worse still, Wallace’s sister Mary was married to the Swiss Ambassador, Charles Bruggmann, whom Wallace would ring on a daily basis, passing on everything said in Cabinet as well as FDR’s most secret conversations with Churchill. Bruggmann dutifully cabled the lot back to Berne, from where ‘Habakuk’, a Nazi agent inside the Foreign Ministry, passed it on to Hitler.

Wallace was an even greater liability in the opposite direction. No sooner had the OSS been set up than Stalin targeted it for penetration. Duncan Lee, a Rhodes Scholar and Donovan’s executive assistant, was soon on his payroll – together with at least ten others. But Wallace would have made their work superfluous: he was planning, if he became President, to appoint at the State and Treasury Departments respectively Laurence Duggan and Harry Dexter White, both of whom were feeding information to Moscow. In the end one indiscretion undid the other. Word came back from a US agent inside the Third Reich that Wallace’s indiscretions had betrayed the details of the 1943 Moscow foreign ministers’ conference to Hitler. FDR substituted a surprised Harry Truman as his running mate for 1944. Only this action – given that FDR died a few months later – prevented the US from ending the war with an Administration over which Stalin might have had substantial control.

No one can blame FDR for being more interested in what Germany was up to. But here again, security was lax. In mid-1941 FDR asked General Marshall to draw up a schedule of what would be required to defeat Germany. Given that the US was still neutral, it was, to put it mildly, unwise of FDR to distribute no fewer than 35 copies of the finished document, Rainbow Five, which foresaw a huge expansion of the Navy, 267 new Army divisions and an expenditure of $150 billion. Inevitably, Rainbow Five was leaked. Its appearance in the Chicago Tribune not only informed Hitler of US intentions: it would doubtless have led to a huge rise in isolationist feeling had not Pearl Harbor overtaken – and obliterated – it three days later. The same thing happened again, straight after the battle of Midway, when the same newspaper saw a copy of a Magic decrypt and revealed that the US had had advance knowledge of Japanese plans – but again the Japanese preferred to believe in their ‘unbreakable’ codes.

FDR was also willing to believe some bizarre sources. Like Churchill, he was fascinated by Hitler’s terror weapons. When Churchill first learned about the V-1 he was so alarmed that he advocated using poison gas against Germany. FDR was similarly disturbed by reports of plans for the V-3 and Me-264, a missile and bomber capable of reaching New York (the Germans actually developed the six-engine Ju-390, which flew a 32-hour 6000-mile round trip, passing within 12 miles of New York). Should such planes or rockets have been developed their payload would have been negligible, but this never occurred to FDR. When the Wehrmacht threw the US Army back in the Battle of the Bulge, he argued for using atomic weapons as soon as they were ready. Alarm made him listen to all manner of quackery. The most foolish was his long reliance on ‘Vessel’, a source deep inside the Vatican claiming to know all the secrets of the Axis. FDR ignored any number of warnings that Vessel might be a fake, though he turned out to be a Roman pornographer, Virgilio Scattolini, who discovered he could make even more money out of the credulous Americans by inventing secrets than he could from such epics as Amazons of the Bidet. But Vessel had amused and titillated FDR, and that was enough. Similarly, when General Patton was challenged about his extra-marital affairs, his reply – ‘a man who does not screw will not fight’ – did him no harm with FDR. ‘Patton is a joy,’ was the President’s verdict.

All of which led the British to an unwarranted sense of superiority in matters of Intelligence. Probably the most valuable anti-Nazi spy of all was Fritz Kolbe, who worked in the Foreign Ministry in Berlin and fed the US with accurate intelligence throughout the war; he was the man who gave FDR the tip-off that finally ditched Henry Wallace. Kolbe was a passionate anti-Nazi who didn’t want to be paid for his services. He had approached the British Embassy in Berne first, offering to turn key documents over to them. The British attaché he saw dismissed him with the words ‘I don’t believe you. And if you’re telling the truth, you’re a cad.’ A not altogether different attitude was behind the leak from the British Embassy in Ankara, the so-called Cicero Affair, which threatened the most important secret of the war, the time and place of the D-Day landings. As Persico points out, they had to take place at dawn, when the seas were not too rough, and sometime around mid-tide. These conditions could be met on the French coast only for a few days in late May, and on 5-7 June. As it was, Hitler came perilously close to guessing, and the appalling security in Ankara would probably have eliminated the need for guessing had Kolbe not once again tipped the Allies off. Most embarrassing was the way Churchill demanded full participation in the Manhattan Project and then sent Klaus Fuchs to work on it, effectively giving the atomic secrets to Stalin. The war was to end with the initial prejudices reversed: the once naive Americans now regarded the British as hopeless security risks.

Persico doesn’t draw up a final balance sheet. Had he done so, it isn’t clear that FDR would have come out of it well. Two of the greatest Second World War intelligence coups were achieved by the Russians. By the end of 1943, Himmler had learnt that the three Allied leaders were to meet in Tehran. Otto Skorzeny assembled a crack hit-team of anti-Communist Ukrainians, who were parachuted into the area to assassinate them. Luckily, the Russians penetrated the plot: even so it took Beria and three thousand NKVD troops three months to hunt them all down. Similarly, surveys of both British and American troops before D-Day revealed that at least 90 per cent expected to die in the landings. That they didn’t was in good part due to the fact that the disastrous Dieppe Raid of 1942 had led the Wehrmacht’s 302nd Infantry Division, which had repulsed the attack, to draw up a how-not-to manual of coastal landings. This document fell into Soviet hands a year later when the Red Army chewed up the 302nd on the Eastern Front, and the Russians handed the manual over to Churchill. It became, in the words of an intelligence planning officer, ‘perhaps the most important document exploited in preparation for D-Day’.

On the Allied side, apart from Fritz Kolbe, nothing rivalled what Ultra and Magic provided. Not only was FDR slow to understand the significance of code-breaking, but neither he nor Churchill had anything to do with the derring-do or the technical wizardry which lay behind the breakthroughs. In the end, FDR’s great contribution was the same as Churchill’s: a passionate anti-Nazism, a feistiness which nothing could suppress for long, an unshakable commitment to winning the war, and an ability not just to inspire with oratory but to show a sense of humour at the most difficult moments. No wonder that, whatever their faults, both men attracted so many admirers – and continue to do so.