Writing in the New York Review of Books in March, British historian Max Hastings noted (with an author’s undisguised pleasure) that “seventy years after the conclusion of World War II, works about the conflict enjoy a popularity second only to cookbooks.”
Such is due in large part to writers such as Sir Max, whose hard-eyed objectivity about war is a far cry from the “feel good” books from Stephen Ambrose and others. Mr. Hastings‘ 2011 work “Inferno” dealt with the brutality of war, and it is easily the best one-volume history of the war.
Now I must award Mr. Hastings another “best.” In a quarter-century of reviewing books on intelligence in these pages and elsewhere, “The Secret War” ranks foremost.
His massive overview is a fascinating look at the dark world of espionage and dirty tricks that are a part of warfare, with terse and readable looks at spies, communications intercepts and guerrillas. He postulates some rules that should be heeded by modern masters of the dark arts: report what you find, not what you expect that superiors would like to hear. Further, in the end, intelligence is a sideshow to war — essential, to be sure, but in the end, battles are won by “great armies, fleets, air forces.” In other words, by brave persons who face the enemy directly.
Further, expect political leaders to view intelligence with suspicion. As Joseph Stalin put it, “A spy should be like the devil: no one can trust him, not even himself.”
Thus an anomaly: Although the Soviet Union ran the most extensive espionage network of the 20th century, relying heavily upon fellow-travelers, Moscow frequently ignored their reports — including a forewarning of the German invasion of 1941.
Here Mr. Hastings has a jibe for American leftists who continue to ignore the likes of, say, an Alger Hiss. He feels that espionage writers “dwell obsessively on the treachery of Britain’s Cambridge Five, but relatively few recognize what we might call the Washington and Berkeley five hundred — a small army of American leftists who served as informants for Soviet intelligence.” Although he says Sen. Joseph McCarthy “stigmatized many individuals unjustly,” he was correct in charging that there was a vast number of persons, in government and elsewhere, “whose first loyalty was not to their own flag.”
Signal intelligence, he writes, achieved “an unprecedented importance in operational planning;” nonetheless, it provided no “magic keys to victory on the ground, in the air and at sea. The Germans, Italians and Japanese always had to be fought.” Battlefield victories did not come until Allied forces achieved military superiority.
Mr. Hastings gives the Office of Strategic Services and its British counterpart, the Special Operations Executive, high marks for boosting the morale of persons who resisted German occupation of their countries. But he takes a dim view of the “supposed military achievements of guerrillas,” especially in connection with D-Day. He writes, “the story that the Resistance ‘liberated’ parts of France in August 1944 is a fairy tale — the German army retreated because it had suffered defeat in Normandy.”
Nor, save in rare instances, could signals intelligence reveal enemy intentions. A notable exception was British intercepts of messages sent to Tokyo by Baron Hiroshi Oshima, Japanese ambassador to Germany. Some 2,000 of his cables were decrypted between 1940 and 1945 and distributed in London and Washington. Although he got poor marks for “assessments and predictions,” his conversations with top Nazis proved valuable, as were exchanges between Berlin and Tokyo.
As Mr. Hastings writes, “Never in history had belligerents been empowered to eavesdrop on the conversation of their enemies’ policy-makers, as now they were.” Gen. George C. Marshall, the U.S. chief of staff, commented that Oshima was “our main basis of information concerning Hitler’s intentions in Europe.”
Many historians have treated British intercepts of German signals as a “war-winner” in its own right, but as Mr. Hastings notes, intercepts were “always patchy.” Further, knowing enemy intentions rarely diminished its strength.
Nonetheless, Mr. Hastings credits signal intelligence for a feat that essentially changed the course of war in the Pacific. Naval officer Joseph Rochefort was not star; indeed he barely escaped being cashiered for poor seamanship and was shunted off to code-breaking duties.
But he had a stroke of genius which Mr. Hastings details. Studying Japanese intercepts in June 1942, Rochefort concluded the next attack target would be Midway. He was correct, and carrier fighter planes sank four Japanese carriers. “It was arguably the most influential single intelligence achievement of the global conflict,” Mr. Hastings writes. (Nonetheless, Navy superiors denied him a contemporary decoration; he received a posthumous Distinguished Service Medal in 1985.)
Ten cloaks, 10 daggers.
• Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.